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Play of the week: The School for Scandal (BBC, 1959)

Silhouette from opening credits

I have persisted with my notion of a group viewing of The School for Scandal in the 1959 BBC version, even if the collectivity of commentators remains restricted to me, myself and I.

Saturday [with updates through the next seven days]: I thought that we might try an experiment — although its success will depend on your involvement. I want to propose that over the course of the coming week we together watch a studio adaptation of a classic play, and specifically The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). I propose to add to this blog entry across the week as I watch the ten parts of the 1959 BBC adaptation directed by Hal Burton that are posted on YouTube (and the first of which I have embedded here). I hope that you might be persuaded to watch some or all of this with me — and to contribute your own thoughts and ideas in the comments below. I’m fully prepared for there to be no response whatsoever, but I’d be thrilled to think that we might develop something of a dialogue. And if it’s a success we can repeat the project with other classics. I’ll continue to add thoughts about the production through the week, but to begin with here’s Part 1 (the other parts can be easily accessed on YouTube).

PS. I have certain qualms about working with productions that are posted to YouTube in contravention of copyright regulations, but given that this production is not otherwise available on DVD or elsewhere I feel that it is appropriate for it to be the subject of our viewing and discussion. But I would also welcome any feelings for or against this view. Incidentally the dating of this production on YouTube is incorrect.

Sunday morning: The best online version of Sheridan’s text is that at Bartleby.com taken from The Harvard Classics series edited by Charles W Eliot and published in New York 1909-14. It can be very instructive to view the television version with this in mind. Immediately obvious is the substantial re-working of the opening of the play, with the removal of Sheridan’s dedication and Garrick’s prologue (neither omission is surprising) and the re-ordering of the opening to begin with Act II Scene 1.

One of the problems of Sheridan’s drama is its need early on for some fairly heavy-handed exposition which is usually carried by Snake’s detailed explanation in Act I Scene 1 of Sir Peter Teazle’s responsibilities towards his two wards. Producer Hal Burton prefigures this with a voice-over introduction of the main characters wittily accompanied by silhouette figures in the style of the late eighteenth century. ‘The action of the play,’ the viewer is also told, ‘takes place in London in the 1770s.’

The first scene plays out as a two-hander (again, with cuts to the original text) between Felix Aylmer‘s Sir Peter Teazle and his much younger wife Lady Teazle, played in delightfully kittenish fashion by Joan Plowright. Aylmer was seventy at the time of the recording, and had started his professional career on the stage of the London Coliseum forty-eight years before. He had had an immensely distinguished career on stage and screen, including playing Polonius in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, 1948. Nearly a decade after The School for Scandal he took the part of the Abbot in the BBC sitcom with Derek Nimmo Oh, Brother! (1968-70).

Joan Plowright (b. 1929) had been part of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre through the mid-1950s, and in 1957 she starred with Olivier (who she was to marry in 1961) in the London run of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. She also played the part of Jean Rice in Tony Richardson’s 1960 film adaptation of Osborne’s play.

Sunday (continued): Having played out much of Act II Scene 1, the production jumps back to the start of the text’s Act I Scene 1. Lady Sneerwell (Frances Rowe) and Snake (Gerald Cross) are plotting — and Snake has once more to explain the plot, with names interpolated into the text to underline which of Sir Peter’s wards he is speaking about. Again, the text is filleted throughout, reduced by at least one third, and the scene breaks off after the arrival of Joseph Surface (John Moffatt) before Maria’s scripted entrance. The lengthy exchanges with Maria, with Mrs Candour, Crabtree and Sir Benjamin Backbite appear at this stage to have been cut in their entireties (but see below). Both this scene and the preceding one are played in studio sets that feel constricted, with little sense of space beyond the comparatively tight and largely static shots of the cameras.

At 08:26 in the clip above, Hal Burton introduces a tracking shot that follows Rowley (just mentioned by Joseph in the preceding shot) entering a room to wait upon Sir Peter, an action that takes place close to the top of Act I Scene 2. The viewer learns that Sir Peter’s old friend Sir Charles, who he has not seen for sixteen years has returned to London and intends to test, under a cloak of anonymity, his two nephews, Jospeh and Charles. And then, television’s concern to have constant changes of scene satisfied, we return to Lady Sneerwell and Joseph Surface, with Maria (Miranda Connell, later to be one of the early presenters of BBC2’s Play School) bursting in on them — at which point the clip above closes.

