Play For Today

Play for Today (1970-84): An Introduction

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Play for Today, 1970: Frankly terrifying self-pasting poster animation. Didn't last long.Play for Today was a strand of single dramas on BBC1 which, even now, remains a byword for ‘serious television’. It grew out of the Beeb’s great dramatic success of the 1960s (and Sidney Newman’s rival to his own Armchair Theatre on ITV), The Wednesday Play. The two current series producers on the strand – Irene Shubik and Graeme MacDonald – were carried over, along with many of the same writers. The change was down to a practical scheduling matter – he schedules needed freeing up in the late evenings, most significantly for Sportsnight, so the day-independent monicker was adopted and for the rest of its run, with a few exceptions due to special events, strikes, last-minute cancellations and the like, the strand went out on either Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursdays. Critics baulked at the move at first – did a lack of commitment to a regular slot imply an ebbing away of support for the strand in general? Fortunately, the next fourteen years of the new series would render these worries largely unfounded. If anything, the new name reaffirmed Newman’s initial commitment to providing uncompromising new works of drama addressing modern issues.

Play for Today was in no danger of flagging. Wednesday Plays like Cathy Come Home and Dennis Potter’s various works had set the agenda so quickly that by 1967 the Guardian could define that, while BBC2’s Theatre 625 strand was largely concerned with adaptations of the classics, The Wednesday Play “is for beating the bourgePlay for Today, 1971: A much more genteel silhouettes-and-shadows affair. oisie around the head and shoulders.” The bourgeoisie evidently lapped it up, though – figures for the early years averaged out at a shade under four million, and remained respectable through the first seasons of Play for Today. Edna, the Inebriate Woman, for instance, attracted an audience of 9 1/4 million – not the kind of figure you’d expect today for an uncompromising look at down-and-outs in darkest Hackney.

The vices of Play for Today were in abundance too, however. Think of the cliches people were associating, almost automatically, with the strand by the late ’70s – a single mother bawling her eyes out in the dingy corner of a council flat; a bunch of earnest young Trotskyites with bushy moustaches and even bushier girlfriends gathering on picket lines; a middle aged man clutching his head and screaming like a dying cat in his recently-destroyed front room as the screen goes all wobbly; a family huddling together in a makeshift nuclear bunker as The Big One finally goes off overhead; a silver suited, colour separation-saturated imaginary future where nobody works, eats real food or speaks with apostrophes. All really did happen, though often (but by no means always) with a twist, a new angle, or at least some underlying intelligence that populates the old scenario with real people. “Themed” runs were instigated too, like executive producer Margaret Matheson’s 1978 series of plays based round public issues, which sounds stifling, but with plays as varied as including The Spongers, The After Dinner Joke, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts, The Legion Hall Bombing and Victims of Apartheid among the results, the strength of the writing more than justified it.

Play for Today, 1973: Another short-lived one, suggesting some ITC action series rather than serious drama.Left-wing political stances were dominant of course, and with it came a rather odd and stuffy argument about technique. The ‘naturalist’ style, commentators argued, with its desire to present fiction as documentary fact, was in danger of stymying awareness of the possibility of social change by presenting, say, the plight of single mothers in The Spongers as a fait accompli, a state of affairs set in stone and therefore not worth questioning or acting against. Of course, a random sample of realism from this strand should be enough to repudiate this hopelessly detached bit of theory, but it’s also worth noting that the ideas over-theoretical academics like Raymond Williams  proposed to remedy this situation – Brechtian fourth wall-breaking, “showing the frame” and suchlike – could often lead to cloistered, hopelessly self-indulgent pieces of work that bore little of no relation to the world they were supposed to be drawing from. In the hands of someone like John McGrath, non-naturalism can be a powerful tool. But then McGrath cut his televisual teeth on the staunchly realistic Z-Cars. The ‘naturalism’ debate was a theoretical cul-de-sac that fortunately TV strands like Play for Today managed to resist somewhat better than the theatre world.

Among the big names, Dennis Potter made possibly the biggest impact, with Double Dare, Brimstone and Treacle (even though it wasn’t shown at the time) and the brilliant Colin Welland-in-shorts childhood reminiscence Blue Remembered Hills, which was to be his last Play for Today as serials (beginning with Pennies from Heaven) bePlay for Today, 1976: The most well-known version, accompanied by series photo-montage and that rumbling boogie-woogie piano theme.ckoned. Mike Leigh made good with Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party, but it would take a few more years before their cult status really took off. Elsewhere Jack Rosenthal and John Mortimer were waxing wry, and Roy Minton, Jim Allen, Barrie Keeffe and Alan Bleasdale were going for the jugular. Most importantly perhaps, the strand was continuing to provide exposure for first time and amateur writers such as Peter McDougall, who chanced upon his first commission while painting Colin Welland’s house. The writer/director/producer team as a creative unit was in full force here, and with directors of the calibre of Loach, Clarke and John MacKenzie on the books, quality was pretty much guaranteed along with experiment and innovation.

