Play for Today: The Slab Boys, 1979

Play for Today: The Slab Boys, directed by Bob Hird.  Starring Gerard Kelly, Billy McColl, Joseph McKenna and Tom Watson.  75 minutes.  1979.

An excellent ‘Play for Today’, this stage to screen adaptation by John Byrne, the first of an eventual trilogy, shows life in a Scottish carpet factory from the floor where the ‘slab boys’ mix the colours for the designers: three lads work there from the dim clown to the sparky fireball and the sarcastic quiff wearer.

When a posh lad comes into the firm straight from ‘uni’ and starts earning more in a week than all three slab boys together they get a glimpse of what could be, and what might be, for one of them. With realistic regional dialogue and some sense of urban working class life, there are watchable and strong performances from Billy McColl (d. 2014), Gerard Kelly (d. 2010), and Joseph McKenna (not seen on screen since Absolute Beginners).

The boss is one Willie Curry, sardonic and nostalgic for his desert war service. Tom Watson reprised the role nearly two decades later for the glossy feature film, but I find his performance here is more spot on.

Finally, the new lad Alan, still in his blazer and polite to a fault, is played by Mark Windsor, who has also disappeared from the screen after a brief flourish in the late 70s/early 80s. I didn’t find him that convincing but you need this kind of character for contrast and conflict, I suppose.

Very watchable and although it betrays its stage origins now and then, it translates well to the screen.

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Play for Today: The Muscle Market, 1981

Play for Today: The Muscle Market, directed by Jim Goddard.  Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman, Paul Jesson and Barry McCarthy.  75 minutes.  1981.

A very good Play for Today from the pen of Alan Bleasdale, this provides the missing link between the play ‘The Black Stuff’ which introduced Yosser and the gang, and the subsequent TV serial, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. It’s a mystery why this particular play is missing from the DVD release.

This is the story of contractor Danny Duggan (Pete Postlethwaite), who is involved in bad company with some violent and dodgy characters, and the dark situation he finds himself in with books which don’t add up and numerous debts.

It might sound bleak, but there is a lot of black comedy here and a real sense of realism from a master writer. When he has to go serious, he certainly does, that’s the cleverness of the writing.

Strong support from Alison Steadman as Duggan’s secretary, and Terence Rigby as the amiable yet menacing Mr Big owed a lot of cash.

Play for Today: Home, 1972

Play for Today: Home, directed by Lindsay Anderson.  Starring Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Mona Washbourne, Dandy Nichols and Warren Clarke.  86 minutes.  1972.

This is a marvellous Play for Today featuring two theatrical giants, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, as two residents of a rest home: much of the play is the two of them, talking, which may not sound much but which is absolute gold.

David Storey’s play flourishes in the hands of director Lindsay Anderson (they would collaborate a number of times), and the joy of this piece is just watching two masters at work, while the audience has to work out just how nutty they are and how they interact with each other.

Mona Washbourne and Dandy Nichols have lesser roles, but are both good, while Warren Clarke has an early role as a simple-minded clot who is simply tolerated by the elderly pair of chatterers. The dialogue is very naturalistic, the set is purely theatrical, but the effect is one of being an audience member on the very front row.

Play for Today: Dinner at the Sporting Club, 1978

Play for Today: Dinner at the Sporting Club, directed by Brian Gibson.  Starring John Thaw, Billy McColl, Maureen Lipman, Jonathan Lynn, and Ken Campbell.  63 minutes.  1978.

“I married a ladies raincoat manufacturer, not a sportsman”.

Maureen Lipman and Jonathan Lynn as a bored and sniping couple are on the sidelines of this sharp and compact play featuring John Thaw as a boxing promoter and Billy McColl as his prizefighter, acceptable to the sporting club fraternity because he isn’t ‘chocolate’.

This is a sparkling character study in many ways – here’s the marvellous Ken Campbell propping up the bar in suit and bow tie, wondering whether to take a flutter on the boy.

“They get enough money for a down-payment on a bungalow out in Ongar and they’re satisfied”.

An on-the-surface romantic view of the boxing ring soon evaporates into the loss of hope in seedy surroundings as McColl’s fighter fails to reach his potential.

Gloriously un-PC, too, with lines like ‘He doesn’t drink, funny being a Mick’. Thaw and McColl are good, and this has a definite whiff of realism with the blood, sweat and tears of the fighting ring.

Play for Today: Traitor

Traitor. Broadcast 14 October 1971.  Directed by Alan Bridges.  Written by Dennis Potter.  Duration: 61 minutes.

