What TV’s on at the BFI in October and November 2020? Including Play for Today at 50

BBC Play for Today at 50
© BBC, Brassneck, 1975

Every month, TMINE lets you know what TV the BFI will be presenting at the South Bank in London

Hooray! Not only has the BFI finally been able to reopen its doors, it’s also started putting on TV events. And in October and November, it’s got a whole season of events dedicated to the magnificent long-running BBC anthology show, Play for Today, which first aired 50 years ago.

Full details of the season, as well as which plays are being show and when are after the jump, as well as links to previous TMINE ‘The Weekly Play’ articles that have featured the plays.


Thursday, October 1

19:00 BFI YouTube Channel

Play for Today at 50

October 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of anthology drama series Play for Today, which comprised broadcasts of more than 300 one-off television plays on the BBC between 1970 and 1984, combining some of the era’s finest writing, acting and directing talents and leaving a significant cultural legacy.

To kick off a vast programme of activity to mark this milestone, join us as an esteemed panel of guests discuss the immense significance of Play for Today and the launch of the BFI Play for Today at 50 Blu-ray boxset.

Original writers and producers David Edgar and Kenith Trodd, who worked on Play for Today, are joined by contemporary television drama writer Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, National Treasure) and BFI National Archive Curator Lisa Kerrigan.

Expertly chaired by documentary writer/director John Wyver, the discussion will explore what made Play for Today so special and the impact it has had on television drama 50 years on.

© BBC, Even Solomon, 1979

Thursday, October 22

18:00 NFT2

Play for Today: Even Solomon 
BBC 1979. Dir Roger Bamford. With Paul Henley, Colin Douglas, Sylvia Kay. 82min

In Britain’s first TV drama with a transgender lead character (though not played by a trans actor), Andrew Taylor’s script eschews sensationalism in favour of quietly gripping drama, as a young, pre-transition bank clerk is bullied and belittled by her mother, neighbours and colleagues, and a GP who refers her to the ‘head shrinkers’. Despite some inaccurate medical detail, Susan’s coming-out journey – negotiating the muddled values of the 1970s – is depicted with frankness and compassion.

© BBC, The Lie, 1970

Wednesday, October 28

18:10 NFT2

Play for Today: The Lie
BBC 1970. Dir Alan Bridges. With Gemma Jones, Frank Finlay. 90min

Written by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie was part of The Largest Theatre in the World strand, through which the same play was made and transmitted simultaneously by several European broadcasters. In this very fine BBC production that captures the introspective neurosis of the period, Jones and Finlay give performances of searing emotional honesty as we witness the painful disintegration of a marriage.

© BBC, Brassneck, 1975

Sunday, November 1

14:30 NFT2 

Play for Today: The Right Prospectus
BBC 1970. Dir Alan Cooke. With George Cole, Elvi Hale, Kenneth Ives. 75min

The only time John Osborne wrote for Play for Today, this curate’s egg displays his obsession with class and the Establishment combined with a winning light-touch humour. George Cole and Elvi Hale play a couple who, though adults, decide to go to public school to excise Cole’s feelings of social inadequacy. But can they ever be fully accepted in this rarified world? An effective satire on enshrined privilege within British society, still relevant today.

+ Play for Today: Brassneck
BBC 1975. Dir Mike Newell. With Jeremy Kemp, David Daker, Susan Penhaligon, Paul Dawkins. 80min

Mike Newell’s powerful critique of capitalism and local government corruption. Adapted by Howard Brenton and David Hare from their 1973 play for the Nottingham Playhouse, this remains one of the most powerful critics ever screened of capitalism and postwar corruption in local government (and upwards). Using a daring mix of styles, it follows the fortunes of the Bagley family over 25 years to dramatise the souring of postwar socialist idealism and the triumph of self-serving greed.

© BBC, No Visible Scar, 1980

Saturday, November 7

14:40 NFT2

Play for Today: Ladies 
BBC 1980. Dir Diarmuid Lawrence. With June Brown, Patsy Rowlands, Jacqueline Tong. 75min

Perceptively written by Carol Bunyan, and brilliantly performed by a largely female ensemble cast, Ladies provides an insight into the lives of dozens of female department-store workers. A tragic turn of events for Miriam (Rowlands) results in a miscarriage; from this, the play develops an exploration of loss, shame, grief and pain, depicting the lives of working-class women in the early 1980s with admirable conviction.

