Marking the 50th anniversary of PLAY FOR TODAY – at BFI Southbank, on BFI Blu-ray and online

15 October 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of anthology drama series PLAY FOR TODAY, which comprised broadcasts of more than 300 one-off television plays on the BBC between 1970 and 1984, combining some of the era’s finest writing, acting and directing talents and leaving a significant cultural legacyBFI celebrates this milestone anniversary with a dedicated programme of activity throughout October and November.

A season at BFI Southbank will include: Horace Ové’s insightful A Hole in Babylon (BBC 1979), presenting an authentic black British voice – a true rarity in 1970s television; Even Solomon (BBC 1979), Britain’s first TV drama featuring a transgender lead character; David Edgar’s long hard-to-see and chilling, Destiny (BBC 1978), an ambitious and incisive study of far-right politics and the rise of fascism; Stewart Parker’s rarely seen wry comedy drama, Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain (BBC 1981) set against the backdrop of a rainy Belfast day during ‘The Troubles’ and The Lie (BBC 1970), an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s portrait of a disintegrating marriage.

To launch the release of a BFI Blu-ray box set, Play for Today: Volume 1, there will be a celebrity panel event on BFI YouTube, also previewing extracts from a new feature-length BBC Four documentary, marking the anniversary. In addition, almost half of the surviving plays are available to access for free at BFI Southbank’s Mediatheque and the BFI National Archive has collaborated with the BBC on a new radio documentary for BBC Radio 4, ‘Archive on 4: Play For Today’. An online exhibition with BBC History and Royal Holloway University of London on BBC Canvas illustrates the unique history of PLAY FOR TODAY through rare archive materials.

An important vehicle of its time, PLAY FOR TODAY demonstrated the single drama’s potential to engage mass audiences with social comment and artistic experimentation. The series featured work by some of the UK’s most high calibre writers, directors and producers, including Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, David Rose, Margaret Matheson, Dennis Potter, Paula Milne, Horace Ové, David Hare, Ken Loach, Trevor Griffiths, David Edgar and many more.

As a format it was unafraid of tackling the often thorny issues and headlines of the day. Essential and at times provocative viewing, PLAY FOR TODAY reflected British society back to itself through fascinating explorations of class, social cohesion, personal relationships, political upheaval and the very nature of reality, and leaves a legacy that still impacts on TV drama today. The strength of the ideas lay both in their contemporary resonance to audiences and the genuine diversity of narrative subjects and themes represented. PLAY FOR TODAY became a platform for new voices with a spread of regionally representative productions, links to the theatre and the development of exciting writing talents from across the UK.

Celebrations kick off with a celebrity panel event on BBC YouTube: Play for Today at 50, on 1 October (19:00, BFI YouTube) to discuss the significant cultural legacy of the series. A distinguished panel including original writers and producers David Edgar and Kenith Trodd, who worked on PLAY FOR TODAY, are joined by contemporary television drama writer Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, National Treasure) and BFI National Archive Curator Lisa Kerrigan. Chaired by documentary writer/director John Wyver, the discussion will explore what made PLAY FOR TODAY so special and the impact it has had on television drama 50 years on.

John Wyver’s new feature length BBC documentary, Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, will be broadcast on BBC Four (TX tba) for the anniversary. The BFI YouTube event will include exclusive clips from this BBC documentary and will take a look at some of the plays included in the new BFI Blu-ray box set collection.

Released on 19 October, the 4-disc BFI Blu-ray box set, Play for Today: Volume 1 (RRP: £49.99) brings together seven plays released on Blu-ray for the first time. Ranging from 1970-1977 this collection includes plays by Ingmar Bergman, Julia Jones and Colin Welland. Featuring a roster of eminent British actors, it exemplifies the breadth and brilliance of this groundbreaking series. The box set contains The Lie (BBC 1970), Shakespeare or Bust (BBC 1973), Back of Beyond (BBC 1974), Passage to England (BBC 1975), Our Flesh and Blood (BBC 1977), A Photograph (BBC 1977) and Your Man from Six Counties (BBC 1976) along with an 80-page book featuring nine essays covering all seven plays and the overall series.

Released on 19 October, the 4-disc BFI Blu-ray box set, Play for Today: Volume 1 (RRP: £49.99)

BFI Southbank celebrates the historic PLAY FOR TODAY series throughout October and November, attempting to represent the range of subjects these plays tackled, with a programme of double bills and feature-length single plays with select introductions. The Right Prospectus (BBC 1970) (1 November, double bill with Brassneck) was John Osborne’s only work for the series. Directed by Alan Cooke and starring George Cole, this biting satire on class and privilege in British society remains just as relevant today. Brassneck (BBC 1975) is Mike Newell’s powerful critique of capitalism and local government corruption. Adapted from Howard Brenton and David Hare’s play and starring Jeremy Kemp and Susan Penhaligon, post-war socialist idealism sours into the rise of self-serving greed.

