Original language(s) English
Original release 1970 – 1984
Final episode date 28 August 1984
Networks BBC, BBC One
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original network BBC 1
First episode date 15 October 1970
Number of seasons 14
Writers Colin Welland
|Genre Drama, television plays|
Cast Colin Welland, Liam Neeson, John Le Mesurier, Patricia Hayes, Peter Barkworth
Similar The Wednesday Play, Boys from the Blackstuff, Rumpole of the Bailey, Z‑Cars, Tales of the Unexpected
Play for Today is a British television anthology drama series, produced by the BBC and transmitted on BBC1 from 1970 to 1984. During the run, more than three hundred programmes, featuring original television plays, and adaptations of stage plays and novels, were transmitted. The individual episodes were between fifty and a hundred minutes in duration. A handful of these plays, including Rumpole of the Bailey and The Blackstuff (later Boys from the Blackstuff), subsequently became television series in their own right.
The strand was a successor to The Wednesday Play, the 1960s anthology series, the title being changed when the day of transmission became variable. Popular works screened in anthology series on BBC2, like Willy Russell's Our Day Out (1977), were repeated on BBC1 in the series. The producers of The Wednesday Play, Graeme MacDonald and Irene Shubik, transferred to the new series. Shubik continued with the series until 1973 while MacDonald remained with the series until 1977 when he was promoted. Later producers included Margaret Matheson and Richard Eyre (1978–80).
Plays covered all genres. In its time, Play for Today featured contemporary social realist dramas, historical pieces, fantasies, biopics and occasionally science-fiction (The Flipside of Dominick Hide, 1980). Most pieces were written directly for television, but there were also occasional adaptations from other narrative forms, such as novels and stage plays.
Writers who contributed plays to the series included Ian McEwan, John Osborne, Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff, David Hare, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Arthur Hopcraft, Alan Plater, Graham Reid, David Storey, Andrew Davies, Rhys Adrian and John Hopkins. Several prominent directors also featured, including Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke, Michael Apted, Mike Newell, Roland Joffe, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Leigh. Some of the best remembered plays broadcast in the strand include Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), The Foxtrot (1971), Home (1972), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Abigail's Party (1977), Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and Just a Boys' Game (1979). Certain other well known plays, including Penda's Fen (1974), Nuts in May (1976), were commissioned by David Rose of the BBC's English Regions Drama department based in Birmingham.
Some installments in the series were spun off into full-blown series. Probably the two best-remembered examples of this are Rumpole of the Bailey, which was produced as a one-off in the Play for Today strand in 1975 and three years later became a series for Thames Television, again with Leo McKern, and Alan Bleasdale's The Blackstuff, which was developed into Boys from the Blackstuff. Other offshoots were Gangsters, and a single series of science fiction-based plays styled as Play for Tomorrow. Towards the end of the run, three plays set in Northern Ireland were written by Graham Reid. Known as the Billy Plays, they starred Kenneth Branagh as Billy Martin in his first acting role following his graduation from RADA.
There were also some groups of plays transmitted that — for various reasons — did not go out under the Play for Today banner, but which were funded from the same department, used much the same production team and are generally regarded in episode guides and analysis as being part of the Play for Today 'canon'.
Two plays were controversially pulled from transmission shortly before broadcast due to concerns over their content: these were Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 and Roy Minton's Scum the following year. In the case of Brimstone and Treacle it was due to concerns over the play's depiction of a disabled woman's rape at the hands of a man who may or may not be the devil, and with Scum the worry was its supposed sensationalism of life in a young offenders' institution (then still known as a borstal). Scum and Brimstone and Treacle were eventually transmitted, although in the meantime both had circumvented their withdrawal by being re-made as cinema films.
The series as a whole was viewed with suspicion by rightwing commentators and critics as many of the issues tackled were the subject of political controversy. Of particular note was the criticism of the public expenditure on the Queen's Silver Jubilee in the plays The Price of Coal (1977) and The Spongers (1978).
Demise and legacy
The programme officially ended in 1984, although there was one further series not broadcast in its original name but in its replacement name Screen One and Screen Two in 1985. The general trend in 1980s television production was away from one-off plays and towards a greater concentration on series and serials. When one-offs were produced, such as Film on Four on Channel 4, they tended to be made with a cinematic approach rather than betraying television drama's roots in the theatre that Play for Today and earlier series on both the BBC and ITV had often demonstrated.
Nonetheless, the series is generally remembered as a benchmark of high-quality British television drama, and has become a byword for what many continue to argue was a golden age of British television. In 2000, the British Film Institute produced a poll of industry professionals to determine the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, and five of the programmes included in the final tally were from Play for Today.
A new programme publicised as a return of Play for Today, but under the working title of The Evening Play, was announced at the beginning of March 2006, but nothing has been heard from it since. Kevin Spacey, film star and director of the Old Vic, in March 2008 told BBC News that he would like to see the return of the show, but the Conservative MP Michael Gove and journalist Mark Lawson expressed disagreement, Gove describing them as "exercises in viewer patronisation". Jan Moir in The Daily Telegraph wrote in support of Spacey, saying "the British loved Play for Today once, and would do so again. A good piece of drama looks at the human condition, and tells us something we should know about ourselves."