With the 1980s came two factors that were to aid the slow death of the strand. Visually, things were slipping. In many late plays – the science-fiction plays, of which there were more in the ’80s than ever before, being the prime examples – the old low-budget techniques were beginning to look tacky and dated, especially when, as was often the case by 1982, the strand was interrupted for runs of lavish mini-series like Shogun. Cost was another factor. The BBC’s accountants begin to take a closer interest in the contents of plays, especially before commissioning them. Room for experiment in the script, and exploration of themes not likely to attract a mass audience, or a respectable one – the key tenets of Play for Today – become much harder to get through the system. Other factors, like the birth of Channel Four, also took their toll, though Play for Today was already breathing its last by the time Four’s drama output got into its stride.Play for Today, 1977: A bizarre model shot with a time-lapse sunrise in the background. Soundtrack now a breezy brass version of the boogie-woogie tune.

While it lasted, the final phase of the strand put out some excellent stuff. The Black Stuff is undoubtedly the most well-known, mainly through the spin-off series (if you’re wondering why 1983’s output seems especially impoverished, that year also took in Bleasdale’s mini-series). Sci-fi plays like The Flipside of Dominick Hide and Z for Zachariah were massively popular with a young audience, as, to a lesser extent, were the Plays for Tomorrow. Respected hits included The Imitation Game and Country. More bizarre fare scored in the shape of The Adventures of Frank, The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, and A Brush with Mr Porter on the Road to Eldorado. Thatcher’s activities in the economy, Northern Ireland and, latterly, the Falklands, provided more political subject matter, as did the preoccupation with the Thames flooding.

It didn’t look like Play for Today was in any real danger of running out of ideas or subjects, but an increasingly lacklustre performance in the schedules, combined with poor treatment by schedulers and the economic concerns mentioned above, finally did for it, and at the end of August ’84 the strand was quietly wound up (the week after saw the celebrated dramatisation of The Invisible Man in its place). Stranded drama was reborn on the ‘minority’ channel in ’85 with Screen Two, with a mainstream counterpart Screen One arriving in 1989. (Note the change of emphasis from plays to films in the title.)

Play for Today, 1980: Stylised minimalism, accompanied by a solitary drumbeat.From its roots in the very beginnings of television drama, when producers pulled new talent (literally) off the streets and a playwright could live quite comfortably producing two works for television every year, Play for Today had succeeded in uniting (or at least brigning together) the popular with the experimental, the respectable with the wayward, the underground with the drawing-room. A prime evening slot on the country’s most-watched channel was privy to drama more daring and amazing than most stuff on today’s limited release arthouse circuit. When Geoffrey Palmer’s hidebound military fantasist Jimmy listed Play for Today alongside Wedgewood-Benn and ‘keg bitter’ in his demented hit-list in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, it was a sign of the slot’s stature in national consciousness – many became converts to the slot, many more most likely switched off in bewilderment, but the figures show a majority of the viewing public must have at least ‘given it a try’ at some time or other.

When management curtailed the ‘right to fail’ of TV drama, they clipped its wings to an extent – with one eye perpetually on phantom overnight ratings, the heights that Play for Today and its fellow (and indeed rival) strands had reached would seem even further away. At the risk of romanticising old telly (perish the thought!) serials – the backbone of ‘serious’ TV drama more so than ever now – just don’t have that unique, hermetic, often slightly skewed aura of the single play, the great joy of which is seeing it introduce its entire world, run the cPlay for Today, 1982: The final, and rather dull, mid-'80s BBC2 ident-prefiguring logo.haracters through their paces, and bring itself to a conclusion – then disappear, never (in most cases) to be revisited, continued or recycled. ‘Bubbles’ of drama that are gone almost as soon as they arrive aren’t good business, but for our money they make the best telly.

Great drama is still being made, of course, but the rigmarole of production now irons out every potential crease or kink, and the ad hoc variety that had been, despite the stereotypes of lefty propaganda still parroted by bottom-feeding broadsheet hacks, Play for Today‘s real hallmark, may never be recaptured on TV to such an extent again.

Here, in chronological order, including those ‘unofficial’ entries in the canon that vex the pedants so inexplicably, are all three-hundred-plus entries in the greatest drama series known to mankind.

