By James Knight
Photos By Ben Rayner
Television movies are rubbish, right? Well, if you were watching TV in Britain in the 1960s, the opposite would be the case. Play for Today was a series of one-off dramas that dragged television into uncharted cinematic territory via the emerging use of 16-mm on-location filming and a rejection of the limits of a conservative studio system.
The series acted as a blooding ground for a generation of British directors who went on to define English cinema. Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and Stephen Poliakoff all cut their teeth on Play for Today.
It wasn’t just the quality of production or standard of direction that the series is best remembered for. Play for Today dealt with controversial contemporary issues with an unprecedented degree of social realism, which sometimes was a bit TOO real for the BBC.
Alan Clarke’s Scum and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle were mired in controversy before being banned prior to transmission for their hyper-real depiction of the brutality of the borstal system and, latterly, showing the devil raping a disabled, comatose girl. The show constantly fought a running battle between reflecting the social freedom and reality of the 1960s tempered by the occasionally reactionary nature of the institution they were operating within.
The social and cultural concerns and tone of the series were defined by its great producers. Tony Garnett, Kenith Trodd and Margaret Matheson hold unassailable places in the pantheon of British screen greatness. It was their determination and uncompromising output that saw Play for Today regularly average audiences of 12 to 13 million viewers, a quarter of the UK population at that time. When Ken Loach’s brutally moving Cathy Come Home was shown in 1969, it immediately caused debate on public housing in the House of Commons, and the housing charity Shelter was founded days later.
Play for Today revolutionised the possibilities of drama and how it could exist in the spaces between stage, cinema and television, as well as establishing a legacy of talent and crusading spirit that lives on in flashes even in today’s climate of vapid, apathetic cinematic consumption. Tony Garnett, ever the rebel, recently accidentally (on purpose) leaked an email that attacked the current state of the BBC and offered reformative measures that you would do well to read. It found its way onto the Guardian’s website so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
While many of those involved in the series have passed away, we managed to catch up with a few of the men and women who were at the centre of it all.
Ray Winstone as Carlin, Stewart Harwood as Greaves and Davidson Knight on their way to having a not-very-good time in 1977’s Scum.
Ray Winstone was a 19-year-old ex-amateur boxer when he played Carlin in Scum, one of only two episodes of Play for Today to be banned by the BBC. Scum, which was directed by Alan Clarke and written by Roy Minton, dealt with the brutality and systematic abuse of young inmates within the British borstal system during the 1970s. The film takes in male rape, countless brawls, gay relations between the all-male borstal population, and a couple of suicides for good measure. The film had public morality serial soapboxer Mary Whitehouse crapping chickens and the borstal system itself was reformed not long after its release.
Vice: Had you done much acting prior to your role as Carlin in the Play for Today version of Scum?
Ray Winstone: Not really. I’d done one or two things the year before—an episode of The Sweeney and a few other bits—but Scum was my breakthrough. The movie industry in Britain at the time was just collapsing in on itself. They were totally failing to build a box office but what they were doing at the BBC then was good stuff and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.
Carlin maintains a strong sense of what’s fair and what’s not and that ends up getting him in trouble. That sounds a little like the tale of what you went through at drama school. Is there any truth behind the story of you getting kicked out?
Yeah. I wasn’t invited to the Christmas party and I got the hump. I was always thought of as a bit of a threat to the other kids—not physically, but in the way that I spoke. In that profession, at that time, they still weren’t used to working-class kids and I think the powers that be thought they might all start talking like me. I guess I was the black sheep of the school all the way through, then I didn’t get invited to this stupid party so I sabotaged the wheels on the gaffer’s car. It was a stupid thing to do but I thought I wasn’t being treated right, and then someone grassed me up and that was it. I was gone.
So you went from being thrown out of drama school to working with Alan Clarke?