Cast: John Le Mesurier (Adrian Harris), Jack Hedley (James), Vincent Ball (Simpson), Neil McCallum (Blake), Jon Laurimore (Thomas), Lyndon Brook (Sir Arthur Harris).

Notable for an outstanding performance in the lead from John Le Mesurier, this story of an academic who turns spy was one of the less controversial plays from the pen of Dennis Potter, who sets it in one place and just lets the character unravel before our eyes.

Play for Today: Plaintiffs and Defendants

Plaintiffs and Defendants. Broadcast 14 October 1975.  Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.  Written by Simon Gray.  Duration: 75 minutes.

Cast: Alan Bates (Peter), Dinsdale Landen (Charles), Georgina Hale (Joanna), Rosemary McHale (Hilary), Simon Cadell (Sallust).

‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ was the first of a pair of plays written by Simon Gray for the Play for Today series in 1975. Both plays share the same casts but in different roles, some mirroring each other – a fascinating idea.

This play introduces us to Peter, a solicitor who is embroiled in a case of child custody. His wife Hilary is remote and irritated with him and their life together with teenage son Jeremy, while out of hours Peter has been carrying on with the unstable Joanna. The other characters are Charlie and Alison (who we don’t actually see as such), friends of long-standing of Peter’s, and Sallust, a quiet and dour legal pupil of Peter’s who can easily beat him at squash.

In a wordy 60 minutes, we find out about the state of mind of Peter and about things in his past that have impacted on his life – it is one of those plays which includes the type of conversations you’d only ever find in plays and not in real life. This being so it still feels very real and the characters stand up as fully-rounded.

Alan Bates (Peter) and Joanna (Georgina Hale) are probably seen on screen the most, although Simon Cadell (Sallust) and Dinsdale Landen (Charlie) also make a memorable impact. This is a tale of lost opportunities, of giving up things and starting them again, of boredom and routine, and it is played extremely well.

Followed by ‘Two Sundays’ in the same series, although the two plays can stand as separate works as well as a linked pair.

Play for Today: Two Sundays

Two Sundays.  Broadcast 21 October 1975.  Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.  Written by Simon Gray.  Duration: 75 minutes.

Cast: Alan Bates (Charles), Dinsdale Landen (Peter), Georgina Hale (Hilary), Rosemary Martin (Alison), Simon Cadell (Schoolmaster).

‘Two Sundays’ is Simon Gray’s companion piece to ‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ – both were presented in the Play for Today series in 1975, with roughly the same casts. Some characters are mirror images of those they played in the earlier play, some lines appear in both works, and there are areas in which they – the characters and the situations – overlap.

This play involves flashbacks into a past which two middle-aged friends can’t quite acknowledge, as well as some more mundane family things with wives and children. Memories fade into each other, thoughts bring back things which are buried. Really, this is a two-hander between Alan Bates as Charles, with a pregnant wife but putting his guilt at a wasted life into a first novel, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter, a boozy, bored, adulterous executive who can’t quite reconcile what he was with what he is.

Of the two plays, this is the most accomplished, although as a pair they are very interesting. And with support from Georgina Hale, Simon Cadell, and others, it has a cast which keeps you watching through its short running time.

Play for Today: Spend, Spend, Spend

Spend, Spend, Spend.  Broadcast 15 March 1977.  Directed by John Goldschmidt.  Written by Jack Rosenthal from the book by Vivian Nicholson.  Duration: 85 minutes.

Cast: Susan Littler (Viv), John Duttine (Keith), Helen Beck (Viv’s mother), Liz Smith (Keith’s gran).

When Keith and Viv Nicholson won the pools, she declared that she would take the money and ‘spend, spend, spend!’. That’s where the inspiration for this clever play from Jack Rosenthal comes from – it stars Susan Littler as Viv, John Duttine as Keith, Helen Beck as Viv’s mother, and Liz Smith as Keith’s granny.

The setting is Northern England, the characters are slightly stereotypical – Viv is flirty and flighty, Keith is quiet and withdrawn, Viv’s parents are in an abusive marriage where traditional dad takes all the family money for beer, Keith’s granny is a seething matriarch.

Winning the pools, too, is very of its time – no headline would pursue the winners of a few thousand when millions can be had in these days of lottery windfalls.

Still, the play is well-acted, by the much-missed Littler in particular, even if works now more as a historical document than a relevant slice of life.

