The two documented productions of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge on British television were transmitted twenty years apart. In 1966, Joan Kemp-Welch directed and produced the play for Associated-Rediffusion and the resulting production was transmitted as an ITV Play of the Week presentation on 4 April; and in 1986 a three-part BBC production for schools was directed and produced by Geoff Wilson and transmitted in the English File series from 26 September.
In this post, the fourth (and probably last) in a series documenting and discussing a variety of engagements with Arthur Miller on British television, I consider some of the resources I have immediately at hand for these two productions as a prelude to further research on small-screen engagements with Miller later in the year. A comparison between the two productions is methodologically challenging, since only print sources (stills, newspaper reviews, etc) exist for the 1966 production and only the recording for the 1986 three-parter.
The first of these two productions was directed and produced by Joan Kemp-Welch (1906-1999), one of the first women directors to work in television whose ten years of work at Associated-Rediffusion by this point was preceded by an impressive career in both theatre and film (on which see the Screen Plays blog post here).
This television premiere of A View from the Bridge ran for 1 hour and 40 minutes on a Monday evening. Its late scheduling, from 9.40pm, may hint at a sensitivity regarding the subject matter for the domestic audience, for not only does the play centre on an uncle’s uncomfortable passion for his teenage niece but it also involves the man-on-man kiss which had originally led the Lord Chamberlain to issue a ban on the play’s public performance. (The better known two-act version of the play had, therefore, enjoyed its British premiere in a private production by Peter Brook with Anthony Quayle as Eddie and Mary Ure as Catherine in 1956.)
The kiss was considered to have ‘only just got across’ in ‘tiny close-up’ (Maurice Richardson, ‘Doom of a Docker’, The Observer, 10 April 1966; Robert Ottaway, Daily Sketch, 5 April 1966). Referring to the reason for the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of the play, a critic in the Liverpool Echo noted that ‘It is some indication of the shift in public opinion since then that last night on ITV this play seemed decidedly mild in comparison with some of the drama presented on the small screen’ (‘Telecrit: Shift of Opinion’, Liverpool Echo, 5 April 1966).
Interestingly, Peter Black of the Daily Mail (5 April 1966) considered that, although this is a ‘strong theatrical moment’, it came across on television as ‘slightly bogus; you felt that as a projection of Eddie’s misery and jealous rage a punch on the hooter would have been more convincing’. Sylvia Clayton, writing in The Daily Telegraph, considers that Raf Vallone, the actor playing Eddie, ‘managed, as few actors could, the scene where in a paroxysm of rage he kisses the young immigrant [Rodolpho, his niece Catherine’s beau] he has accused of homosexuality’ (‘Television: Italian Actor Superb in Miller Play’, 5 April 1966).
On the kiss, Kemp-Welch is reported as saying, ‘Attitudes have changed since then [ten years ago] and no one would object to the scene today’ (‘Why We Rarely See Arthur Miller Plays’, Television Today, 31 March 1966). Mrs D. Frith of London, SW18 was of the same mind, declaring that she had found it ‘not sordid’; although the play’s blasphemy provided an objection for at least one other – namely, Mrs J. Cooke of Aldborough, who describes herself as ‘a young married woman, with a Christian faith’ (‘Superb View’; unknown newspaper clipping in Joan Kemp-Welch’s scrapbook, BFI Library).
The live transmission (possibly the first ninety-minute play done live for a couple of years according to Black in the Daily Mail), which went out uninterrupted by cuts or commericals, is not known to have been recorded. It therefore very probably exists only via a few stills, some of which are reproduced here. The first image included above shows (from left to right) Katherine Blake as Beatrice, the Italian actor Raf Vallone as her husband Eddie (reprising the role from the long-running production in Paris and the 1961 film version directed by Sidney Lumet) and Francesca Annis as their niece Catherine for whom Eddie harbours an irresistible passion. The Times considered that Vallone, who was here acting for the first time on television, was ‘a superb hero: tough, uncomprehending, infinitely to be pitied’, with Blake and Annis giving ‘strong support’ (‘Looking In: Arthur Miller’s Ennobling Modern Tragedy’, The Times, 5 April 1966, p. 13). Ron Boyle of the Daily Express (5 April 1966) was blown away by Vallone’s performance: for him, it was ‘the most savage performance I have ever seen on television. He took this character of the New York dock worker unwittingly burning with desire for his young niece and ripped into the soul and vitals of the man’.
