So far, most of the plays in this strand have been worthy, important and serious. But there used to be a strong tradition of comedy plays within most of British TV’s anthology series – there was even a Comedy Playhouse anthology series that gave birth to the likes of Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine.
But Play For Today, the BBC’s main play series, aired a number of important comedy plays from no less a director than Mike Leigh, the man behind the award-winning Naked, Secret & Lies, Vera Drake, Career Girls and Life is Sweet. But despite having that kind of a CV in the film industry, arguably he is still best known for two of his six Plays For Today: Nuts in May and this week’s Wednesday Play, Abigail’s Party.
Written and directed by Leigh and starring his long-time collaborator and wife Alison Steadman, Abigail’s Party is a suburban comedy of manners, a satire on the aspirations and tastes of the new middle class that emerged in Britain in the 1970s. Made in traditional Leigh style through lengthy improvisations with the cast, it was originally a stage play at the Hampstead Theatre that Leigh abridged and the BBC recorded for the Play for Today strand.
The play is set in ‘the London side of Essex’ where Beverly Moss (Steadman) invites her new neighbours, Angela and Tony, over for drinks. She has also invited her neighbour Susan, whose 15-year-old daughter Abigail is holding a party back in their house. Beverly’s husband Laurence comes home late from work, just before the guests arrive. And it’s within this simple framework that all of the obsessions, prejudices, fears and petty competitiveness of the protagonists are ruthlessly exposed by Leigh and the cast.
Ranking as ‘the most painful 100 minutes in British comedy-drama’, it was voted the 11th greatest British television programme ever made. It has since been revived for the stage (it’s currently on at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End, starring Joe Absolom, Natalie Casey, Susannah Harker, Jill Halfpenny and Andy Nyman), but you can watch below on YouTube. As always, if you like it, buy it on DVD.