‘Play for Today’: 50 years on [Updated 9/10]

23rd September 2020

John Wyver writes: with the 50th anniversary of the first Play for Today broadcast in 1970 fast approaching, and with our BBC Four documentary about the strand, Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, scheduled at 21.00 on Monday 12 October, this is a page drawing together the various related activities. I aim to keep this updated (and welcome further suggestions), and once we’re past 15 October it may remain useful as a list of resources.

The events that I know about are listed in what I believe to be chronological order. Note also that, in addition to @Illuminations, the dedicated Twitter feed @PlayforToday_20 carries news as well as lively discussions about the series and individual productions, and I expect this to become even busier in the coming days.

The image above is of Bill Paterson in The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, featured in Drama Out of a Crisis and showing at BFI Southbank.

BFI at Home discussion

The BFI has posted a useful page detailing Play for Today events, and the BFI at Home online discussion which I chaired is now available on Youtube, and below. The distinguished guests are producer Ken Trodd, writers David Edgar and Jack Thorne, and BFI curator Lisa Kerrigan.

Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, 21.00, Monday 12 October, BBC Four

Illuminations’ 90-minute documentary for BBC Four, which I have written and presented and which was edited by Todd MacDonald, will be broadcast, at 21.00 on Monday 12 October, and will then be available on BBC iPlayer for a year. I’ll be on Twitter that evening working #PlayforToday. I have also started to chronicle the production process in a series of posts on the Illuminations blog, ‘Starting Out’ here, ‘The Interviews’ here and ‘The Archive’ here.

Our first public response by someone who’s not a friend (although on the basis of this I’d like to claim him as such) was very heartening:

I am also about to open a separate page listing press articles and reviews, and once that is active I will link to it from here.

BBC Four screenings

Alongside Drama Out of a Crisis, around the time of the anniversary, BBC Four will screen a number of original Plays for Today, the details of which are still being confirmed. The first three broadcasts, however, are in the BBC Four schedules:

  • 22.30, Monday 12 October , Trevor Griffiths’s Country, directed by Richard Eyre and produced by Ann Scott
  • 21.00, Wednesday 14, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party
  • 22.00, Tuesday 20, A Hole in Babylon, written by Jim Hawkins and Horace Ové, and directed by Horace Ové.
Play for Today: Destiny, 1978
Online exhibition

The BFI and BBC History have collaborated with BBC Canvas to prepare an online exhibition about Play for Today; more details on that, and a link, as soon as that is live..

Play for Today at 50′ symposium

On 14 October (in the early evening) and 15 October (through the day) an online symposium will consider the history of Play for Today, its cultural legacy and a number of the individual plays that were produced. The event is organised by John Hill, Professor of Media and Co-Director of the Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production at Royal Holloway, University of London and by me in my role as Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster. 

The symposium will bring together a mix of television professionals and scholars, and participants will include the producers and directors Peter Ansorge, Richard Eyre, Piers Haggard, Margaret Matheson, Tara Prem and Ken Trodd as well as the writers and researchers Vicky Ball, John Cook, Katie Crosson, Simon Farquhar, John Hill, Eleni Liarou, Tom May and Jonny Murray.

Registration is free and all are welcome; further details and sign-up via Eventbrite here.

Play for Today: A Hole in Babylon, 1979
Archive on 4 documentary, Radio 4

The independent production company Just Radio is produced the hour-long Archive on 4: Play for Today, narrated by Alison Steadman, which will be broadcast at 20.00 on Saturday 17 October.

Play for Today Blu-ray box-set, BFI

On 19 October BFI releases a Blu-ray box set of seven Plays for Today, listed below. The inclusion of ‘Volume 1’ in the title indicates that there will be more, which is a very welcome promise. Pre-order from the BFI here.

  • The Lie (wr. Ingmar Bergman; dir. Alan Bridges, 1970)
  • Shakespeare or Bust (wr. Peter Terson; dir. Brian Parker, 1973)
  • Back of Beyond (wr. Julia Jones; dir. Desmond Davis, 1974)
  • Passage to England (wr. Leon Griffiths; dir. John Mackenzie, 1975)
  • Our Flesh and Blood (wr. Mike Stott; dir. Pedr James, 1977)
  • A Photograph (wr. John Bowen; dir. John Glenister, 1977)
  • Your Man from Six Counties (wr. Colin Welland; dir. Barry Davis, 1976)

In the November 2020 issue of Sight & Sound [£] Robert Hanks has written a detailed review of the box set, which also mentions Drama Out of a Crisis:

It’s a stimulating, thoughtful selection [of plays] and very welcome but also, in some respects, disappointing… What’s missing from this set is much sense of how confrontational, how hard Play for Today could be. Often it was the politics that were in your face; as Wyver’s documentary brings home – arguably hammers home – PfT was famous for its eagerness to tackle big, contentious issues… this Volume 1 has a lot to enjoy, put into context by an intelligently written booklet that has essays on each of the plays and overviews by Wyver and Marcus Prince. But I’m hoping for more toughness and intellectual excitement in Volume 2.