Perhaps more than any other Miller play does A View from the Bridge resonate with the relentlessness of Sophoclean tragedy in which the hero pursues some path or belief even to his or her own downfall. Eddie, the protagonist, is a modern-day Oedipus, relentless in the same way that his ancient counterpart doggedly pursued self-knowledge, even to his own detriment – and Vallone’s performance was indeed thought to have ‘classic Greek proportions’ (‘Telecrit: Shift of Opinion’, Liverpool Echo, 5 April 1966). The lawyer Alfieri who serves both as character and as narrator is sometimes equated with the ancient Greek chorus, was shown ‘slipping out of his blacked-out background to appear on the spot in the next scene’ (Ron Boyle, The Daily Express, 5 April 1966).
The critical response to the production as a whole was divided. For some the presentation lacked the necessary ‘atmosphere’ to make the particularity of the play’s social and cultural context of the immigrant Sicilian community of mid-20th-century Brooklyn feel authentic (‘Looking In: Arthur Miller’s Ennobling Modern Tragedy’, The Times, 5 April 1966, p. 13). Kemp-Welch’s direction was, for example, thought to be ‘efficient enough, though it might have laid more stress on the Sicilian family ambiance’ (Maurice Richardson, ‘Doom of a Docker’, 10 April 1966). Another critic considered that there were, in the first place, ‘monumental pitfalls’ in producing an American play on British television’ and that Kemp-Welch’s attempt was ‘a gallant failure’ which ‘never got away from being an acted thing’, a perception not helped by the English actors assuming American accents: the play was ‘stifle[d]’ and a ‘charade’ (Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, 7 April 1966). A similar sentiment is that it ‘ape[d] the manners without capturing the feeling’ (Robert Ottaway, Daily Sketch, 5 April 1966).
Yet, others heaped great praise on Kemp-Welch: her direction of the play was ‘ruthless’ (which this critic tells us is, ahem, ‘A truly remarkable achievement for a woman’; Ron Boyle in The Daily Express, 5 April 1966); she ‘scale[d] the play down to the proportions of a straightforward, intensely dramatic and stomach-tightening Sicilian opera without music’ and ‘there was not a pitch of voice or camera angle that was not exactly and unfussedly right’ (Daily Mail, 5 April 1966). The critic Philip Purser relates that Kemp-Welch added a detail to the final fight between Eddie and Marco (another illegal immigrant – played by John Collin – who, alongside Rodolpho, was shopped to the authorities by Eddie): she had them challenge each other excitingly with dockers’ hooks before the fatal knife was drawn, as seen in the image adjacent. For one critic it was ‘as polished and exciting a piece of television drama as I’ve seen for months (Roy Wilson, ‘Miller Play Had Power and Punch’, Eastern Evening News, n.d.). The Peterborough Evening Telegraph went further in declaring that ‘if ITV can produce more plays of this calibre, [the] BBC will have to look to its laurels’ (‘ “A (Superb) View from the Bridge” on ITV’, n.d.).
I am really looking forward to having a look at the production file that exists for this production in the BFI’s archival collections in the hope that some of Kemp-Welch’s directorial decisions and more information on Michael Yates’ design are documented, in which case I will certainly add an addendum to this summation of critical opinion on this production.
