||Play for Today started as a successor to BBC TV's The Wednesday Play of the nineteen-sixties, replaced for the new decade commencing 1970 with a more flexible format that would last until 1984. In that fourteen-year period the strand became a byword for progressive, liberal and even experimental television, and was likewise both praised and lambasted for that attempt to bring the very best of the most modern writing to the small screen, with a couple of the broadcasts - Scum and Brimstone and Treacle - banned outright for going too far. As many of those involved down the years would admit, it did not always live up to its lofty ambitions, and turned off as many as it turned on, but the viewing figures were largely solid, and would be the envy of many a television drama all these decades later. The British Film Institute have released a box set on Blu-ray of seven of the plays, and fascinating viewing they make.
First up on disc one was something of an event in 1970, the so-called Largest Theatre in the World, a multi-station project across Europe that sought to bring culture to the masses. The Lie was Ingmar Bergman's contribution, translated into various languages as a portrait of a marriage that was supposedly quite content, but as the hour and a half goes on is revealed to be as much as a sham as any other relationship in the modern world, be that familial, business or romantic. There was quite the cast assembled for this one, with Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones as the central couple who start in wedded bliss and end up like The Shining, plus Joss Ackland as her troubled brother (in the days when cross-dressing signified a mental breakdown rather than a life choice), Richard O'Sullivan and Alan Rothwell as company men, and Annette Crosbie as Jones' manically aggressive co-worker with a real grudge. It did seem odd, as a result of the translation from Swedish, but compelling.
Second was 1972's Shakespeare or Bust, the middle section of a trilogy that started with The Fishing Party and ended with Three for the Fancy, all penned by Peter Terson and featuring the same trio of characters, Brian Glover as Art, Ray Mort as Ern, and Douglas Livingstone as Abe, all earthy, proudly working class Leeds men who in this central story, fancy a bit of culture. After hiring a barge for the canals, they set off for Stratford-Upon-Avon, and an evening at the theatre where they plan to enjoy a staging of Anthony and Cleopatra, though naturally, thanks to the play's gentle ridicule, events don't work how they might have hoped. The three leads had a fine rapport, obsessing over the pubs along the way and Katya Wyeth as the "figurehead" to a more upmarket boat they keep catching up, but it was the characters' enthusiasm for high art that made them unusual when compared with working class portrayals you would generally see on television or film decades later.
Third up? Back of Beyond from 1974, a rural tale written by Julia Jones, who would go on to be a big deal in children's drama for the following decades, and indeed this could have passed for one of those projects had it not been for the way it concluded. Mind you, considering some of the things that passed for children's drama in the seventies, maybe you wouldn't put it past them, and it was certainly strongly focused on the experiences of a young teenage girl in a manner many a Wednesday afternoon serial for older kids had been on the BBC. But Rachel (Lynne Jones) was not the big star here, for the main draw would have been Rachel Roberts, the much-respected and ultimately tragic star of stage and screen who must have found something chiming with her in this story of a reclusive older lady in the Welsh valleys who strikes up a friendship with her amiable papergirl. Rachel gives into pressure from family and friends, and it all ends predictably badly.
Fourth was Leon Griffiths' A Passage to England, directed by John Mackenzie (later to helm classic gangster movie The Long Good Friday) and depicted a roguish caper where someone was trying to get one over on someone else - but who was doing what to whom? Colin Welland played a boat captain in Amsterdam approached by an Indian from Uganda, just at the point Idi Amin was throwing out his countrymen; he was played by the sadly shortlived Tariq Yunus in a rare for the seventies instance of an Asian actor taking close to a UK dramatic lead. His character wants his uncle (Renu Setna, a pioneering Asian performer) to go to Britain illegally, with a gold bar to use as leverage. Welland plans to take the bar and betray the Indians over to the authorities, but his first mate Niall Padden has a conscience. When you know Griffiths created classic TV series Minder, you had an idea of what to expect - though not funny, exactly, it's sharply conceived and subversive.
Talking of Colin Welland, the year after, in 1976 he wrote Your Man from Six Counties, one of the most typical plays in the strand as it tore its topic from the headlines, provided work for a bunch of non-Home Counties-based actors, and was incredibly depressing. The topic in this case was the so-called "Irish problem", which naturally was never out of the news in the seventies, and took the form of a tale of North and South as a young boy (Joseph Reynolds) must move from Belfast to rural Ireland when his father is killed by an IRA bomb. The rest of the plot played out as a battle for the boy's soul between his progressive uncle (Donal McCann) who wants his country to move on from the Troubles, and the aggressively patriotic friend of the family (Paul Antrim) who keeps grievances and history alive. There was a touch of Kes in that the boy had a pet rook in a cage he doted over, but mostly it was the battle of the uncles which took up the drama, and by no means hopeful.
From the following year, we had the story of the Blincoes, Bernard (Bernard Hill) and Jan (Allison Steadman) in Our Flesh and Blood, where we went through the stages of them having their first child, in flashback, from the perspective of the big day when the birth occurred. This was more of a comedy drama, as while there were serious points made in Mike Stott's script about the benefits of the natural childbirth Jan is intent on having, which included Bernard in the room with her when the baby came out, not the usual procedure in the seventies, there was also a strain of folksy humour where we were encouraged to see the couple from a "cute" point of view. This succeeded thanks to two sympathetic performances at their heart, the radical for the time childbirth views treated with benevolence, though offset by a fine comic reading of the dyed in the wool conservative gynaecologist played by Richard Briers, who offered a spot of much-needed conflict and edge.
Finally on this set, John Bowen's A Photograph was one of those instalments certain to baffle not only the casual viewer, but the dedicated fan of television drama as it started with a photograph of two women by a caravan being sent to a critic (John Stride), though he has no idea why. His wife (Stephanie Turner, later star of Juliet Bravo) has her suspicions aroused and obsesses over the pic, but he refuses to be drawn, though to placate her (she has depression) he decides to investigate - a bad idea, we're guessing, seeing as how the opening shot is of him lying dead. One of those productions that, if you had seen it when you were a kid, you would just think you'd understand it when you were older, but seeing it when older, it still confounds. Is it a battle of the sexes? Townies versus country? Bourgeoisie versus lower classes? Bowen never explains himself, leaving you with the impression something terrible has happened and we will never be enlightened as to why.
As if that were not enough, proof if proof were needed that a lot of thought had gone into this release was all present in the book that accompanies it, seventy-seven pages of history and analysis of Play for Today, what it said about Britain in this time frame, and what its legacy could be. An umbrella strand that took in anything from political drama to character comedy to genres like horror or science fiction, there were too many plays - 270 survive - to be summed up by a mere seven here, but they gave it a very good try, and you would be hard pressed to find many channels with this kind of diversity of subject matter in primetime these days. This makes a set like this invaluable as a glimpse of where we came from in television (and film), and where we can travel.
[Click here to visit the BFI's Play for Today website.]