Watching ‘Drama…’: The Press [Updated 18/10]

11th October 2020

John Wyver writes: I’m keen to use this post to draw together the features, previews and reviews for our documentary Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, first shown on BBC Four on Monday 12 October and now on BBC iPlayer. I’m not including anything that simply re-works the press release, but I want to highlight any substantial and/or judgemental discussions – and that means the good as well as the bad and even the ugly (of which there are now examples). I’ll extract some of the more pertinent comments from pieces, and where links are available I’ll feature these too. My thanks especially to Ian Greaves and Billy Smart for their help.

Features

• Mark Lawson, ‘I never intended it to be on TV’, Radio Times, 10-16 October: an interview with filmmaker Mike Leigh about Abigail’s Party and Play for Today.

Alison Graham, ‘Why the BBC must never bring back Play for Today’, Radio Times, 10-16 October: in addition to applying the adjective ‘excellent’ to the documentary, Ms Grant makes the following argument (which in my view is quite mis-guided):

In a boxset-hungry world, there’s no room for a weekly one-hit piece of drama. ‘Where’s the rest of it? Where are the other episodes?’ would come the cry. If modern audiences want to invest in a drama, they need a bigger pay-off than just a measly 90 minutes or an hour.

Clive Davis, ‘The Seventies-style one-off TV play is just what we need for today, The Times [£], 8 October: a riposte to Alison Graham’s argument and a good overview of the series, with this comment on the documentary:

a fascinating survey that shows just how much creativity was bubbling away in an era that was, let’s face it, pretty grim in so many other ways. The swinging Sixties had come to an inglorious end at Altamont, “stagflation” was the new word on everyone’s lips and IRA bombs were exploding on the mainland.

Robert Hanks, ‘Hard play area’, Sight & Sound, November 2020: an extended review of BFI’s Play for Today Volume 1 box set, which also includes some tangential commentary on the documentary:

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… I’m hoping for more toughness and intellectual excitement in Volume 2.

Roxy Simons, ‘Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Anthony Hopkins appear in unseen snaps from Play For Today as BBC celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary’, Mail Online, 12 October: an extensive photo-feature with numerous newly released photographs – with a note of transmission tonight; versions of this feature are also appearing in a range of provincial newspapers.

Mark Lawson, ‘The forgotten female writers of Play for Today: ‘If you failed, it was pretty public”‘, Guardian, 12 October: a welcome discussion of the women playwrights who contributed to the series, including interviews with Paula Milne and Rachel Billington.

David Hare, ‘Play for Today gave audiences dramas they could actually relate to, Telegraph [£], 13 October: reflections on the series and its significance from the writer-director of Licking Hitler and more.

• Dominic Maxwell, Plays for Today reminds [sic] us we still want to go to Abigail’s Party, The Times [£], 13 October: mostly on Mike Leigh’s classic.

David Herman, Looking back at Play for Today The Jewish Chronicle, 16 October: on the very plays in the series by Jewish writers – Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal and Stephen Poliakoff among others.

Previews

Paul Whitelaw, ‘TV preview’, The Courier, 8 October:

This stellar documentary is a labour of love, a celebration and an elegy… The 90-minute running time allows for a wide-ranging dissection of the various genres [the series] encompassed.

Ben Dowell, Critics’ choice, The Times, 10 October:

John Wyver’s film is an unashamed celebration of a strand that is usually not far from the minds of people whenever they talk of British TV’s golden age… On particularly insightful form in this film is Kenith Trodd, the brilliant, indefatigible producer of [Dennis] Potter’s best work.

Gabriel Tate, ‘What to watch’, Telegraph, 10 October:

Although this wonderful documentary is called a celebration, it’s a balanced one, acknowledging the shortcomings… as well as the very many achievements of the strand… If BBC Four is to become an archive channel, it could do worse than fill its schedules with more of these gems.

Victoria Segal, ‘Critics’ choice‘, Sunday Times, 11 October:

This brilliant film charts a turbulent course through society, mapping triumphs, controversies… and overlooked highlights.

