Play for Today: Volume 1 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (15th November 2020).
The Film

"Play for Today"

Between 1970 and 1984, BBC1 broadcast over 300 episodes of "Play for Today", a series that consisted of individual productions by various cast and crew members over the years. The series was not episodic, but was in line with telefilms that showcased individual stories that stood on their own, without hosts or themes to connect the many stories told. From adaptations of existing works to original writing, "Play for Today" showcased a great amount of talent in front of and behind the camera for television, with crossing with success on the big screen as well. Unfortunately, 31 productions have been lost over the years, but of the many works that survive, the power of these small scale productions even decades later prove to be powerful with the themes presented. From social issues to family dramas, focusing in on married couples, children, or the eldery, topics and situations were vast and sometimes controversial. Productions did not shy away from hard hitting issues like violence, trauma, and language as the primetime show was geared more for an adult audience. Risks were taken and for television that can be a tough point to keep viewers, but for many years "Play for Today" could still gather millions in viewership in the United Kingdom. The series ended in 1984, and though there were additional series of a similar manner in the subsequent years, none could reach the level of "Play for Today" ratings and status. Various episodes of the series have been issued on DVD and Blu-ray as standalone releases or as bonus features, though no comprehensive boxsets have been released. This collection from the BFI is the first set on Blu-ray, collecting seven select episodes broadcast between 1970 and 1977 together.


"The Lie" (1970)

Andrew (played by Frank Finlay) and Anna (played by Gemma Jones) are a married couple. With two children, the husband and wife are socially successful but there is trouble between the two. At the workplace Andrew's proposal is rejected in favor of a younger colleague's work, which then questions his role for the future both at the workplace and as a man. He does not reveal the outcome to Anna, and instead heads down the road to infidelity. Anna is quite successful in her own right, receiving a grant for her work, though she is not exactly loved, as evidenced by some that even despise her and her work. One way she gets through the days is Ellis (played by John Carson) who she has been having an affair with for quite some time.

Written by internationally renowned filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, "The Lie" was adapted from his script "Reservatet" by his then brother in law Paul Britten Austin from Swedish to English. Interestingly the script produced two television adaptations in 1970, one in Swedish and one in English, airing only one day apart from each other, with "Reservatet" directed by Jan Molander airing on October 28 on Swedish television and "The Lie" directed by Alan Bridges airing on Octover 29 on BBC1 in the UK. Knowing that it is a script from the mind of Bergman, the themes explored are certainly reflective of the filmmaker's work and personal life. From failed marriages and relationships by putting more effort into work than into his own family, Bergman's life was a series of manic ups and downs that were also present in characters and events in his own directed work, such as in "The Passion of Anna" (1969) which had many similarities including the main two characters being Andreas and Anna, the original names of the characters' Andrew and Anna, or even in "The Touch" (1971) and "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973) in the following years. Pretending things are okay at home might be a relatable subject matter for any couple living together for some time. No matter how honest one might be with a partner, there might be issues that are held back. Whether it's stress from the workplace or peer pressure, it's the accumulation of these untold and unspoken moments that lead to the downfall in a relationship, and what happens in "The Lie" is truly awful on both sides. No one is quite innocent and the climax is both shocking and unforgettable, with a violent fight between Andrew and Anna that makes the audience even more uncomfortable than they already were.

The direction by Bridges is quite minimal in terms of setups and camerawork here, with editing being on an average pace and the dialogue taking its time rather than a fast paced notion. It is the excellent performances from the leads that stand out the most as well as the moral dilemma and audience reaction swaying back and forth between the characters that keeps the interest high through the runtime. One of the earliest episodes to be broadcast, it still stands as a high note for the series and eventually leading to a second English language version for television, this time in America with "The Lie" in 1973, directed by Alex Segal starring George Segal and Shirley Knight in the Andrew and Anna roles.


"Shakespeare or Bust" (1973)

Art (played by Brian Glover), Ern Ray Mort) and Abe (played by Douglas Livingstone) are three working class men from Leeds taking a road trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare to see a special performance in theatre. Rather than taking the 180km journey by car or by train, the three decide to rent a boat to travel there via canals for an extended experience. But the three men have little to no boating experience and their trip is filled with unexpected and awkward happenings, from the men falling in the water, getting attacked by kids with BB guns, being too late getting into a pub, as well as the different interactions between people they pass on their ride over a few days.