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Long Distance Piano Player, The

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1970 on BBC1
Ray goes into winsome eulogy about a fox And, yes, still more fox-related musings

A dingy municipal hall in a nondescript northern town plays host to Pete (Ray Davies) a phenomenon, a true one-off of Herculean proportions – at least, according to his loudmouth, cod-American manager Jack Burnshaw (Norman Rossington). Over the next few days, as Jack barks at nonplussed townsfolk through a megaphone while his gofer Alf (James ‘Red Shift’ Hazeldine) bangs resignedly on a drum, Pete will be attempting to break the record for non-stop piano playing. Why, apart from the ‘uniqueness’ of the achievement, no-one can be quite sure, least of all Pete’s long-suffering wife Ruth (Lois Daine) holed up in a makeshift bedroom for the duration, within earshot of the relentless drone of Pete’s playing. Locals seem none to bothered either – two old duffers dusting down the snooker tables in the hall chat idly about him because – well, he’s being talked about, apparently. Audience members come to witness the freak, make fun and shout out confusing requests. Much speculation on either of the couple ‘going without’ while the marathon continues is loudly made.

A gang of youths headed by Ken ‘Just a Boy’s Game’ Hutchison intimidate Pete’s girl and break into the hall at night, almost forcing Pete to stop until Jack storms in and beats them into submission. But as time passes, and Pete’s playing slips from a medley of recognisable tunes into a relentless atonal stew, things fall apart of their own accord. Ruth demands he choose between his pointless record attempt and her. Doesn’t he love her? Pete’s reply is as incoherent as his playing. Then she confronts Jack about his exploitation, but Jack, his transatlantic accent slipping as he tenses, remains adamant that he is the only one who matters to Pete. And so the marathon wears on, with Pete’s fingers bandaged, and shaves and sponge baths taken in situ with the help of the ever-eager Alf. Finally, however, Pete snaps, and puts down his bandaged hands, running past an irate Jack to fall – rather spectacularly by way of the fire escape – into Ruth’s arms.Weatherbeaten and wasted, he takes the promise of life over empty achievement in the end.

Writer Alan Sharp freely admitted this story was based on Horace McCoy’s depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which was coincidentally being made into a Hollywood film at the same time this was in production (an earlier radio version of the play predates the film entirely). The play shares with that film the same flaw in its one-note allegory – how easy is it to care for the characters, or try and anticipate their moves, once the metaphor has been set in motion? Davies, while certainly no revelation in the acting stakes, does at least come into his own as the days wear him down – when he sings to Alf a giddy, weary song Marathon (an original Davies composition for the film) the flight from sanity is clearly underway. Lois Daine copes well with her scenes, especially the showdown with Jack, in which Norman Rossington also proves himself a capable actor above and beyond the comic turn his mutton-chopped, tight-pullover-wearing demagogue seems in the early scenes.

As appropriate to a story concerning the balance on the razor edge of sanity, wayward director Philip Saville turns in one of his more ‘together’ productions, brilliantly racking up the claustrophobic tension in the interior scenes, and photographing the back-to-back terrace locations with a sharp eye for their relentless, maze-like oppression. (The exercise bars folded into the walls of the hall-cum-gym are likewise framed to give a sense of Pete being a ‘caged animal’, fortunately without the point being rammed home too forcefully.) Only twice does the over-exuberance that would later scupper overblown outings like The Rainbirds (qv) surface – a short Bunuel rip-off fantasy sequence showing Pete dragging a piano up a hill, and a final piece of film footage showing a fox racing through woodland, to illustrate a rather half-baked bit of symbolism from earlier in the story (Pete had been repeatedly babbling about ‘seeing a fox once’ to Alf). While this first outing for the renamed strand is far from a classic, and doesn’t provide a great deal to think about after the credits have rolled past to the strains of the Kinks’ Got to Be Free, the atmosphere of the piece is undeniably affecting, and there’s certainly more to recommend it than mere curiosity at seeing Ray Davies act.

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Right Prospectus, The

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1970 on BBC1

rightprosp01A strange entry in the Play for Today canon from John Osborne, the ‘father of kitchen sink drama’, following the efforts of self-made George Cole and his wife to choose a public school – not, as it transpires, for a child of theirs, but for themselves. So, drafted into different houses, Newbold, JA and his wife, Mellor, PL (accepted unquestioningly as fellow pupils by the rest of the school) get stuck into the ritual of cold showers, chapel, rugger and maths, she with far more evident relish and contentment than he. Eventually, at the end of the term, Newbold, JA decides he can’t hack it, and they leave ignominiously in their chauffeur-driven car, ignored by the rest of the school.