1986: a three-part BBC production in the English File series for schools by Geoff Wilson
Having only print sources to evaluate in order to get a sense of the 1966 Associated-Rediffusion production, we now have the opposite situation for the 1986 BBC schools production. A viewing copy exists for this production in the BBC’s archives (although the first DVD was, regrettably, corrupted at the point of viewing; what follows therefore draws on Parts 2 and 3 only) but nothing, as yet, by way of print sources – but this is, of course, not an uncommon situation, especially for schools productions.
This studio production of A View from the Bridge is very well executed, with even the glaring distraction of the (mostly) British actors trying, and not always succeeding, to assume Sicilian-American accents paling into the background after the first part. Miller’s stage instruction for ‘the street and house front of a tenament building’ (p. 378 of the 2007 Methuen edition of the text) translates in this production to a hazy depiction of the Brooklyn bridge and Manhattan skyline for the back-drop with a yellow taxi-cab foregrounded on a typical American street. This outdoor locale is pretty detailed (see image adjacent) but it still somehow has the feel of a theatre set in which the artificiality of a part standing for the whole is accepted without difficulty.
The slightly claustrophobic feeling resulting from having so many people gather in the main acting area – the small dining room of Eddie and Beatrice’s modest apartment – underscores the hugeness of the emotions bubbling under, and increasingly often over, the surface of the characters’ interactions with each other, whether it be Eddie’s dominant possessiveness of his niece Catherine, her burgeoning love affair with illegal immigrant Rodolpho or the sense of abandonment Eddie’s wife Beatrice feels.
The cameras often take in the whole room, from a variety of angles in quick succession, in preference to close-ups of individual characters in order to capture the different perspectives from which a single action or word is felt by different characters, such as when Rodolpho (played by Vincenzo Ricotta) sings ‘Paper Doll’ to the delight of Catherine (Francesca Brill) and the resulting discomfort of Eddie (Del Henney). As can be seen in the adjacent image, Catherine’s reaction and Eddie’s unhappiness is clear; Beatrice (Yvonne Bryceland) watches on benignly; whilst Marco (Mark Jax) who, with a wife and three children dependent on his American earnings back home, is sensitive to shifts in mood and careful not to tread on the toes of his hosts is located so that he can see all the different responses in the room.
As noted above, the lawyer Alfieri (John Bluthal) serves as narrator and functions as a modern-day embodiment of the ancient Greek chorus, able to witness, advise and comment but without the ability to stop the onward progression of events. He interacts with the characters, but speaks directly to camera with the wisdom of hindsight, standing slightly outside of the drama. See, for example, the first image from this production above, taken from the end sequence following the murder of Eddie by Marco: Alfieri is one of the bystanders during the fight but as Eddie lies dying, embraced by the two women in his life, the lawyer leaves the group, the action in the background slowly freezes and he addresses the camera for the final time. This dramatic function is highlighted by the way the camera pans from the outdoors set into the indoors set of his office at several points in the production; during this he continues to talk to the camera as may be seen in the image here.
Finally, how did this production for schools manage the scene in which Eddie kisses Rodolpho? Without much embarrassment, as one might expect even a few more decades on from the Lord Chamberlain’s ban (but it is worth noting that this production was transmitted to schools in 1986, the year in which the controversial amendment to Section 28 banned local authorities from promoting the acceptability of homosexuality). As befits the particular dramatic narrative of this play, the unwillingness of both Catherine and then Rodolopho in being physically overpowered and kissed by Eddie is at the fore. The kisses are aggressive eruptions of Eddie losing the battle to contain his jealousy and they do little to persuade Catherine that Rodolpho is not really interested in her and only after a Green Card. This is the crucial scene, the climax of the play. The rest merely unravels Eddie’s life with all the inevitability of a modern-day Sophoclean hero: as Alfieri says in his Epilogue, ‘he allowed himself to be wholly known’ (p. 439), which reminds us of Oedipus’ relentless pursuit of self-knowledge despite the consequences.
Thus ends my fourth post in this series looking at Arthur Miller on British television. There are more archival resources to be explored and one or two more productions to be viewed so please do watch this space for addenda or further short posts!