This was not the only time that the characters of Art, Ern and Abe appeared but the second. 1972's episode "The Fishing Party" was the first and 1974's "Three for the Fancy" would be their third. In comparison to some of the more heavily dramatized productions, the ones with Art, Ern and Abe were more lighthearted in tone with comical touches to the situations and dialogue. They didn't involve slapstick or jokes but instead relied on situation comedy, and the banter between the three middle aged men on a trip together without the wives. From the beginning of seeing the way they handle the boat and interpret the instructions from the boat owner, they are certainly capable, but not completely. The three have great camaraderie together, with Art being somewhat the leader of the group while Ern and Abe follow along. Why the three working class miners love Shakespeare and why they want go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon for a pilgrimage is never made clear. But it's not about the destination but about the journey and that is where the fun is in "Shakespeare or Bust". As for the ending, it is a delightful one as well and a fitting one without spoilers.

Directed by Brian Parker in his first of seven productions for "Play for Today", it was broadcast on January 3, 1973.


"Back of Beyond" (1974)

Olwen (played by Rachel Roberts) is reclusive eldery woman living in a rural village in the mountains. The only contact she has with the rest of the community is with the young girl Rachel (played by Lynne Jones), who makes deliveries from the local shop. Though most of the townspeople including the kids see her as a crazy old hag and better to be left alone, Rachel is drawn to her loneliness and tries to befriend her by speaking to her as a normal person would. With Rachel showing common courtesy and innocence, Olwen slowly starts opening up to Rachel and inviting her for tea and chatting. But concerns come from Rachel's father (played by Edward Hardwicke) with her new friendship, as well as from her peers.

Taking the view from a child's perspective with the main character of Rachel, "Back of Beyond" seems to fit in with a Children's Film Foundation production at first glance, but from the second half some more serious and tragic issues become the core of the piece. Centering on Rachel, she is basically a normal preteen, with two parents, having good friends to hang out with, and no particular instigations in backstory. On the other hand, the character of Olwen is like a common fixture of many stories with a supposedly crazy elderly person and local children too scared to approach them. For the most part, these people turn out to be harmless and misunderstood by everyone and end up being a sort of saving grace for story. There are exceptions to the rule, such as Ms. Havisham in "Great Expectations", a person who cannot let go of her past and what might have been and driving her to near madness. Olwen lies somewhere in between. Once her hermit shell is opened, she reveals herself to be a nice person that hasn't had a fair conversation in a very long time. Roberts plays her with misunderstood kindness that borders on creepy, and it is forgivable in the first half when she finally starts talking to Rachel. But when she reveals more about herself the darker trauma starts to come forth. Losing her husband in the war but not acknowledging that he died, having clothes and shoes for a young girl for the hopes of one day having a daughter of her own, she is stuck in the past and unable to overcome it. She starts to see Rachel as a replacement for the life she never had, offering a pair of shoes from the daughter that was never born and continued invitations over.

Director Desmond Davies certainly does an excellent job with the direction, from bringing the best from the first time child actor Lynne Jones alongside veteran Roberts in their multiple scenes together. And more could be said about writer Julia Jones, who has an incredible amount of screen credits over the decades, with four credits for "Play for Today". The episode aired on November 14, 1974.


"A Passage to England" (1975)

Anand (played by Tariq Yunus) along with his cousin Pramila (played by Emily Bolton) and his ill uncle Dharam (played by Renu Setna) are looking for a safe passage to England from Amsterdam, and guided by his uncle's message, Anand seeks a man named "Onslow" for a deal. He finds Onslow (played by Colin Welland), but this is not the man he is looking for, not knowing anything about uncle Dharam or a deal. Not only do they have to sail over to the UK, but there is also an agreement to be shipping gold into the country. Although the wrong man, Onslow is interested in making a cut over the deal though it could mean danger getting into the smuggling gig.

For modern views, the thought of being solicited by name but being mistaken for someone else, then offering a deal to help get gold out of a country in exchange for getting a percentage of the worth, sounds like the simplest and most obvious email scam that could be. Granted listening to Anand's story explained to Onslow very suspicious, but over the course of the production, the audience sees two sides of the issue. Onslow has a chance to make some good money, but this may come at a legal cost and the trust of his shipmates, including Graham (played by Niall Padden). On the flipside, Anand does seem sincere as he shows the gold and proves the gold is real at a jeweler. In addition, Pramila is taking care of the very ill uncle who is basically bedridden. There doesn't seem to be any scam with the plan, but instead this is a story about trust and distrust, between people and governments, between races and gender. Traveling between countries does have regulations to adhere to from visas to what is being shipped or carried, and punishments can also vary if the laws are broken. Immigration has become quite a serious issue in the new millennium but it was also something that caused talks in the twentieth century as well, with international travel becoming more of a commonplace for the average person. Racial and religious issues are also underlying, with the English boatmen and the Indian family of travelers. Anand may have an accent but says he is English and is a Christian, but looking at his cousin Pramila and how she only speaks when being spoken to and having very few things to say even when asked, there seems to be a strange mix of cultures just within their family. Onslow and Graham do say words like "brown" and "Pakis" when talking about Anand, though they are not saying the terms to be derogatory but more in line with how they talk in every day life, without political correctness masking them.