A troubled production for two reasons – the script required much location filming in a public school, but the Headmasters’ Guild, post-If…, were decidedly lukewarm about offering their premises for the filming of possibly subversive material, and Osborne got into one of his famous strops with the production team over their treatment of the work, only to recant after the finished play was widely well-received. The Guild needn’t have worried really, as it’s a more subtle and (at least quasi-) affectionate examination of the public school system than Lindsay Anderson’s sledgehammer effort, depicting headmaster and head boys not so much as sadistic monsters, rather forthright, ultra-confident but permanently distracted eccentrics. The head welcomes Newbold and wife to the school in the same stuttering, rambling manner he conducts the chapel service, while the 17-year-old head of Newbold’s house is given to tortuous, meandering and increasingly bizarre stream-of-consciousness speeches about the school (“You’re neither in a doss-house for scruffy-minded New Statesman wet eggs or the offspring of fecund women graduates breast-fed from Aldermaston to Grosvenor bloody Square.”) and, in a very odd way, society in general (“Planet speaks not to planet, earth not to earth, nation not to nation and man – not – not, we say, to man. If you don’t see it, doubtless you never shall and if you do, it will finally astonish me.”)

The location work is fine, and Cole is, of course, perfect in the role of bumbling lower-middle-class husband almost completely crushed by social and hierarchical superiors nearly twenty years his junior (“You are not expected to reply or express an opinion. You have none nor probably ever will do.”) The story meanders along in the same disjointed way as the protagonists talk, and doesn’t so much end as peter out, the humbled lower-middles realising their class-hopping experiment has failed. A great, weird, funny gem from Osborne, far removed from the ‘kitchen sink’ cliche he (inadvertently) helped to found in the 1950s, and from which Play for Today was, with productions such as this, decisively breaking away.

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Lie, The

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http://www.tvcream.co.uk/?from on http://www.tvcream.co.uk/?channel

Ingmar Bergman drama concerning violent break-up of a marriage between Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones, much in the manner of Bergman’s later Six Scenes from a Marriage. Annette Crosbie and Joss Ackland also star, both in frocks. Shown Europe-wide as part of The Largest Theatre in the World (cf The Rainbirds).

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Angels Are So Few

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1970 on BBC1

Tom Bell plays a charismatic stranger who arrives at the door of a bored housewife trapped in a dreary marriage claiming to be an angel – or is he just a vagrant? Other encounters cause a postman to crash his van and the husband of an elderly couple to have a heart attack. Not a favourite of his plays, but it became a touchstone for Potter’s later work – the theme was reworked, in slightly ‘rawer’ terms, as Schmoedipus, the infamous Brimstone and Treacle, and the play itself revisited in Only Make Believe.

Screen-grabbery:
Biblical symbolism in Schreiber kitchens - it has to be Potter For what we are about to receive... Postie shortly before divine comeuppance?
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Write-Off, The

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1970 on BBC1

Play by George Salverson. A man is made redundant but can’t bring himself to let anyone know, plunging into a web of deceit as he keeps up the charade he is still in work.

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I Can’t See My Little Willie

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1970 on BBC1

Council officer Nigel Stock’s mid-life crisis at his brother’s pub causes him to see life as a game show populated by Donald McGill-style saucy seaside postcard cartoon characters, animated in inserts throughout the play. A second play by Douglas Livingstone in the same style, Everybody Say Cheese, concerning a failing marriage and using family snaps as a visual device, was broadcast the following year.

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Distant Thunder, A

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1970 on BBC1

It wasn’t all revolutionary iconoclasm within the walls of the Play for Today strand. Take this sedate and uncharacteristically old fashioned drawing room intrigue by then Coventry Labour MP Maurice Edelman, with a newly-appointed knight finding his honours celebrations cut short by a visitor from his traitorous WWII past.

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Hearts and Flowers

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1970 on BBC1

Thirtysomething, Bristolian, married-two-kids municipal architect Bob (Anthony Hopkins) has trouble getting wife Jean interested in a round of saucy bedtime ‘treats’. She responds to his every advance with a yawn, leading him to insensitively accuse her of frigidity. She hits back with accusations of lewdness (‘You talk as though you’re some pathetic lurker in a mac, forced to pick up tarts in doorways!’) The truth is, though, that Bob is a bored, and boring, man, what life there was in him having been ground out by the family life he professes to loathe, but lacks the wit to escape, or even modulate. His way of life is a humdrum pragmatism, to treat any problem the same way as he would a council plumbing issue. Jean suggests she might be expecting a third child, and Bob’s response is stoic to a fault (‘If you are, the damage is done. If you’re not, we must continue to put our faith in the drug manufacturers.’) This static existence is interrupted – and just when Bob is about to get his leg over, too – by a phone call from his mother Marie. His father has collapsed. Over at her house, the doctor establishes death (‘He had a good innings’) and, almost without pause, funeral preparations are set in motion. The undertakers arrive, solicit tea and offer empty consolation (‘I always say, at a time like this, that’s all you can do, really and truly – drink tea.’) For the funeral, Bob’s brother Tony (two ex-wives, no kids), a highly successful TV current affairs presenter in the David Frost mould – arrives, and quickly injects a dose of emotion into the repressed proceedings. He laments the lacklustre funeral service. Bob counters, ‘the vicar only gets a pound.’ He sentimentally ululates on seeing dad’s meagre possessions either purloined by grasping relatives or given to the rag and bone man (Bob: ‘He wasn’t Tolstoy!’) Jean escapes from the front room wake of sausage rolls and small-talk to the back bedroom, where Tony finds her, and waxes lyrical about the time the room was his – ‘The bed where I used to lie as a virgin wondering what it was like. And where I found out. You were as bold as brass.’

