This is the first of an occasional series of posts this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC1 drama anthology series, Play for Today.
In 2019, the Christmas Day episode of Gavin and Stacey drew an overnight audience of 11.6 million (growing to a seven-day figure of 17.1 million). Exactly forty years ago today, on Thursday 3 January 1980, the Play for Today ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (dir. Giles Foster) was broadcast at 9:25pm on BBC1. 27 year-old Guisborough-born theatre playwright Robert Holman’s play is set in coastal Teesside and it concerns the military recruitment of teenage lads about to leave school. It gained 12.89 million viewers, according to BBC statistics: 24.7% of the UK population. This amounted to a 70.8% share of television viewers, a remarkable figure: over seven times as many as the average for ITV programmes from 9:25-10:40pm (9.4%). (1)
It is an excellent play, well worth revisiting; however, it is not only unavailable on DVD/BluRay or the new BritBox but has only been repeated once since its first transmission (BBC1, 03/09/1981). Don Shaw and Alan Clarke’s Wednesday Play ‘Sovereign’s Company’ (BBC1, 22/04/1970), a bitterly angry piece which centres on experiences in the military is available here. In contrast Holman’s play conveys a sad stoicism and inexorable sense of tragedy in how the Troubles impact on northern lives. David Daker is superb as the single-parent widower father Andrew Saville, an ICI worker trying to look after his sons Gordon (Martyn Hesford) and Philip (Richard Tolan). Shaw’s rebellious, uncompromising earlier piece gained a more typical Wednesday Play/Play for Today audience figure of 4.44 million, but was well received, gaining a strong Reaction Index of 63% ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ obtained an even stronger RI of 69% and the BBC’s Audience Research Report quotes viewers’ praise of Daker’s performance, the locations and its overall ‘authenticity’; ‘Viewers considered it well written and absorbing and welcomed this sensitive treatment of a contemporary and controversial issue, particularly as it appeared to be realistic and true to life.’ (2)
The audience may also have appreciated the warmth and tenderness within the unconventional family – when his girlfriend Jean (Madelaine Newton) hugs and comforts Andrew when he cries, to the accompaniment of old-fashioned, diegetic light music, it is a richly emotional moment within a blended family; which contrasts with the stark anomie that Shaw and Clarke portray in the platoon. The success of this play also gives lie to David Hare’s partisan pro-film assertions in an article he published in Frank Pike’s Ah Mischief! (1982); he claimed that practically all of the Plays for Today popular with critics and audiences were shot on film, not those using video within the studio. This PFT may prove Hare’s binary; it was shot on location on 16mm film, though the copy I watched was stored on tape and was in significant need of restoration. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to utilise its medium’s more mythical, distancing potentials; it may partially be the copy I was watching, but it seemed to me to have a steady, televisual immediacy. Instead of grandiosity, Giles Foster’s more subdued visual texture fits the muted stoicism of Holman’s script. It points the way to the aesthetic of later PFTs shot on VT on location as Outside Broadcasts like Maurice Leitch and Jon Amiel’s tense 1950s and Northern Ireland-set drama, ‘Gates of Gold’ (08/03/1983). (3)
The play is austere but not entirely gloomy. The characters’ mundane interactions feel like a more subdued xerox of the worldly northern identity depicted in TV dramas by Alan Bennett, Colin Welland and Peter Terson. This is also the era where Victoria Wood had only just come to prominence with the deft, humane satire Talent (Granada, 05/08/1979), which cast a perceptive eye on the world of northern ‘turns’ culture and the entertainment industry – influenced by New Faces (ATV, 1973-78), which had given Wood her first TV appearance as early as 1974. Richard Eyre produced ‘Chance of a Lifetime’, which in its way almost as thoughtful a cultural and political intervention as Eyre’s notable Play for Today productions of works by Trevor Griffiths and Ian McEwan: ‘Comedians’ (25/10/1979), ‘The Imitation Game’ (24/04/1980) and ‘Country’ (20/10/1981).
There is an evocatively nostalgic feeling to its classically inflected score from George Fenton; its winds and brass sounds feel and signify northern while the minor-key is prevalent. Holman subtly investigates the cultural present day. A nurse, in a telephone conversation with someone who is presumably a partner or friend, muses over the cultural options for a Teesside night-out:
“I don’t fancy the pictures. I certainly don’t fancy Black Emanuelle! Well, there’s a folk club in Middlesbrough…”
From the choice available, she favours the folk club over the Italian sexploitation film (dir. Bitto Albertini, 1975): a binary cultural polarity that notably neglects television – which, from the 1960s to the 1990s (Z Cars to Big Brother?), historically exerted its greatest appeal to the British people. Other sections reveal a fascinatingly conflicted, unresolved attitude to permissiveness while the play overall seems to insist on its characters’ dual traits of gentleness and hardiness.
‘Chance of a Lifetime’ has an non-showy feel of the ‘real’ to its often seemingly inconsequential dialogues. The cheery Major Ian Anderson (David Buck) commands his young Cadet charges not to skylark about on their excursion. He later bemoans the passing of Grammar Schools, which he links to the decline in funding and social will behind the ailing Cadet groups; intriguingly, Holman has this reasonable but firm sounding man self-identify as a “pacifist”. When Stephen asks him “Why d’ you do this, then?” Anderson replies: “To give lads like you opportunities you wouldn’t normally get…!” Stephen nods understandingly, which has inevitable sense of tragedy; there’s dramatic irony given what happens later in the play.
