Play for Today: Volume 2 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (24th May 2021).
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 elderly, 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 second set on Blu-ray, collecting six select episodes broadcast between 1972 and 1979 together.

"Stocker's Copper" (1972)

In 1913, 5,000 china clay miners in Cornwall started a strike to fight for better wages and working conditions. The ten week strike was not a peaceful one as violence escalated between the miners and the authorities, with tensions ramped up on both sides. "Stocker's Copper" is a dramatic reenactment of the historical standoff, focusing on miner Manuel Stocker (played by Bryan Marshall) and his family, as he must lead in part of the strike, causing tension with wife Alice (played by Jane Lapotaire) while having to be a father to their two children. In addition, the family are housing police officer Herbert Griffith (played by Gareth Thomas), who may be on the opposite side of the fence but the men find to have more in common that they initially realize.

"Stocker's Copper" was written by Tom Clarke, who wrote two episodes of "Play for Today" (the other being "Victims of Apartheid", also in this set), and directed by Jack Gold, and first broadcast on January 20th, 1972. The drama does not feature the complete details of the strike such as the origins, the organizing, or the events leading up. In addition, the film starts with the police being sent in to control the situation rather than the more obvious choice of having viewers side with the workers from the start. Throughout the course of the film the viewers will tend to side with the workers who are looking for fairness while the police try to make the strikers disperse them from having peaceful protests. But the more interesting portions come from the interactions between Manuel and Herbert. Manuel has to somehow balance his life as a worker part of the strike, a father, a husband, as well as having to house a policeman during the tense time. In addition, he starts to lose confidence in the strike and what the final outcome would be. A policeman would be the last person to cheer him up and give him confidence, but Herbert himself was a steel worker in the past and was very familiar with the situation that Manuel is going through. In a sense there seems to be a bromantic connection between the two men, with some playful scenes and some intimate ones as well, bridging an important gap between what was something out of their individual control. The politics of the issue of the strike are not the main driving force of the story in "Stocker's Copper" but more about how things are not simply black or white or left or right. The greyzone in between is there the handshakes are made. But it's not always the conclusion.

"Victims of Apartheid" (1978)

George (played by John Kani) is a black South African living in London, who is part of the anti-apartheid group, the Christian Underground. He lends his voice and work to help raise the word and awareness of the racist atrocities happening in his home country. While he may be praising his better life in the freer country of the United Kingdom, there are hints that men of color have different sorts of restrictions that he is blind to.

It might seem odd to think that apartheid existed well into the 1990s in South Africa, with social restrictions against the majority of the population only being a few decades ago. The anguish still remains within the country in the modern age of the twenty first century, with a great number of people having lived through the oppressive times. When "Victims of Apartheid" was first broadcast on October 24th, 1978, the minority white ruled South Africa was still in the midst of the heavily criticized system of government and segregation. In this episode, the only times the audience is given a glimpse of South Africa is with a nightmare that the character of George sees, in which he is beaten and tortured, though there is some visual manipulation to obscure the viciousness. In addition, he recalls some of the torture he went through, including his explanation of a painful tactic against his penis, which draws discomfort and awkwardness from Christian Underground leader Canon Capper (played by Peter Jeffrey). Capper is white, and though he does what he can with George's help, there is also some hesitation with George's words and actions as well.

While George suffers from PTSD, there are other troubles he is facing in his personal life. His estranged relationship with his wife and daughter is not at all a good image for the Christian Underground. His supposed helping of fellow South African Henry (played by John Matshikiza) is also an awkward one, as he's supposed to help Henry as he arrives in London, he realizes that Henry didn't have the same treatment in their home country, and the talks of trauma and torture is on a very different scale and viewpoint. "Victims of Apartheid" looks at racism in a singular viewpoint of one man who experienced a terrible amount of it while surrounded by others who have differing views. Capper sees everything from the outside, as a white man without firsthand knowledge. Henry was more well off in South Africa and most likely didn't have the same sort of negative treatment, though his thoughts and feelings are closed rather than how the outspoken and vibrant George is. As George has felt "freedom" with his new life in a new country, it also has blinded him from where the color barrier is within the UK, and also taking a toll on his personal life. Things do eventually change in the course of the film for the character, for better or for worse, and brilliantly played by Kani in the lead role. As stated previously, this was Tom Clarke's second writing credit for "Play for Today", and rather than focusing on a historical story, it was grounded in the present. Stuart Burge directed the episode, which was shot on videotape and using a limited amount of setpieces, feeling close to being a "play" compared to many of the other film-shot productions of the series. There are a few location segments that were shot on film, such as a pivotal bus scene in which a bus attendant says an eye opening comment to George about the state of race in the UK. All these years later with the worldwide movement of Black Lives Matter and the unfair treatment of people of color being prevalent, how much progress has been actually made, and how much is necessary for the future?