Jean, it transpires, was his first conquest, and something still exists between them. They begin to touch, and Jean’s expression is a world away from the ceiling-inspecting face she wears when with her husband. The man in question, however, turns up in the room, and an increasingly heated exchange follows between the two men. Tony pours scorn on the lack of real grief among the mourners. Bob ridicules his nostalgia – ‘I believe in the ordinary, the prosaic.’ Jean is caught silently in the middle, aware these diatribes are as much for her benefit as theirs. Eventually, more out of a sense of duty than anything, she takes sides with Bob, but her yearning for the passion that Tony represents is clear to all. Back in the bedroom, Bob finally gets what he’s been denied, though Jean insists they keep quiet, as Bob’s mother is now staying in the children’s playroom next door. They retreat into their respective books, and we close on that image – not one of domestic bliss, but estrangement, frustration and fear.

Like his Wednesday Play The Gorge, this entry is full of wonderful Peter Nichols observations on the routines and speech-patterns of lower-middle-class suburbanites. The funeral scene is a miniature masterpiece of social awkardness, needless busywork (Bob organises the journey to the cemetery in various cars as f it were a military campaign), and inappropriate humour (Uncle Will reminisces about when funeral processions used to travel at a properly sedate speed, which segues into a reverie about the ‘urine woman’). Relatives bicker about the correct moment to open the car door. Noses are blown during the eulogy. Throughout it all, we hear Bob’s voice-over, reading from the hopelessly prosaic funeral procedure literature he was handed by the undertakers. Nichols got the idea for the play when he was writing Forget-Me-Not Lane, a stage piece full of fourth wall-breaking and other stylistic devices, far removed from what he calls the ‘keyhole naturalism’ of his television work. But Hearts and Flowers grew out of a scene in that play involving a funeral, which sent Nichols back to his diary entries concerning his own father’s ceremony, and became a play in its own right. With the three main characters, Nichols again sets sentimentality aside. A lesser writer would have felt compelled to show Bob’s humble everyman virtue in the face of Tony’s arch histrionics, but Nichols avoids such easy class romanticism.

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Robin Redbreast

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1970 on BBC1

Recently-separated thirtysomething metropolitan script editor Norah (Anna Cropper) moves into a remote Vale of Evesham cottage reluctantly inherited from her ex. Various encounters with mysterious locals – Norah’s help, the ruddy, wise Mrs Vigo; toothless simpleton odd-job man peter; sinister, self-taught Fisher and, oddest of all, young Rob, an orphan raised by Mrs V, discovered by Norah practising semi-nude karate in the woods. Lonely and curious, Norah succumbs to the inevitable and invites Rob round for dinner (a roast chicken personally strangled by Mrs Vigo), though his one topic of conversation – uniforms of what he calls the “Woffen” SS – drives her to despair, and after an awkward bit of polite shooing, he leaves.

Outside, however, Fisher, Peter and Mr Wellbeloved the butcher are waiting, and Rob is knocked cold. Inside, Norah is startled out of sleep by a bird which has mysteriously found its way down the chimney. Just in time, Rob bursts in and saves the day. Confused, flustered, Norah succumbs to the inevitable, and they go to bed, despite her Dutch cap having mysteriously gone walkabout earlier that day. Pregnant, but unsure of what to do, she moves into a tiny B&B in London, but Rob tracks her down, naively but threateningly demanding she keep “his” child. Distraught, she returns to the cottage to move her stuff out for good, but her car oddly refuses to start, and she’s told a spare part won’t arrive for a fortnight.