Play for Today: Bar Mitzvah Boy

Bar Mitzvah Boy.  Broadcast 14 September1976.  Directed by Michael Tuchner.  Written by Jack Rosenthal.  Duration: 75 minutes.

Cast: Jeremy Steyn (Eliot Green), Maria Charles (Rita Green), Bernard Spear (Victor Green), Adrienne Posta (Lesley Green), Jonathan Lynn (Harold).

Jack Rosenthal’s work is accessible to all audiences, which is part of its charm, and even work with a heavily Jewish theme, like Bar Mitzvah Boy, can speak to anyone.

Young Eliot has reached thirteen and his family are rushing around arranging the most important day in his life – but does he have other plans? Mother, father, sister, sister’s boyfriend, grandpa all have a part to play in Eliot’s transition from boy to man – and with names like Maria Charles in the cast, you know this is going to be fun.

Perhaps Bar Mitzvah Boy does have an inflated reputation because it is one of the best known television plays – however, I think it hasn’t dated a bit and is still extremely entertaining. It has a lot to say about family, tradition, and adolescence much of which still applies today even outside of Jewish families.

Play for Today: Brimstone and Treacle

Brimstone and Treacle.  Broadcast 25 August 1987 (originally planned for transmission in 1976 but banned for a decade).  Directed by Barry Davis.  Written by Dennis Potter.  Duration: 87 minutes.

Cast: Denholm Elliott (Tom Bates), Michael Kitchen (Martin Taylor), Patricia Lawrence (Amy Bates), Michelle Newell (Pattie Bates).

I remember being extremely disturbed by this play on first seeing it twenty years ago, and it has not lost any of its power to shock.

A young man, who we know right from the start to be the devil, coolly chooses his victim on the high street, foisting himself on the nervous and racist Mr Bates by his supposed friendship with Bates’ handicapped daughter, Pattie.

As the devil (here called Martin) Michael Kitchen is menacing and also very funny, while Denholm Elliott plays the father very well. Michelle Newell and Patricia Lawrence complete the cast as the girl vegetated by a car accident and her put-upon mother, destined to care for her forever.

This film was banned by the BBC for a decade, mainly because the basic message of the play is that as the devil rapes Pattie, so her restores her power of speech and the quality of her existence.

But the play is much more profound than that, although some of its message is muddled and not fully developed. Potter himself claimed that ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ was a religious parable about good and evil – if so, it raises some interesting questions while being both distasteful and compelling to watch.

Play for Today: Sunset Across The Bay

Sunset Across The Bay.  Broadcast 20 February 1975.  Directed by Stephen Frears.  Written by Alan Bennett.  Duration: 70 minutes.

Cast: Gabrielle Daye (Mam), Harry Markham (Dad), Bob Peck (Bertram).

Alan Bennett’s play ‘Sunset Across The Bay’ looks simple on the surface: a character study of a long marriage which has settled into routine, where the wife has been a housewife and the husband a worker in engineering.

From the Leeds slums where they live – about to be demolished – to the seaside retirement flat at Morecambe, we see the old couple struggle to adjust to spending time together after a life where every day was the same.

As ‘Dad’ says, he’s worked all his life to do nothing, and it’s difficult for him to adjust.

Quietly simplistic but complex as well, ‘Sunset Across The Bay’ is a beautiful piece of work, and everything that drama produced today would not be. There’s no great action sequences, no sex, violence, or swearing, no hand-held filming. It’s completely believable and ordinary, and yet, this being Bennett, it is extraordinary.

Play for Today: Schmoedipus

Schmoedipus.  Broadcast 20 June 1974.  Directed by Barry Davis.  Written by Dennis Potter.  Duration: 67 minutes.

Cast: Tim Curry (Glen), Anna Cropper (Elizabeth Carter), John Carson (Tom Carter), John Horsley (Ronnie), Bob Hoskins (Blake), Carol Macready (Dorothy).

One of the strongest Play for Todays, this odd play by Dennis Potter concerns Liz, a mild-mannered housewife; her train-made husband Tom, bored to tears in his scientific office; and a mysterious stranger called Glen.

In the twists and turns of this plot we learn about all three of them, and the tangled web of secrets, lies and games which pulls them together.

Not unreminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this play is sweet, sexy, disturbing, and ultimately tense, and boasts strong performances from Anna Cropper and Tim Curry as the ‘mother’ and ‘son’ in the case.

