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  • Bring back Play for Today

    We're getting sick of box-sets: it's time to bring back Play for Today
    by Ed Power
    Telegraph -1 AUGUST 2019 • 7:00AM


    The 1977 Play for Today production of Mike Leigh's 'Abigail's Party'

    The British TV play was once the envy of the world. In this age of binge-watching, a revival is due



    We have reached peak box-set in British TV drama. The quest to bring viewers the next Killing Eve or The Night Manager has become an obsession. Every second new drama, it sometimes feels, is a co‑production with mega-bucks American players such as HBO or Amazon. The goal: to feed viewers’ near-insatiable appetite for “content”, then flog the programmes to other broadcasters overseas.

    The latest voice in the wilderness to protest this fixation is writer and broadcaster Libby Purves. “Either because of Netflix or mere timidity, commissioners want box-sets,” she lamented in Radio Times this week.

    This focus on multi-part storytelling comes at a price. Self-contained, one‑off drama, modestly staged and with a discernible beginning, middle and end, has almost vanished from the national airwaves. The play is very much not the thing.

    That has created a regrettable void in the schedules. A sense of what is missing can be gleaned by looking back to the golden age of onscreen theatre, as exemplified by the BBC’s Play for Today, which ran from 1970 to 1984.

    Play for Today brought stagecraft out of the theatre and into the nation’s living rooms. There was considerable variation, with individual episodes ranging in length from 50 to 100 minutes. And the strand attracted some of Britain’s great dramatists – Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh, Alan Bleasdale.

    It could be provocative. Lindsay Anderson’s 1972 production of David Storey’s Home, with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, was set in a mental asylum, though this fact only emerged as the story progressed. The hugely challenging message was that the delusions of the psychologically unwell were not so different to those of the broader population. It was the sort of reversal sure to have you sitting up straight, gagging on your Ovaltine.

    Meanwhile, Jeremy Sandfords’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971) tackled the emerging problem of homelessness. A year later, Alan Clarke’s A Life Is Forever examined the toll of spending time behind bars.

    There were often chills and thrills to go with the social realism. Vampires, directed in 1979 by documentary-maker John Goldschmidt, told the story of two runaway schoolboys confronting a supernatural foe in suburban Liverpool. The juxtaposition of the kitchen sink everyday with the supernatural was unnerving, and Vampires enjoys a cult following to this day. Play for Today was also where many viewers encountered classics of British theatre for the first time.

    Mike Leigh’s towering dissection of middle-class scruples, Abigail’s Party, was broadcast in the slot in 1977, some six months after its stage debut.

    The unnerving genius of Dennis Potter was likewise beamed into living rooms via his 1979 work Blue Remembered Hills, in which adults portrayed children. However another Potter piece intended for Play for Today, Brimstone and Treacle, was deemed too much and remained untransmitted until 1987. The BBC blanched at a scene in which a disabled woman is raped by a man who, it is hinted, is the Devil.


    A scene from Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills
    CREDIT: BBC

    Nor did Play for Today exist in isolation. There was an entire ecosystem of TV drama. The BBC also brought us Play for the Month, Play for the Week and a succession of one-offs. ITV, not exactly synonymous with think-piece drama, spent decades making one-off plays, most notably the Armchair Theatre strand. This was a year-round undertaking.

    All that, and it also served as a springboard for major TV series. John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey started out as a Play for Today in 1975, as did Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (which debuted on Play for Today as Blackstuff in 1980).

    Television’s present quest for infinite content has largely deprived viewers of the pleasure of this sort of one-off storytelling.

    There are obviously exceptions. Excellent single dramas in recent years have included BBC Three’s Killed By My Debt and BBC One’s Damilola, Our Loved Boy, Levi David Addai’s dramatisation of the death in 2000 of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor.

    What these all too rare examples confirm is that self-contained drama can scrutinise and inform in ways beyond the reach of serialised storytelling. The quick reveal, the shocking twist, the secret hiding in plain sight… all are arguably better suited to the limited format.

    This year’s TV adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s award-winning play Chimerica is a case in point. Smart and gripping on stage, it was dragged out in a four-parter for Channel 4 and ended up being saggy and inert, Kirkwood’s good ideas scraped too thin. Given that Kirkwood herself wrote the adaptation, the fault surely lay with the medium rather than the message. Then there 
is Jez Butterworth, the genius behind the play Jerusalem, who lost all his ability to thrill when hired by Sky to write the nine-part series Britannia. Most of the first season consisted of Kelly Reilly in smudgy eyeliner clopping around on a horse, or so it appeared.

    Kelly Reilly in Jez Butterworth's Britannia
    CREDIT: SKY ATLANTIC

    The great irony is that the spirit of Play for Today lives on in the one place where it might reasonably be regarded as anathema. Netflix’s Black Mirror (which originated on Channel 4) is essentially a sci-fi dystopia riff on the same theatrical model. Just like the original Play for Today, individual episodes vary in length. And the series bounds between subject matters (albeit with the overriding theme that technology is bad, possibly evil).

    Where Black Mirror falls down is in showcasing a diversity of voices. With a handful of exceptions, the entire future-shock fandango flows from the imagination of Charlie Brooker. And while his is no doubt a suitably dark and twisted creative furnace, with time a certain “sameyness” has crept in.

    Nevertheless, the popularity of Black Mirror suggests a genuine appetite among viewers for one-off drama.

    Consider your own viewing habits. How often have you fired up Netflix only to despair of all the catching up you have to do on your favourite shows? At the end of a long day, it can feel like homework. Contrast that with the thrill of experiencing a new work – and the knowledge that, even if it doesn’t quite chime, you’ll be in and out in under an hour.

    Theatre on television has a proud history. But in an age when we can feel besieged by television’s quest for endless content, it should surely be part of its future, too.
    Last edited by Maurice; 1st August 2019, 08:26 AM.

  • #2
    ITV, in its first ten years or so had loads of single plays as each of the principal programme contractors contributed its own strand. This month 60 years ago, the ITV schedule had Summer Armchair Theatre on Sunday from ABC, Play of the Week on Tuesday from ATV and Television Playhouse on Friday from Associated-Rediffusion. Some of the names appearing in these:- Ben Gazzara, Leo Genn, Brenda de Banzie, Geraldine McEwan, Alan Bates, Barry Foster. These, of course, were studio based multi camera productions, sometimes done live or as live. I doubt that we will go back to this kind of production as single camera, shooting on location is seen as more "realistic".

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    • #3
      I wish there WAS a box set of Play for Today...

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      • #4
        I think it is very unlikely that the BBC will revive Play for Today.

        I don't know how much non-Soap drama the BBC makes now, but I would imagine its not that much and anthology shows have fallen out of fashion.

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        • #5
          I wish this could be revived. It would make the licence fee more worth paying.

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