❉ These three vintage, unrestored films from BBC’s Play for Today watched in tandem reveal all kinds of contrasts and connections, writes Andy Murray.
“When it comes to it, though, the sheer variety of distinct authorial voices of stories told with passion, intelligence and skill, is the whole point, because that’s what made TV drama strands such as Play for Today so cherishable in the first place.”
Any fan of British archive TV will have a lengthy mental wish-list of television plays they wish were freely available, so whenever one is released, it’s tempting for them to wonder ‘why choose that?’. For the most part, of course, the answer’s obvious: because it’s survived intact and there’s a chance that enough people will buy the thing.
Now Simply Media have released a batch of three vintage, unrestored, TV plays which on the face of it are completely unrelated and don’t seem to have been at the top of anyone’s wish-list. They’re available separately, but watched in tandem they reveal all kinds of contrasts and connections.
For one thing, each play had an afterlife of sorts. The Fishing Party, a 1972 Play for Today by Peter Terson, had originally been a Radio 3 drama the previous year, but the TV version was so successful that it spawned two follow-up Play For Todays in ’73 and ’74. Each centred on a group of three Leeds mining pals, Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone), who spend The Fishing Party on an out-of-season trip to Whitby.
Not a whole lot happens – their crack at proper fishing, when they round get to it, is a bit of a wash-out – but then, this isn’t about high-octane action. It’s about characters and their interactions, operating right at that point where keenly-observed human behaviour and dialogue is pushing over into being outlandish and absurdist.
“Brian Glover, in one of his earliest roles, hits the tone perfectly, acting like a polite schoolboy in the guest-house and a randy goat with a lippy waitress down the chippy.”
These three aren’t lairy lads, far from it, and their clumsy attempts to observe social niceties with the couple running their guest-house are a delight to see. In particular, Glover, in one of his earliest roles, hits the tone perfectly, acting like a polite schoolboy in the guest-house and a randy goat with a lippy waitress down the chippy. Possibly the best, most telling line goes to Ern, though: “I couldn’t live without mates. I couldn’t stand my wife unless I had mates.”
BBC drama mainstay Michael Redmond directs the piece in a no-nonsense fashion, capturing the comedy in plentiful close-ups and making 1972 Whitby look like a lost haven of a tattered seaside romance. All told, The Fishing Party captures a place and a time perfectly, and in an underplayed sort of way, it’s very funny indeed. It’s beloved in some quarters, but it’s hardly well-known these days and it deserves the wider exposure that this release could afford it.
The second title here, Our Day Out, is probably the banker, as it’s one of the best-known TV plays of its day. First shown in 1977 as a BBC2 Play of the Week, it was repeated several times before being adapted into a stage musical in 1983. The key detail is that it was written by Willy Russell, by the 80s one of the most visible stage and screen writers in the country.
In many ways Our Day Out, which he wrote in a matter of days, was his break-out piece. Shot on a shoestring by young director Pedr James with a largely untrained cast, it’s brimming over with fresh energy.
As the title suggests, it is, like The Fishing Party, about a little holiday, and it too is about the Northern working classes in the 70s. In this case, though, the characters are schoolchildren on a jaunt to Wales, and unlike the would-be refined miners of The Fishing Party, this little lot are unashamed rough diamonds, smoking and flicking the Vs all the way. Take them anywhere and they’ll nick stuff – sweets from a sweetshop, animals from the zoo.
“The simmering conflict between the ideals of two of their teachers might sound the Metaphor Klaxon, but it’s all done with such heart and wit that it’s hard to resist. Listen closely and you can almost hear Phil Redmond taking notes.”
The heart of the piece is the simmering conflict between the ideals of two of their teachers, uptight authoritarian Mr Briggs (Alun Armstrong) and the gentler, wiser Mrs Kay (Jean Heywood), though ultimately both are revealed to have their moments of jet-black cynicism. The tone can risk tipping over into cliché, and the repeated juxtaposition of working-class kids and caged animals might sound the Metaphor Klaxon, but it’s all done with such heart and wit that it’s hard to resist. Listen closely and you can almost hear Phil Redmond taking notes.
The third disc, The Imitation Game, a BBC1 Play for Today from 1980, is easily the odd one out here. For starters it’s a period piece, set during World War II, instead of being, well, a play for today, and rather than exploring the lives of the working class, the characters here far are more like to say things like “Jolly good idea!” in plummy tones within echoey country houses. It has no direct relation to the film of the same name, other than sharing some of its setting and subject matter. Bletchley Park is only mentioned in hushed tones until we arrive there about an hour in. When we do, we don’t meet Alan Turing, but rather a fictional Turing substitute, one John Turner (played by Nicholas Le Provost). Nor is this actually his story.
It’s that of well-to-do young Cathy Raine (Harriet Walter), who refuses to accept that the lot of a woman in wartime is to stand on the sidelines looking winsome and give the men something to fight for. Instead she forces her way into an army environment where women in uniform are declared to be ‘sinister’ and ‘like ants’. Come the final scene, Cathy’s fate is delivered by a senior male officer with the devastating words “You’ve been a very, very silly girl.”
“The Imitation Game was a rare TV scripting job for Ian McEwan, and as Turing’s Bletchley work fell under the Official Secrets Act the whole code-breaking business becomes a mere backdrop for a study of women’s place in 1940s society.”
The Imitation Game was a rare TV scripting job for Ian McEwan, who had set out intending to write about Turing himself finding that details of his life were sketchy. (Turing’s Bletchley work fell under the Official Secrets Act and it wasn’t until the publication of Andrew Hodge’s Turing biography The Enigma in 1983 that many of the facts became widely known.) Instead, by necessity the whole code-breaking business becomes a mere backdrop for a study of women’s place in 1940s society.
It’s no kind of stretch to see relevance here for contemporary audiences, even though, by its very nature, the piece as a whole is colder and harder to love than The Fishing Party and Our Day Out.
It’s a very different proposition all round, though. There are much longer periods of dialogue-free silence, though visually it doesn’t exactly leap off the screen and director Richard Eyre is evidently more focussed on performances. It’s no ensemble piece. It’s Cathy story entirely, and indeed, Harriet Walter is hardly off-screen. Thankfully she’s marvellously watchable, crackling with suppressed rage.
Across the three different plays, then, there are plenty of comparisons to be made and contrasts to be clocked. When it comes to it, though, the sheer variety, that array of distinct authorial voices, is the whole point, because that’s what made TV drama strands such as Play for Today so cherishable in the first place. From week to week you never quite knew what you were going to get, other than the fact that they’d be stories told with passion, intelligence and skill. In that respect, these new DVD releases seem like a very fitting tribute.
❉ Our Day Out, The Imitation Game and The Fishing Party, from BBC’s Play for Today series, were released by Simply Media on DVD 1st October 2018. Thanks to Simply Media, We Are Cult are pleased to be able to offer our readers a special discount code to get 10% OFF all titles available on their website. Apply the discount code CULT10 to get 10% off all orders on our website www.simplyhe.com. If you apply the code at checkout you will get 10% off. Alternatively, following this link will also automatically apply this discount: https://www.simplyhe.com/discount/CULT10