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Arthur Miller on the small screen 1: Death of a Salesman

James Grout as Charley and Warren Mitchell as Willy in the 1996 BBC production of Death of a Salesman

James Grout as Charley and Warren Mitchell as Willy in the 1996 BBC production of Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s (1915-2005) American tragedies have not only proved to be extremely popular on both British professional and amateur stages for more than half a century but they have also enjoyed a longstanding place at the heart of English literature curricula in schools. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that at least twelve productions of his plays have been transmitted on British television networks over a forty-year period from 1957 to 1997.

There seems to have been no systematic study of Miller on the small screen, although the very many film versions have been the subject of some exploration by scholars: see, for example, R. Barton Palmer’s recent essay in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller, edited by Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge University Press, 2010). In order to address this gap in the literature I am beginning a new case study on British television productions of Miller’s plays, and I will share my first findings here, starting with this overview of the three known productions of Death of a Salesman. (Death of a Salesman, incidentally, opened on Broadway on this day, 10 February 1949, and Arthur Miller died on the same day of the year in 2005.)

Silvio Narizzano directed and produced the first of these in 1957 as a Play of the Week Granada production for ITV; a 1966 Play of the Month production was directed by Alan Cooke and produced by Cedric Messina for BBC1; and, finally, David Thacker’s five-part production was transmitted in the English File series for BBC Schools in 1996.

Plays for the Millions title pageGranada’s 1957 production for ITV
In its second year of broadcasting the north of England weekday franchise Granada mounted the first ever television production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the ITV Play of the Week series (transmitted at 8pm on Wednesday 27 November 1957). This would be the first of a series of four Miller plays (to include All My Sons, A Memory of Two Mondays and The Crucible) which Granada would, over the course of a two-year period, present for the first time on British television (see Plays for the Millions: The First 75. A Cross Index of Granada TV Play Productions, Granada TV Network, 1960, p. 23.).

Miller’s attractiveness to the commercial networks around this time and the seeming reluctance of the BBC to engage seriously with his work until the 1980s (the 1966 Death of a Salesman was the anomaly in the production chronology) needs to be considered alongside institutional factors such as, on the one hand, Granada’s employment of Canadian Silvio Narrizano (1927-2011) as head of drama output (who both directed and produced this first Death of a Salesman) and a team of other north American director-producers (see Lez Cooke, ‘Television Drama in the English Regions, 1956-82’, PhD thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2007, pp. 55-56) and, on the other, Miller’s political position in America and how this may have impacted on the different television networks’ perceptions of his performability. Granada’s timing here is particularly interesting: Miller was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name former members of the American Communist Party to the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) in May 1957; and, before the Court of Appeal annulled the conviction in August 1958, Granada had produced both Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, productions which followed close on the heels of a production of Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in March 1957.

The critic Philip Purser considers that Granada ‘never attached as much importance to the single play as did the other companies or the BBC’, but in its early years it did, in fact, ‘[raid] the theatre’ before it sharpened its focus on productions of original dramas for television (Philip Purser, ‘Granada Drama from 1956’, in John Finch (2003, ed.), Granada Television: The First Generation, Manchester University Press, p. 119).

1957 Granada Death of a Salesman (Guardian, 30.11.57)Comparing the Granada production with the 1949 London premiere of the play, the critic Bernard Levin wrote that Elia Kazan’s stage production ‘got in the way and on the nerves. […] it is possible to be too clever. Which is only another way of saying that I had to wait until the production by poor, maligned ITV to realise what a towering play this is‘ (‘Granada Produces the Best Play since ITV Began: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman’, The Manchester Guardian, 30 November 1957, p. 5.). Indeed, elsewhere on the Screen Plays blog, my colleague John Wyver includes this first television production of the play in his outline of the one hundred most significant productions in the history of stage plays on television.

The critic in The Times similarly considered that Granada’s production ‘really did the play proud’. It was, for this writer, the play’s ’rapidly changing scenes which are constantly trembling between immediate reality, literal memory, and tortured delusion’ which made it a particularly appropriate piece for television presentation. This was the first time that Granada had mounted a two-hour production and, in addition to commissioning a haunting score for flute from Alex North, they brought Albert Dekker over from America to reprise the role of Willy Loman which he had previously played on Broadway (Philip Purser, ‘Granada Drama from 1956’, p. 119). He did not disappoint: ‘Stumbling in speech and turning a massively brooding face towards the camera, he returned to scenes of crushing humiliation and desperate ambition with a haggard energy and retreated from them in abject exhaustion’ (Anon., ‘Independent Television: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller’, The Times, 28 November 1957, p. 3.). Levin, too, was full of praise: it was not only ‘the best [production of a] play since ITV began’, but it also ‘took the entire ITV output of plays since the service began 26 months ago, wrapped it in plenty of stout brown paper, sealed it and booted it smartly over the horizon’ (ibid.).

Narizzano’s production is recorded as being lost which, since it seems to have been such an overwhelming critical success, is unfortunate. Levin does, however, tell us something of how the thing came across on screen: it began in a ‘positively Orsonian flurry of camera-tilts, pannings, close-ins, and shots viewed through bicycling legs and bed-rails’, after which it settled down and relied heavily on the ‘one-against-two motif’. Narizzano is said to have managed the time-transitions and shifts in pace expertly.

The Listener, 9 June 1966, p. 850.

The Listener, 9 June 1966, p. 850.

