Thought-provoking, stimulating and in some cases as poignant today as it was then: Vol 2 of BBC’s much acclaimed anthology series brought the works of some of Britain’s best writers and actors to the screen. Six plays (first transmitted between 1972 and 1979) address topics such as the inequality of the British education system, gangland wars, welfare cuts, immigration and miners strikes in rural areas.

Disc 1 features two stories written by Tom Clarke – the first one, ‘STOCKER’S COPPER’ (1972, dir, Jack Gold), is based on true events and takes place in Cornwall in 1913. Clay miner Manuel Stocker (Bryan Marshall) works hard day in day out to feed his wife Alice (Jane Lapotaire) and their two children. However, when the going gets really tough Stocker, along with some other miners, decide on an almighty strike for better working conditions, better pay and union recognition. Of course this gets the authorities worried and they dispatch a specially trained squad of Welsh policemen to the rural Cornish spot to nip things in the bud so to speak. Among them is copper Herbert Griffith (Gareth Thomas) – a sympathetic lad who takes up lodgings with the Stockers (initially Manuel isn’t too happy about the arrangement but extra money is always welcome) before befriending the family. Slowly but surely Herbert starts to gain Manuel’s trust but when a miners march on the very clay pit where ‘blackleggers’ work descends into bloody violence, Manuel comes to realise the hard way that Herbert is nothing more than a duty-bound copper after all. Superbly acted and photographed this is powerful stuff indeed.
The second Tom Clarke story is VICTIMS OF APARTHEID (Stuart Burge, 1978) in which George O’Brien (John Kani), a black refugee from South Africa, lives (jobless and deserted by his long-suffering wife) in a ramshackle flat in Ealing – not even his white ‘girlfriend’ Carrie (Coral Atkins) who appears to earn a crust as a part-time prostitute can keep him in high spirits. Miserable and clearly suffering from the after-effects of being tortured back in his homeland he seeks help from the Christian Underground organisation run by the arrogant Canon Capper (Peter Jeffrey) – instead, he entrusts George with helping another African refugee, Henry. It’s a recipe for disaster… John Kani is superb in the role of a physically and psychologically tortured soul who, ironically, ends up getting almost the same treatment to cure his increasing mental instability as he received in South Africa whilst under torture…

Scottish playwright Peter McDougall is also featured here with two plays, both directed by John Mackenzie. The first one is THE ELEPHANT’S GRAVEYARD (1976) in which work-shy young Bunny (Jon Morrison) whiles away the time amid idyllic meadows and forests, with his wife under the impression her man is hard at work. Taking shelter from the sodding rain (well, it is Scotland…) Bunny makes the acquaintance of Jody (Billy Connelly) – a carefree soul whose wife also thinks he is at work. The two lads quickly bond over conversations about their choices in life, personal freedom and getting older – all the while getting pissed on vino and indulging in silly ‘macho’ games such as climbing up steep hills, balancing acts across a bridge and so forth. As the afternoon draws to an end Jody bids Bunny goodbye, remarking that he’s now forty years old and (symbolically speaking) nearing the elephant’s graveyard. As Bunny turns around to likewise wish Jody the best he’s suddenly vanished into thin air… implying an almost supernatural conclusion.
JUST A BOY’S GAME (1979) features Scottish singer/songwriter Frankie Miller as Jake McQuillen, a young man working at the Glasgow docks who strives to be just as tough and hard as his dying granddad (Hector Nicol) once was. The film follows Jake’s daily routine as he’s involved in bar brawls - drinking heavily and fighting against rival gangs with his mates Dancer (Ken Hutchison) and Tanza (Gregor ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ Fisher) until one of them ends up dead in a river. This is bleak and disturbing stuff which depicts the violent and indifferent attitudes of those who inhabit Jake’s murky world. Frankie Miller (who also sings the title song) portrays ‘Jake’ with icy menace and just as he thinks he’s on top of the game his dying gramps tells him some home truth… The heavy Glaswegian accent might be a trifle hard to understand at times but it’s a no nonsense and ruthless depiction of Glaswegian gang culture in the 70s.

One of the most haunting and truly devastating TV-plays surely must be THE SPONGERS (1978) which was written by Jim Allen and directed by Roland Joffé. Set against the backdrop of the Silver Jubilee celebrations the story revolves around Pauline (convincingly portrayed by Christine Hargreaves), a recently separated single mum with four young kids, out of which one, namely her daughter Paula, suffers from Down’s syndrome. Completely let down by a welfare system which isn’t understanding towards Pauline’s hardship (never mind the welfare cuts which see Paula transferred from a special needs facility to completely unsuitable surroundings in an old people’s home - a council decision to save costs) the struggling mother falls ever more into arrears. Her only friends who might be able to help are young social worker Mrs. Johnson and community action worker Sullivan (Bernard Hill). But when debt collectors remove most of Pauline’s furniture including her TV-set and she receives notice that Paula will have to remain in the old people’s home indefinitely the desperate woman finally snaps and does the unthinkable… Sadly, cases like this (even though here it is fiction) are still happening on a regular basis and people taking their lives due to benefit cuts or the removal of disability benefits continue to make headlines to this day.

Finally we have a particularly sharp observation on the inequality of the British education system and the double bill GOTCHA (written by Barrie Keeffe) and CAMPION’S INTERVIEW (written by Brian Clarke) is near perfect in its depiction of a deeply flawed system. In GOTCHA (1977, dir. Barry Davis) we see a young and rebellious pupil, simply referred to as the Kid (Phil Davies) holding arrogant teachers Ton (Gareth Thomas, who played the Welsh copper in ‘Stocker’s Copper’) and Lynne (Clare Sutcliffe) hostage in the school’s store room after it transpires that the two teachers had a fling and Ton scolds the unassuming pupil – who only entered to collect his motorbike (which he shouldn’t have stored in the room) – for being a wastrel, a no-hoper, a working class lout, a punk… In short, the Kid’s grades are so poor he will never be able to even get a half decent job. Only too aware of his predicament the Kid decides to turn the table and threatens to throw a lit cigarette into the motorbike’s tank… The situation worsens when the Headmaster (Peter Hughes) is inadvertently drawn into the dispute and none of the teachers even know the Kid’s name, that’s how insignificant he is to them. Phil Davies is ace as the foul-mouthed and doomed pupil – it resulted in complaints by Mary Whitehouse. In CAMPION’S INTERVIEW (1977, dir. Barry Davies) headmaster Campion (Julian Curry) decides to take on the education authorities and by doing so he exposes the political pressures behind the creation of a new comprehensive school.

This 3-disc Blu-ray release comes with a specially commissioned 60-page booklet.