Play for Today at 50 symposium report and Statistical History Appendix

I was delighted to speak yesterday at a fantastic event, Play for Today at 50, from 10.50am, on a panel including Simon Farquhar and John Cook and chaired by Katie Crosson. This necessarily Zoom-based event was on the fiftieth anniversary day of the first broadcast of PFT, as rebranded from The Wednesday Play (1964-70). I outlined a statistical history of the PFT strand, using data visualisation, which would have been infinitely less striking without Rachel Queen’s help!

Simon Farquhar (writer and dramatist) spoke eloquently and emotionally about the small domestic strain of PFT which is rooted in deep emotional truths, lovingly explaining the quality of Julia Jones, Colin Welland and John Challen’s work. John Cook (Glasgow Caledonian University) added to Simon’s extolling of the video studio aesthetic, in deeply questioning “the inexorable logic of film”. John also gave an invaluable account of interviewing Graeme McDonald and made the point that while seen by some as a bland figure, he was a very efficient producer, responsible for producing 4 of the 6 Plays for Today that won BAFTAs for ‘Best Single Drama’, including Spend Spend Spend (1977) – plus, two McDonald-produced PFTs contained ‘Best Actor’ performances: John Le Mesurier in Traitor (1971) and Celia Johnson in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1973). John’s critical account of institutional change and the anti-video turn was compelling and elegiac with an underlying polemical edge.

The next panel, which I chaired, featured Vicky Ball (De Montfort University) outlining statistics which complemented my own, discerning a decline in the percentage of women working on TV plays from the 1950s to 70s. However, her findings, which accord with mine, noted the significant fact that in Play for Today’s final third (1980-84), 50 per-cent of PFT‘s total credited women writers were employed. There was a definite improvement, following Margaret Matheson’s enabling of Mary O’Malley (RIP) and Caryl Churchill, producers like Innes Lloyd, John Norton, W. Stephen Gilbert, Kenith Trodd and Alan Shallcross all commissioned work by women writers in this era. Vicky also presented interview testimony from writer Paula Milne about her experiences in working at the BBC, some of which were, as Katie Crosson rightly claimed, was “harrowing”. Next, Eleni Liarou (Birkbeck, University of London) outlined a fascinating range of Plays for Today that engaged in complex representations of race including many I must watch: Murder Rap (1980) and Three Minute Heroes (1982), which Helen Wheatley (Warwick University) and others presented for a public screening in Coventry Cathedral in 2018.

Then, Katie Crosson (Royal Holloway, University of London) discussed elisions from the canon of publicly remembered creative personnel on Play for Today, especially championing writer Carol Bunyan (Ladies 1980, Sorry 1981) and producer Irene Shubik and eloquently adding to mine and Simon’s case for Colin Welland as an incredible powerhouse of an actor-writer. Katie’s timely and forceful talk is supplemented by her evocative online exhibition hosted by the BFI and BBC here.

The Q and A included an intelligent discussion from all of the narratively well justified blackface sequence in Barrie Keeffe’s Waterloo Sunset (1979), as well as a lament that nobody seemed to have interviewed Rita May, who wrote England’s Green and Peasant Land (1982). In response to a question from John Wyver, Eleni persuasively argued that PFT was generally one of the more progressive programmes in its representations.

The final panel began with Jonny Murray (Edinburgh University) who contrasted the Scottish-themed plays made from BBC London (though usually filmed on location in Scotland) with a corpus of 14 neglected PFTs made by BBC Scotland. Even I have only seen one of them, Alma Cullen’s neglected delight, Degree of Uncertainty (1979), video-recorded on OB in Edinburgh. In the chat, Vicky Ball and I agreed it was reminiscent of Willy Russell’s stage drama Educating Rita (1980) and Vicky compared it to Helen: A Woman of Today (1973). Simon Farquhar was vocal in criticising the calibre of some of the BBC Scotland plays, which led to lively discussion! Jonny did a vital service in bringing this neglected corpus to our attention: hopefully with a widening of access more than just a select band of academics and enthusiasts may get a chance to decide for themselves…

Finally, John Hill (Royal Holloway, University of London) characterised the 1980s Northern Ireland plays as generally conveying a more consistent bleakness regarding the Troubles, whereas he argued that a range of 1970s Northern Ireland-set PFTs were far more various and complicated in their representations of the Six Counties. Drawing on archival sources and close viewing, Hill incisively compared Carson Country (1972), Taking Leave (1974), The Dandelion Clock (1975), Your Man from Six Counties (1976) and The Last Window Cleaner (1979) – an absurdist comedy which sounded a one-off even among one-offs. John ended on the salient point that the sort of “hard man” working-class Catholic culture Peter McDougall portrayed on screen was echoed by Graham Reid and Paul Seed’s presentation of the violent Thomas Martin (James Ellis) in the Protestant Belfast-set Billy trilogy (1982-84). Aggression and a degree of toxic masculinity were common across sectarian cultural divides.

Most significantly of all, the event included interviews with several of the most important producers and script editors who worked on the show: Tara Prem, Sir Richard Eyre, Peter Ansorge and Kenith Trodd. Ken’s wonderfully rich reminiscences were a vital counterpoint to Simon and John C’s well argued cases in favour of the VT studio aesthetic. There was exemplary interviewing from Simon, Vicky, Ian Greaves and John Wyver, who wrote and directed Monday’s sterling BBC Four documentary Drama out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today.

