A Look Back at the Classic BBC Series Play For Today

Play For Today Elephant's Graveyard

The BBC series Play For Today was one of the most important and influential television series of the 1970s and 80s. It was the BBC’s flagship drama series, and it provided a platform for some of the most innovative and thought-provoking television of its time.

Play For Today was essentially a continuation of The Wednesday Play with a change of day (Thursday), like TWP it was a series that would reflect the changing face of Britain, and the issues and concerns of the day.

The series was first broadcast in 1970, and it ran until 1984. It was a drama anthology series, which meant that each episode was a self-contained drama. This gave the series a lot of freedom to explore different themes and topics, and to take risks with its stories.

It was a showcase for a wide range of stories and styles, from the comedy dramas of Alan Plater and Jack Rosenthal, to the more experimental works of Dennis Potter, David Rudkin and David Mercer.

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The series was known for its gritty realism, and it often tackled difficult social issues such as poverty, racism, and mental health. It was also a vehicle for the exploration of social and political issues, tackling topics such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, strikes, and the Falklands War. It also featured a range of plays that addressed the changing role of women in society and explored the changing attitudes towards homosexuality.

Acting Giants

It also featured some of the most acclaimed actors of the time, including Alan Bates, Kenneth Branagh, Billie Whitelaw, John Thaw, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Dame Judi Dench, Sir John Gielgud, Alan Rickman and Ian McKellen.

Blue Remembered Hills BBC Play For Today
Colin Jeavons in Dennis Potter’s superb Blue Remembered Hills (1979).

Some of the most memorable episodes of Play For Today include Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills (1979), and David Rudkin’s incredible Penda’s Fen (1974); Alan Clarke’s Scum (1977), which was an unflinching look at life in a young offenders’ institution is one of the most talked about edition of PFT mostly because it was denied a screening until many years later; and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977), which was a black comedy about a nightmarish suburban gathering. Other topical subjects were raised in ‘Abortion: A Woman’s Right’ (1975), which tackled the then-taboo subject of abortion, and ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’ (1971), which addressed the issue of homelessness.

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Existing in the Archive

The series has recently been revisited by the BBC, with a number of the plays being shown again on BBC Four, luckily most of the 300+ plays still exist in the BBC Archive, however around 30 of them (all studio videotape productions) are lost, most likely the tapes wiped to be used again. This has allowed viewers to revisit some of the classic plays and to appreciate the impact they had on British culture.

Today, Play For Today is remembered as one of the most influential and groundbreaking television series ever made. It pushed the boundaries of what could be said and shown on television, and it helped to shape the landscape of British television drama. It was a series that was unafraid to tackle difficult topics, and it was a key part of the BBC’s commitment to creating television that was socially relevant and thought-provoking.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.