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Bookshelf: Television: The Ephemeral Art (1970) by T. C. Worsley

The Wars of the Roses, 1965, BBC/RSC poster

The Wars of the Roses, 1965, BBC/RSC poster

T. C. Worsley’s Television: The Ephemeral Art belongs on the (very short) library shelf labelled ‘distinguished collections of television criticism’. The book (out-of-print, but second–hand copies are plentiful online) is all the more valuable because it was published so early (comparatively) in television’s development. It rounds up Worsley’s newspaper columns between 1964 and 1969 and as a consequence it is an unrivalled account of one person’s detailed responses to the supposed ‘golden age’ of the medium. Since Worsley in a previous life had been a theatre critic, he was particularly interested in small screen drama, and Part II (of V) is devoted to ‘Adaptations’. In a run of thoughtful articles, Worsley raises many of the questions about the relationships between theatre and television with which Screen Plays is attempting to engage.

Television: The Ephemeral Art was published in 1970 by Alan Ross, the poet and proprietor of the literary journal London Magazine, a kind of Granta of the time. Three years earlier Ross had published Worsley’s Flannelled Fool (the title is from Kipling’s The Islanders), an autobiographical novel of the writer’s early years and education during the 1930s. Although barely remembered today, Flannelled Fool is a frank and fervent celebration of (largely) platonic love felt by the author towards boys at school (he was an assistant master from 1929 on at Wellington College, Berkshire). Much of the book is given over to ‘a series of enslavements to a series of younger boys’. Worsley went to Spain with Stephen Spender during the Civil War and then after 1945 he worked for the New Statesman as literary editor and drama critic. He jumped from the house organ of the Labour left to the daily rag of capitalism when in 1958 he joined the Financial Times as their theatre critic.

One of Worsley’s other books is Shakespeare’s Histories at Stratford, an account of the productions of Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Richard III mounted at the Stratford Memorial Theatre (the forerunner of the RSC) for the Festival of Britain. This volume includes in addition an essay about the texts by reknowned critic J. Dover Wilson, a selection of production photographs by the famed Surrealist photographer Angus McBean and an introduction by the cycle’s driving force (and Falstaff) Anthony Quayle. In this, Quayle describes Worsley as ‘one of the most sensitive and discerning of our younger dramatic critics’ (even if T. C. was forty-four at the time).

Established at the Financial Times, Worsley was stricken by an illness, which presumably was the emphysema which was to kill him in 1977. The loss to West End first nights, however, was the small screen’s gain, as the disease ‘plunged me overnight from the theatre (of which I had some twenty years’ experience) into the television world (of which I had precisely none)’. Throughout the 1960s he wrote a column that appeared each Wednesday with a consideration of a notable television event or debate from the past week.

Here is Worsley on the Philip Saville-directed Hamlet, shot on location at Elsinore for the BBC in 1964. (It’s disappointing that the book, perhaps repeating the mistake of the original column, refers to the director as Philip Savile.)

One of the problems least successfully solved by television has been the adaptation of stage plays, especially those in which language is all-important — and Shakespeare most of all … [Philip Saville] used his camera with the most delicate tact for the sole purpose of bringing the play before us as direct and fresh as he could. There was nothing tricksy or over-clever. Then — equally important — he drew from his actors almost perfect speaking for the medium …

The greatest difficulty occurs, obviously enough, with the long soliloquies. Mr Savi[l]le’s device for dealing with them was to imagine that they were thoughts seeping through Hamlet’s brain over a space of time after the particular event that provoked them; so that different parts were spoken in different places. It worked surprisingly well …

A season later, Worsley returned to the theme of Shakespeare on television, this time responding to the adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Wars of the Roses (BBC, 1965).

It is not surprising that Shakespeare is the most difficult of authors to get across on television since his language is, initially, a device to bridge the gap between stage and audience, and it is just this gap which television bridges anyhow. That distance between speaker and audience which declamation requires is just the one distance which the camera finds it most difficult to cope with; while the camera’s special contribution — the close-up — can be infinitely damaging to false whiskers and elaboration of speech.

The Wars of the Roses had been a huge hit for the RSC on the stage, and at the end of the run the BBC recorded a three-part series at Stratford. The playing area of the main theatre was transformed into a studio with the building of a fourth wall across the proscenium arch. Worsley most definitely approved of this production strategy.

I hope that the BBC will now see that this, and only this, is the way to go about putting Shakespeare on the screen in the future. The fact that the company had already played a play for a whole season has two advantages. First, that only demonstrably successful productions need by chosen; and, second, that when it comes to adapting a production for television, all the spadework will have been done already. The whole of the rehearsal time can be devoted to purely television problems. For, far from being a mere photographing of the stage productions, these are radical adaptations, completely readjusted to the different medium.

A year later, Worsley responded to his own argument:

So much for Theories! I had propounded one, it may be remembered, whereby I demonstrated that the televising of an already established stage production like The Wars of the Roses or Ivanov, with a fine cast already familiar with their parts, was bound to be better than an ad hoc production where rehearsal time, instead of having to devote some of itself to acting, could be spent entirely on the television adaptation. It was a splendid theory, watertight as it seemed to me, and on its very first demonstration, the week-end before last proved itself to be totally wrong! Evidently art defies all theories.

The demonstration took place when on the Sunday BBC-2 did an ad hoc production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, followed on Monday by ATV’s television version of the Gielgud Ivanov. By my theory, the Ivanov should have been incomparable, for it was a marvellous production on the stage; while the Turgenev with a team of excellent but not star actors, who hadn’t necessarily played together before, and certainly not in this play, should have been second class.

Just the reverse was true. The fine stage production of the Chekhov was diminished, to the point of the second or even third rate: while the ad hoc production of the Turgenev came up fresh, sensitive and absolutely first rate.

Worsley is very clear where the fault lies, and his analysis shows a sophisticated understanding of the production methods of television:

The director of A Month in the Country (Christopher Morahan) had a real feeling for the play, understood it, cast it almost perfectly and translated it beautifully into television terms. While the director of the Chekhov (Graham Evans) appeared not to have got inside the play at all, made only the slightest effort to capture the feel and pulse of a fine production, was content, indeed, to lumber his cameras unimaginatively from close-up and half close-up, to close-up and half close-up, as if it were enough simply to show us who was speaking to whom.

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