Driven to distraction by the resulting entrapment, she finally confronts Rob in the cottage, and threatens him with a knife. She quickly realises, however, that whatever “plot” she’s unwittingly become a part of, he’s in the same boat. The other locals descend on the cottage, and Norah passes out with shock, while Rob is summarily executed off-screen. The next morning, all is tranquil – the car’s fixed, the formerly hostile Mrs Vigo is all smiles, and a shaken Norah moves out. As she leaves, Fisher puts a calm proposition to her – let Mrs Vigo look after her son-to-be, that he might replace Rob as the mythical Robin Redbreast, to live in the village for twenty years until such time as his blood be used to ensure the continuance of the village harvest, just as young Rob’s has. Norah, shattered, blankly refuses, and drives off, glancing briefly behind her to see Fisher, Vigo and company transformed into mythical figures – Herne the Hunter, Hecate the crone etc. – in one final, eerie shot.

The story, in theme and, for the most part, execution, looks like a genre piece more suited to the later anthology series such as Thriller and Hammer House of Horror. Indeed, it was originally submitted by Bowen to the series department, who rejected it on the grounds that the abortion, contraception and pagan/religious references were too near the knuckle for a generic slot. Fortunately, Play for Today series producer Graeme MacDonald rescued the play from purgatory. While its “British Gothic” suspenseful style and twist ending certainly invite comparisons with the best of Thriller et al – by no means a bad thing – there’s more going on here than a simple horror story. Norah, though far from immediately likeable, is a more strongly-drawn central character than the screaming damsel of popular cliche. She resolutely refuses to be intimidated by the silent menace of the likes of Fisher, which gives the final scenes far more power than had she been a panicky girl from the outset. (It’s notable that only the “innocents” Norah and Rob are prone to any display of physical violence until Rob’s demise.)

Conventions of the suspense genre are played with, even sent up to some extent, but always respected for the tools of craft that they are. Peter the giggling halfwit, the phone cutting out leading to frantic jiggling of the cradle, mysterious figures watching in the distance – all are present and correct. But others are self-consciously examined, often by the combative Norah. Mrs Vigo’s habit of asserting, of a particular trait of a local, that they are “known for it” is spat back mockingly by Norah, as are the Black Country “you’m” grammatical constructions. Norah finds herself, alone and panicking in the cottage, talking to herself, as solitary heroines often do to help move the plot along, and chides herself “stop talking to yourself. You’re making me nervous.” These self-aware tricks help Norah ground herself in reality, while also doing the same for the drama. Elsewhere the locals provide weird comic moments, none better than when a desperate Norah tries to get on the infrequent bus to Worcester, but is conned into standing in the wrong spot by a group of silent middle-aged ladies.

As for that final mythical tableau, it certainly provides an effective punchline for the play (after the relatively low-key denouement with Norah and a calmly sinister Fisher) but it sits oddly with James MacTaggart’s otherwise largely restrained, unfussy direction (the recurring, unexplained motif of a marble cut in half is a much less OTT, and more effective, representation of mysterious menace). Like any good genre director, MacTaggart keeps it simple – aside from one nice, ethereal montage, it’s straightforward (and very accomplished) storytelling all the way, never overdoing the visuals for the sake of supernatural spectacle. In fact, sound becomes far more important than picture in a lot of scenes. The overlaid chopping of Peter’s double-headed axe, nocturnal birdsong, the scrabbling of mice in the walls, and the distant sound of voices blowing in on the wind are expertly co-ordinated to give a sense of off-screen happenings going on “out there” that help root the viewer firmly in Norah’s cottage, apprehensively looking out.

Screen-grabbery:
Significant objects... Mystical figures... ... and wood-chopping.
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Hallelujah Handshake, The

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1970 on BBC1

A social misfit gets the friendship and affection he craves by deceitfully insinuating himself into various church congregations. Directed by Alan Clarke, written by Colin Welland.

Screen-grabbery:
Behind the wire... If you imagine this is your car... Officer Olivetti

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Alma Mater

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1971 on BBC1

Civil servant Ian Carmichael returns home after a long period working abroad, to visit his old school’s sports day, and old school grudges come flooding back. Written by David Hodson.

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Circle Line

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1971 on BBC1

W. Stephen Gilbert’s first broadcast work was the winner of a BBC playwriting competition, but it’s a play far from the sort of ‘sound but safe’ affair that would suggest. Michael Feast is a cynical student lodging with a professional woman and her fourteen-year-old son, who sees life as one continuous, numb journey on the titular underground track. The inevitable conflict between his existential disaffection and her (and especially her boyfriend’s) orthodox worldview come to a startling head when he casually sleeps with the woman’s fourteen year old brother after they have shared a joint . As a sign of the times, it’s worth noting that the joint caused more consternation in the Beeb’s drama department than the underage sex. This resulted in a postponement of over a year (the play was originally intended as part of a Wednesday Play season).

