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Play For Today

Spend, Spend, Spend!

Another BAFTA-winning tour de force from Jack Rosenthal, with a cleverly-turned retelling of tragic sixties pools winners and hapless tabloid fodder Keith and Vivian Nicholson (played by John Duttine and Susan Littler). Opening with the pair drunk and bewildered at the cheque-handing ceremony (“You’ve got brandy on your fly!”) the narrative makes deft dovetailing movements to cover the story of Vivian’s truly wretched Castleford childhood – all poverty, coal-hoarding and a violent, drunken bastard of a dad – and the newly-minted pair’s gradual descent into drunkenness and depression. In the former, a symbolic nail varnish kit, nicked from Woolies and considered by Vivian “the beautifullest thing I’ve ever seen” is burned by her dad when she hides it from him up the chimney. Multiple pregnancies and a loveless marriage to a prat called Matthew is interrupted by an affair with Keith, living over the way with his domineering, posessive granny (Liz Smith).

Both with someone to hide it from, they begin a comically furtive stop-start affair, culminating in “the greatest sexual happening in the history of Castleford” under a bridge, the result of which – a daughter – precipitates Keith’s rapid departure from the scene. Reluctantly returning, and fathering another, sickly, child (plus, it turns out, one with another woman while he was away), they finally marry and settle down.

In the other half of the narrative, initial joy at being able to drive back to their house in chauffeured splendour is cut down by tabloid hacks and begging letters. A confrontation with Viv’s parents begins full of bonhomie (Viv and her mum share a tender, and, it’s implied, extremely rare, moment together) until Keith drops the bombshell that Viv’s dad isn’t getting his hands on a penny, upon which he reverts to type, smashing up the kitchen. Moving into a (slightly) posher neighbourhood, Viv and Keith, with nothing to work for, sit about, host raucous parties, get drunk, drive about in flash cars while drunk, and shout at each other and the neighbours. In a brilliant piece of dramatic irony, the climax to the two threads – Keith in the past hearing his score draws mount up one by one over the radio, and Viv later on hearing from the police of Keith’s involvement in one drunken car crash too many – are intercut with consummate skill.

The coda takes in Viv’s life on her own, and it’s so incredibly bleak – bankruptcy, a job working as a stripper, one thirteen week marriage to another violent case, her dad’s death, another one-week marriage, a fifth marriage to an epileptic drug addict who dies, convulsing in her arms – Rosenthal wisely treats it as a series of sketch-like scenes, linked by the wonderful narration Vivian’s been providing throughout the programme, somehow bitterly cynical and hopelessly naive in equal measure. As a study of how extreme circumstances can never, in the end, be grown out of, and as a masterclass in storytelling to boot, this unpretentious and never less than compassionate play ranks among the very greatest entries in the Play for Today canon.

Dividend forecast: possible jackpot, telephone claims required It's foxy time! The randy thousandaires
Not such a good purchase for those Yorkshire b-roads Sumptuous pad number two 'Of course, the win's not going to change me.'


  1. D Reynolds

    September 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    I would love to see the Play for today Spend Spend Spend again. I remember watching it many years ago. Could you let me know where I could buy a copy from please?

    Kind regards

    Mrs D Reynolds

  2. Paul Wild

    May 1, 2021 at 11:30 am

    The premature death of Susan Littler was a great loss to acting. She was terrific in this. John Duttine used to do great work too until he got lost in dross like Heartbeat.

  3. Richardpd

    October 23, 2021 at 11:06 pm

    I remember clips of this were shown on a programme about Pools winners & what happened to them afterwards.

    It was released as part of a Jack Rosenthal DVD box set a few years ago, you might be able to find a 2nd hand copy.

  4. THX 1139

    October 23, 2021 at 11:59 pm

    If there’s a more convincing argument for not playing the Lottery, I’ve yet to see it (apart from spending far more on tickets than you’ll ever get back, but nobody who plays thinks about that).

  5. Glenn Aylett

    October 24, 2021 at 9:34 am

    Winning £ 162,000 in 1962 was the equivalent of over £ 3 million today. Sad to say, Viv and her waster of a husband blew it all and the last interview I saw her give was in 1995, when she lived in a council flat and was so poor her television was black and white( very rare by then).

  6. Glenn Aylett

    October 24, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Error, they won the pools in 1961 and for a couple who were so poor, Viv had to borrow a pair of tights from her sister to attend the cheque presentation, this amount of money was life changing.
    You do have to feel sorry for Viv Nicholson, though less so the useless husbands. Her parents were so poor and her father frequently out of work, she used to scavenge for coal to heat the house and had to turn down a scholarship to a better school as she needed to work to support her parents. Typically for poor girls with little education in Castleford in the 1950s, it was straight into a dead end job and marriage at the first opportunity.

  7. Richardpd

    October 24, 2021 at 10:06 pm

    Even without the pools win her life would have made a good Kitchen Sink drama.

    It’s fitting that a picture of Viv was on the cover of The Smiths Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.

  8. Glenn Aylett

    October 24, 2021 at 10:24 pm

    @ Richardpd, rather a rotten life until she was 24 and won the pools, growing up in terrible poverty, pregnant at 16, married to a husband on very low wages and struggling to survive with four kids to support. No wonder they went mad with the money, going from £ 9 a week to having £ 150,000 in the bank then meant you could live like a pop star.

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