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The BBC looks back 50 years to the launch of Play For Today with the help of the great and good of British television, film and theatre.


BWW Review: DRAMA OUT OF A CRISIS: A CELEBRATION OF PLAY FOR TODAY, BBC iPlayerPlay For Today ran from 1970 until 1984, just after The Nine O'Clock News on BBC1. Millions of Brits whose day had started with the right-wing populism of The Sun finished it with the fiery social commentary of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, or the (later blacklisted) Trotskyist Roy Battersby. Page 3 girls to runaway girls - just another Tuesday...

That lost world had its upsides. Creative freedom in broadcast media may have been at an all-time high - there's Huw Weldon, Managing Director of the BBC at the MacTaggart Lecture, celebrating truth-telling in news or arts to the hilt (but who's going to attack a man with a D-Day Military Cross from the Right?). 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.

That open cheque (not so much financially, although the vast majority of these plays were actually films, only 20 minutes or so shorter than full features and can't have been cheap) was used to tell Britain about itself and, at times, direct them as to what they should do about it politically. The documentary follows many of PfT's key themes - industrial strife, The Troubles, domestic abuse - a world of lights, camera, action to mirror the factual World In Action over on ITV in Monday night prime time.

The more personal issues may be taken up by soaps these days, but the class struggle, so central then, seems peripheral in television and theatre now (if we're betting without Gemma Arterton's Evita tribute in the preposterous Made in Dagenham musical). One can only speculate about the eruption that would follow such broadcasts today; "PAID FOR BY YOUR LICENCE FEE" as the Right (and some on the Left) embrace what Antonio Gramsci always said about the power of the arts to shape politics, and ever more confidently exercise their muscles in the culture wars.

Hang on a minute. Is that who I think it is, young, shouty and Irish? Yes, it's dear old Sir Ken himself, barely out of his teens, getting beaten up by Z-Cars' Jimmy Ellis. And there's Kate Nelligan, impossibly beautiful and posh, in a heartbreaking doomed wartime romance with Bill Paterson. And I'm sure that's Dame Harriet Walter, bravely enduring solitary confinement at the hands of a brutish military type. Many more famous faces flit across the screen, as the clips unwind.

There are claims (Mike Leigh advances the argument most explicitly) that Play For Today was the British Film Industry, whose cinema releases during most of the 70s mostly comprised the A-rated innuendo of the Carry-Ons, the X-rated innuendo of the Confessions and Michael bloody Winner. But, despite those scarcely believable ratings - note for younger readers: there wasn't much else to watch - did it promote theatre into the public consciousness?

I was a little too young to be in the age demographic for PfT, but I recall that I saw very few at the time (even Abigail's Party was watched as a repeat). Like soaps today, too many were grim affairs, set in a decaying Britain (many filmed in the deindustrialising regions) full of unhappy people. Frankly, I could just open the front door if I wanted that. And I had the extraordinary output on mainstream 70s American cinema, free, where my mother worked. Where was the joy?

My earliest theatrical exposure through television came via Jackanory, children's stories read by the likes of Kenneth Williams and Bernard Cribbins, whose genius would summon imaginary worlds filled with warmth and humour. As an adult, two years after PfT had finished its final run, much of its ambition (and more) was realised in my mind by one of its alumni, Dennis Potter (who pops up a couple of times, angular, myopic and spiky, in the documentary) in his fabulous The Singing Detective. But I'm not sure that you get scabby Michael Gambon and sexy Joanne Whalley without having had Play For Today, so that's all right.

Finally, but critically, Play For Today did not realise its ambition to reflect contemporary Britain back to itself. Black Britain and Female Britain were barely acknowledged at all, white male directors and writers locking out the slots to what seems an almost comical extent. There's a bit of an apologia from one of the beneficiaries who was warned off tentative steps towards diversity by a BBC bigwig citing stereotypes of Black actors and audiences that are as coarse and ill-founded as they were prevalent.

It doesn't wash with me. These future knights and their fellow decision-makers were embedded in the BBC at its most powerful and perfectly capable of lobbying for their black or female workers in the culture mill, but it probably never crossed their minds. Class, not ethnicity nor gender, mattered then.

Some of the best Plays For Today are being run again on the network (many tapes were foolishly wiped in one of those acts of vandalism that saved the BBC storage space at immeasurable cultural cost), but there's an argument that they should all be made available, free, on iPlayer. There might be some cost, but probably not much, and we have paid for them once already of course. The audiences would be tiny fractions of the millions made miserable weekly in the 70s, but that doesn't matter in the Internet Age. As viewers would soon learn, things are different now.

Drama Out Of A Crisis: A Celebration Of Play For Today is available on BBC iPlayer

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From This Author Gary Naylor