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”Tis in my memory locked’

The post that follows was originally published on the Illuminations blog on 28 June 2009 (and so just as we coming off the Hamlet shoot and long before Macbeth). I reproduce it here to give a sense of part of the background to and genesis of the Screen Plays project.

A host of thoughts about drama on screen is jumbling around in my head at the moment. One clutch is connected of course with coming down from the experience of the Hamlet shoot. Exchanges that we’ve had here on the blog about classic drama on screen are contributing to this. Then there was Thursday’s transmission of Phèdre from the National Theatre. I’ve also started to dip into a DVD box set of the BBC’s Ibsen productions over the past fifty years. Plus, in doing a little reading around the subject in two key essays I found a quote (used in a negative context in both cases) from an essay I co-wrote some twenty-five years ago. Somehow, that’s weird.

There are lots of angles on this subject that I want to explore. Since I sometimes use the blog as a way of thinking things through, I’m going to begin today with some reflections which may not cohere as perhaps they ought. But then I want to return to them in future posts, extend them with additional elements, and maybe circle around something that’s less tentative in putting forward an argument.

Among the central strands of ideas that I’m engaged by are:

• the potential for classic drama on screen, creatively, in terms of fulfilling the demands of audiences and the responsibilities of public service, and perhaps even commercially too

• the speed with which production and distribution technologies are beginning to change this strand of our culture, just as they are so many others

• the potential for all kinds of new partnerships between arts organisations, broadcasters, other possible funders, audiences, educators and others

• the incredible riches of television’s archives, which is coupled with only the slimmest awareness of what’s there and, frankly, the current neglect of this heritage

Let’s start with those quotes — and let’s concentrate today on the fourth of these points. So far relatively little of substance has been written about the history of the relationship between classic drama and television. One key essays is by Jason Jacobs in the anthology Boxed Sets: Television’s Representations of Theatre (The Arts Council of England/University of Luton Press). ‘No Respect: Shot and Scene in Early Television Drama’ challenges what Jacobs describes as a ‘caricature’ of BBC drama from 1936 to the mid-1950s. And the caricature is one for which I’m responsible:

… in its early days TV drama… consisted of televised stage plays, ‘faithfully’ and tediously broadcast from the theatre, or reconstructed in the studio, even down to intervals, prosceniums and curtains. Such an approach, which takes the television process itself as transparent, almost by definition precluded any innovation for TV style or any attempt to develop a specifically televisual form for small-screen drama.

This comes from an essay, co-written by my colleague at Time Out magazine Carl Gardner, initially written in 1980 for the Edinburgh International Television Festival. We then expanded it for the journal Screen in 1983. Although I recognise the polemical points we were trying to make I do want to hold up my hands now and say that much of our historical analysis was simply wrong.

The same quote also appears in the essay ‘Evolutionary Stages: Theatre and Television 1946-56’ by Kate Harris, which is part of a really interesting anthology published last year by The British Library: The Golden Generation: New Light on Post-war British Theatre, edited by Dominic Shellard. Which itself is part of the AHRC-funded British Library Theatre Archive Project. There’s lots more to say about the Theatre Archive Project, and especially the incredible riches of its oral history interviews, but that’s for another day. What I want to do here is point to these valuable resources and admit my (youthful) ignorance about the early years of television’s interactions with theatre.

One example of how interesting recordings from those early years can still be is the 1958 BBC production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder with Donald Wolfit and Mai Zetterling. This is included in the BBC Video Henrik Ibsen Collection DVD box set, along with with nine other television productions and eight radio plays. It’s a wonderful anthology but — bizarrely — it is only available on Region 1 discs via So you have to have a multi-standard DVD player to view the plays, or keep your computer locked to the North American system.

There are comparably good and comprehensive collections of BBC Chekhov plays and Shaw productions. Plus, amazingly, BBC Warner (which is the credited publisher) has just released (but only in America) the box set of An Age of Kings, the 1960 BBC Histories cycle. This is one of the (largely unseen) landmarks of British television: fifteen episodes of between 60 and 75 minutes each, drawn from Shakespeare’s eight history plays, with Judi Dench, Sean Connery, Robert Hardy, Eileen Atkins and a host of others. (The BFI screenonline description is here.) I’ve ordered my copy from the States and will discuss it here further.

Let’s hope that the archives will be more fully opened to British DVDs very soon, but for all my pleasure at the increased availability of these productions I can’t help felling that they are being treated at less than their worth. The technical transfers are all fine in this series, but there’s very little in the way of contextual information in the printed booklets, no critical discussion and certainly no DVD extras (at least on the Ibsen set).

I’ve long felt that there’s the place for a DVD series that takes these classic dramas seriously, and lavishes on their DVD release the attention that the Criterion Collection gives to each of the movie titles that they publish. Access to the originals is a key part of raising the profile of this early work (and so contributing to what might be done in the future) but so too is understanding and research.

I would be fascinated to learn more about both of The Master Builder productions I’ve been watching. The first has Donald Wolfit as the tortured architect Halvard Solness and with Hilda Wangel played by the Swedish beauty Mai Zetterling. She bursts into Solness’ life with all the exciting yet troubling sexuality of a traveller from an Ingmar Bergman film of the time (one of her first roles was in the 1944 feature Frenzy, scripted by Bergman). The production (in black and white, of course) is played in a claustrophobic set with numerous two-shots that are both intimate and intense. Despite its age, the 90-minute drama is strikingly watchable.

Thirty years on, in a 1988 production directed by Michael Darlow, Leo McKern is the architect and Miranda Richardson the mysterious visitor. The sets are more spacious, the production more lavish. Symbolic moments, like Hilda’s first entrance, are heightened by music and lighting, but overall the production plays up the naturalism of the performances and the overall effect is sometimes less effective than the earlier version.

Again, I’ll return to the productions in this box set — and the Chekhovs — in the future. But I want first to underline that there’s an incredible range of classic drama in the archives that we ought to have more access to and ought to understand better. And then I want to ask where are their equivalents today? The last Ibsen produced by the BBC (and indeed British television) was Hedda Gabler in 1993, a production by Deborah Warner with Fiona Shaw originally seen on stage.

As far as I can tell, no pre-1900 non-Shakespeare play has been produced by the BBC for more than a decade. BBC Four did screen Michael Blakemore’s staging of Three Sisters in 2003, with Kristin Scott Thomas, in a version that was ineptly recorded in the theatre; Chekhov wrote this in 1900 and it was first played the following year. So no Webster, Ford, Wycherley, Wilde or Shaw. Which simply is not good enough. What is to be done? Watch this space.


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