Towards the end of its Play for Today strand, the BBC gathered together six productions and presented them as Play for Tomorrow, a short season of science fiction with a distinct social slant. While all the plays have something to recommend them, two in particular - Bright Eyes and Cricket - are outstanding.
The opening play, Caryl Churchill's Crimes, bears a thematic resemblance to her later and much better known stage piece, Far Away. Crimes consists of three monologues by prisoners framed by a bizarre domestic scene concerning their interrogator, played by T.P McKenna. The monologues posit a gradually disintegrating society, while McKenna and his wife watch a broadcast magazine programme on how to equip and secure your nuclear bunker, especially against friends seeking shelter in the event of an attack. Churchill's plays are always complex, and this is no exception - it requires a second and third viewing to appreciate the accumulation of detail in the monologues, and the fact that the magazine programme is called Select and Survive, rather than the then current exhortation to protect and survive, provides the key - crimes are the selection process for survival, and if everything is a crime then rehabilitation becomes a matter of life and death - but what sort of rehabilitation? Something rather more akin to conditioning. All told, Crimes is a riveting if highly theatrical experience, told with confidence and some verve.
Bright Eyes, written by Peter Prince, is a fascinating nostalgia-themed satire on youthful rebellion and parental indiscretion. Of all the plays it is perhaps the most future-proofed, inevitable perhaps given its subject matter. At a retro 1960s party Sam Howard (played by Robin Ellis) becomes affronted by his daughter's gentle mocking of 60s counter-culture - he insists on playing up his own and his extended family's involvements in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, though he admits his own social conscience appears to have been disarmed by an ability to make money. Later, much to his surprise and dismay, his daughter is arrested for involvement in the assassination of a leading pro-war politician. It seems she had taken her father's counter-culture myth-making quite seriously. Now that she faces sentence of death if she refuses to show remorse for her crime, Howard finds himself undoing his family myths, suddenly playing down the dissenting credentials. There is much more besides in this intense and affecting piece of drama, and it provides the entire series with its defining moment; that of Howard's memory of his daughter as a young child as she brokenly sings Bright Eyes to a dark and empty room.
Cricket is perhaps the most striking play of the entire series. Ostensibly the record of a meeting of Coanwood Cricket Club, which actually serves as cover for a guerrilla war against the Forestry Commission. However, matters have turned more serious now that the government has proposed the introduction of collective farming to the UK. The group's leader, Lord Slagyford, is vehemently opposed and wishes to conduct a campaign of organised resistance. Others, however, the poorer members of the group, see some merit in the government's proposals, and the acrimonious meeting ends only in agreement to play another cricket match. Cricket is a splendid play, both in conceit and execution and, while the political extrapolations are absurd, its characters and content are a highly satisfactory representation of a deeply English form of anarchy known otherwise as eccentricity. Written by Michael Wilcox.
The Nuclear Family. To escape their closed high-rise existence, a Scottish family takes a working holiday as cleaners on a nuclear submarine. There is some merit in playing out a traditional family holiday situation in a dystopian future. Despite the scenario the experiences remain the same - son loses his virginity and daughter assumes mantle of responsibility, while the parents sink into addicted slumber. The holiday breaks a generational bottle-neck that cannot be resolved inside a hopeless, jobless, high-rise environment, preserving traditions and ways of living that are no longer viable. Written by Tom McGrath.
Shades is perhaps the most difficult play in the series. On the surface it is a virtual reality game in which future children take on the roles of 1980s CND activists, most specifically Helen Caldicott, in the forlorn hope of recapturing the lost notions of protest and dissent. But there is a deeper sensibility of genuine transference - that these youths are the survivors of a nuclear attack, minor shadows burned on the future - the shades of the title, in fact, seeking to acquire knowledge and therefore substance. In doing this it also deals with issues of peer pressure and conformity and of trusting the government. Ultimately, an enigmatic piece that quite passed me by. Written by Stephen Lowe.
Easter 2016. By J Graham Reid. With the centenary of the Easter Rising fast approaching, Northern Ireland's first integrated teacher training college finds itself a centre of controversy as nationalist students organise a commemorative march. New and zealous security director "Mr North" is opposed and places pressure on the Vice-Principal (sympathetically played by Denys Hawthorne) to intervene in an attempt to halt the march. Caught in the middle of a political storm the Vice-Principal resorts to an act of desperation that has tragic consequences. Rather heavy-handed in its supporting characterisation, Easter 2016 succeeds through some deft playing from Hawthorne and from Derrick O'Connor as North, especially in their two-handed scenes, as education squares up against security. There is precious little of the science fictional on display here, except perhaps for the notion that the future is not the past dead but something more akin to Asimov's dead past.
On the whole Play for Tomorrow makes for rewarding viewing - ambitious, challenging and inventive, with much good work in terms of production design and incidental music. All episodes were shot, I presume, on video and are now easily dated, but that only adds to their charm. It's not very likely this series will ever see a release on DVD - like the entire Play for Today back catalogue, it seems that rights issues and a complete lack of interest from vintage TV fans (who appear to be mostly concerned with tracking down lost episodes of Doctor Who) means that what amounts to a national treasure will remain lost to us for decades. Second and third generation VHS must suffice but, oddly, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Once feared lost, but recently released on DVD, this fondly remembered BBC adaptation of the Dumas classic was originally screened as a Sunday evening serial in 12 black & white episodes. Each ran about 25 minutes and all work well thanks to amazing feats of compression by writer Anthony Steven, as well as intrepid direction from Peter Hammond. Though obviously limited in budget, the series manages to be both elegant and ambitious, with convincing costumes and small-scale sets lit in the Gothic manner. The cast is uniformly splendid, but Alan Badel in particular is an inspired choice for the title role; at 40 or so he's a little too old for the youthful Edmond Dantes and plays him with a kind of wide-eyed innocence that borders on insouciance - I don't think I saw him blink once in the first three episodes - but as the returned Count of Monte Cristo, he crowds his expression with nods and crosses and sideways glancing blows. He is by no means perfect for the role - in essence his performance is the definitive Monte Cristo, but not the definitive Dantes. Perhaps that was his intent.
The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is probably too famous to bear repeating briefly, but... young ship's mate Edmond Dantes is framed as a Bonapartist and sent to a notorious island prison; after 14 years he escapes and, with the help of a fabulous treasure, wreaks a terrible revenge on those who betrayed him. The keys to the cell being - with the help of a fabulous treasure. Because I never quite went past the notion that the Count of Monte Cristo was just a figment of a mad prisoner's imagination; and that the entire revenge was simply a lot of scribbling on the walls of a cell. It is so intricately plotted, and the frailty of its characters is so marked by correction, that it is always revenge fantasy - the story never escapes the youthful brooding Dantes, no matter how much the Count of Monte Cristo attempts to ameliorate his rage.
And somehow my favourite scene always remains the same no matter which version I see - as Mercedes pleads with Monte Cristo to spare her son's life, and he becomes Dantes again and offers his own life in her son's place. It is Dantes' moment of triumph, but it is also Monte Cristo's defeat. In other versions, and perhaps also in the original novel, that moment feels like a suitable end-point, and I was never quite sure why Dumas ventured far beyond it. But this modest 1964 serial also renders Monte Cristo into the tender affections of Ali Pasha's daughter, Haydee, and it is there he finds... not redemption by any means, but the shared space of prisoners.
Ultimately, the best screen version of this classic, and well worth seeing.