That was my teaching right there. I learned a hell of a lot from Alan. I didn’t realise it at the time—it takes until you’re older for you to begin to work out what you can use from what you learned back then. He was great. He just showed me around the place and introduced me to the other actors. He placed a lot of faith in me and I appreciated it. I’m sure there are other people like him around, but I feel lucky to have worked with him. He was something special.
While you were shooting Scum, did you feel you were making something that would be banned, have Mary Whitehouse up in arms, see the country drawing up sides and, finally, prompt serious questioning of the borstal system?
I didn’t really have a clue what we’d done, to be honest. I think the first time that it really dawned on me was when I came back from my honeymoon and came straight to the premiere of the film version in Leicester Square, at the Prince Charles Theatre. The original had been banned and never shown so despite all the chatter about it, it was only then that it all hit home. I thought it was a bit of a fucking liberty that the original got banned. At the time we were doing Scum the BBC was also making Law and Order. They were both about institutions, and in their way critical of the government. It felt like they couldn’t throw both of them out, so they tossed Scum out and Law and Order went through. It just goes to show that the government did have a certain amount of control over the BBC and over the media.
Did you have any actual run-ins with Whitehouse yourself?
I tell you what, she done me a right favour because, by banning the TV version, people wanted to see it and so when we made the film it was a smash. Really that was down to Mary Whitehouse, I’ve got to hand it all to her.
Do you feel there is anything being made today that compares to Play for Today in terms of portraying that level of social realism they achieved in films like Scum?
That was when the BBC was still teaching people, you know? There were just great writers, directors, producers and technicians working on that stuff. Plus, it was a time when the lower classes came out into that world. You’re talking about people like Mike Leigh, [Tony] Garnett, Dennis Potter, who could talk about that stuff genuinely and you were always working and always learning from people like that. I’m not sure that’s there now.
Carlin kind of set the mould for a lot of characters that you’ve ended up playing since. Do you ever get bored of playing the hard nut with a heart?
Well, I’ve played all sorts. I really enjoyed playing Henry VIII but I guess he’s the biggest gangster of all, eh? I’m not going to sit here and moan. I’ve had some pretty alright opportunities.
Did you ever imagine when you were playing Carlin that you’d end up working with Scorsese, Spielberg and Jack Nicholson?
Of course not. It was terrific working on all that stuff. You had to pinch yourself every morning, you know? I think what makes Scorsese a great director is that he makes you feel like you’re making the film with him, instead of making a film for him. Everyone gets a chance to bring something to the table so you feel like you’re in the process of making a film, and everyone’s part of that process. I think that’s the way it should be. It’s nothing new, but there are a lot of directors out there who make a film their way, and you end up feeling like you don’t even want to fucking be there. Jack was a bit of a weird one at the start. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot but we didn’t really get on at the beginning, then after spending a lot of time working together we began to hit it off and now we’re OK. It’s not like I go out for a drink with the guy but he ain’t an arsehole either. I got a lot of respect for him.
You came up with English actors such as Gary Oldman and Tim Roth? Did you ever feel like you were a little gang who came out of the Play for Today era drama to take on Hollywood?
I guess we were all working at that same time but I didn’t know Gary until I worked with him on Nil by Mouth. I’d met him at Alan Clarke’s funeral, but I didn’t know him properly until we worked together. The same with Tim. I didn’t know him until I worked with on The War Zone. Sometimes I think I end up nestled in the palm of that arty-farty film thing that they are quite at home in. I’m an actor, but some people probably think that’s a rather flattering term for what I do. Gary and Tim though, and I’m great mates with both of them now so I can say this, have probably always wanted to be a part of that from the start. They’ve always surrounded themselves with those kind of people. We’re mates now, but I suppose I never thought that we would be.
Tony Garnett redefined the margins between drama, television and cinema with his use of 16mm on-location shooting. He had an unswerving adherence to capturing everyday realism through his work on Play for Today and his partenrship with Ken Loach. His 1969 Play for Today drama Cathy Come Home achieved what few other things that came out of a TV screen ever have: making people sit up, put down the remote, and take action.