"The Spongers" (1978)

Pauline (played by Christine Hargreaves) is a single mother of four young children. Things are difficult as they are for her to balance time working and being a mother, but with her daughter Paula (played by Paula McDonagh) having Downs Syndrome, special care needs to be given for her. But due to cuts and changes in the local social services, Paula is moved from her care center to an elderly nursing home, where she is not able to have specialized care that she needs, leading to Pauline and friends to fight for her daughter's return.

The title "The Spongers" refers to people who take advantage of the welfare system, but as shown in this teleplay directed by Roland Joffé and written by Jim Allen, that there are genuine people that are reliant on government aid as a genuine necessity due to various unfortunate circumstances. Pauline is in the most unfortunate position of losing her job, her home, and her family in any instant, as her situation is unstable and there are many factors that are out of her control. She is not at all some uncaring mother, but one that is quite loving and caring for her children even if there is not enough adequate time and energy to as she would like. The realism that is placed front and center makes "The Spongers" seem closer to a documentary rather than a film or a play. The interactions between the mother and the children, the talks between civil servants and their discussions on changes to be made are so well scripted and enacted that one may wonder how much was actually scripted and what was not. A lot of improvisation was actually encouraged for the actors, therefore leading to many natural sequences throughout. The Department of Health and Social Security and their actions may be the easy target as the villains, and they are to blame for the unfortunate happenings in the story. Councillor Conway (played by Bernard Atha) could be painted as a villain for his decision, but their perspective can be seen as well. They are not at all pushing anything against Pauline's family or is there any form of malice against people on welfare. They make their decisions on facts and figures, looking to cut costs and move tax money to differing sectors when appropriate, and changes happen from time to time. But one small change in the welfare system, whether moving a decimal point or changing an eligibility factor will cause just as much damage to one family as it could be beneficial for another. Pauline's family falls within the cracks, and the downward spiral turns towards the worst for them.

The confrontation scenes, the meetings, and the arguments between the common people and bureaucrats could become a boring chore under a less skilled director. But Joffé's direction, the intense yet sustained performances by the actors during these segments are some of the most compelling and wonderfully done sequences are true highlights, with every word and every change in intonation are as powerful as they are frustrating to hear as spectators. Sympathy for the civil servants may be low, as the sympathy for Pauline and her family comes full force. Seeing her young daughter being able to act in a play with other children with a smile contrasts heavily against a scene in which she is alone in a nursing home where her friends and her family are gone, with no one there knowing what to do, as she cries uncontrollably. "The Spongers" may be one of the heaviest and most devastating episodes from "Play for Today". First broadcast on January 24th, 1978, the production was also a winner of multiple awards, including Best TV Drama at the Prague Festival and also from the Prix Italia.

"The Elephants' Graveyard" (1976)

Bunny (played by Jon Morrison) tells his wife that he is off to work, but is actually in the middle of the woods on a hillside seemingly alone. That is until he encounters Jody (played by Billy Connolly) who is slightly older than Bunny who says he also told his wife that he was off to work. The two men talk, drink, and get into some arguments in the secluded area as time goes by without a care about the rest of the world.

