According to Neil Taylor’s essay ‘A History of the Stage Play on BBC Television’ (published in 1998), Chekhov was at that time the fifth most-staged playwright (after Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Priestley), but since then I can think of only a close-to-unwatchable theatre recording in the early days of BBC Four of Michael Blakemore’s production of Three Sisters, 2003, with Kristin Scott Thomas. So as my modest contribution to the (very muted) Chekhov celebrations, I want to begin an exploration of Chekhov — and especially of his plays — on Britain’s small-screen.
Writing about British television Chekhov is a good deal harder than the British Universities Film and Video Council’s database Shakespeare makes the comparable task for the Bard. As far as I can discover (although I hope someone will put me right) there is not even a website that discusses small-screen Chekhov, as there is for example with Ibsen. What there is, however, is a wonderful DVD boxset of BBC productions, The Anton Chekhov Collection. Frustratingly, however, this is only available from the United States with Region 1 encoding.
If we concentrate today on the four major plays (that which becomes Platonov, The Wood Demon and early one-act dramas will be considered in the future), the boxset has a production of The Seagull from 1978, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, with Anthony Bate, Michael Gambon and Georgina Hale. There is also an earlier version of The Three Sisters, from 1970, with Anthony Hopkins, Janet Suzman and Eileen Atkins under the dead hand of director Cedric Messina.
The great treats on the boxset are a pair of Uncle Vanyas, from 1970 (imagine, the BBC mounted two major Chekvovs that year) and 1991, and two productions of The Cherry Orchard, from 1962 and 1981. The later Vanya has Ian Holm, David Warner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with a script adapted by David Mamet as directed by Gregory Mosher.
Remarkably, the two Cherry Orchards both star Judi Dench, with the former a studio version of Michel Saint-Denis’ famed production for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the latter Richard Eyre’s radical presentation of a translation by Trevor Griffiths and Helen Rappaport. Judi Dench is Anya in the first and Madame Ranevsky in the second. At least one other RSC Chekhov has been transferred to television, this being Trevor Nunn’s production of The Three Sisters with Suzanne Bertish, Janet Dale, Roger Rees and Timothy Spall, which Thames Television recorded in 1981 but which is not currently available on DVD.
Other recordings currently only accessible via the archives include Sidney Lumet’s film version of The Seagull which was shown in 1969 as a BBC Play of the Month. The cast seems almost impossibly starry: James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, Simone Signoret and David Warner. There is also another The Cherry Orchard, from Play of the Month in 1971, with Peggy Ashcroft and Celia Johnson, again directed by Cedric Messina.
Then there are earlier productions which may or may not remain as recordings (and which demand further research). The BBC2 strand Theatre 625 presented The Seagull directed by Alan Cooke in 1966 with Pamela Brown as Madame Arkadina. In 1963 Joan Kemp-Welch directed a Three Sisters for ITV with Jill Bennett and Ann Bell — that’s one for which I definitely want to chase down a print (if it exists). But more definitely no longer with us is a 1950 Sunday Night Theatre production of The Seagull with Luise Rainer.
The Anton Chekhov Collection: detailed and thoughtful review of the box set from DVDTalk.
This post was originally written for the Illuminations blog and first published here on 11 May 2010.