Vice: You came to producing from an acting background, but weren’t you also studying psychology at UCL while treading the boards?
Tony Garnett: Well, that’s a grand word for what I was up to. After school, I ran away and acted in the theatre for a couple of years, and got turned down for national service because I had a weak right eye. I won a state scholarship which was worth over £300 a year, which in 1957 was a fortune. However, I realised that unless I went to university I wouldn’t be able to pick it up. So I decided to come to London, where all the action was, and applied to the psychology department at UCL so that I could pick up my grant. I wasn’t really in the college much, as I was acting. On one of my rare visits to the psychology department, my tutor stopped me and said, “I saw you on television last night. It’d be so nice to see you in a seminar occasionally.”
How did you make the transition from prancing around in front of the camera to making decisions behind it?
I grew bored of the passivity of acting. Only a handful of actors can ever decide what gets made and I was never going to be one of them. I was asked by Roger Smith to join him on what was to become The Wednesday Play, which was the original title of Play for Today. Fuck knows what they saw in me but I threw myself into the work, initially as a script editor, and one thing led to another. We spent a year developing the shows, and then put out 35 original, full-length features in a year.
That is some work rate.
It was exhilarating but extremely hard work, particularly because Roger and I were also finding new writers. Our policy was to look for people who had something to say, and then help them say it. We’d just go anywhere and do anything, talk to anybody and cast our nets around for the material. We wanted people who would write about what they cared and knew about.
At that point, TV drama was an abortion, it was ridiculous, it had one parent in the cinema, another parent in the theatre, and all the disadvantages of both. My first aim in working in television drama was to abolish it. We wanted to be out in the world, both for aesthetic and political reasons. The 16 mm camera was coming into use, which meant that we could get out there, shoot very effectively and quickly, and represent things as they were, rather than mess about in a studio making a load of phoney drama. I didn’t like television drama. I wanted to get rid of it.
That ability to reflect contemporary reality so vividly was probably Play for Today’s most resonant suit. Was it something you were conscious of at the time?
I, and I don’t think any of us, thought of the future. We were living in the present and making the work for the moment, hoping to have an impact on the consciousness of people at that time. What I wanted to do was be a part of making things that reflected life around me. Also, we actually wanted to work on television. We had none of that cinema snobbery. It was almost impossible to get films made consistently in the UK at that time and most working people were sat in front of the television, so that’s where we wanted to be. It was very exciting to produce a drama and have 12 or 13 million people watch it all on the same occasion and then talk about it the next day. We were also determined that working-class people should be represented on the screen in a realistic and dignified way, which they had not been up until then. They had been acted in a patronising way by middle-class actors and written from the point of view of the posh. We were going to do something about it. And I think we did for some time. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I could make a film and change the world.
Sean King as Sean, Ray Brooks as Reg, Stephen King as Stephen and Carol White as Cathy in the landmark production of Cathy Come Home, which was broadcast in 1969.
If not the world, then Cathy Come Home certainly had an effect on the public consciousness in England.
It didn’t change much of the reality though, did it? Look around you. You see more people with housing problems now than there were then. The only positive result was that the people who made it have very nice places to live now. Really, all the films do is resonate and affect people’s way of looking at things. They don’t change anything directly, that’s not their function. It reflected who we were at the time, but I think Ken and I would say now that it’s a bit soft and liberal. If we made it again with the politics we have now, it would be much tougher.
Is it true there was a degree of improvisation on Cathy Come Home?
Some, but it was just well scripted and well acted. What Ken and I hated was what we called writing-writing and acting-acting. Writing that sounds written and acting that you can tell is being acted. With some actors you see the cogs turning and other actors you can’t, they are in the moment. You’re not watching the actor, you’re watching the person. The same goes for the writing. That’s the difference and that is what we were after.
Was it inevitable that you and Loach ended up making a film like Kes together?