Lisa Patrick, ‘TV tonight: our highlights for Monday 12th October‘, whatsontv, 12 October: 5 stars

A fascinating watch for anyone interested in TV drama.

Juliet Jacques, ‘The battle for the BBC’, Frieze, 14 October: an important argument about the Corporation today, pinned to a discussion of the BFI box-set of Play for Today.

Reviews

Ed Power, ‘Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, review: this gripping film stripped away the clichés’, the i, 12 October: 4 stars

The great accomplishment of Drama Out of a Crisis, an absorbing feature-length documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Play for Today, was to strip away [the] clichés… an absorbing feature-length documentary… [Play for Today] held a mirror up to Britain and encouraged us to face ugly realities in politics and society. Drama out of a Crisis argued persuasively and grippingly that we are poorer for its absence.

Lucy Mangan, ‘Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today review – when the play really was the thing’, Guardian, 12 October: 4 stars:

… a celebration (particularly of a creative freedom that most contributors could not help but shake their misty-eyed heads at in disbelief) that didn’t stray into hagiography.

Carol Midgeley, ‘An uneasy journey through time for the Doctor’, Times, 13 October: 5 stars:

… an excellent, nostalgia-stoking documentary on a golden age of drama when playwrights weren’t worried about Twitter, and the BBC let them have their heads… Great documentary. I’m giving it five stars for the memories.

Gary Naylor, ‘BWW Review: Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, BBC iPlayer’, Broadway World, 13 October: 4 stars

Creative freedom in broadcast media may have been at an all-time high – there’s Huw W[h]eldon, Managing Director of the BBC at the MacTaggart Lecture, celebrating truth-telling in news or arts to the hilt… Richard Eyre and David Hare (two more Knights of the Realm) come close to giggling in sheer delight at the memory of such artistic latitude. Kenith Trodd, still fired up with righteous Leftish anger, glaring at the camera, laments what was never quite taken for granted, but much missed now.

• Christopher Stevens, ‘Throwbacks of the night’, Daily Mail, 13 October:

The old-school TV luvvies on Drama Out of a Crisis (BBC4), marking the 50th anniversary of A Play for Today [sic], looked and sounded like polytechnic lecturers. It all served as a reminder that Leftie bias on the Beeb is nothing new. [NB. This is the whole review.]

David Herman, The Left and Play for Today, The Article, 15 October: David Herman is very generous about the film (‘a brilliant ninety-minute documentary’) and very interesting on the politics of the series:

Fifty years on, perhaps the most surprising thing about Play for Today is how the far Left were allowed to air their views at peak time on BBC1 and Right-wing writers were as absent as women or people of colour. 

Paul Kirkley, ‘Watch It Now’, Waitrose Weekend, 15 October [?]: a thoughtful, positive response which I fear I can’t find online – I’m grateful to @ProfShakespeare for drawing it to my attention (and you’ll find it in her fine Twitter feed).

Hugo Rifkind, ‘The Bridge review — hang on, has anyone tried some sort of a floating shoe device?, The Times [£], 16 October: a piece that’s crammed full of informed analysis and insight:

What you had here, really, was a variety of old talking heads talking about how wonderful and important it had all been, intercut with clips from the plays, which very often seemed to be hammy bollocks. Obviously that’s overstating it, because there were clearly gems along the way, but something didn’t quite stack up.

Alison Rowat, ‘Taskmaster, The Trump Show, Portrait Artist of the Year, Drama Out of a Crisis, reviews‘, The Herald, 17 October:

Like its subject, this retrospective was a touch hand-knitted and worthy at times. Luvvie and lefty, too. 

Aidan Smith, ‘Review: With a male stripper in charge this will surely be a bridge too far for reality TV’, The Scotsman, 17 October: … which rightly takes the the film to task for not dealing properly with Peter McDougall and John McKenzie’s Just a Boys’ Game – ‘perhaps the greatest TV drama to come out of Scotland’. I can only say there was a substantial sequence about the film right up to the final stage of editing but then it had to go to fit the slot.

