Added to ‘strong language’, ‘adult scenes’, ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ and ‘scenes some may find upsetting’ is a new inclusion in the lengthening list of paternalistic, post-watershed warnings that precipitate the screening of a drama aimed at grown-ups – ‘discriminatory language’. I’ve heard it applied twice this past week, on both occasions before a repeat of a TV play made over 40 years ago. The second time was for ‘A Hole in Babylon’, a 1979 entry in the ‘Play for Today’ strand based upon the true-life Spaghetti House Siege of 1975, in which a trio of black gunmen botched an armed robbery at a Knightsbridge Italian restaurant and spent six days in a cellar with hostages. The play was written by a black wordsmith and the leading cast members were all black. Even viewers back in 1979 would hardly have been expecting ‘Love Thy Neighbour’; but their equivalents today are obviously so sensitive that any authentic terminology from the actual times is guaranteed to send them running to their safe spaces. In fact, the only derogatory word I heard in the play was ‘wop’.
If the play was remade in 2020, every black character in it would be a noble victim rather than the multilayered human beings of 1979, and every white character would be to the right of Nick Griffin; such dramas are, of course, made by people who weren’t even born then and are prone to sweeping assumptions as to the reality of time and place. If today’s TV travels back to the 18th or 19th centuries, the Woke logic increases further as, away from living memory, modern multiracial Britain is transplanted to every period of history as proof we have always had 21st century levels of ‘diversity’ and all white people were just as horrendously racist then as they all evidently are now. The recent BBC2 series ‘Harlots’ is an enjoyable if somewhat soapy saga set in the whorehouses of Georgian London, though the only male characters in it who aren’t sadistic, unpleasant bastards are, of course, black. Virtually every white man in the cast – bar ‘the gay one’ – is a candidate for the worst human being who ever lived.
Of course there were coloured faces in certain British cities several hundred years ago – especially ports; and there were gay folk as well; and a few who pretended to be the opposite sex; and some straight white men who actually wanted a more tolerant and equal society by abolishing slavery and giving women the vote. But the natural ‘otherness’ of the non-white or non-heterosexual minorities made them stand out rather than blend in, and their individual stories are fascinating as a result; yet we don’t get that from historical drama today because it imposes a fantasy ideal on the reality that reduces all characters to bland contemporary caricatures. To rewrite history and present it as a Guardian columnist’s cartoonish impression of 21st century Britain is a profoundly dishonest distortion of history that’s as unrealistic as Raquel Welch being chased by dinosaurs. And that’s just if a drama is set in the past. Set it in the present and each character is even more of a two-dimensional archetype as every black character is there to represent their race, every gay character is there to represent the LGBT community, every woman is…yeah, we get it. Please put the sledgehammer down.
This is why – for all the appeal of a one-off, non-serial drama – it would be a bad idea to revive the likes of ‘Play for Today’ in 2020. It would probably be awful and be everything it was routinely accused of being back in the day. BBC4 recently screened a documentary about the series on account of this year marking its 50th anniversary and has repeated a handful. Taking over from the celebrated, if often controversial, ‘Wednesday Play’ of the 60s, the rebranded strand soon established itself as a showcase for some of the finest TV writers of an era abundant in them, giving many whose only visit to a theatre was to drag the kids to a Christmas pantomime a weekly cutting-edge theatrical production in their very own living rooms. And whilst ‘Play for Today’ gained an unfair critical reputation as being a Socialist Speaker’s Corner, peppered with grim kitchen-sink polemics on the class struggle, it had a far wider range of offerings than that.
Dennis Potter was a regular contributor from the start. His 1974 offering, ‘Joe’s Ark’ is a moving story of a student played by Angharad Rees of ‘Poldark’ fame who returns home to die when she contracts terminal cancer and is jealously guarded by her God-fearing father (played by Freddie Jones); 1979’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ has the genius premise of a group of rural WWII children played by an adult cast, and whilst funny is also tragically poignant in its portrayal of how children can be as cruel to each other as adults can; and, lest we forget, there is the infamous ‘Brimstone and Treacle’, produced in 1976 but withdrawn on the eve of transmission and not screened for a decade. This too is rich in black comedy, for all its undoubtedly dark themes as Michael Kitchen plays the Devil in human form infiltrating a repressive suburban household where he essentially f***s the mentally incapacitated daughter of a middle-aged married couple back to life.
If there was a tendency to overdo the subject of working-class life in ‘Play for Today’, so what? At its best – i.e. when the writers actually hailed from the working-class – it did so in a way that was brutally honest, funny and not necessarily about ‘the class struggle’, which was why the audience responded to the truth of it. These plays showed ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, such as Colin Welland’s marvellous 1973 entry, ‘Kisses at Fifty’, in which Bill Maynard leaves his wife and grownup children to embark on a relationship with a barmaid; or Peter Terson’s ‘The Fishing Party’ from 1972, starring Brian Glover heading a trio of Yorkshire miners on a weekend’s break in Whitby; or Alan Bennett’s 1975 play, ‘Sunset Across the Bay’, a warm, elegiac tale of an ageing couple leaving Leeds for retirement by the seaside. None of these lived up to the stereotype of the series, and neither did Mike Leigh’s unforgettable 1976 outing, ‘Nuts in May’.
Leigh and his then-wife Alison Steadman returned to collaborate the following year on a ‘Play for Today’ production that continues to irk some critics whilst remaining hugely popular with audiences, ‘Abigail’s Party’. Anybody who grew-up in an aspirational working-class neighbourhood in the 1970s immediately got the joke. ‘Abigail’s Party’ is the upwardly-mobile working-classes spreading their wings and winning promotion to the lower middle-classes by aping the mores and mannerisms of what they see as their social betters; they’re the generation who would soon have a champion in Margaret Thatcher. However, the left-leaning middle-classes are the ones who regard ‘Abigail’s Party’ as a sneering assault on their mythical, romantic image of the oppressed working-class, those noble savages who are fine as long as they know their place and – to use a ghastly modern term – ‘stay in their lane’.
Even a good decade into its run, ‘Play for Today’ could still deliver some unexpectedly original goods, such as the time-travelling oddity starring Peter Firth, ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’; there was also the memorable ‘Billy’ trilogy, starring James Ellis and a young Kenneth Branagh – hardly the only drama of the era set in Northern Ireland, but one of the very few in which the Troubles were not the reason for being there. By the time the curtain finally came down on ‘Play for Today’ in 1984, the single play – which had been a mainstay of TV schedules since the medium’s earliest days – was seen as a spent force and has rarely reappeared since. Given the box-ticking, ideological agenda that has effectively turned home-grown TV drama into little more than the ‘model plays’ of the Cultural Revolution, perhaps it’s just as well.
© The Editor