Director John Mackenzie gives both sides of the stories an equal amount of time, with backstories, moral dilemmas, and time for each character to have a memorable mention from the script by Leon Griffiths. Mackenzie directed nine productions for "Play for Today" and dozens of other television productions as well as making a mark on the big screen with the seminal British gangster film "The Long Good Friday" in 1980. "A Passage to England" was broadcast on December 9, 1975.


"Your Man from Six Counties" (1976)

Jimmy (played by Joseph Reynolds) lost his father in a bombing and has become an orphan. His uncle Danny (played by Donal McCann) and aunt Mollie (played by Brenda Fricker) become his foster parents and Jimmy moves in with them on their rural Irish farm. He brings his bird, a large rook in a cage which Mollie is against having in the house, but it is the only thing that gives him comfort for his trauma. It is not an easy transfer for Jimmy, with a new school and new environment with people that do not seem to understand him or his needs.

Colin Welland wrote the script for the production, lending his hand to both behind the scenes as a writer as well as in front of the camera as an actor in other productions. Welland was one of the stars in 1969's seminal film "Kes", and "Your Man from Six Counties" takes heavy inspiration from the production. From the central theme of the boy's relationship with a bird and the trouble he encounters from bullying, the similarities are obvious. But with this production, one element that is hard to escape is the implying of The Troubles in Northern Ireland (or the "Six Counties") and the religious terrorism the country was going through. Religion and differences are discussed, images of a bombing is seen, but there is not specific talk or discussion about "right" or "wrong" or the sides people are taking with the violence. While much of Jimmy's new life is seen, the adults might be more of the central focus of the story. Danny and Mollie's struggles of adding another child to their family and one that has gone through a horrific event, resulting in sudden nightmares and screams of emotional pain. Paul Antrim as the drunkard villager Pat also makes a great performance, especially in the fairly emotional climax of the piece.

Barry Davis directed a total of 14 productions for "Play for Today", and "Your Man from Six Counties" stands high as one of the finest and most memorable with excellent performances and an emotionally tense story. The production aired on October 26, 1976.


"Our Flesh and Blood" (1977)

Bernard (played by Bernard Hill is about to become a father. His wife Jan (played by Alison Steadman) is about to give birth and they are at the hospital. During the journey to the hospital and waiting time at the hospital, flashbacks surround Bernard as moment of his first child's birth is imminent. From the discussions of him and Jan in bed before the pregnancy, going to classes for preparation, and much more all hit him hard. Will he be a good parent? Will he be able to do whatever is necessary?

One of the most sincere and relatable productions here, "Our Flesh and Blood" features pregnancy from the male perspective, with the anxiety, fear, and feeling of uselessness that surrounds future fathers. Not all is dramatic in this production as it relies quite a bit on comedy as well. From Bernard not knowing the directions to the hospital, some of the awkward banter between Bernard and Jan in the hospital, the doctor that doesn't seem very qualified, there are many great hilarious moments to break a smile. But on the other hand, there are some flashbacks to arguments and other tense moments that make the uncomfortable nature become much more serious. It can be brutal and honest, it can also be silly and funny. But isn't that how all relationships are in the end?

While all previous entries in this set for "Play for Today" were shot on 16mm film, "Our Flesh and Blood" changed to standard definition PAL video format for cost cutting measures. For almost all indoor scenes, it was shot on videotape. For outdoor scenes, select stock footage and the scene of the birth it was shot on 16mm film and transferred to video for final editing. The shift in quality is very noticeable and much cheaper looking that the other productions, but even with the drop in technical quality, the production is still an excellent one, with the script from Mike Stott and direction by Pedr James. The production aired on January 18, 1977.


"A Photograph" (1977)

Michael (played by John Stride) receives an anonymous photograph in the mail, featuring two young women in front of a caravan. He brushes it aside wit only a glance, thinking it could be fans of his work as a radio announcer and nothing more, but his wife Gillian (played by Stephanie Turner) is concerned about what the photo is and why it was sent to him. Michael starts getting curious and decides to take a trip to the area the photo was mailed from to get a possible answer to the mystery. He is able to find the caravan, inhabited by Mrs. Vigo (played by Freda Bamford) who may have the answers but they may not be what he is looking for...

"A Photograph" goes into the mystery and suspense category, especially with the disturbing image at the start of the film which later might seem like a spoiler for the events to come. The character of Michael finds work much more of an importance than his home life, obsessed with his voice as it is what he relies on. Having home recordings of his own work, this is not a surprise for anyone that has done voice work (myself included). But this seems to be the first time that Michael is taken by something quite different. He could have completely ignored the photograph sent as a mistake and that would have been the end of it. But there is much more than chance at play. Things shouldn't be spoiled, but the twist towards the end is quite unexpected and very surprising to say the least. It still leaves quite a few questions unanswered with the motivations on the calculated piece, but it is quite effective and shocking. Like "Our Flesh and Blood", this was mostly shot on PAL video with a few outdoor segments being shot on 16mm film as a cost cutting measure.

