Plays could cover all genres, although comedy was usually reserved for the separate Comedy Playhouse strand. In its time, Play for Today featured gritty contemporary social realist dramas, historical pieces, fantasies, biopics and science-fiction. Most pieces were written directly for television, but there were also occasional adaptations of stories from other media, such as novels and stage plays.
Writers who contributed plays to the series included John Osborne, Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff, David Hare, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Arthur Hopcraft, Alan Plater, Graham Reid, David Storey, and John Hopkins. Several prominent directors also featured, including Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke, Michael Apted, Mike Newell, Roland Joffe, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Leigh. Some of the most famous plays broadcast in the strand include Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), Home (1972), Schmoedipus (1974), Nuts in May (1976), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Our Day Out (1976), Abigail's Party (1977), Blue Remembered Hills (1979), Just A Boys Game (1979) and The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980).
Some installments in the series spun-off into full-blown series. Probably the two best-remembered examples of this are Rumpole of the Bailey, which was produced as a one-off in the Play for Today strand in 1975 and three years later became a series for Thames Television with the same star, Leo McKern, and Boys from the Blackstuff, a hard-hitting 1982 BBC2 drama serial by Alan Bleasdale which spun-off from his play The Black Stuff, made in 1978 although not screened until 1980, and only then as a one-off play and not part of PfT. Other spin-offs include Gangsters, and a single series of science fiction-based plays styled as Play for Tomorrow.
Two plays were controversially pulled from transmission shortly before broadcast due to concerns over their content: these were Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 and Roy Minton's Scum the following year. In the case of Brimstone and Treacle it was due to concerns over the play's depiction of a disabled woman's rape at the hands of a man who may or may not be the devil, and with Scum the worry was its supposed sensationalism of life in a young offenders' institution (then still known as a borstal). Brimstone and Treacle remained untransmitted until it was shown on BBC One in 1987, and Scum until BBC Two transmitted it in 1991. In the meantime, however, both had circumvented their withdrawal by being re-made as films: Brimstone and Treacle was filmed in 1982 with Sting in the lead role, while the cinematic version of Scum appeared in 1979 with most of the same cast and directed by the man responsible for Play for Today version, Alan Clarke. The film version of Scum was shown on Channel 4 in 1983, much to the chagrin of campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who instigated a private prosecution despite the fact that the Independent Broadcasting Authority had specifically approved the broadcast of the film. The High Court found in her favour, but Channel 4 won on appeal.
The series as a whole was viewed with suspicion by rightwing commentators and critics as many of the issues tackled were the subject of political controversy. Of particular note was the 1978 play "The Spongers" an ultimately tragic tale of benefit dependency set against the Queen's Silver Jubilee the previous year. This suspicion was lampooned in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin when Play For Today was listed by Geoffrey Palmer's character Jimmy in his famous "Forces Of Anarchy" diatribe.
The programme officially ended in 1984, although there was one further series not broadcast in its original name but in its replacement name "Screen One" and "Screen Two" in 1985. The general trend in 1980s television production was away from one-off plays and towards a concentration on series and serials. When one-offs were produced, they tended to be more cinematic and less theatrical than Play for Today and the earlier series had been, and its style of dialogue and character-driven one-offs increasingly fell out of favour.
Nonetheless, the series is generally remembered as a benchmark of high-quality British television drama, and has become a byword for what many continue to argue was a golden age of British television. In 2000, the British Film Institute produced a poll of industry professionals to determine the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, and five of the programmes included in the final tally were from Play for Today. Some of the better-known plays in the series, such as "Abigail's Party", "The Black Stuff", "The Flipside of Dominick Hide" and several of the Potter plays, have been made available on VHS and DVD.
A revival of the single play for BBC One, publicised as a return of Play for Today, but under the working title of The Evening Play, was announced at the beginning of March 2006, but nothing has been heard from it since. Kevin Spacey, film star and director of the Old Vic, in March 2008 told BBC News that he would like to see the return of the show, but the Conservative MP Michael Gove and journalist Mark Lawson expressed disagreement, Gove condemning them as "dreadfully earnest exercises in socialist-realist art". Jan Moir in The Daily Telegraph wrote in support of Spacey though, saying "the British loved Play for Today once, and would do so again. A good piece of drama looks at the human condition, and tells us something we should know about ourselves.