Rarely seen these days, this play was remade for the screen as Track 29 in 1988, with Gary Oldman in the Tim Curry role. This, too, has become rather obscure.

A pity, as Schmoedipus is a clever piece, witty, charming, and with an undercurrent of pure evil. Curry would of course become very well-known as Frank ‘n Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a part which suited his odd looks and demeanour perfectly.

Play for Today: Abigail’s Party

Abigail’s Party. Broadcast 1 November 1977, BBC.  Directed and devised by Mike Leigh.  Duration: 102 minutes.

Cast: Alison Steadman (Beverly), Tim Stern (Laurence), Janine Duvitski (Angela), John Salthouse (Tony), Harriet Reynolds (Susan).

This Mike Leigh play will make you laugh. It will make you cringe. It will shock you. Brilliant performances and an ending which you might not see coming.

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

Z for Zachariah. Broadcast 28 February 1984, BBC.  Directed by Anthony Garner.  Written by Anthony Garner from the novel by Robert C O’Brien.  Duration: 75 minutes.

Cast: Anthony Andrews (John Loomis), Pippa Hinchley (Ann Burden), David Daker (Father), Angela Galbraith (Mother), Andrew Hughes (Joseph).

A wonderful television play about live after a nuclear apocalypse in which Anthony Andrews appears against type in a truly miserable Wales.

This is being remade with a rather larger budget next year, presumably set in the America the original novel suggests. However this is worth watching as it shows just how a situation like this could be presented with little money and a bit of invention.

Brimstone And Treacle, 1987 – ★★★★

Play for Today: Brimstone and Treacle.  Directed by Barry Davis.  Written by Dennis Potter.  Starring Denholm Elliott, Michael Kitchen, Patricia Lawrence, Michelle Newell.  First shown on television 25th August 1987 (originally scheduled for 6th April 1976, then banned).

This review reportedly contains spoilers.

*reviewed in 2008*

I remember being extremely disturbed by this play on first seeing it twenty years ago, and it has not lost any of its power to shock.

A young man, who we know right from the start to be the devil, coolly chooses his victim on the high street, foisting himself on the nervous and racist Mr Bates by his supposed friendship with Bates’ handicapped daughter, Pattie.

As the devil (here called Martin) Michael Kitchen is menacing and also very funny, while Denholm Elliott plays the father very well. Michelle Newell and Patricia Lawrence complete the cast as the girl vegetated by a car accident and her put-upon mother, destined to care for her forever.

This film was banned by the BBC for a decade, mainly because the basic message of the play is that as the devil rapes Pattie, so her restores her power of speech and the quality of her existence.

But the play is much more profound than that, although some of its message is muddled and not fully developed. Potter himself claimed that ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ was a religious parable about good and evil – if so, it raises some interesting questions while being both distasteful and compelling to watch.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

84 Charing Cross Road, 1975 – ★★★★

Play for Today: 84 Charing Cross Road.   Directed by Mark Cullingham.  Dramatised by Hugh Whitemore from the novel by Helene Hanff.  Starring Frank Finlay and Anne Jackson.  First on television 4th November 1975.

This version of Helene Hanff’s memoir just pips the starring feature film version to the post because it doesn’t wallow as much in sentimentality, and Jackson/Finlay fit their roles better than Bancroft/Hopkins (who probably have too much baggage from their other recognisable roles).

Jackson is an American who is a bibliophile devoted to the classics; and finds her constant supply of literature from a small bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. In those days the road was top to tail full of these second-hand emporiums, who could locate any title and provide a high level of customer service.

Finlay is the bookstore manager who, in starting up a correspondence with Jackson, manages to develop a funny, original and ultimately touching cross-cultural discussion about books and eventually life in general.

Beautifully written and kept to a compact running time, this play is very good indeed and rewards repeat screenings.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Ten influencial TV programmes

Following on from attempts by ‘television insiders’ for the 50th anniversary of MIP TV to create a list of the ‘Most Influencial TV Shows’, and The Telegraph’s own list, published on the 20th April 2013, I thought I’d have a think and nominate the ten programmes I feel have had the most influence and impact.

The Forsyte Saga (1967). Across twenty-six fifty-minute episodes, this family drama, an adaptation of the novels of John Galsworthy, was the first dramatic series to really impact on the social habits of the British – not only affecting church attendances on Sunday evenings, but also dividing the nation with the storyline relating to the marriage of Soames and Irene. The series is important because it was the only UK television programme to be widely sold abroad, including in the United States (where it became the inspiration for the long-running Masterpiece Theater) and in the Soviet Union. It is also influencial because its character storylines pre-empted those which run today in shows like EastEnders and psychological thrillers.