The BBC’s 1966 Play of the Month production
At least two further productions of Death of a Salesman seem to have been televised – both by the BBC and thirty years apart. On 24 May 1966 the play appeared in the Play of the Month series transmitted on BBC1. Alan Cooke directed and Cedric Messina produced. As with the Granada production, no recording is extant, but from reviews it seems that the production failed to impress in anything like the same way as the Granada television premiere.

‘Strenuous’ was the first word that sprang to J. C. Trewin’s mind in The Listener, reckoning that Rod Steiger as Willy Loman (pictured with his son Biff, played by Tony Bell, adjacent) failed to convey the play’s necessary ‘most delicate shadings of mood’ (‘Independent Criticism of BBC Television: Drama and Light Entertainment’, The Listener, 9 June 1966, p. 851). However, in The Guardian Mary Crozier rated his lead performance much more highly: ‘Steiger ran the full gamut of Willy’s pathetic and disordered decline, a performance with layer upon layer of significance’. Furthermore, ‘It is the peculiar quality of such a production that it has the mobility which peers into corners and isolates the individual, and yet all this is immediate without the artifice of cutting’ (‘Death of a Salesman on BBC-1’, The Guardian, 25 May 1966, p. 9).

A five-part version for schools directed by David Thacker (BBC, 1996)
It was no less than thirty years later that the BBC returned to the play, presenting a five-part production in the English File series which was transmitted in half-hour segments in the middle of the day for schoolchildren aged 14-17. Despite being a production which was ostensibly made for educational purposes, The Times featured it in its television ‘Choice’ column on the days of both the first and the last of the five transmissions (on 19 April and 17 May 1996). The anonymous writer believes that this is ‘the first time British television has tackled Arthur Miller’s famous play’ (a claim which is clearly mistaken) but also, interestingly, that this particular production for schools ‘deserves a wider audience’ (The Times, 19 April 1996, p. 47). (It is worth mentioning that this production was transmitted more than a decade after Volker Schlondorff’s 1985 film version starring Dustin Hoffman.)

1996 BBC Death of a Salesman - the brothers hatch a business planThe production was strongly cast with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman, Rosemary Harris as his wife Linda, Iain Glen and Owen Teale as their sons Biff and Happy; James Grout played Charley (pictured with Willy, adjacent), and Juliet Aubrey and Pam Ferris took minor roles. Although the budget for this production for schools clearly didn’t stretch to anything more than basic sets, much was done with little. The close-up shots and clever lighting underscore the claustrophobia in the individual tragedies and personal relationships, whilst the use of a layered perspective intelligently conveys the complexities of the family dynamic well (see the adjacent image in which the brothers hatch their business plan before their parents). 1996 BBC Death of a Salesman - Willy and his brother BenLighting is also usefully employed to convey something of the fog that Willy increasingly finds himself in.

The numerous flashbacks experienced by Willy are effectively portrayed in these simple settings: a device often used is Willy observed facing front, conversing animatedly with a remembered person (for example, his brother Ben, as in the adjacent image) who appears behind him; transitions back to reality are effected by voices or noises off, and the camera shifting away from the face of the person whom Willy is recollecting to Willy (who often seems flustered or confused at this point) and then to other real-life characters.

Other scenes, such as when the young Biff arrives at his father’s hotel to discover him with another woman, are played out in full (here – and see the image below – accents of red lighting emphasize, first, Willy’s adultery, then Biff’s shame at having failed his exam and his fury with his father’s betrayal, and finally Willy’s hotly alternating expressions of shame and anger).

1996 BBC Death of a Salesman - Biff and his father's mistressDavid Thacker (b. 1950; currently Artistic Director of the Octagon Theatre, Bolton) served as both director and producer. Thacker had, of course, by this point developed a long and close working relationship with Miller, not only tackling a large number of his plays on the nation’s foremost stages, but also bringing Miller into rehearsals for several of these productions and even working with him on revisions to his playscripts – for example, on Broken Glass before its transfer to the UK. (Miller has described their relationship as like that between a grandfather and his grandson: see ‘How We Met: David Thacker and Arthur Miller’, The Independent, 30 April 1995; also published online).

At the end of the series, The Times considered that Thacker had done the play justice in this ‘impressively-cast production’: furthermore, ‘having given schoolchildren the first pick, it must make the project available to a wider audience’ (The Times, 17 May 1996, p. 47).

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Arthur Miller on the small screen 1: Death of a Salesman

  1. Amanda, you know I’m working on a (long overdue but nearly complete) chapter draft about The Stables Theatre company at Granada in 1969-70. In the reading for that I came across this paragraph by the director Gordon McDougall about his memories of Granada’s 1957 production:

    I had always wanted to meet Silvio [Narizzano] because he was responsible for the greatest piece of television I had ever seen, Death of a Salesman, made by Granada in 1958. This was the first televisual experience in which one was able to realise the power of the medium to transport one in time, to superimpose a scene from the past upon the present. Yet Silvio told me, this had been achieved in Studio 2, hardly larger than a shoebox, shot live, with the cameras having to move into the corner of the studio to shoot the captions for the commercials in the ad breaks. My admiration for the days of steam television and the men who made it increased fourfold.

    from Gordon McDougall, ‘En route to the Stables’ in John Finch in association with Michael Cox and Marjorie Giles, eds., Granada Television: the first generation, Manchester University Press, 2003, pp. 79-80.

    Posted by John Wyver | 1 April 2013, 7:32 am
    • This is a great quotation from McDougall, John, with valuable information on the conditions of production. Thanks very much for sharing! What a very great shame the production doesn’t exist.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 1 April 2013, 1:08 pm

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