[I’m uncertain about whether to embed each of the parts in this post, worrying that it will make what threatens to be a unwieldy text even more weighty. But I think, since this is very much an experiment to explore whether this kind of reading can be useful in any way, I will do so.]

Part of the reason for selecting this particular production to begin our experiment in group watching is that there is a much-discussed production of the play by Deborah Warner currently on stage at London’s Barbican Theatre. This version, which mixes in a goodly helping of contemporary cultural references (fashion catwalks, coke sniffing and the like) has been greeted by the critics with both praise and dismissal. (A video trailer here gives a sense of the production; even though I only saw it in preview, I liked it a lot more than most people have.)

Deborah Warner this week wrote a spirited piece for the Guardian defending her production, to which Michael Billington replied with equal force. It’s a fascinating exchange.

Warner: ‘We revive old plays because we think they may have something to say to us now. The job of directors and actors is to pitch these plays against our moment and see what happens. Strangely, it is the very “now” of our production that seems to have caused some of the upset.’

Billington: ‘Sheridan… was writing a social comedy rooted in 18th-century manners and delighting in verbal precision. To place it, as Warner does, in a world that’s part 18th century and part punk fashion and hard rock is simply to sow confusion.’

On television in 1959, needless to say, there was no trace of the contemporary equivalents of punk fashion and hard rock.

Monday: The remainder of Act I Scene 1 plays out very prettily, with some of the detail of Sheridan’s text taken out and the essentials of the plot handled well. The rhythms of the language are expertly caught, just as Burton’s cameras are able effectively to present the apposite groupings for each exchange. The choreography builds towards the six-person shot (left) and then elegantly moves beyond it in four-, three-and two-shots that perfectly serve the plotting.

The production then returns to Sir Peter and Lady Teazle at the close of Act II Scene 1, the opening of which began this version. Felix Aylmer handles his near-soliloquy at the close with poignant charm. And it’s on to Act II Scene 2 and another gathering at Lady Sneerwell’s house.

This production of The School for Scandal was mounted for the World Theatre series which ran fortnightly from May to August 1959 when there was only a single BBC channel. Other productions in the ambitious series included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Stuart Burge, a Rudolph Cartier production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children and a Michael Elliott-directed adaptation of Ibsen’s Brand.

Producer Hal Burton is most definitely a subject for further research — online there’s a list of credits at IMDb and one or two references to his book Acting in the Sixties which features interviews a clutch of famous names. The year after The School for Scandal he adapted and mounted a large-scale studio production of The Insect Play by Josef and Karel Capek which is to be screened at BFI Southbank on Monday 13 June.

Tuesday: Act II Scene 2 plays out with only one substantial cut from the text, although we leave the scene with Sir Peter before the final exchange between Joseph Surface and Maria. The play’s moral position sits here with Sir Peter, even as Sheridan enjoys the back-biting of Lady Sneerwell’s salon. There’s one particularly effective moment when the camera pulls away from a gossiping group to distance the viewer from their intimacy and to bring the disapproving Sir Peter back into the frame on the right.

On to Act II Scene 3, with first Sir Oliver Surface and Rowley speaking of Sir Peter’s marriage, and then Sir Peter’s entrance. The adaptation’s enhanced cross-cutting between scenes then takes us back to Joseph and Maria. John Moffatt and Miranda Connell in the respective roles appear here to be acting in two rather distinct styles, with Moffatt far more comfortable with the particular rhythms of Sheridan’s prose.

Wednesday: Still no comments, but undaunted we plunge on with part four. The beginning of this clip includes Joseph’s explanatory aside from the end of Act II Scene 2, which is rather uneasily addressed part to the camera and part not. Then it’s to the top of Act III Scene 1. One of the great strengths of this production is its narrative clarity, and the three actors here manage to put across a lot of plot (which is significantly cut when compared with the original) with a pleasing control of the language.

In this section in particular individual shots are allowed to run long, so that when Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are seated on the sofa one camera shot lasts for 1 minute 50 seconds. Yet throughout Felix Aylmer’s command of the text is, well, a little approximate, and you can’t fail to be aware of his occasional fluffs and linguistic fumbles. Part four runs to the end of Act III Scene 1, which is played largely intact.

Thursday: Act III Scene 2 is much truncated, and from the following scene — in which Charles Surface (Tony Britton, who I notice celebrates his eighty-seventh birthday today) is finally introduced — the interpolated song, ‘Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen’, is dropped. This scene and the next, Act IV Scene 1, are shortened, as Hal Burton has done expertly throughout the play, and the first runs without pause into the second.