Earlier, John had opened the event with a keynote lecture on Wednesday evening, from 6.30pm – 8pm. This discussed his personal history with Play for Today from watching Robin Redbreast as a fifteen year old to writing previews (basically review critiques!) for Time Out magazine and attending the location shoot of Plays for Today including Long Distance Information (1979).

Most crucial of all to the smooth running of this symposium was Lilly Markaki (Royal Holloway, University of London) who kept the whole Zoom show on the road. This helped facilitate what will hopefully become many new ideas, projects and friendships. It all felt like that much abused term, a community: dedicated to understanding the past better and looking forwards.

To complement my paper, which aimed ambitiously (!) to provide a broad statistical history of the Play for Today strand within 15 minutes, I have a few extra morsels of research to share. Please correct me if I have made any errors, or if you are aware of any productions I may have missed; this would be a great help and I would be most grateful.

Firstly, I have a provisional list of the Plays for Today that were original commissions for television* but which were subsequently turned into theatre productions. They are listed in chronological order of original PFT transmission date (in brackets, followed by the date of the first theatre adaptation and place of production if known):

  1. John BOWEN – Robin Redbreast (1970 / 1974 – Guildford, Surrey)
  2. Adrian MITCHELL – Man Friday (1972 / 1973 – London)
  3. Dennis POTTER – Only Make Believe (1973 / 1974 – Harlow, Essex)
  4. Bernard KOPS – Moss (1975 / 1991 – London)
  5. Jack ROSENTHAL – Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976 / 1978 – London)
  6. Jack ROSENTHAL – Spend Spend Spend (1977 / 1981 – Oldham, Gt. Manchester)
  7. Mary O’MALLEY – Oy Vay Maria (1977 / 1996 – Oldham, Gt. Manchester)
  8. Caryl CHURCHILL – The After Dinner Joke (1978 / 1998)
  9. Wally K. DALY – Butterflies Don’t Count (1978 / 1982 – London)
  10. Mike STOTT – Soldiers, Talking Cleanly (1978 / 1981 – London)
  11. Dennis POTTER – Blue Remembered Hills (1979 / 1985 – Edinburgh)
  12. Andrew CARR – Instant Enlightenment Including VAT (1980 / 1981)
  13. Peter RANSLEY – Minor Complications (1980 / 1984)
  14. Graham REID – Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982 / 1990 – Belfast)**

Appendix of an appendix! The following seem loosely related to previous PFTs rather than adaptations as such? :

Barrie KEEFFE – King of England (1988) – King (PFT 1984)
Barrie KEEFFE – Not Fade Away (1990) – Waterloo Sunset (PFT 1979)

* I have also included Spend Spend Spend which was an original commission for TV, but which originated in transcripts of interviews with Vivian Nicholson that Jack Rosenthal then fashioned into a screenplay.
**I am unsure as of yet whether the second and third Billy plays have been staged. Surely they have been in Belfast at some point?

List of Plays for Today that were later made as films (if adaptations the original writer is noted; in bold if they were original PFTs):

  1. Adrian MITCHELL – Man Friday (1972 / 1975)
  2. Colin WELLAND – Kisses at Fifty (1973 / 1985 – as Twice in a Lifetime)
  3. Elizabeth TAYLOR (novel) – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1973 / 2005)
  4. Helene HANFF (novel) – 84 Charing Cross Road (1975 / 1987)
  5. John BYRNE – The Slab Boys (1979 / 1997)
  6. Robert C. O’BRIEN – Z for Zachariah (1984 / 2015)

N.b. Not including Brimstone and Treacle (1976 / 1982) or Scum (1977 / 1979) as they weren’t broadcast as PFTs during its run. Maeve (Dir. James Ormerod, CAN, 1987) was a TV Movie follow-up to Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy.

6 thoughts on “Play for Today at 50 symposium report and Statistical History Appendix

  1. I know that its first iteration was as a short story, but surely the stage version of ‘Love Letters On Blue Paper’ is worth adjusting your taxonomy in order to include it in your canon. The theatrical version is better known than the television one, a significant stage play from a major playwright that wouldn’t have happened without PFT. One of only three PFTs to have ever been performed at the National!

    Some of the more obscure productions show the benefit of having a published screenplay. There’s always the chance that someone somewhere is going to read it and want to do a stage version! Whereas ironically Caryl Bunyan’s ‘Sorry’ – a theatrical play that made a few waves at the time and is worthy of revival – escaped publication and is now best known to television drama scholars such as ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It still amazes me that Love Letters made it to the National, having already had an outing with “the true National Theatre” 😉 The stage production feels to me very much less at home, having to find workarounds for its use of voice over and flashbacks.

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      1. Having read both of their published diaries, I think there’s an element of Peter Hall (who had enjoyed it on television) offering a Cottesloe production to Wesker as a consolation for turning down ‘The Merchant’.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Superb, Tom, and thank you for the kind words. Had absolutely no idea that my beloved Moss was also done as a stage play! Billy’s Last Stand was also done at the Royal Court but as you obviously know, was originally a radio play. There is also a very small number of plays that were made more than once for television, No Trams to Lime Street, A Voyage Round My Father and For Tea on Sunday being examples. For PfT I can’t think of any that were ever remade for British television, but certainly Man in the Sidecar, and of course the two Largest Theatre in the World plays, all had other productions elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t (the UK one was bad enough!), but I do remember that The Lie also had a production beyond the Largest Theatre in the World efforts: it was remade for American television in 1973, starring Shirley Knight Hopkins and George Segal.

        Liked by 1 person

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