+ Play for Today: No Visible Scar 
BBC 1980. Dir Moira Armstrong. With Barbara Flynn, Roger Brierley, Paul Freeman. 60min

Set in an unspecified dictatorship, Moira Armstrong and Rosemarie Davies’s play deals with the entwinement of the political effects of torture and the personal trauma of bodily invasion. Eschewing a simplistic critique of fascism, No Visible Scar draws eloquent parallels between the treatment of women overseas and at home and makes us question, along with the play’s central character, the whole value system of ‘Middle England’.

© BBC, Just Another Saturday, 1975

Saturday, November 14

14:50 NFT2

Play for Today: Just Another Saturday 
BBC 1975. Dir John MacKenzie. With Jon Morrison, Billy Connolly, Eileen McCallum, Bill Henderson. 82min

In one of Play for Today’s greatest achievements, Peter McDougall’s fine script is bought to life with a fantastic sense of authenticity by director John MacKenzie. John (Morrison) is pleased to be mace swinger in the annual Glasgow Orange Order parade. But when confronted by bigotry and violence along the route, he begins to question all that the movement stands for… and his own values and identity.

+ Play for Today: Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain
BBC 1981. Dir John Bruce. With Frances Tomelty, Aingeal Grehan, Leila Webster and Jake Burns. 65min

Stewart Parker’s wry comedy drama deals with two very different women traversing Belfast one rainy day. Iris is looking for a job but gets more than she bargained for at a house party, while Ruby tries to help in a difficult situation following a fire. Featuring Stiff Little Fingers (with frontman Jake Burns in a supporting role), the play showed the realities of daily life – Alternative Ulster is an appropriate soundtrack – during the Troubles.

Saturday, November 21

14:00 NFT2

Play for Today: King
BBC 1984. Dir Tony Smith. With Thomas Baptiste, Josette Simon, Ella Wilder, Clarke Peters, Pam St. Clement. 80min

Mr King, retiring railway worker and Windrush immigrant, plans his return to Jamaica and presents the deeds of his house to his daughters. But when one of them refuses to accept his vision of a fair life in the UK for people of colour, he is driven to question the value system by which he has lived. Baptiste is moving as a man unsettled by the ideas of a more radical generation, in writer Barrie Keefe’s transposition of King Lear to a contemporary setting.

+ Play for Today: A Hole in Babylon
BBC 1979. Dir Horace Ové. With T-Bone Wilson, Carmen Munroe, Trevor Thomas, Archie Pool, Floella Benjamin. 71min

Like most television of the period, Play for Today did not offer many racially diverse productions, but A Hole in Babylon remains one of the most successful. Depicting the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975, director Horace Ové intercuts archive footage with dramatic reconstruction to show not only how these young Black men came to hold their hostages, but the lack of opportunity and the political rage motivating them. The film’s authenticity is surely due to that rare thing: a TV play helmed by a black writer-director. 

© BBC, Destiny, 1978

Thursday, November 26

18:05 NFT2

Play for Today: Destiny
BBC 1978. Dir Mike Newell. With Colin Jeavons, Iain Cuthbertson, Nigel Hawthorne, Saeed Jaffrey. 105min

Long hard to see, David Edgar’s ambitious, incisive study of far right politics feels joltingly contemporary. Through a late-1970s West Midlands by-election and the reactionary awakening of an embittered shopkeeper, Edgar’s chilling play explores the rise of a new breed of fascism, cynically playing on Britain’s grieving for lost Empire, industrial decline, lower-middle-class status anxiety and white working-class disaffection.

Monday, November 30

18:10 NFT2

Play for Today: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
BBC 1974. Dir John McKenzie. With the cast of 7:84 theatre company. 90min

The radical 7:84 theatre company here tackled the injustices of the highland clearances and how, thanks to the vested interests of landlords, banks and Westminster, the same mistakes and exploitation were being repeated during the Scottish oil boom. John McGrath’s script interweaves historical facts, Scottish folk songs, dramatised action sequences and footage his original play performed for the communities involved with the oil industry. A landmark blending of agitprop theatre and television drama.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.