One of the more minimal and shorter productions in "Play for Today", "The Elephants' Graveyard" takes place basically entirely in a hillside forest with only two actors during the 48 minute runtime. Writer Peter McDougall) uses the time to give character to the two figures, but also keeps a lot enclosed with the men not revealing entirely everything about themselves. Does Bunny often slack from work? What is his home life like and his relationship with his wife? Is there something deeper that he is running away from? There is also speculation that the character of Jody may not be even real, but a figment of Bunny's imagination. Is Jody what Bunny would look like in a few years time? Or could it all be the reverse and is this a story of Jody being real and Bunny being part of him reminiscing his younger self? The episode was first broadcast on October 12th, 1976.

"Just a Boys' Game" (1979)

Jake McQuillen (played by Frankie Miller) is a young tough guy in his twenties that has seen his fair share of trouble with fist fights, drunken brawls, and encounters with the police. His best friend Dancer Dunnichy (played by Ken Hutchison) sometimes tries to calm situations down when possible, but he is always there to take Jake's back when the time comes. But Jake lives in the shadow of his ill grandfather (played by Hector Nicol) who was also a brawler in his youth and has taken that mentality with him in his home life. But coming from below are some younger kids who want to prove themselves to be tougher and better than Jake, which would make him lose his street cred and status.

"Just a Boys' Game" is the fourth production of "Play for Today" written by Peter McDougall and the second featured in this particular set. While the previous "The Elephants' Game" focused on two men in a minimal state, "Just a Boys' Game" expands on the idea with a lengthier story and placing more depth to the central character and his emotional state and physical bravado. The opening scene at a pub is a great example of the chaos that the character of Jake frequently gets into from time to time, as seen with the interactions with the staff and later with the police who arrive much later when the crowd has basically dispersed. He is not afraid to get into a knife fight without a knife, to get into a brawl even when outnumbered, but no matter what happens, Jake seems to come out on top. But as seen with his broken family life, communication is minimal and when it does happen there are words that are not too kind being shared. Frankie Miller as Jake is an interesting choice as he was known as a soul singer and this was his first and last time acting in a production. Surprisingly his performance is quite good and convincing as a tough hooligan with dexterity and strictness, never cracking a full smile and having a serious eyebrow line ready for offense and defense. The physical scenes are one thing, but his minimal work with more personal scenes are also quite good, with Miller giving a sensitive yet slightly careless work for the character. John Mackenzie does a great job balancing the various sequences out as the director, and is yet another highlight in the series. This episode was broadcast on November 8th, 1979.

"Gotcha / Campion's Interview" (1977)

In an unusual move, this episode of "Play for Today" consisted of two different stories and broadcast back to back. There were differing actors, different settings, and the only common points being that they were both directed by Barry Davis and that "school" was the setting. The first story "Gotcha" is the lengthier one, taking two thirds of the total runtime, featuring two teachers, a headmaster, and a disturbed student ready to set off an explosion. Ton (played by Gareth Thomas) and Lynne (played by Clare Sutcliffe) are schoolteachers put in an unfortunate situation, where they are caught by a student (played by Phil Davis). In a matter of sudden madness, the kid threatens to kill them and himself, but lighting a petrol tank with a lit cigarette.

While there are many instances where it seems an escape or a takedown of the kid is easy, the story and the plot gets its momentum through the intense dialogue from the teachers who are frustrated, angered, and terrified, while the kid is like an incarnation of The Joker laughing uncontrollably and being borderline crazy without realizing it. Taking place almost entirely within a central location in a school's stock room, it is again quite a minimal production but it is one filled with excellent dialogue and themes. The escalation of the situation only gets more intense as the episode goes on, and surprisingly even has an F-word uttered out and sexual situations that seem quite extraordinary for vintage broadcast television. One of the more powerful and intense episodes in the series, the follow-up in the same time slot was a very different take on schools and the people who run them.

"Campion's Interview" is a fairly short episode at about thirty minutes in length, and also takes place in a single location. This time being an interview with Mr. Campion (played by Julian Curry), who is applying for the position of headmaster of a new comprehensive school. Conducted by a row of school board members, they bombard Campion with questions about schooling, his experience as a teacher, his personal decision to send his own children to a different school from where he is positioned, and about differing school systems and more. Throughout the course of the interview, it is clear that Campion is quite intelligent and prepared, but the board members seem to have some differing opinions with him and sometimes with each other, causing much more of a discussion piece rather than a listening piece.

