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Let Us Play: Play for Today Volume 2 on Blu-ray

  The BBC's Play for Today strand was a series of long-running, often socially relevant television programmes that took on themes that were fixating the British public from around 1970 when it began to 1984 when it ended. The British Film Institute released the first volume of a Blu-ray collection of these broadcasts in November 2020 to commemorate their fiftieth anniversary, and Volume 2 also features seven of the best from a run of over three hundred. They represent a fascinating glimpse of the nation in the seventies (none of the eighties plays are included this time), even in the historical play that starts the set.

This being Stocker's Copper (1972), an account of the strike of clay miners in Cornwall during 1913 - this was relevant in the seventies because the decade was riven with strikes, causing power cuts and social service cuts alike. At least during those times the workers had unions to represent them in these disputes, but the Cornish miners had nobody to stick up for them aside from their local vicar, and Tom Clarke's script was designed to support these underdogs in a manner that was not available to them back in the nineteen-tens. He did this through ironic juxtaposition of the copper, a Welsh policeman (Gareth Thomas) and the man he goes to live with, Stocker (Bryan Marshall), whose wife (Jane Lapotaire) has taken the money for the drafted in lawmen to stay and oversee the protests. We can well perceive that violence on a large scale is inevitable, but the characters are powerless to do anything about it, even as the copper and Stocker actually get along very well. There's a sense of betrayal here that goes beyond the injustice of the miners' poverty in the face of their bosses' exploitation of them: it's personal, and has turned those who could be friends against one another.

Accompanying it on Disc One is Victims of Apartheid (1978), also by Clarke, which highlights a different injustice, that of the plight of political refugees in London who had fled the South African fascist regime, seen through the eyes of torture victim George. He was played by the respected South African leading man John Kani, who was central to many dramas, mostly on the stage, which publicised the horrendous abuses of power happening in the country of his origin, and he provides an excellent focal point for not only the terrors he has left behind (he suffers nightmares about his electric shock tortures), but also that the "racialism" in his new, adopted home will not allow him much more dignity than he had back in Johannesburg. Taking in the hypocrisy of whites in both nations, and the mental toll the situation took on people like George, but also Henry (John Matshikiza) who he has been requested to look after now he has fled the place as well, but mostly because of paranoia rather than personal torture, it builds to a bleak punchline that mirrors George's experiences and bookends them in the grimmest way imaginable. Kani makes it sing.

Mind you, that conclusion looks like a little light comedy compared with the ending of the first play on Disc Two, The Spongers (1978). Penned by the much-respected Jim Allen, and directed by Roland Joffe who would go onto success in cinema, it was set around the Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977 (the title comes up over a pair of huge carboard cutouts of Her Majesty and her consort), but those we follow are on the opposite end of the social spectrum, a single mother (Christine Hargeaves) of a brood of young children, one with Down's Syndrome. She is struggling to get by as it is, but when budget cuts in the benefits hit her badly, she is forced to give up her daughter, the one with learning difficulties, only to see her stuck in a hostel for old ladies, as all the while the woman's possessions are chipped away at by bailiffs and those in charge of her rent until she barely has anything left. As her community worker (Bernard Hill) and the local council leader have a stand-up argument over politics, nothing is helping Hargreaves' victim, and those like her. Expressly designed to leave the viewer shocked and angry, it was at once the most typical of this strand, and the most emotive.

Second on Disc Two is The Elephant's Graveyard from 1976, written by Peter McDougall who would draw on his Scottish background for his efforts, and this relatively short play was no exception. He gets two programmes in this collection, and this is by far the lighter of the two, not a comedy, exactly, but a piece of Scottish whimsy with an industrial background the two characters escape from to spend a day in the countryside near Greenock. They were played by comedian Billy Connolly, at the time one of the most famous Scots, not only in the nation but in the world, and the considerably less well-known Jon Morrison, and both their characters are seeking refuge from the hassle and disappointment of the modern society, specifically the workplace. They are pretending to their wives that they have jobs at IBM and the Post Office respectively, but really they worry that they are wasters for not wanting to while away the best years of their lives toiling away in tasks they care nothing for. Even the possibility their marriages are a waste of time when they could be in the company of men is raised; director John McKenzie brings out a poetry highly redolent of Scotland.

McDougall and McKenzie were back in 1979, also in Greenock, for Just a Boys' Game, which was not dissimilar in its central pair as they opt to take a "holiday" from work because it is Friday, though the details in the previous play were somewhat less dramatic. One of the most acclaimed Scottish plays the series ever broadcast, it made an impression on the audience of the day for its apparent realism, no matter how heightened that was in tone, with the lead taken by singer Frankie Miller (who also wrote and performed the theme song). He was a local hardman with a philosophical streak, coming to terms with his family which had been no less violent, but now his grandfather is dying he hopes to make a truce with him before he goes. The rest of the day is taken up with traipsing around the town with best pal Ken Hutchinson, a cheery, roguish alcoholic who seems determined to make Miller as wedded to the bottle as he is. Gregor Fisher, latterly a comedy star, would round out the cast as a mechanic with a sense of humour that deserts him when gang violence catches up with them, memorable one-liners given to both him and Hutchinson, and tellingly accusatory in mood.

To accompany that on Disc Three are actually two plays, both broadcast on the same evening in 1977. To plenty of controversy, as it turned out: though the second, shorter programme Campion's Interview passed without much comment, the first, Gotcha, was visited by the wrath of Mary Whitehouse and her clean up TV campaigners, depicting as it did a sixteen-year-old (Phil Davis) on his last day of school who, after surprising them canoodling in the storeroom, holds two teachers (Gareth Thomas again, and Clare Sutcliffe) hostage. He does so by threatening to blow them up with the petrol tank of the motorbike he had stashed there, and a succession of lit cigarettes, and what seems like it will be monotonous quickly turns gripping, thanks to a script from Barrie Keeffe which skirted polemic about the educational system and how it leaves too many young people on a scrapheap before their lives have really begun, thanks to class and a rigid merit construction. Davis in particular exhibited the acting chops that would serve him well over a long career, and he was well supported by the others, included Peter Hughes as the headmaster who is also roped into it.

By contrast, Campion's Interview was a more sedate affair, though no less damning as the titular Campion (Julian Curry) attempts to secure a new headmaster position. As the half hour progresses, it becomes clear he is not applying through choice, but rather because his existing school is a "sinking ship" he does not wish to go down with. Methodically, with the panel each representing a self-serving aspect of nineteen-seventies educational authorities, Campion demolishes their policies in polite conversation that is in fact an indictment of the system Davis's unnamed schoolboy has been abandoned by. Understandably, it was rooted in its time, and Gotcha seems more relevant decades later, but it should not be dismissed as obsolete as education across Britain struggles to react to the issues those days brought up and could still be regarded as failing too many.

Along with these three discs is a special booklet with new writing on each play, and an introductory piece by Peter McDougall which sets the programmes in context. If anything, Volume 2 is even better than Volume 1, and that was very good in itself, offering an absorbing look at how television drama was shaped by the seventies, and what it can say to us now.

[Click here to buy this set from the BFI Shop.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018