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Hell’s Angel

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1971 on BBC1

Upper-crust Katherine Blake and Richard Morant are pressured by the behaviour of their fast-growing adopted son (Michael Kitchen) when he joins a biker gang. Andre ‘Quatermass’ Morell also features. Author ‘David Agnew’, the BBC’s Alan Smithee-style pseudonym of choice for authors who for various reasons prefer not to be identified, is in this case the novelist Hugo Charteris.

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Piano, The

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1971 on BBC1

PianoTaut tragicomic tale by Julia Jones, of progress and its opposition across the generations in a small Northern town. Elderly couple Ada (Hilda Barry) and Edgar (Leo ‘William’s dad’ Franklyn) live in an ancient terraced house, run down on the outside but kept sparkling clean inside, especially the incongruous grand piano, an heirloom of Ada’s father’s, which takes up the entire front room of the house. Ada’s nephew Willie (Glyn Owen) is the head town planner, a dynamic, no bullshit figure straight out of a business-based soap opera of the era (ironically Owen would play the initial incarnation of one of the titular trucking company clan in infamous ’70s soap The Brothers). Willie’s wife Mabel (Janet ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ Munro, tragically in her last ever screen role) acts as his secretary, but is not entirely happy with his grandiose scheme to sweep away all the old town to make way for a new, ultra-planned environment. Visiting Ada, whose street is to be demolished soon, Willie comes up against a problem – the council bungalow allocated for the couple will clearly not accommodate the gargantuan instrument. Ada staunchly defends her right to remain with the piano, while Edgar, more keen on the proper garden that comes with the bungalow, tries to mediate. Meanwhile, Mabel encounters old flame Jeremy (James ‘Rainbirds’ Cossins) in his music shop – Jeremy, less dynamic by far than Willie, and passed over by Mabel two years ago for him – detects a tiredness in her, brought on, he claims, by the relentless Willie. Back in their slick, modern home, Willie and Mabel argue the toss about the piano. Willie suggests housing it in their house, but Mabel – never a fan or friend of Ada’s – refuses, suggesting Jeremy buy it off her. At the mention of the name, Willie flies off the hook, and a shouting match ensues.

Later, Willie meets up with fellow councillor Ted (Brian Wilde) and others (including Roy Barraclough) for band practice – the band being conducted by Jeremy. A vicious debate about the value of progress (and Willie’s marriage) inevitably follows, with Ted trying to calm things down. The street begins to be demolished, Ada and Edgar standing firm in their house, comically donning ARP firewarden’s headgear to cope with the falling plaster. Edgar’s antipathy towards Ada’s stance begins to show itself when Ted visits and tries to get her to see sense. Things come to a head in a comically disastrous Sunday lunch at the terrace, with Willie and Mabel at loggerheads with Ada and each other in the crumbling dining room. Willie suggests he buy Ada and Edgar a larger house, which thrills Ada. Edgar, however, has his own source of pride – he refuses to accept charity of any sort, and threatens to leave Ada for the bungalow. Finally Willie swallows *his* pride and takes Jeremy to Ada’s to see about buying the piano, but by then Ada has given in – she wants the piano to remain in the house. As the wreckage of the piano is removed from the remains of the street, Ada stands lost in the new bungalow, while Edgar contentedly works on the garden.

While touching on the sentimental side of things, Jones’ injection of humour keeps the play from collapsing into melancholy, and the way each main character’s particular pride gradually comes out to set them against the others is deftly handled, as is the terse Northern idiom of the conversations. The direction (from veteran James Cellan Jones) is simple enough, but for a “matching shot” device used to link scenes (eg. a scene ending with a close-up of Ada in tears fades into a close-up of the band practice contingent in raucous laughter) that eventaully becomes slack through overuse. Then there’s the heavyweight symbolism of the titular instrument, which is just about realistically transposed from an obvious piece of writerly symbolism into a believable, almost understandable foible of a stubborn and proud woman. This is partly down to the strength of the performances – Barry and Munro in particular are great during their flint-eyed exchanges with each other.

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Billy’s Last Stand

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1971 on BBC1

First PFT outing for Kes author Barry Hines, a weird, minimalist story of young Billy, a self-sufficient coal-shoveller, who falls in with the seedy Darkly (Dudley Foster), a business partner with ambitions for the lad. When a rival shoveller turns up, things get nasty. Adapted from a radio play.