Ken and I were working together throughout the Play for Today period and he was directing a lot of those shows. We became mates and it became quite clear that our thinking was very close. The overlap just evolved, I had an ally and together we fought the battle. Kes was just the most wonderful demonstration of what was going on in the country at the time, just systematically throwing away a good proportion of each generation. It came from a wonderful story by Barry Hines and strangely Ken wasn’t originally going to direct it. When he stepped in though it all fell together.
What moved you to publicly criticise the current state of BBC drama?
I felt bad for all the generations coming through, and angry at the BBC—which lives off creativity—organising itself in a way that stymies it. The traffic of the energy needs to be coming up from the writer, through everyone including the organisation, rather than down through the swamp of management. Back when we were working on Play for Today you had an organisation thin on numbers and high on creativity. Now you have a system fat on numbers and very thin on creative output. The BBC has to make a decision: does it want the safety of creative death, or does it want to be alive and vital.
Kenith Trodd is one of the few British producers that people who know more about cinema than you mention in the same breath as the great directors and screenwriters of the last four decades. The son of a crane driver, he graduated from Oxford and went on to define British drama as part of the original team behind Play for Today and through his ongoing relationship with Dennis Potter.
Vice: How did you find yourself entering the world of making films of plays on television?
Kenith Trodd: Through a back door. After Oxford, I started an academic career initially in West Africa and was about to take a junior lectureship at Sussex University when Roger Smith, who was gearing up The Wednesday Play slot at the BBC, asked me to join him. “I can’t stand the fuckers I’m working with,” he told me. The big Oxford literary honcho who was endorsing me for the job at Sussex said I’d embarrass him if I turned it down but boats are sometimes for the burning and I went off to a small office cell at TV Centre.
What was the climate like at the BBC when you began work at The Wednesday Play?
There was a real feeling almost immediately that the likes of myself, Smith and Garnett were the young Turks who were, in a way, taking over the place, and I’m sure being obnoxious to those around us. However, the climate was one of such expansiveness and freedom that you did whatever you could when you could. The head of drama was Sydney Newman, a Canadian who looked like Stalin and his mission was to sweep away the fustiness of the output and swing it lustily into the 60s. The television service was only a couple of decades old and there was a sense of openness, almost as if we’d been handed a box of matches and we could start a fire if we wanted to. Providing we did not burn the whole building down, we could then do it again. But, not to be too nostalgic, it also felt embattled and not completely unfettered.
In what sense?
On my very first week on The Wednesday Play, we were told on the very day of transmission that they were banning Dennis Potter’s Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton. Myself, Garnett, Roger Smith and Potter were ushered into Newman’s huge office. He knew that potentially, and particularly in Potter’s case, he had a situation on his hands and that we could become a liability. So he resolved to keep us talking and basically get us drunk. The Scotch came out and, after an hour or so of him reassuring us that it was not always going to be like this and that he would fight for us, Dennis managed to lure the two of us up to my office where he called every newspaper he could so as to get his version of events out there first. When I eventually returned to Sydney’s office he was winding up his comforting schmooze with a sharp hint of a real dialectic: “Everything will be fine but whatever you do, fellas, don’t trust me.” So it was a rather complex environment. There were certainly limits and we were trying constantly to push them. The limits were sometimes sexual, and sometimes arbitrary, but mostly they were political.
How about the other cases of censorship? Brimstone and Treacle springs to mind.
At times it was ridiculous and focused on language. I remember that they made us alter a line in Leeds United from “You can’t ride two horses with one arse” to “You can’t ride two horses with one nose”, which doesn’t even make sense out of a fairly innocuous line. I remember bartering for how many “bloodys” I could have but with Brimstone and Treacle the attack was wholesale. The tale involved a disabled girl, looked after by her devoted parents, who had been left a vegetable after an accident, being raped back to life by the devil, who cons his way into the family home. I thought Brimstone and Treacle was a brilliant multi-edged moral comedy. It was innocuous compared to Double Dare, another Potter we did at the same time, but Brimstone and Treacle hit the unfunny bone of the director of television, Alasdair Milne, who was a fairly straight-laced Scot and who told me that he found the piece “diabolical”. How he did not see the verbal connection there I don’t know.
