Something specifically for UK viewers, although Britophiles worldwide may well be interested, this BFI boxed set harks back to the 1970’s and the heyday of the Play for Today banner, Tuesday night drama with a different team of talents behind each film. A predecessor of Channel 4’s Film Four imprint, which used cinema to promote their films, the BBC’s version is fondly remembered by pub bores who still drone on about everything since “It’s not as good as an old Play For Today’. If nothing else, this 50th anniversary blu-ray release should shut up those who live in the past; featuring seven re-mastered episodes, this boxed-set sets frees these plays from our hazy memories, and the vast majority of them come up sweetly.
As a kid, the Play for Today imprint was something which struck fear; made on film, they looked gritty and cold, and the subject matter was frequently violent and adult; Scum and Brimstone and Treacle were two cause celebres when banned by the BBC. The mood might be whimsical, like Dr Who rip The Flipside of Dominic Hyde, but often they were bleak, angry state-of-the nation jobs, designed to shake up a middle-class viewership. Julia Jones’ Back of Beyond is a good example. Directed by Desmond Davis (Clash of the Titans), it’s a downbeat story of a young paper-girl named Rachel who finds herself drawn to a lonely older woman, played by the brilliant Rachel Roberts. Despite her parents disapproval, Rachel finds herself involves in the recluse’s life, listening to her reminiscences and desiring to bring some relief to her agony. This leads to a short but shocking conclusion; exactly the kind of story that cinema chose not to tell for commercial reasons, but tv manages to pull off in a fearless way.
Similarly, Mike Stott’s Our Flesh and Blood delves into another thorny area; natural child-birth, and not in a shallow way. Bernard Hill plays a feckless-seeming husband who makes an effort to dig in and support his wife (Alison Steadman) when she wants a baby. But the couple face adversary when they get to the hospital in the form of Mr Smythe (sitcom master Richard Briers) who doesn’t want the husband at the birth, claiming it would be a distraction for staff. With some very real birthing footage, this is a tough little, unsentimental play, with notably crushing dialogue, one of the programme’s fortes.
Written by John Bowen and directed by John Glennister, A Photograph is the pick of the bunch for me, and merits a review all of its own which I’ll return to soon. But there’s no dead-wood here, from Alan Bridges taking on a translated Ingmar Bergman script for The Lie, John Mackenzie’s gritty slice of working man’s comedy A Passage to England, and Colin Welland starring in Irish drama Your Man From Six Counties. The original scripts are provided on each disk, and there’s also a comprehensive booklet of erudite essays explaining the social context. Each of them have their wildly different merits, and help make Play for Today Volume 1 well worth making a Christmas gift of for anyone who feels that today’s film and tv offerings are a bit namby-pamby. If nothing else, this shows just how good tv used to be, with tight, well-made, cinematic drama tossed off for a one-night-only screening in the hope that entertaining and provoking the nation was reason enough to exist.
The BFI have released this 4-disc Blu-ray box set on 16th November 2020 as part of the Play for Today at 50 celebrations. Thanks to the BFI for advanced access to these titles.