Directed by John Glenister and written by John Bowen who penned the highly praised and also mysterious episode of "Play for Today", "Robin Redbreast", the episode of "A Photograph" aired on March 22, 1977.


The seven episodes are presented on four discs in the following order:

DISC ONE
Episodes
- "The Lie" (1970) (89:58)
- "Shakespeare or Bust" (1973) (82:18)

DISC TWO
Episodes
- "Back of Beyond" (1974) (59:58)
- "A Passage to England" (1975) (81:29)

DISC THREE
Episodes
- "Your Man from Six Counties" (1976) (94:26)
- "Our Flesh and Blood" (1977) (80:24)

DISC FOUR
Episode
- "A Photograph" (1977) (71:33)


With only seven episodes out of 300, these are only a small sampling of the lengthy and varied series over the years. Each episode is directed by different directors, written by different writers, and each having their own tone and style so there is little consistency between each, giving a sense of creative freedom with the minimal confines. Budget-wise these are fairly small, with a minimal cast for each, relying on performance rather than spectacle, and that's just like how plays should be focused on. The drama and the actors with their portrayals.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray set

Video

The BFI presents the episodes in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080i 50Hz AVC MPEG-4. As the productions were shot and broadcast in 25fps on PAL television, the 50Hz keeps the 25fps rate. The first five productions were shot entirely on 16mm film, and the original 16mm A/B roll camera negatives were scanned at 2K for the restorations. These undeniably look much better than their original broadcasts, as the films are not filtered through PAL TV broadcast and are taken directly from their film source materials. Colors have been well balanced, damage such as scratches and dirt have been removed for the most part and other inconsistencies have been corrected leaving a very nice image for all the productions. There are some minor damage marks visible here and there and some minor color fluctuation in some moments, but overall these five productions look incredibly strong. As for the last two productions, they were mastered from standard definition videotape elements and upscaled to 1080i. As expected, there is a bit of blurriness to the videotaped segments, but there are no issues with tracking errors or videotape damage to speak of. As for the intercut 16mm portions, these do have damage marks visible with speckles and dust, and the colors are a bit darker and less clear. The original 16mm elements were not used for the restorations. Like many other television programs that mixed film and video in the 1970s, the difference between the elements are very noticeable and can be a little distracting, but that is how it was at the time.

All episodes are uncut with the original opening logos and closing credits intact.

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
The original mono track is provided for each episode. Like the picture, the sound has also been remastered to remove hiss, pops, and cracks and for the most part the dialogue is very clear. "Back of Beyond" has a bit of a hiss in the track though it is not too distracting. Echoey voices are an issue in some works as well as inconsistent levels being balanced in post production, but those seem to be part of the original productions rather than issues with the remasters. "A Photograph" has a second of audio dropout at 59:46, though it's not certain if this was an issue with the original master or with the remastering. Each episode has their ups and downs and limitations in the mono soundscape, but they sound very good with no huge issues in clarity.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for each episode.

Extras

DISC ONE

"The Lie" script (stills)
"Shakespeare or Bust" script (stills)
Image Gallery (9:00)

DISC TWO

"Back of Beyond" script (stills)
"A Passage to England" script (stills)

DISC THREE

"Your Man from Six Counties" script (stills)
"Our Flesh and Blood" script (stills)

DISC FOUR

"A Photograph" script (stills)

Each disc has the original script of each episode as an extra, with each page of the original script being scanned and available in a manual gallery. In addition, there is an automated image gallery with call sheets of the production along with a series of stills from the original productions.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4


Book
A 76 page book is included with the set. An overview of "Play for Today" by writer and producer John Wyver is the first essay. This is followed by essays for each of the seven productions, by Rebecca Vick, William Fowler, Dr Josephine Botting, Sukhdev Sandhu, Katie Crosson, Simon McCallum, and Vic Pratt, which discusses the productions, their merits, their impact and much more. This is followed by full film and disc credits, an essay on the legacy of the series by Marcus Prince, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills. Since the set lacks interviews or commentaries, the lengthy book is an excellent companion piece to the set.


Though not available on the set itself, the BFI's trailer is embedded below.

Overall

"Play for Today: Volume 1" may only be a small selection of seven episodes of the series, but these works rank very high in quality with their challenging, risky, yet highly entertaining productions. Hopefully more sets are on their way. The BFI's Blu-ray set may only have script and photo galleries as digital extras, but the very lengthy book included is an excellent supplement with detailed information on the productions and the series in general. The restorations look and sound excellent being better than their original broadcast runs, and the set comes highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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