The first scene of Act IV is the wonderful picture gallery scene, in which Charles sells off the portraits of his ancestors to his disguised uncle, Sir Oliver. This requires the production’s most expansive set so far (and the clip breaks off half-way through).

The School for Scandal, and perhaps especially this auction scene, has long been admired as a classic English comedy, although — as Deborah Warner has revealed in her current Barbican Theatre production — it’s hard to play it successfully for a contemporary audience. Wikipedia on the play currently features a quote from the critic William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets, and the English Comic Writers, 1876:

The School for Scandal is, if not the most original, perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have. When it is acted, you hear people all around you exclaiming, “Surely it is impossible for anything to be cleverer.” The scene in which Charles sells all the old family pictures but his uncle’s, who is the purchaser in disguise, and that of the discovery of Lady Teazle when the screen falls, are among the happiest and most highly wrought that comedy, in its wide and brilliant range, can boast.

Friday: Halfway through this part, at the end of the short Act IV Scene II, there’s a pause and a title card comes up (quite out of keeping with the production’s graphics): One moment please while we change reels. I’m unclear where this print came from (there may be a clue at the end) but I think it’s clear that this was not part of the original BBC transmission. The production starts again at the start of Act IV Scene III.

Part seven of the Youtube posting takes us through the main action of Act IV Scene III, including all of the business of the screen. Burton marshals his cameras effectively, but the comedy is comparatively muted. The conclusion to the scene, which Joan Plowright as the discovered Lady Teazle handles exceptionally well begins the next section of the recording, and then Act V Scene 1 is made to run on without pause.

I’m uncertain whether this was production was played live or ‘as live’ and in sections. If the latter then the editing was restricted to joining together the separate parts and there appears to have been no time for re-takes. The perils of this form of production are apparent mid-way through Act V Scene 1. Declining to give any money to Sir Oliver, who he believes to Stanley, Joseph in the text says, ‘to pity, without the power to relieve, is still more painful than to ask and be denied’. But John Moffatt reverses the line, which comes out as ‘to ask, without the power to relieve, is still more painful than to relieve’. Despite this making no sense, the contingencies of the production mean that it has stayed this way for the past fifty-one years. This section continues through Act V Scene II as the busybodies tell ever more exaggerated versions of the discovery of Lady Teazle.

Saturday: Towards the end of Act V Scene 2, after Sir Peter has forcefully shown the gossips to the door, Rowley endeavours to persuade Sir Peter to reconcile with Lady Teazle. In the script Rowley suggests that he sees Lady Teazle in the next room, but here she enters at the far end of the space in which the group is gathered. Initially she is shown in two separate single shots, but then Sir Peter makes his way towards her at the close of the scene, an action that speaks his forgiveness which is underscored by one of the relatively few uses of music within the production.

At the start of the final scene, Hal Burton inserts some lines of explanation into Joseph’s address to Lady Sneerwell to explain the final trick that they are to play on Sir Peter. The various plot lines then unravel, with only a very few lines left for the last part of the posted video (below). All ends happily, with the final image echoing the opening one a generation on, although sans the silhouette and birdcage. The script’s concluding moral addressed to the audience is also ommitted:

You can, indeed, each anxious fear remove / For even Scandal dies, if you approve.

If you’ve stuck with this post — and perhaps also with the play — to this point you’ll probably agree that the easiest epithet to apply to this BBC production is ‘theatrical’. And in that, and not only because it is derived from a classic stage play, it is typical of its moment some fifty years ago: confined to a small number of stylised interiors, precisely articulated speaking, an unobtrusive screen language that sets out primarily to present the relationships between the characters with clarity. What interests me, and what interests Screen Plays as a whole, is a more precise and detailed understanding of what ‘theatrical’ means in this context, together with an understanding of precisely why a play such as this takes this form in this context at this moment — and what audiences can make of it, both then and now.

There is an evaluative element to that — is this good? — but that is not the main motivation, and we will be looking at many productions of this kind that are, well, ‘fine’ or ‘professionally achieved’ or perhaps even just ‘ordinary’. The critic and theorist David Bordwell writes about this well in his wonderful blog post ‘In critical condition’ (which is also reprinted in the new collection edited by himself and Kristin Thompson, Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft and Business of Filmmaking (University of Chicago Press, 2011):

I have written about plenty of ordinary films in my life. They became interesting because of the questions I brought to them…

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