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State of the 70s: Play for Today Volume 3 on Blu-ray

  The BFI have released yearly box sets of Play for Today since 2020, collections of the BBC's flagship one-off drama programmes, and Volume 3 features some of its most sought-after efforts. A series starting in 1970 and lasting till the mid-eighties whereupon it was updated to Screen One, it produced over three hundred examples of wildly diverse subjects, some hard-hitting, others humorous, some socially aware and others just plain strange, but it crafted a number of memorable moments in British television history and became like part of the televisual furniture for a good decade and a half.

First up on the Volume 3 Blu-rays is Edna the Inebriate Woman (1971), one of the strand's most famous plays and much treasured by aficionados. It was a tale of homelessness, a subject tackled in its writer Jeremy Sandford's Ken Loach-directed sixties play Cathy Come Home; in that case it can legitimately claim to have changed society by making it more aware of a problem on its doorstep. However, this example, while just as forceful and if anything, even more eccentric, showcased a riveting central performance from Patricia Hayes, a comedy actress who won a dramatic BAFTA for her work here, yet as we know the homelessness crisis has never gone away, suggesting a complacency in the viewers who were entertained and moved, but not enough to do something about the difficult Edna's endless cycle of psychiatric hospitals and hostels, or simply life under any roof she can find. It's a sobering work, with a main character who never settles down, and is never allowed to. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff the same year he helmed Australian cult classic Wake in Fright and is similarly hard to forget, whether you are compelled to action or not.

Second is from a writer familiar to these sets, Peter McDougall, who in between decorating jobs would pen pin-sharp portraits of life in the West of Scotland. Just Another Saturday was his first script, but not his first produced, as its theme of sectarianism and the violence it brings proved too controversial. It was finally put into production in 1975 under the direction of John Mackenzie, a workhorse of a talent whose most famous effort would be the cult gangster theatrical feature The Long Good Friday. McDougall's plays for the strand were enormously popular North of the Border, and this little different, documentary-style in places as the camera observes the Saturday parades in July: mixing his actors with real flute bands and parade-goers, there was enough grit and authenticity for a whole series' worth of Play for Today. As the inevitable bloodshed occurs between Protestants and Catholics for reasons seventeen-year-old John (John Morrison) barely fathoms other than adhering to tradition, a battle for his soul ensues between his embittered, religious mother and drunken, philosophising father. Watch for comedian Billy Connolly in his first acting role.

Third is a play that for the British Jewish community was as important to them as Just Another Saturday was to Scots: Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), an award-winning screenplay by Jack Rosenthal. He was a legend of British television drama, cutting his teeth on over a hundred episodes of popular soap Coronation Street and going on to such landmark works for the small screen as The Lovers, Spend Spend Spend, P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang and London's Burning, among many others. There were complaints from some Jewish viewers that he had, with this broadcast, essentially presented a collection of stereotypes to the non-Jewish audience, and is it true the acting tends towards the broad side of the spectrum, but you can tell this is because the cast relish their characters so much. Our hero, meanwhile, is a precocious but unimpressed thirteen-year-old who does his best to stage a protest on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, since the idea of becoming a man leaves him with a sick feeling when he sees the examples around him who could be a lot more observant of the traditions he has been learning. Special mention to Adrienne Posta, finding nuance in her role of the sister.

Onto the fourth on this set, a very Play for Today subject as the machinations of a local council becomes the microcosm for the bigger picture in Henry Livings' The Mayor's Charity (1978), here the mess Britain was embroiled with both domestically and with its place in the wider world. In a serio-comic fashion, it presented characters who were as broad as the ones from Bar Mitzvah Boy, and played with the same gusto by a cast, many of whom were well-versed in comedy, but there was a keen-eyed tone that skewered the pomposity and petty ambitions of the officials and authorities involved. Thora Hird could have played the Mayoress's part in her sleep, but there was a reason she was so revered, and she was a strong centre around which the men blustered. In support, Roy Kinnear was her brother-in-law, also on the council and proving not the pushover he appeared to be, Terence Rigby was a Councillor trying his own manipulations, and a young Phil Davis was a callow representative who constantly humiliates himself. That said, Frank Windsor as the mace bearer and determined bagpipe player possibly stole the show, his comeuppance weirdly, bombastically tragic.

The third disc starts with the bluntly titled Coming Out (1979), a surprisingly rare example of a gay themed drama from this strand. Maybe their writers had other things they wanted to discuss, maybe they did not wish to alienate viewers, but the latter seems unlikely when they were happy to be confrontational in many other areas. It's more probable that the gay market was simply neglected, and there was not believed to be a crossover audience thanks to a ghetto mentality in the producers of the day. But while Coming Out was not exactly It's a Sin (2021), and featured a mostly hetero cast to portray its characters, it was quietly progressive in its way, showing with James Andrew Hall’s script a gay man (played by Anton Rodgers) who was comfortable in his sexuality, and with a stable relationship, who nevertheless needs to be shaken up in his complacency when he writes an article critical of his fellow gays under a pseudonym. His agent (Hywel Bennett) is keen for a follow up, allowing the reluctant writer to explore aspects of the lifestyle he was so sceptical for, meeting a rent boy, a prim bigot and his friend's more militant, aggressive pal (Richard Pearson).

Last on the set is A Hole in Babylon (1979), co-written (with Jim Hawkins) and directed by Britain's first black director, Horace Ove, who the BBC were keen to work with after his debut Pressure. He became practically the only black director working in television of the seventies, and not without controversy, not simply because of the racism he would have faced from certain viewers and media outlets, but because with this play he was regarded as glorifying criminals. The reality was rather different, as the programme takes a more ambiguous approach to a now forgotten incident in London in 1975, The Spaghetti House Siege, where three black men took hostages after the planned robbery of an Italian restaurant went wrong - for the robbers. This played out on television (we see actual news clips) to some amusement, since they were painted as bunglers who jumped on a political, anti-racist bandwagon to excuse their criminality and ineptitude, yet Ove, using flashbacks, prefers to point out that no matter what their motives were in staging the theft, the society they had been brought up in made their existence a political one thanks to the injustice they suffered daily. Thus Play for Today Volume 3 offers a valuable, vivid snapshot of changing Britain in the nineteen-seventies.

[As an extra, there's a 60-page book with new essays by Katie Crosson, David Archibald, Julia Wagner, Jon Dear, Simon McCallum and Kaleem Aftab.

Click here to buy from the BFI website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018