Barry Keeffe wrote "Gotcha" and Brian Clark wrote "Campion's Interview" and they are quite different in tone and in style. But both are very well written and performed as if they were stage productions rather than film productions with the cadence, delivery, and the direction by Barry Davis. Shot on videotape, there is a smaller scale look to both of them, but still packs quite a punch with the first story and a cerebral hit for the second. It's possible that after the first episode was shown that most viewers turned it off not knowing there was a second story for the evening when broadcast on April 12th, 1977, and that would have been quite a shame.

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

DISC ONE
Episodes
- "Stocker’s Copper" (1972) (85:58)
- "Victims of Apartheid" (1978) (78:51)

DISC TWO
Episodes
- "The Spongers" (1978) (103:37)
- "The Elephants' Graveyard" (1976) (47:44)

DISC THREE
Episodes
- "Just a Boys' Game" (1979) (70:43)
- "Gotcha / Campion’s Interview" (1977) (89:05)


With only six 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 of "Stocker’s Copper", "The Elephants’ Graveyard", "The Spongers" and "Just a Boys’ Game" in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080i 50Hz AVC MPEG-4. These episodes were shot on 16mm film at 25fps, and the original 16mm A+B camera negatives were newly scanned at 2K resolution. The transfers of these productions look absolutely stellar, eclipsing anything seen in their original broadcast run which was in standard definition PAL format on broadcast television screens. Coming from the original negatives, their true splendor can be seen with excellent color and details. Dust, speckles, and other damage have been carefully removed while keeping film grain intact, while also stabilizing colors and telecine wobble. Of course not all damage could be removed and there are some minor instances but nothing that would be considered too distracting.

The episodes "Victims of Apartheid" and "Gotcha / Campion’s Interview" are in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 720p 50Hz AVC MPEG-4. These episodes were mostly shot on standard definition PAL videotape, and the original broadcast master tapes from the BBC have been used for the transfers. The colors obviously have less depth than that of film, leading to a slightly washed out and flat image though this is considered close to what was originally broadcast. Both productions have some instances of footage shot on 16mm film with minor outdoor sequences, and these instances come from the videotape masters rather than remastering the original 16mm elements. Therefore these scenes have more instances of dust and inconsistency due to the original telecine transfers. Videotape transfers tend to have more issues with irreparable damage compared to film, but fortunately in these instances there are few if any serious damage or errors to speak of with the transfers in the video shot segments.

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. The soundtracks were remastered from original film elements for the productions shot on film and from the broadcast tape masters for the productions shot on videotape. Considering the source materials, there are some issues with fidelity, but overall the dialogue sounds clear and consistent throughout for some fine presentations.

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

Extras

Booklet
A 56 page booklet is included. First is some writing by Peter McDougall entitled "But That Was Then", as the writer recalls his accidental start as a writer and his unusual journey to "Play for Today". Screenwriter and playwright Hugh Stoddart gives his thoughts on "Stocker's Copper". Next is David Archibald's looks at both "The Elephants' Graveyard" and "Just a Boys' Game". The BFI's Lisa Kerrigan has an essay on "Gotcha / Campion's Interview", while "The Spongers" gets an essay by Rebecca Vick, and finally film critic Kaleem Aftab has the final essay on "Victims of Apartheid". There are also stills, credits, transfer information, and acknowledgements. The essays are all very informative and give a great deal of information on them as well as important insights of each production. Although one would have wished if the essays were published in the same order as the episodes presented.

Unfortunately there are no on disc extras for this set, but thankfully the booklet is a very informative one.

The trailer for the set is embedded below.

Overall

"Play for Today: Volume 2" features another great set of important and groundbreaking episodes from the long running television series. They took risks and told some thought provoking and sometimes controversial tales for the living rooms and even decades later can still be just as effective now, or possibly even more effective that they were on their firs broadcasts. The BFI's set has great transfers on all six episodes, and though the only extra being a booklet still comes as recommended.

The Film: A Video: A- Audio: A Extras: C Overall: B-

 


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