Viewers watching the schedule as a whole would have come to ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ after the Nine O’Clock News with Richard Baker. COAL’s doom-laden latter act echoes Edgar’s Play for Today ‘Destiny’ (BBC1, 31/01/1978): Major Rolfe’s son dies in Northern Ireland. This play’s context was as fraught with geopolitical conflict as that earlier play’s was with domestic political conflict over ‘race’ and immigration: on 16/12/1979, Provisional IRA landmines in Counties Tyrone and Armagh had killed five British Army soldiers (and an ex-Ulster Defence Regiment volunteer). (3)
Eight days later, the Soviet Union ordered its troops into Afghanistan, to support its friendly secular regime the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against a fundamentalist insurgency. Exactly a week before Holman’s play was broadcast, the Soviets assassinated President Hafizullah Amin in Kabul. Much of 1980 was to be consumed by renewed fears of nuclear war – the ‘protect and survive’ culture detailed by Andy Beckett (2015) – as well as whether or not Britain should boycott the Moscow Olympics in the summer. In May, Kingsley Amis’s paranoid dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek was published, depicting a Russian-dominated UK, due to what Amis perceives as cultural apathy and a lack of patriotic spirit. BBC2’s 20-part educational epic Russian-Language and People – which began at 7:35pm six days after ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ – was perhaps swimming against the tide, unfortunately broadcast just as the Soviet Union had commenced on its own destructive “Vietnam” against the Mujahideen. It got moved around in the schedules to a later time-slot but was also repeated in schools and colleges slots on BBC1.
‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is an especially telling play of its day in 1980, in its portrayal of working-class northerners as forming an undemonstrative, stoical heartbeat of a besieged nation; as well as fears of international entanglements, it subtly conveys internal dread at the high regional unemployment and redundancies to come. On 2 January, just a day before the play’s transmission, a national steel strike had begun, which was to last 14 weeks. While the outcome was not as conclusively preferable for the British Right as the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, it presaged some of Thatcher government’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics of that crucial dispute. On 12 September 1980, the Consett steel works in North West Durham shut for good, as the government refused to step in to save what it perceived as unproductive jobs.
Ultimately, ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is just as much a play for today, 3 January 2020. Its foreign policy and domestic concerns seem pressing on this day when our ’emboldened’ Prime Minister is on holiday and has left Dominics Raab and Cummings, unelected adviser and fetishist of scientific “weirdos” and Mafioso mavericks, in the hot seat. On a day when the US has assassinated a powerful Iranian general. Then, the threats were a new Cold War, possible nuclear war, the Troubles and concentrated unemployment. Now, there is the central threat of climate change, the rise of a populist right, possible nuclear war, the challenges posed by “Brexit” to the UK, as well as intense regional inequality within the UK following project austerity (2010- ).
Now, we don’t seem to have a topical drama strand like Play for Today to dramatise important contemporary issues that are stake, to include dissenting voices and portray all manner of viewpoints – as in Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ (1978); see my three-part article on that PFT here. We don’t just need panoramic Plays for Today like ‘Carson Country’, ‘Destiny’ and ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ made publicly available; we need Play for Today itself back as a going concern, to help us make sense of our evolving, threatened world; it is one of the BBC’s crown jewels, along with Match of the Day, dinnerladies and Doctor Who.
If you have memories of experiences working on this fascinating production, or have any memories of watching it, please post below, or get in touch – my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be very interested in hearing from you! If you are from BBC Enterprises or BritBox, please consider enabling more people to see this successful but neglected highlight. Many thanks to the BFI and Kathleen Dickson who supplied me with a viewing copy of this play, the North East Film Archive who kindly housed my viewing in earlier 2019 and James Leggott and Northumbria University who enabled it all.
(1) It is worth noting, however, as W. Stephen Gilbert (1980) did, that the opposition was five minutes of ITV’s news and then from 9:30pm HTV’s 125-minute studio production by the Welsh National Opera Company of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale. As WSG notes, perhaps Play for Today could only ever be hegemonic when its social realist aesthetic was the only alternative to Welsh-inflected high culture. Or, indeed, BBC2’s Peter Ustinov and Natalie Wood at the Hermitage – in which, according to the Guardian (03/01/1980: 20), ‘Witty Mr U and Pretty Miss Wood’, both of Russian ancestry, visited the famous Leningrad museum to open the channel’s Russian season. This, and the following first-half of a celebratory concert for French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, gained an average of 3.6 million viewers, more than double ITV’s figure.
(2) Graham, Clive – An Audience Research Report: PLAY FOR TODAY – CHANCE OF A LIFETIME, 28 January 1980, VR/80/10 [BBC WAC Caversham]
(3) In originally specifying that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ had been shot on videotape (and, in particular, 625 line PAL colour 2” videotape) I hadn’t been 100% certain and had been relying on TV Brain, Available [online] at: https://www.tvbrain.info/ [accessed: 03/01/2020] and the Kaleidoscope Guide to BBC Drama (2011) – both of which claimed its ‘source format’ was 2″ VT. Billy Smart has kindly pointed out that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ was in fact shot on 16mm film in a Loachian vein, but was edited on 2″ VT – correction made 03/01/2020.
(4) CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict – 1979′ Available [online] at: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch79.htm#Dec [accessed: 03/01/2020]
Beckett, A. (2015) Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane.
Gilbert, W.S. (1980) ‘The Television Play: Outside the Consensus’, Screen Education 35, Summer, 35-44
Pike, F. ed. (1982) Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber and Faber.