I have always been fascinated by the single play. Partly because I vaguely recall some of them when I was a kid, partly because many of them are no longer available - now wiped, partly because the format doesn't exist on modern TV anymore. The BBC's Play for Today and the earlier Wednesday Play (although I am too young to really recall that) were major components of the 60's and 70's TV schedules and it would be unthinkable that there would come a time when the single play would disappear completely from the box. It did actually linger on in some format or other into the 80's and 90's (BBC2 `s Screen Two) but by then it wasn't a regular virtually weekly feature as it had once been. Of course there were so many single plays produced during those apparently halcyon years that it stands to reason that many would have been stinkers. We tend to remember classics such as Cathy Come Home, but how many were quite rightly forgotten?
Although the quality single plays are mostly associated with the BBC ITV also produced their fair share, most notably in the Armchair theatre series. This series Plays for Britain broadcast in 1976 is a sort of sequel to the earlier Armchair theatre. As very few single plays are available on dvd, apart from work by the likes of the most lauded practitioners such as Mike Leigh and Dennis Potter I purchased this to see if my interest in the format was justified. I can unequivocally say at least on the basis of this dvd it most certainly was not. Nostalgia is frequently a deceptive beast and so it proves here.
Despite the fact that we have some extremely highly regarded writers and directors I can honestly say that these plays were a wonderful cure for insomnia, not one of them sustaining my interest for any length of time. I was also surprised at how poor the production values and in some cases the acting was as late as 1976.
Howard Brenton was one of the coterie of fashionable left wing theatre playwrights in the 70's - David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Barker and the older Trevor Griffiths being other members of the group. I had read a couple of Brenton's plays of the period so was familiar with his work. The Paradise Run is by no means the worst play in this collection, but it is as boring as any of the others. The second half seems to feature different characters, although as I'd lost interest by then maybe it hadn't.
Brian Glover was a memorable character actor and a stalwart of the single play. The Play for Today trilogy about the three Yorkshiremen being one of the most memorable of the entire series. I can't recall who wrote these, but Glover starred in them. His Sunset Over Brixton about a young footballer is perhaps the best play here, but that's not saying much and again I struggled to stay awake.
Similarly Roy Minton's Fast Hands has a sports based theme, this time boxing. The storyline is again thin and broken by a lengthy fight sequence.
Henry Living's Shuttlecock was the only one of these plays to remotely sustain my interest and that was largely due to a rather irritating over the top performance from Dinsdale Landen as a sleazy cad. Landen was one of those actors, rather like Tom Bell, who was so beloved of the critics, but who seemed to overact in everything he was in.
The worst of a poor bunch is Roger McGough's The Life-Swappers, which is one of those popular at the time confusing non naturalistic plays so hated by the critics and viewing public, but apparently beloved by the programme makers. McGough, who was better known as a poet and member of The Scaffold sixties group doesn't seem to have written many other television plays.
Finally we come to Steven Poliakoff's Hittng Town, the only one of these plays I was previously familiar with. Not only had I seen it before on TV, but it was originally a stage play and I'd read the script. I recall Poliakoff was still in his teens at the time and was regarded as a theatrical sensation. He is still the darling of the producers and critics even today. Maybe it's a fault in my intellect but I've always found his work slow moving, confusing and an excellent cure for insomnia. Hitting Town is actually quite fast moving compared to much of his later work, but ultimately, despite having the longest running time of any of the plays here, is still a lot of sound and fury signifying very little, and like most stage plays adapted for TV betrays its origins - the mannered performances being one example. Hitting Town has the longest running time of any of the plays here, however all clock in at well under an hour as they filled a sixty minute schedule. It was a great relief to see that in those days there was only one advert break, unlike today when the adverts seem to last longer than the programmes they constantly interrupt.
I say the single play doesn't exist in the twenty first century; however a format of it was still running relatively recently. This was series such as Jimmy McGovern's The Street or Paul Abbot's Clocking Off, which were scheduled as series with recurring characters, but were in effect single plays with a different storyline each episode. Prior to viewing Plays For Britain I had re-watched some episodes of The Street (sadly the excellent Clocking Off series isn't available on dvd, presumably for copyright reasons) and couldn't believe not only how much better the acting was and higher the production values, but how much more engrossing the story lines were. Whether this was because I personally prefer the more naturalistic style or because they are genuinely far superior I'm unsure, however I feel it may be the latter.
However what this disappointing series of Plays for Britain has demonstrated to me at least is that television of the past wasn't always superior, that is not to say of course that the 60's, 70's and 80's didn't produce some great series and indeed excellent single plays, it's just that Plays for Britain aren't it!