BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 14 OCT 20

The Battle for the BBC

Why the Conservatives are wrong to dismiss the British public's intelligence and imagination

BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 14 OCT 20

On 15 October 1970, BBC One broadcast their first Play for Today (1970–84). Replacing The Wednesday Play (1964–70) – for which Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and Peter Watkins produced well-known works – the series enabled new and established writers and directors to make anything from insular family stories to sweeping tales of national decline. The week-on-week sense of surprise was the point: the only requirement was to create something about contemporary Britain. Play for Today was commissioned when the idea of cultural democracy – that ordinary people were interested in having their concerns creatively represented and that institutions should do just that – was at its height. The series ran until 1984, airing more than 300 original plays and adaptations, despite criticism from right-wing commentators for tackling subjects they deemed too controversial.

Roger Bamford, Even Solomon, 1979. Courtesy: British Film Institute, London

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Play for Today, the British Film Institute is releasing a box set and screening classic episodes at BFI Southbank in London, ranging from films about The Troubles in Northern Ireland to Horace Ové’s A Hole in Babylon (1979), one of the few productions by a Black writer-director, and Even Solomon (1979), directed by Roger Bamford, Britain’s first television drama featuring a trans lead. As the compendium’s accompanying booklet notes, Ové’s and Bamford’s films were atypical, with the majority of episodes made by, if not always about, straight white men. In his companion essay, ‘The Play for Today Legacy’ (2020), BFI Southbank TV programmer Marcus Prince argues that a revival of Play for Today might address British television’s current lack of diversity and working-class voices, as well as its reluctance to offer platforms to emerging talent or break out of established genres.

Such one-off dramas could have explored issues that British current-affairs shows refused to take seriously, including the realities for those targeted by the government’s 2012 Hostile Environment Policy – which sought to compel immigrants to leave the UK and led to the 2018 Windrush scandal deportations – or the factional tensions within the Labour Party, as Trevor Griffiths did in All Good Men (1974). When there was talk of the BBC resurrecting Play for Today in 2006, British MP Michael Gove derided the dramas in an article for The Times as ‘exercises in viewer patronisation’. Of course, they were precisely the opposite, crediting their audiences with the ability to follow ideas-driven, formally and politically adventurous works.

Howard Benton and David Hare, Brassneck, 1975. Courtesy: British Film Institute, London

In a 2010 k-punk blog post, Mark Fisher wrote: ‘Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, “elitist”, whereas treating them as if they are stupid is “democratic” [...] The assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.’ The Conservatives’ long-standing war against the BBC – conducted via funding cuts, the appointment of party members or sympathizers to top jobs, and relentless attacks in the tabloid press for being too left-wing – has been integral to the degradation of Britain’s public sphere and facilitated the imposition of austerity, the rise of far-right ‘disaster nationalism’ and Brexit. In a brilliant blog post of June 2016, Neil Kulkarni compared the level of debate around the 1975 referendum on the UK’s European Community membership with that of 2016, writing that the former discussed the economic ramifications intelligently yet clearly while the latter treated the public ‘as nothing more than docile cattle, easily mollified by bullshit promises, easily panicked by scarifying warnings’. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s simple refusal to label the EU as unquestionably brilliant or undeniably awful was too sophisticated for this clown-show; the consequences of conducting such a debate in such an atmosphere may yet prove catastrophic. 

I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED
Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED

In a recent New Statesman interview, Judith Butler said: ‘We are living in anti-intellectual times and it is evident across the political spectrum. The quickness of social media allows for forms of vitriol that do not exactly support thoughtful debate. We need to cherish the longer forms.’ Reviving a space such as Play for Today, which allowed writers and directors to explore complex ideas, and adapting it to our times would vastly improve not just our culture but also our politics. In the age of multi-channel television, BBC dramas may no longer be guaranteed an audience of millions, but the success of writer-centred series such as Fleabag (2016–19) and I May Destroy You (2020) shows that the Conservatives are wrong to hold the imagination of the public in such contempt. One of the most refreshing aspects of Corbyn’s leadership was his insistence that everyone was capable of being creative, and of engaging with culture: I hope that his plans to democratize the BBC remain part of our public discourse, and of any manifesto to improve our lives.

For more information about British Film Institute’ reissue of Play for Today here

Main image: Langham Place, London. Home of the BBC Broadcasting House and All Souls Church. Courtesy: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.