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Rainbirds, The

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1971 on BBC1

We’ve got, as Kenneth Tynan might say, a right one here, Alan. Young man John Rainbird attempts suicide by jumping from a hotel window, and as doctors operate on him to save his life, distorted flashbacks of his unhappy life with his brutish, domineering parents appear in ever more outlandishly exaggerated forms. Father (James Cossins) in particular is gung-ho till Tuesday, watching horrific (and genuine) footage of Vietnam napalm victims in his front room, and exhibiting dismay at the ‘safe’, push-button style of modern warfare in a fantasy sequence set in an army recruitment tent on a football pitch before a cigar-smoking aristocratic male nun crashes his white Jaguar, with his son in the passenger seat, for the first of several times. The nun is played by the same actor as the nefarious surgeon who seeks to play God with the son in real life. (We would try to explain all this, but there’s only so much room on the internet.) After much more of this, the hapless son is brought back to life (after, it appears, devouring his father with the help of three obliging, and suddenly quite naked, female nursing staff) but remains in a permanently vegetative state, which it turns out is fine by his possessive mother, who feeds the gibbering wreck tinned goo on a hillside in your standard bleak ending.

Swinging from medical tragedy to melodramatic sci-fi to hysterical satire, this highly ambitious play packs a hell of a lot in to both text and direction, its mix-and-match mise en scene matching the nightmarish confusion of events and dreams in the comatose boy’s mind. No target is left standing – middle-class familial torpor, political corruption, corporate greed, medical misanthropy and organ-harvesting, the paranoia and sexual unease of young manhood – only John’s war veteran granddad gets anything like a sympathetic look-in (there was quite a tendency in plays of the post-Lord Chamberlain ’60s to venerate the elderly as profoundly as they excoriated their immediate forebears).

All this scattergun satire is pitched slightly – but only slightly – above the level of your average op-ed newspaper cartoon. The actors don’t quite have ‘THE ESTABLISHMENT’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’ written on their hats, but in many scenes they might as well. It’s either the zenith or the nadir, depending on your point of view, of the ‘dark’ and experimental tendency of Play for Today.Let’s say, for the sake of argument, it’s the nadir.

We present, as evidence, a staged boxing match in the family front room, with son in full suit of armour. When the ref (Grandad) demands he ‘step onto the scales’ to be weighed, the ‘scales’ turn out to be… a pair of inflatable fish. Honest. Already vague enough in its premise, Clive Exton’s play fell under the flamboyant aegis of director Philip Saville, who was undergoing something of a wayward streak at the time, even by his own standards, and interpreted the script in a decidedly bizarre way. When Exton found out he decided that, perhaps, this production wasn’t going quite the way he had envisaged, and disassociated himself from the work – a publicity puff in the Radio Times saw Exton waxing lyrical about the trials and techniques of the television playwright, with hardly a mention of the play in question, let alone its content. In one of the few half-decent satirical lines, Mum and Dad deplore the modern muck that passes for modern entertainment, pining for something that’s well thought-out and nicely photographed’. This mocking of conservative tastes would have worked better in a play that didn’t make the cosy conventions of TV drama look like paradise in comparison with its own boorish self-delusion.

Incidentally, Exton – after starting as a strictly naturalistic ‘kitchen sinker’, moved, via Wednesday Play The Boneyard (about a policeman who experiences visions, based – as was Joe Orton’s Loot - on the Inspector Challenor case) to this highly experimental work. Then, moving through science fiction (Doomwatch, Survivors) via a few big screen successes (10 Rillington Place, an adaptation of Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane) he matured into a highly successful ITV drama writer/adaptor (Poirot/Jeeves and Wooster), rounding off a distinguished career with whimsical Felicity Kendall vehicle Rosemary and Thyme. Not figuring highly on Exton’s CV while he was still with us, this play (or at least, versions of it made by the various countries involved) was transmitted throughout the EU, no doubt to embarrassed silence in fourteen languages, as part of The Largest Theatre in the World, a Eurovision project. Oh, go on then: Nil points.

Screen-grabbery:

Let's be brief here, as there's lots to get through. So: codgers Military! Er, not sure
Fish! Supper Getting thee to a nunnery
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Reddick

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1971 on BBC1

Canadian import into the strand written by Munroe Scott. Left-wing vicar Donald Harron rubs the local community up the wrong way, leading to accusations of misdeeds at the youth club he runs.

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Wind Versus Polygamy

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1971 on BBC1

Padding out the series with a repeat from BBC2’s Theatre 625 strand, Nigerian author Obi Egbuna’s adaptation of his own novel examining African attitudes to polygamy in the face of the so-called ‘wind of change’ blowing through the post-colonial continent. With Rudolph Walker.

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When the Bough Breaks

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1971 on BBC1

Docudrama from Tony Parker. A baby from a gypsy family admitted to casualty with multiple fractures prompts social worker Hannah Gordon to track down the parent responsible, which turns out to be the slight, unassuming Cheryl Kennedy.

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