Victoria Coren Mitchell, ‘Finally I understand why people say the BBC is too Left-wing‘, The Telegraph [£], 17 October: worth quoting at some length…

I was reflecting on this as I watched A Celebration of Play for Today (BBC Four) on Monday. Although I’m not sure why, because everything on it looked bloody awful. I don’t mean to be a philistine, I’m sure there was some wonderful writing. But so dour! So bleak, so brown, and literally every single play seemed to be about trade union meetings…

At the risk of disrespecting greater writers than I’ll ever be, there was no avoiding the faint whiff of misery porn for the middle classes. It actually started to become funny, how gruelling the plots all sounded…

And so preachy! Maybe it’s just the ones the documentary chose to focus on, but my word! I finally understand why people say the BBC is too Left-wing. I don’t think that’s true of it now, but I realise where the hangover must come from. These dramas were relentless! They make Gary Lineker look like Norman Tebbit!

Camilla Long, ‘TV review: Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson; The Trump Show; Drama out of a Crisis; Marina Abramovic — The Ugly Duckling, Sunday Times [£], 17 October: ‘I enjoyed Drama Out of a Crisis,’ our critic writes, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from how she goes on:

… it was heavily nostalgic for a more innocent time, when you could be a raving, not-even-closet Marxist and still get a huge budget and the writers and actors you wanted and a captive audience of eight million… It seemed so far from anything that’s on television today, it might as well be an alien art form.

‘From literary classic Rebecca to enjoyable On The Rocks and Drama Out Of A Crisis, the best on demand TV to watch this week’, Mail Online, 17 October: not exactly a review — they’ve taken the press copy and added ‘this fascinating film’ — but given the sniffy response of the Mail (above), we’ll take this with pleasure.

Blogs

Here are some we made earlier: retired BFI Television curator Steve Bryant writes fine round-ups of recent television on his TV for Keeps blog, and he’s very generous in his most recent post

… the most creative use of archive came along just a couple of nights ago with John Wyver’s 50thanniversary documentary about Play for TodayDrama Out of a Crisis (BBC4). The density of the high definition 16:9 screen was fully employed to cram into its 90-minute span as much material as this legendary strand deserved, all of it presented and framed in its original transmission ratio and selected to illustrate the points being made as effectively as possible.

What am I still missing?

And finally, look what I just discovered thanks to Far Out Magazine online (live in Apeldoorn Berg en Bos Festival, Netherlands, on 18 July 1980:

Header image from Country, written by Trevor Griffiths, 1981, directed by Richard Eyre, to be screened on BBC Four after Drama Out of a Crisis at 10.30pm, Monday 12 October; © BBC.

Comments

  1. Billy Smart says:

    Now this is just what you want a preview to tell the reader – “This documentary is apparently absolutely fantastic”: https://www.tvcream.co.uk/creamguide/drama-out-of-a-crisis-a-celebration-of-play-for-today-monday-21-00-bbc4/

    I think that this man might have seen a preview copy (plus he’s looked up a PFT filmography online somewhere). A somewhat trying overview – https://thecritic.co.uk/play-for-today-celebrates-its-50th-birthday/

  2. Olwen Terris says:

    Dear Professor Wyver

    I have just watched your production’Drama Out of a Crisis’ and thought it superb; it brought back so much of my life and reminded me of what television could and can do. Beautifully filmed, edited and written with fine insights from those who made it happen.

    With best wishes

    Olwen Terris

  3. John Wyver says:

    Thank you so much, Olwen – that means a lot – hope you’re doing OK in these strange times.

  4. Olwen Terris says:

    I just wanted to add that one of the aspects of your programme I enjoyed the most was the inspired choice to film the contributors against a neutral background – it immediately focused you on what they were saying (not the cute cat in the background or the dubious wallpaper). You and your colleagues were helped of course by the wonderful caring, intelligent and thoughtful faces of Trodd, Leigh, Loach, Hare, Scott and Matheson. Thanks again – and my last word!