Michelle Newell playing Patricia Bates in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle from 1976. Left comatose after a hit-and-run accident, Newell’s character remains this way until she is raped by the devil, played by Michael Kitchen, and then miraculously regains consciousness. The original transmission was banned and not shown until 1987. Sting played the devil character in the 1982 remake. True story.
Play for Today’s consistent ability to reflect, comment and influence contemporary society certainly seems retrospectively pretty remarkable.
We did tend to focus on stuff that was radical in tone and there certainly was quite a lot of that motivation in some of the things we did, and, looking back, a lot of the work that stands out is from that tradition. There is no doubt that there was certainly a coupled drive towards portraying issues we felt were important as opposed to “anyone for tennis?” dramas, and doing so on film with cinematic rather than verbal priorities. It still remained well into the 80s a writer’s medium and I worked regularly with many who were not ideologues and who embraced television as their utterly preferred medium—Simon Gray, Stephen Poliakoff, Colin Welland, G.F. Newman and William Trevor among them. The better directors, of course, longed to be big screen filmmakers, and Pat O’Connor, Roland Joffe, Ken Loach, Roy Battersby and Jon Amiel graduated to high-profile movie careers. But in the 80s especially, when there were bleak times for “real” British films, we were able to have it both ways and thrive on our smug aphorism, “The British film industry is alive and well and living in television”.
How would you compare the British TV climate as it was when the Play for Today brand thrived and how it feels now?
Then, expansive and confident. Now, retracting and desperate. Then, the producer was key and king. Now, producers are minor functionaries way down the power and decision-making chain. Then, the press was already prurient and mischievous, but basically supportive. Now, it’s more of a bitch engendered out of its own uncertainties and an enemy of creative promise. Then, television was a duopolistic consensus and TV institutions were actually more secure than their political masters. Now, the politicians would probably have to intervene either to prop up the old institutions legislatively or allow them to cripple. Then, four channels. Now, the number is uncountable. Then, Whitehouse. Now, Murdoch. Then, Dennis Potter. Now, profit. Then, the audience. Now, the consumer. Then, the VHS was the only alternative platform. Now, there is the internet. Once we had to satisfy at least one of three juries: the management floor at the BBC, the viewer, and the press. These were hardly strenuous commercial criteria but meeting one of them usually allowed you to try again. As the competition between channels became more intense, the climate grew more commercially preoccupied. In the early 80s I remember Potter saying to me, “Everything is now for sale.”
Margaret Matheson’s brief period as producer on Play for Today saw her define a role that few women had previously tussled with. She also served up perhaps the most controversial work of the entire series in Scum.
Vice: You were a victim of censorship, particularly with Scum. Did it feel during the later period that you were involved with Play for Today that things were less free?
Margaret Matheson: There was a checks and balances arrangement whereby the heads of department would know what you were up to and stop it if they didn’t like it so you weren’t given total freedom, but it was very close to that. The overall head of drama at that point was a naval chap called Shaun Sutton, who was baffled by the whole Scum ordeal. I remember bumping into him in a corridor after we’d shown it to the press and he was under the impression that Alan [Clarke] and Roy [Minton] had somehow managed to make it behind my back. He couldn’t conceive that a girl would have had any part in it.
Did you face opposition being a woman in what was, essentially, a big old boys’ club?
There had been women ahead of me, particularly Irene Shubik, who had co-produced The Wednesday Play and the early period of Play for Today. She was a very strong, powerful woman getting her work done. If anything, being a female producer worked to my advantage in the sense that I could get away with more.
How did Scum not get called up at any point in the checks and balances process?
