Play For Today turns 50: BBC celebrates with unseen archive images
Nuts In May: Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman
"When Play For Today launched, dramatist Dennis Potter stated ‘Television is the true national theatre’: looking back 50 years later we can see what an arresting and memorable portrayal of the nation this seminal strand gave us" - Robert Seatter
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Fifty years since its ground-breaking drama series Play For Today first aired, the BBC has released previously unseen images capturing the moments that shaped the flagship strand - from Alison Steadman, star of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, to Anthony Hopkins in Peter Nichols’ Hearts And Flowers and Helen Mirren in Stephen Poliakoff’s Soft Targets.
Play For Today, known for depicting contemporary issues from around the UK and beyond, began in October 1970 with The Long Distance Piano Player by Alan Sharp. The series went on to broadcast more than 300 single dramas, before it ended in 1984, with some plays reaching audiences of more than 8 million. Filmed across the country in regional locations including Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham, the strand developed a reputation as the heart of television’s creative response to national current events, pushing boundaries and sparking debate.
The images released by the BBC Photo Archive highlight Play for Today’s role in a defining period for television drama, capturing household names such as Anthony Hopkins, Julie Walters and Ray Winstone - who starred in one of the series’ most controversial plays, Scum - in the early stages of their careers. Alison Steadman, pictured in Mike Leigh’s plays Abigail’s Party and Nuts In May and Mike Stott’s Our Flesh And Blood, continues to prove hugely popular with contemporary BBC audiences, through her role in Gavin And Stacey, and currently appears in new BBC One drama Life. The photographs also serve as a reminder of the wealth of British writing talent involved in the series, with plays by Stephen Poliakoff, Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale among those captured in the stills.
In addition to the release of archive images, BBC History has partnered with the BFI National Archive to offer an academic perspective on the importance of Play for Today. In a special feature, available to read here, Katie Crosson, guest curator at the BFI National Archive and PhD researcher at The Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production, Royal Holloway, looks back at the people and politics that inspired the series through rare materials from BFI National Archive special collections.
Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History, said: “When Play For Today launched, dramatist Dennis Potter stated ‘Television is the true national theatre’: looking back 50 years later we can see what an arresting and memorable portrayal of the nation this seminal strand gave us.”
As part of a package of activity around the anniversary, the dedicated documentary Drama Out Of A Crisis: A Celebration Of Play For Today, commissioned by BBC Arts and screening on BBC Four tonight at 9pm, showcases a rich range of archive extracts and original interviews with many who created the series including directors Mike Leigh, David Hare and Ken Loach. Throughout the coming weeks, select plays will be repeated on BBC Four, beginning this week (12 October) with Country by Trevor Griffiths and Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh.
Mark Bell, Commissioner for BBC Arts, said: “Tonight on BBC Four, we explore the BBC’s era-defining series of one-act plays, in Drama Out Of A Crisis: A Celebration Of Play For Today looking at the strand’s extraordinary range and cultural impact, followed by screenings of fondly remembered productions from the archive throughout the week; beginning with Country and Abigail’s Party.”
On BBC Radio 4, Play For Today star Alison Steadman will celebrate the series in a special episode of Archive On 4, which includes contributions from Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, as well as BFI National Archive Curator Lisa Kerrigan.
The BFI is also revisiting the plays with a release of a remastered BFI Blu-ray box set, Play For Today: Volume 1 on 26 October and season at BFI Southbank from 19 October - 30 November. More than 130 of the plays can also be viewed for free in the BFI Southbank Mediatheque.
Source BBC Four
October 13, 2020 5:15am ET by BBC Four