A moving insight into the lives of dozens of female department store workers in 1980, Ladies (BBC 1980) (7 November, introduced screening, double bill screening with No Visible Scar) is perceptively written by Carol Bunyan, and brilliantly performed by a largely female ensemble cast including June Brown and Patsy Rowlands. Moira Armstrong and Rosemarie Davies’s drama, No Visible Scar (BBC 1981) is an eloquent drama exploring the treatment of women in a dictatorship, starring Barbara Flynn and Paul Freeman.

Director John Mackenzie’s Just Another Saturday (BBC 1975) (14 November, double bill screening with Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain), starring Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly, tells the story of a member of the Glasgow Orange Order parade who begins to question what the movement stands for. Stewart Parker’s rarely seen wry comedy drama Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain (BBC 1981) directed by John Bruce and starring Frances Tomelty and Aingeal Grehan presents the lives of two very different women living in Belfast during ‘the Troubles’ and features performances by legendary punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers (with frontman Jake Burns in a supporting role).

Eschewing sensationalism in favour of quietly gripping drama, director Roger Bamford’s Even Solomon (BBC 1979) (22 October, introduced screening tbc) stars Paul Henley and Colin Douglas in Britain’s first TV drama featuring a transgender lead character. Susan’s coming out journey is depicted with frankness and compassion.

Made shortly after the release of his landmark film Pressure (1976), Horace Ové’s A Hole in Babylon (BBC 1979) (21 November, introduced screening, double bill screening with King) was a true rarity in 1970s television, an authentic black British voice, helmed by a black writer-director. Starring T-Bone Wilson and Carmen Munroe, Ové’s play was based on the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975, intercutting archive footage with dramatic reconstruction. Directed by Tony Smith, King (BBC 1984) is a moving portrait of a Windrush immigrant and his daughters, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring Thomas Baptiste, Josette Simon and Clarke Peters.

Long hard-to-see, David Edgar’s Destiny (BBC 1978) (26 November), an ambitious and incisive study of far right politics, feels, four decades on, joltingly contemporary. Directed by Mike Newell and starring Colin Jeavons, Nigel Hawthorne and Saeed Jaffrey, Destiny is a complex and chilling drama about the rise of fascism in 1970s West Midlands. One of the greatest pieces of agitprop community based theatre and TV ever produced, John Mackenzie directed the cast of 7:84 theatre company in The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC 1974)(30 November). Famous for their radical agenda, here the 7:84 theatre company tackled the injustices of the highland clearances. Gemma Jones and Frank Finlay star in The Lie (BBC 1970) (28 October), a portrait of the painful disintegration of a marriage, as written by Ingmar Bergman.

Viewers inspired by the BFI Southbank and BFI Blu-ray offerings are able to explore more of the anthology series at the BFI Mediatheque at BFI Southbank, where almost half of the surviving plays are available to view for free, ranging from familiar titles such as Abigail’s Party (1977), and Rumpole of the Bailey (1975), to titles that have rarely or never been screened since their original broadcast. This is the most comprehensive public resource dedicated to the series; for researchers and fans of British TV drama alike, this is a unique opportunity to delve deeper into the world of PLAY FOR TODAY. The Mediatheque also holds a wealth of other stand-alone television dramas, including a curated selection of highlights from PLAY FOR TODAY’s predecessor, the Wednesday Play (1964-1970).

In collaboration with the BBC, the BFI National Archive has contributed to a new ‘Archive on 4: Play for Today’ radio documentary (TX 17 October, BBC Radio 4). Presented by Alison Steadman and featuring interviews with Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and BFI National Archive curator Lisa Kerrigan, this new documentary looks back to explore the value of the single episode television drama and the debt today’s television writers owe to PLAY FOR TODAY.

To tie in with the anniversary, the BFI and BBC History have also collaborated on a BBC Canvas online exhibition with Royal Holloway University of London, with select materials drawn from both the BBC and BFI National Archive, and using stills, interview clips and previously unseen archive documents to illustrate the history of PLAY FOR TODAY. The online exhibition will be accessible for the 15 October anniversary via www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc

Tickets for screenings between 19 October and 30 November will go on sale to BFI Patrons and Champions on 28 September, BFI Members on 29 September and to the general public on 6 October.