The trouble did not begin until we’d finished. We are talking about an era where TV was watched and had an effect on the cultural climate. I certainly aspired to influence public in opinion in the way Tony had with Cathy Come Home. That seemed to be me to be a very just pursuit.
So when did the trouble start?
Back then they had very long deadlines for the Radio Times, and it was in the listings when the channel controller, and ultimately the director of television, intervened. I knew that the research had been very thorough before the writing. We knew what we were talking about and as part of the production process there had been a lot of authentication to ensure that we were doing it right. Jimmy Cellan-Jones, who was Head of Plays, was a great supporter, but once it caught the eye of those at the highest levels that was it.
What was their problem with it?
As well as the feeling that it was unrealistic, that so many things happened in such a short space of time, the executives thought that the audience would be confused as to whether it was drama or documentary due to the level of authenticity. We all thought that it was perfectly clear that it was a drama and very much a play for today, in that Ken Loach tradition. With the time pressure on the BBC from having the listing in the Radio Times there was still hope that it would be shown, so we agreed to some edits.
What did you have to cut?
We took out the moment of impact when Carlin swings the sock with the snooker ball, as well as the second suicide. We accepted the cuts because it was more important for us to have it seen than not.
Joolia Cappleman, Sam Kelly, and Richard Kane in Mike Leigh’s Who’s Who from 1979. The play satirised contemporary class attitudes and snobbery. All fair game for Play for Today.
How did you react when you knew that it was beyond saving?
They told us the BBC was categorically not going to show it. So we showed it to the press. I think we wanted to try and get some kind of campaign going. We did it absolutely without the knowledge of the BBC. I took the print to the Coronet Theatre on Wardour Street, which was a preview theatre, and invited along all of the media. In those days, Soho was still seen as a real den of iniquity so the idea of the press seeing a stolen print in a basement on Wardour Street added a bit of colour to the whole saga. On the whole, they loved it and it caused a big stir, if only from the controversial aspect of the BBC having spent whatever amount of money on it and then putting it in the trash can.
It must have been a bitter pill knowing that no one would see what you had worked so hard to create.
Yes. It was an iconic performance by Ray but my memory of him was mainly how young he seemed. They were all just boys but they were very serious about their acting and Alan drilled them so they were very well rehearsed. They became those characters. It was the first film most of them had done and many of them had never even acted. Alan managed to be both a fearsome leader and director, but somehow also endear himself and convince them that he was one of the lads, and in doing so got the most out of them.
Which directors did you most enjoy working with on Play for Today?
They were all different but Alan was certainly unique. He was complex, driven and committed to giving a voice to those who had none. I think his body of work shows that. The wonderful thing about Play for Today was that they didn’t all work but you had the creative freedom to keep trying things. Also, with the sole exception of Garnett, the genius in the tower, we were all located together on the tenth floor of Broadcasting House and it really was quite a melting pot. You had writers, directors and producers all on one floor, and down on the ground floor at any given time at least two large-scale dramas being filmed. Even with the independent production companies of today, that atmosphere of camaraderie and cross-fertilisation is impossible to recreate. There was of course the social purpose but we didn’t just want to change the world and be very left-wing. There was also an artistic purpose. If there was some kind of theme running through the work it might be that they cover aspects of society that the average viewer might not have known about and I would hope that they managed to capture and show the everyday in a new and different way.
What made you leave Play for Today?
Scum had been banned and a couple of other things that I had been working on had been censored so I was starting to think that they were taking the mickey and that I was being watched and would eventually be closed down. I had felt up until then that I could do anything and get away with it. Part of it was daring and part of it was thinking that we weren’t going to stop if they banned us. Eventually that climate changed and it began to feel like things were always going to be interfered with.
You went on to work on Made in Britain, Oi for England and Birth of a Nation (all from 1982). Would you have made those pictures without your background in Play for Today?
I was a head of department by that point so the context was different, but mischief was certainly always very high on my list of things to do. It was just a different kind of mischief.
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