These were the early days of outward-bound team-building weekends for lean, keen, cold-eyed wannabe masters of the universe. Everyone on the course, organised by the Territorial Army, took the tasks incredibly seriously, apart from me, who was only there to write about this new wheeze from Corporate America, but that didn’t spare me my punishment for a spot of insurrection.
In The Bridge the competitors are not lean and keen for the key to the executive bathroom at Standard Life, but a prize of £100,000. They are not building oil-drum rafts like my go-getters, but - you’ve guessed it - a bridge. No one is barking orders at them, although a military-style jacket is worn by the senior figure who probably should have been nominated leader, but is sulking because the post has gone to a male stripper.
Yes, really. The contestants have been chosen to meet the standard criteria for such shows. Do we fancy them? Who will they get off with? There’s Billie who’s the daughter of daytime TV’s Trisha, Rowan the token Scot, Tara who survived Covid - and the three most over-groomed lads who’re immediately nicknamed “The Boyband”.
So they know how to operate beard-trimmers - what are they like sawing wood? Rubbish. Sulky Sly would seem to hold the key to the mission’s success. He’s had some tragedy in his life, but, blimey, he’s exasperating.
To be honest, I was expecting more actual bridge-building. If your early years in front of the goggle-box involved lots of Open University, staring at the sea waiting for Apollo splashdowns and playing noughts and crosses in your head with the girl on the testcard, then you’ll have built up the patience for slow-moving television. But this is Love Island in fleeces relocated to a Welsh reservoir and calling it The Bridge is frankly an insult to Thomas Telford.
In Just a Boys’ Game, perhaps the greatest TV drama to come out of Scotland, there’s a kid stuck in front of the OU who asks his dad: “Gonnay gie us sixpence in case I dinnae see you for a while?” Reader, that wasn’t me - I wasn’t so deprived. And how could I be when I was the right, impressionable age for Play for Today and, as long as it wasn’t too risque, allowed to watch?
Boys’ Game from 1979 was one such treat. Greenock in primetime! The gangland violence was leavened by the gloomy wit of writer Peter McDougall. There should be examples of it in A Celebration of Play for Today (BBC4), but for some bonkers reason only the briefest of clips is shown.
Admittedly there were so many riches over the 14 years of these one-hit dramas - 300-odd all told if you include the precursor, The Wednesday Play, and the Beeb have even managed not to wipe too many. I suppose a revival of the format in the boxset age is unlikely, but I’d love to see some of them again. To paraphrase Dennis Potter, a regular and fearless contributor, they’re blue remembered TV.
All the usual suspects are present and correct here: Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, David Hare, Richard Eyre, Kenith Trodd, Roy Battersby, Caryl Churchill, Rachel Billington. “The brief,” says Loach, “was contemporary drama that rattled the cages of the establishment - what a brief.”
The titles tell you there weren’t many bonnets and petticoats on display: Scum, Gotcha, The Spongers, The Legion Hall Bombing, The Rank and File, Brassneck. Ireland’s Troubles were a theme of no less than 20 plays. From Scotland came The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.
Trodd recalls how MI5 kept a wary eye on the Beeb, checking on commie sympathies and the like. Battersby says awkward squad members had their personnel files marked with a tiny Christmas tree, adding: “I had five of them!”
Play for Today ran until 1984. Best-known is Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh who says: “If anyone in 2020 doubts whether the BBC should be scrapped or preserved, they must look back at this period.” Then, drama was all about daring rather than an obsession with ticking boxes and fulfilling quotas.
Sometimes, I admit, the acting in Play for Today could be quite stagey - though not as clunky as you’ll find in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the top-rated show on Netflix right now.
A ghost story for Halloween, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, it follows a young American called Dani (Victoria Pedretti) as she strides confidently in her 1980s stonewashed jeans into a spooky mansion where she’s to be the new governess to two disturbed, and disturbing, kids. This is surprising because Dani must keep mirrors covered, lest she spots a lurking figure with lit-up eyes. Not as scary as Black Christmas, but then nothing is.
Ivor Cutler by KT Tunstall (Sky Arts) is the singer’s sweet tribute to the Glasgow-born humourist whose wheezing harmonium used to send me softly to sleep listening to John Peel’s radio show. Cutler’s lugubrious lunacy is on every one of my car playlists and enrages my children, but they’ll come round to it eventually.