Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Story For Today

In the previous post about Elvis Presley I referenced the BBC Play For Today production Long Distance Information. In the past few months I have also watched two other plays again from that long running series - Elephants Graveyard from 1976 and The Comedians from 1979.

Peter McDougall's Elephants Graveyard revisits the great folk myth of industrial Britain that in the good old days some men who were out of work got up in the morning anyway out of pure shame and went about their business to give the impression of gainful employment. This ties in with commentary in Paul Mason's recent Why It's All Kicking Off Everywhere as to the black social contract of the Nineties in the UK being essentially that a lifetime of dole money would compensate for a lifetime of work in post-industrial Britain without too many questions being asked since employment opportunities were essentially now extinct. The play stars Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly hiding out in the Scottish countryside away from their wives' gaze and has certain supernatural overtones in its resolution. The two actors had starred the previous year in McDougall's magnificent Just Another Saturday about the Orange marching culture in Glasgow.

Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians had played theatrically for several years by the time of the television production and is the story of a nightclass for budding stand up comedians in Manchester - including a young Jonathan Pryce as the maverick student alongside a Seventies stage Irishman, a Frank Carsonesque Ulsterman and a stereotypical Jew amongst other hopefuls. Pryce's performance at the talent night itself is extraordinary to behold and there are also sobering asides from the teacher - portrayed by Bill Fraser from The Army Game - on racist and sectarian generalisations and his horrifying war experiences. Quite simply it is one of the best television plays of our time.

Play For Today began in 1970 with Ray Davies of The Kinks taking the lead role in The Long Distance Piano Player and ran until 1984. It was the successor to the BBC's The Wednesday Play which started in 1964 and with the namechange reflecting the now varied transmission day. The BBC Head of Drama at the time the series commenced was Sydney Newman who had earlier produced the similar Armchair Theatre for independent television and he aimed to continue making dramas that balanced social realism with a broad public appeal. Furthermore he wanted to get away from the BBC's safe image and produce content with "agitational contemporaneity". Mr Newman - if you are still with us - I trust you are utterly transfixed by the current edgy status of New Britain.

Often controversial, the most famous plays of the series were the Ken Loach-directed Up The Junction in 1965 which focused on working class life in Battersea - and which was later made into a successful feature film starring Dennis Waterman and Suzy Kendall - and Cathy Come Home from 1966 which tackled the subject of homelessness in raw and unflinching fashion. Loach's The War Game was totally withdawn from transmission for twenty years under government pressure because of its controversial depiction of a nuclear attack on London. In a British Film Institute poll in 2000 for the greatest British television programme of the century The War Game was placed 27th and Cathy Come Home second. Alike with several episodes of Steptoe and Son, Dr Who and George Best's only international hat trick many of the episodes were wiped with only 63 out of the 173 made in the BBC archives today.

More than 300 programmes of Play For Today were subsequently produced and as consisting of original television plays and adaptations of stage plays or novels alike. The quality, timelesseness and reknown of so many are extraordinary to consider in hindsight and covered all genres through to even science fiction with 1980's The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. Certain plays such as Willy Russell's 1977 Our Day Out that had transmitted elsewhere on the BBC network were also given a repeat showing in the Play For Today slot. Rumpole of Bailey and Gangsters from 1975 would subsequently become full television series on ITV and BBC respectively.

Some of the best remembered of the plays would be Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), The Foxtrot (1971), Penda's Fen (1974), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Nuts In May (1976), Spend Spend Spend (1977), Abigail's Party (1977), The Black Stuff (1978), Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and Just A Boy's Game (1979).

Alike with The War Game two plays would be pulled from transmission entirely due to controversy over the content - Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 which contained a rape scene of a disabled woman and the borstal violence portrayed in 1977's Scum. Both these dramas would appear in cinematic form before their eventual transmissions as original television plays.

In the aforementioned BFI poll of the year 2000 no less than five Play For Today programmes were regarded as being in the top 100 British television productions of the 20th Century: Abigail's Party (eleventh), Blue Remembered Hills (36th), Nuts in May (49th), Bar Mitzvah Boy (56th) and Edna, The Inebriate Woman (57th). Alan Bleasdale's The Boys from the Blackstuff which was a sequel to the original television play was seventh.

Play For Today naturally also covered the subject of the Ulster Troubles though several plays commissioned were not produced. Ironically the civil disorder of the Northern Ireland conflict would remain much in the background of the two best-remembered plays set there - Stewart Parker's Iris In The Traffic, Ruby In the Rain in 1981 and Too Late To Talk To Billy by Graham Reid in 1982.

Stewart Parker, whose final play Pentecost took place against the background of the May 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike and indeed stands as one of the greatest pieces of Irish drama to date, set his play on one winter's day in Belfast and followed the parallel lifepaths of the two eponymous women. Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers provided the soundtrack with singer Jake Burns in a supporting dramatic role himself. In 1977 Parker's first contribution to Play For Today was The Catchpenny Twist which covered the songwriting career of two ex-teachers against the political vagaries of Seventies Ireland. His later, and magnificently titled, The Kamikaze Groundstaff Reunion Dinner was shown in 1981 in the series and had white British actors playing Japanese war veterans. He died of cancer in 1988 at the age of only 47.

Graham Reid's play regarded the familial travails of a young working class Protestant in South Belfast portrayed by Kenneth Branagh and with three further plays to follow as based around the character of Billy Martin. Branagh also starred in Reid's Easter 1916 contribution to the Play For Tomorrow mini-series of 1982 which looked at tensions at a Northern Ireland teacher training college on the centenary of the Dublin rising.

Seven other productions over the course of Play For Today's run touched upon the Ulster conflict.

Dominic Behan's 1972 Carson Country - starring Harry Towb and Sam Kydd - looked at Protestant working class life around the period of the Home Rule crisis and the creation of the Northern Ireland state. It was transmitted in October of that year instead of the planned May in order as not to provoke trouble during the marching season. The following month Behan's The Folk Singer for Armchair Theatre on ITV - about the visit of a Liverpool musician to Belfast - was given a later scheduled transmission slot on the instructions of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Three months later in turn ATV chairman Sir Lew Grade banned entirely the transmission of Kenneth Griffith's Hang Up Your Brightest Colours:The Life and Death of Michael Collins and this would not be shown at all until 1993.

Over the remainder of the Seventies Taking Leave (1974) was the story of a British soldier who returned to Ulster after six years of service and considered his parents' wish for him to terminate his service; Colin Welland's Yer Man From Six Counties (1976) focused upon a young boy's move to the West of Ireland after the death of his father in an IRA bomb; The Legion Hall Bombing (1976) looked at the Diplock court system then operational in Northern Ireland and whose transmission was also delayed by further BBC concern over editorial content while The Last Window Cleaner (1979) followed the transfer of a policeman to Ulster and his experiences in wartorn Belfast at The Crumlin View boarding house.

During the Eighties Jennifer Johnston's Shadows On Our Skin (1980) viewed the Troubles through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy in Derry's Bogside - and with Horslip's Time To Kill used in the soundtrack - while Fire At Magilligan (1984) followed upon the consequences of a driver picking up a hitchhiker on the motorway out of Belfast and the two gradually realised they were not unknown to each other after all.

In consideration of both The Wednesday Play and Play For Today as high water marks of television drama and British television alike, they reflect a society clearly vanished in much of its social and even physical constructs alongside now fractured senses of identity and community cohesion. Though the BBC's reputation and content is now a mere shadow of what it once was, these plays truly represent an extraordinary cultural archive of a much-lamented and utterly lost country.