    Olwen Terris

  5. Billy Smart says:

    You’ve missed out the link for Robert Hanks’ Sight & Sound review – https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/reviews/play-today-volume-1-blu-ray-box-set

    The relevant passage from Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s column (which – I confess – did make me laugh):

    “So much joy from drama! I was reflecting on this as I watched A Celebration of Play for Today (BBC Four) on Monday. Although I’m not sure why, because everything on it looked bloody awful.

    I don’t mean to be a philistine, I’m sure there was some wonderful writing. But so dour! So bleak, so brown, and literally every single play seemed to be about trade union meetings. (Or, in one case, “the expansive tale of a clash between the state and a housing association trying to resist rent rises”.)

    Christ! Who were they for? If you actually had the sort of life that involved 1970s trade unions and housing associations trying to resist rent rises, wouldn’t you want to go home and see a bit of Disney? A bit of Morecambe and Wise with Shirley Bassey putting her foot through a step?

    At the risk of disrespecting greater writers than I’ll ever be, there was no avoiding the faint whiff of misery porn for the middle classes. It actually started to become funny, how gruelling the plots all sounded. (“Joe’s life is shaped by his alcoholic father’s past in the IRA…”)

    Thank God for the odd glimpse of Alison Steadman doing Abigail’s Party – although that was rather spoilt by its author, Mike Leigh, referring scornfully to “very, very commercial product” as if something good can only be popular by mistake.

    And so preachy! Maybe it’s just the ones the documentary chose to focus on, but my word! I finally understand why people say the BBC is too Left-wing. I don’t think that’s true of it now, but I realise where the hangover must come from. These dramas were relentless! They make Gary Lineker look like Norman Tebbit!”

  6. John Wyver says:

    Thanks, Billy – I wasn’t sure the Robert Hanks review was online, but I’ve updated the link now. And thanks too for the extended quote from Victoria Coren Mitchell.

  7. Billy Smart says:

    I’ve located this so you don’t have to… You can hear more of Hugo Rifkind’s analysis at 1h 58m into his Times Radio show of this morning – https://www.thetimes.co.uk/radio/show/20201017-3534/2020-10-17 ‘Saturday Review’ it isn’t!

    At least it doesn’t go on for very long.

  8. Billy Smart says:

    I’m not sure that anyone in our circle will quite be able to bring themselves to buy a copy, but Garry Bushell’s TV column in today’s Daily Star Sunday is on PFT (he says on Twitter).

  9. Billy Smart says:

    We have a link! The header of Bushell’s website (a British bulldog and a St George’s Cross) is the sort of image that would cause me to look over my shoulder if I was reading it in public, but at least his column is enthusiastic. – http://www.garry-bushell.co.uk/onthebox.htm

    He’s must be one of the few TV critics who would have actually watched PFT at the time… maybe even wrote about it in Sounds. I would imagine this is the first time that David Rudkin has ever got a mention in the Daily Star.

  10. John Wyver says:

    Gary Bushell:

    “Drama Out Of A Crisis celebrated PFT’s risk-taking legacy while reminding us most playwrights look like 1970s school teachers dressed by near-sighted tramps….

    [I feel this is a little hard on David Hare and Rachel Billington]

    “Most were hardcore socialists, keen to “rattle the cages of Establishment”. We might not agree with their stale, failed politics, but the plays were rarely predictable and reminded us of drama’s power to move, expose, campaign and also delight. There were gentle joys alongside gritty social realism, like Peter Terson’s earthy comedies and David Rudkin’s peculiar Penda’s Fen, where a vicar’s son encountered the spirits of Anglo-Saxon king Penda and Edward Elgar in the Malvern Hills. ITV’s ground-breaking Armchair Theatre started TV’s one-off drama tradition, followed by BBC1’s The Wednesday Play – home of Cathy Come Home. Looking at schedules full of cooks, clapped-out soaps and “reality” muppets, it’s hard to believe British TV once had a backbone. Could we find it again, with free-thinking, less dogmatic writers? With theatre on its knees, actors could surely do with the work.”

    [I’ll transfer this into the body of the post shortly – thanks once more, Billy]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.