BFI Southbank season

In late October and through November BFI Southbank is presenting 8 programmes of big-screen showings from the strand; details and booking here. The screenings are:

  • 22 October: Even Solomon (wr. Andrew Taylor; dir. Roger Bamford, 1979).
  • 28 October: The Lie (wr. Ingmar Bergman; dir. Alan Bridges, 1970).
  • 1 November: The Right Prospectus (wr. John Osborne; dir. Alan Bridges, 1970) + Brassneck (wr. Howard Brenton, David Hare, 1975).
  • 7 November: Ladies (wr. Carol Bunyan; dir. Diarmuid Lawrence, 1980) + No Visible Scar (wr. Rosemary Davies; dir. Moira Armstrong, 1981).
  • 14 November: Just Another Saturday (wr. Peter McDougall; dir. John Mackenzie, 1975) + Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain (wr. Stewart Parker; dir. John Bruce, 1981).
  • 21 November: A Hole in Babylon (wr. Jim Hawkins, Horace Ové; dir. Horace Ové, 1979) + King (wr. Barrie Keeffe; dir. Tony Smith, 1984).
  • 26 November: Destiny (wr. David Edgar; dir. Mike Newell, 1978).
  • 30 November: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (wr. John McGrath; dir. John Mackenzie, 1974).

In addition, some 130 Play for Today titles can also be viewed in the BFI Mediatheque on London’s South Bank and in other venues around the country.

Play for Today releases on Britbox US

Intriguing news, via Comingsoon.net, that the commercial online streaming service Britbox in the States is planning a Play for Today season from 13 October. Apparently the following 30 titles will be available to view: Abigail’s Party, A Cotswold Death, All Good Men, A Passage to England, A Photograph, Back of Beyond, Bar Mitzvah Boy, The Bevellers, The Black Stuff, Coming Out, Country, The Elephants’ Graveyard, The Executioner, The Fishing Party, Funny Farm, The Hallelujah Handshake, Hard Labour, Home Sweet Home, Jessie, Just Another Saturday, Just A Boy’s Game, King, Kisses at 50, Leeds United!, Nuts in May, The Other Woman, Penda’s Fen, Rainy Day Women, The Slab Boys, Soft Targets, Still Waters and Who’s Who.

Play for Today: Country

While some of these titles have been available before, either on DVD like the Mike Leigh films and David Rudkin and Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen, or via the no-longer-with-us BBC Store like Coming Out and The Other Woman, a fair number, including the brilliant films Leeds United!, written by Colin Welland and directed by Roy Battersby, and Country, written by Trevor Griffiths and directed by Richard Eyre, will (I believe) be publicly available for the first time. Here’s the online trail for the season, the style of which makes a fascinating contrast with that of Drama Out of a Crisis:

Which of course prompts the question of whether – if the rights can be cleared for US streaming – will Britbox UK be offering a similar selection on subscription in the land where the TV licence fee paid for them to be produced?

And finally… here’s an intensely evocative series trail for Play for Today, BBC1, 11 October 1977, courtesy of the invaluable Kaleidoscope:

All of which is a rich range of events, but what have I missed?


  1. Billy Smart says:

    We have a transmission date for the documentary (and the first two repeats):

    Monday 12 October

    21:00-22:30 Drama out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play For Today

    22:30-23:55 Country (tx. 1981)

    Wednesday 14 October

    21:00-22:45 Abigail’s Party (tx. 1977)

    22:45-00:15 Monday’s documentary again.

  2. John Wyver says:

    You are very quick off the mark, Billy – thanks!

  3. Billy Smart says:

    A date for the Archive On 4 programme – Saturday the 17th at 8.00PM – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000nkkz

  4. Billy Smart says:

    A third BBC4 repeat: A Hole In Babylon on Tuesday the 20th at 10:00pm.

  5. Billy Smart says:

    The first mention I’ve seen of the extras for the Blu-ray collection here – http://www.cineoutsider.com/news/stories/20/10/201003.html

    “Special features:

    80-page book: Specially commissioned by the BFI, this 80-page book features an overview by John Wyver and a look at the strand’s legacy by Marcus Prince, plus writing on the plays by Rebecca Vick, William Fowler, Josephine Botting, Sukhdev Sandhu, Katie Crosson, Simon McCallum and Vic Pratt.

    Original scripts for all seven plays (PDFs)

    Image gallery”

    I’m sure that the booklet will be excellent, but (if that’s all) the other extras don’t amount to very much.

  6. Billy Smart says:

    Repeat #4! Tuesday 27 October

    22:00-23:10 Just a Boy’s Game (tx. 8 November 1979; previously repeated on BBC2: 5 May 1993)

    The Virgin TIVO guide has a list of 11 plays coming up – the first four are on it, so it seems a reasonable assumption that this is the rest of the season:

    Elephant’s Graveyard – repeated in 1978
    The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner – 1981, never repeated
    Bavarian Night – 1981, never repeated
    Iris in the Traffic – 1981, repeated 1989
    Intensive Care – 1982, repeated 1992
    A Walk in the Forest – 1980, repeated that year as part of Playhouse on BBC2
    Edna the Inebriate Woman – 1971, repeated 1972, 1977, 1986

    Some imaginative selections there, if true!

  7. John Wyver says:

    Brilliant spot there, Billy – let’s see if those are the ones that appear.

  8. Billy Smart says:

    Repeat #5!

    Leeds – United! on Tuesday 3rd at 10:00pm.

  9. John Wyver says:

    Hurrah – thanks, Billy. Leeds – United! is really very special, and has been almost entirely out of circulation for years. Now I must update the whole column.

  10. Billy Smart says:

    Repeat #6!

    Don’t Be Silly ‘can be seen at the slightly later time’ of 22.50 on the 10th: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000p9tj

    Once past the inevitable Abigail’s Party hurdle, some real thought has clearly gone into programming this season.

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