As I mentioned in my introductory blog post, one of my first research areas is going to be the production of Greek plays on British television from the 1950s, when the first Greek play appears to have been televised (although there are occasional tantalising clues to earlier productions which I am keen to follow up).
The first well documented broadcast is a 1958 BBC World Theatre production of Women of Troy. Euripides’ harrowing tragedy follows the fates of the women after Troy has been sacked and their husbands killed. The women are allocated as spoils of war to Greek heroes, Polyxena is slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods and the infant Astyanax is thrown to his death from the battlements of Troy, to prevent him from later avenging the death of his father Hector―strong stuff for stage or television. Indeed, The Manchester Guardian’s ‘Television Critic’ found the broadcast of the play, produced by Michael Elliott and Casper Wrede, to have been ‘the most unsettling experience in [my] last half dozen years of theatre or television attendance’ (The Manchester Guardian, 13 January 1958, p. 5).
I’ll say much more about Women of Troy in one of my next blog posts [posted on 22 June 2011 and available here]. Today my aim is to offer a taster of the range of productions of Greek drama on British television across the half century from the 1950s.
Kenneth Cavander (whose translation had been used for Women of Troy) provided the translation for Sophocles’ Philoctetes which was produced as a half hour programme for BBC Schools in 1961. In the same year, a television version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy seems to have been produced for schools by ITV.
The following year, Associated-Rediffusion (the British Independent Television contractor for London) brought to the screen Dimitris Rondiris’ stage production of Sophocles’ Electra in Ioannis Gryparis’ modern Greek translation (pictured here). ‘It’s Greek to the viewers’, quipped Private Eye, ‘but it’ll look great in the annual report’ (Private Eye, 30 November 1962, p. 15). This Peiraïkon Theatron production (pictured here) had premièred in Thessaloniki in 1959 and it subsequently toured internationally through the 1960s, playing at the Scala Theatre in London in 1961. Joan Kemp-Welch, one of the first women directors to work in television in the 1950s, was responsible for adapting and directing this stage production for television. [On 10 August 2011 I posted a long blog piece about Electra.]
Associated-Rediffusion continued with the Greeks in 1963, broadcasting a series called Theatres and Temples which included extracts of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and a three-part broadcast of Euripides’ Medea, directed by Robert Stead (which seems to have been re-broadcast in six parts for schools in 1964).
In 1964, Prudence FitzGerald directed Aristophanes’ bawdy ‘sex-strike’ comedy Lysistrata for the BBC’s Festival series. Patric Dickinson’s translation of the play had been cut substantially so that it ‘did not offend the sensitive mass audience’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15), but still some viewers let the BBC know in no uncertain terms that they had found it ‘disgusting and coarse’ (Audience Research Report VR/64/39, BBC WAC). The production was prefaced by film excerpts referencing nuclear war―specifically a mushroom cloud superimposed over the Athenian Acropolis. (This is reminiscent of Women of Troy in 1958 which had also begun with film clips showing the explosion of an atom bomb, razed cities and crowds of refugees.) In other respects the production made visual reference to ancient Greece with, for example, costumes consisting of robes, cloaks and sandals, and the introduction of goats and other wildlife onto the set. [I posted a long piece about Lysistrata on 28 June 2011.]
My preliminary research on Greek plays on British television so far reveals nothing after the 1964 BBC Lysistrata until 1969―that is, with the exception of Tom Stoppard’s 1968 Neutral Ground, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes which was produced by Granada and broadcast by ITV but which, as a play written specifically for television, falls outside of the confines of our study.
Shortened and adapted forms of Sophocles’ Antigone and Aristophanes’ Peace, intended for children aged 11 to 12, were broadcast as part of a series titled Heritage early in 1969.
In 1972, as part of its Play of the Month series, the BBC tackled Sophocles’ King Oedipus in a production directed by Alan Bridges and starring Ian Holm as Oedipus and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. It was announced as ‘Sophocles in a modern setting and a prestigious production at that’ (The Times, 24 November 1972, p. 27). [I wrote about this production at length on 17 August 2011.]
Sophocles seems to have been a popular choice at the BBC in the 1970s. In 1974, Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed Electra in the translation by E. F. Watling [this is the subject of my 26 August 2011 blog post]; and in 1977 the BBC co-produced Oedipus the King with The Open University. This co-production, featuring half-masks and Patrick Stewart in the title role (pictured here), was one of a series of sixteen made to support The Open University course A307 Drama (other plays in the series include Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Congreve’s The Way of the World, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead).
At the end of the decade, however, the BBC turned to Aeschylus with The Serpent Son, a production of the Oresteia trilogy broadcast on BBC2 in three instalments in 1979. The director was Bill Hays and the translation was that by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael. Clytemnestra was played by Diana Rigg (pictured here), Agamemnon by Denis Quilley and Cassandra by Helen Mirren. Billie Whitelaw led the chorus of women and Siân Phillips was the leader of the Furies.
The Oresteia was televised again four years later in 1983. This Channel 4 broadcast was a recording of the stage production of Tony Harrison’s translation of the play, produced for the National Theatre by Peter Hall in 1981 (pictured here) which, in 1982, had the accolade of being the first non-Greek production to be performed in front of an audience in the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus.
In 1986 the BBC broadcast The Theban Plays, a trilogy of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Don Taylor both translated the plays and directed the productions which starred Claire Bloom as Jocasta, John Gielgud as Tiresias, Anthony Quayle as Oedipus, John Shrapnel as Creon and Juliet Stevenson as Antigone. (Oedipus the King is available on YouTube; the other two plays are also available, but the quality of the recordings is poor.) The series of three plays was considered by The Sunday Telegraph to have been ‘one of the most formidable television entertainments of the decade’ (The Sunday Telegraph, 21 September 1986, p. 16) and Taylor’s translation ‘aggressively contemporary’ (The Independent, 17 September 1986). The reviewer in The Independent goes on to make the thought-provoking point that ‘the conventions of a studio-bound BBC play are probably just as stifling as those of ancient Greek theatre’.
The preliminary survey ends with a brief reference to another Don Taylor translation and production for the BBC: Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis which starred Roy Marsden as Agamemnon and Fiona Shaw as Clytemnestra.
A lot of work lies ahead in order to flesh out the bones of this preliminary survey for the ‘Greeks on screen’ case study and I look forward to discussing that research process in future blog posts. I will be starting at the (well documented) beginning, with the 1958 BBC production of Women of Troy, so look out for a post on that soon! [As noted above, this piece was posted on 22 June 2011.]