Once upon a time in the 1970s, Britain was in a period of crisis: political unrest and economic uncertainty were rife, and the country was unravelling. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Well, from one troubled era, we reflect on another. BBC Four have released a documentary celebrating 50 years since the first Play for Today was broadcast. These theatre-meets-telly dramas were shown for 14 years between 1970 and 1984, and were hugely successful in their ability to bring comfort and sometimes controversy.
In 2020, when we stick the telly on to watch a drama we expect some arty camera angles, dramatic music and profound performances, but the origins of the genre didn’t have such bells and whistles. Each standalone Play For Today was shot simply, and focused much closer on the dialogue between characters and the topic they were navigating, than how much money they could splurge on pastel-hued lighting. The documentary is a reflection on the revolutionary format, and delves deep into the progress made in the last 50 years: the programme’s contributors discuss topics such as the lack of diversity both onscreen and behind camera, and the creative freedom the writers and producers enjoyed, not yet at risk of being cancelled on Twitter. Imagine that?
Lucy Mangan in The Guardian says that the discussion surrounding diversity meant the documentary became a “celebration… that didn’t stray into hagiography,” and that after watching, “you could not help but feel the loss of a time when the production of great, funny, politically engaged drama for the masses was thought a priority.” The Times’ Carol Midgley also felt nostalgic after watching, saying “Great documentary. I’m giving it five stars for the memories.”
First shown October 2020.