Face to Face (1959-1962). John Freeman’s series of interviews with figures from the fields of politics, entertainment, and literature stand as the gold standard with their in-depth questioning and close scrutiny of subject. Later chat shows had a lighter feel but it does seem unlikely that later interviewers such as David Frost, Bernard Levin, or Michael Parkinson could evolve their own styles of engagement with a guest without Freeman’s pioneering show. An attempt to revive the style with Jeremy Isaacs as host aired from 1989, while Laurie Taylor’s In Conversation is currently running on Sky Arts. Freeman’s show often surprises and intrigues, from high profile subjects such as Tony Hancock, Martin Luther King, and Adam Faith through to less familiar figures like Bertrand Russell.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). Not the first comedy series to nudge towards the absurd (It’s A Square World, The Telegoons, Not Only … But Also, and Q all preceded it), but from humble beginnings as an early colour late night programmer on BBC2 ‘Python’ became a global phonemenon, and paved the way for the alternative comedy scene’s next generations, the Saturday Live and Comic Strip Presents crew. Cast members too influenced television in their own ways – and entered various screen fields from Shakespeare (Cleese), silent cinema appreciation (Gilliam), history (Jones), travelogues (Palin) and catchy theme tunes (Idle). Graham Chapman’s early demise brought parallels with the Beatles – cult group with one missing – although his own contribution to the show as off-the-wall writer and exceptional comedy performer is often overlooked. ‘Python’ has also transferred well to the USA, where it has major cult status.

Coronation Street 1960-date. It’s tempting to put The Grove Family in the list as the first regular British soap opera, but it is long forgotten and ‘Corrie’ has endured through its fifty-three years on the air, remaining a household word across the nation and in many countries to where the language of barm cakes and ecky thumps is sold. In the 1960s this series was a gritty Northern slice-of-life and although a handful of characters still remain from those days, it is now something of an identikit soap fighting for viewer attention with everything else in a multi-channel world. However it cannot be denied that this series has broken into the national consciousness in a way other programmes have not achieved – the ‘Free Deirdre Rachid’ and the earlier Ken-Deirdre-Mike love triangle being testment to this.

Play for Today 1970-1984. I thought about including The Wednesday Play but decided that its successor, Play for Today, is perhaps more influential and better remembered. Many people remember the set of plays as political – and some were – but the scope and variety of this series, its writers, directors, and performers, make this a golden age of drama in the UK and still a gold standard for drama anthologies that people remember. Also, some plays from the series spawned iconic programmes like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ and ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, Each and every title from the series probably stands up today – from ‘Red Shift’ and ‘Double Dare’ to ‘Leeds United’ and ‘Abigail’s Party’, from ‘Z for Zachariah’ and ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ to ‘Kisses at Fifty’ and ‘Two Sundays’.

The Singing Detective 1986. Dennis Potter’s all singing, all dancing, dark drama followed ‘Pennies from Heaven’ into prime-time television in the 1980s. In terms of influence of style, perhaps this title has not been so influencial, but in breaking boundaries of linear plot structure and untouchable subjects it was a trailblazer.

Hollywood 1980. Kevin Brownlow’s love letter to silent cinema in Hollywood did much to bring this era of movie-making into public consciousness, with many interviews with stars such as Viola Dana, Harold Lloyd, Leatrice Joy. Clips from films of the period were probably shown for the first time in years during this series, which blazed the way for any film-based documentaries that followed.

The World at War 1973-4. ‘The Great War’ was the first series to focus on a world war, back in the 1960s, with narration by Michael Redgrave, but the definitive documentary of World War II was ‘The World at War’. Narrated by Laurence Olivier, with music by Carl Davis, this series takes its time to tell the story of the war between England and Germany, the USA and Japan. Without this series there would be no History or Discovery channels.

Pride and Prejudice 1995. The BBC series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle kickstarted a new era of period drama, focused on the bodice-ripping elements rather than straight adaptations of the works of the Regency and Victorian authors. In making an eighteenth-century text into watercooler television, Andrew Davies influenced a new era of sumptous and glossy drama.

Bagpuss 1974. Children’s television can bring whole generations together and in thirteen short episodes, Bagpuss became one of the most fondly remembered series of a golden age of pre-school programming. Without Bagpuss it is unlikely we would have The Teletubbies or In The Night Garden.