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Getting going: research resources and approaches

In this post my goal is to outline the research resources and approaches I’m employing in my case study ‘Greeks on screen’. Such transparency at an early stage of the research process may easily show up embarrassing omissions and intellectual bias. On the other hand, what follows may be of some use to those interested in starting to research television productions of stage plays and, to this end, additions and further suggestions from readers would be warmly welcome!

The lay of the land

One of the problems which arise in a case study such as the one I’m currently undertaking―the production history of Greek plays on British television―is how to find out what Greek play productions were broadcast in the absence of such a database as the one we are compiling on the Screen Plays project. So, how to come up with a list of what was done, and when, fairly quickly for the purposes of a case study? There are various strategies which, together, offer a representative sample of data from which to make a start.

Existing datasets

My first strategy is to harvest what is already known. With regard to Greek plays, my first port of call is the online database of the Archive of Performances Greek of Roman Drama (APGRD) at the University of Oxford. This resource attempts to document all performative engagements with Greek and Roman Plays from the Renaissance to the present day. A search for ‘Performance medium’ = ‘Television’ generates forty-five records from across the world, nearly half of which are for British productions―so far, so good.

I must now admit to some insider knowledge of this database, having served as its editor for some years. Most attention on that research project was spent documenting stage, film, musical and danced forms of ancient plays; television and radio were largely unexplored in a systematic way. (Incidentally, for my doctoral thesis I investigated Greek plays and Homer on radio: see my forthcoming Greece on Air: Engagements with Ancient Greek Culture on BBC Radio, 1920s-1960s (Oxford University Press); I originally intended to include television in my thesis, so I am very pleased to be turning to this as one of my first projects for Screen Plays!) Although the records from the APGRD Database contribute significantly towards ‘what is already known’, therefore, I am aware that they will be augmented significantly by further research.

Helpful with regard to our wider project are other databases, such as the freely accessible BFI Film & TV Database and the International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio. Datasets that exist in print include two five-volume Kaleidoscope publications: The BBC Television Drama Research Guide, 1936-2006 and The British Independent Television Drama Research Guide, 1955-2005, both by Simon Coward, Richard Down, and Christopher Perry (and both Dudley, Kaleidoscope, 2006). The latter volume recently appeared in an updated e-version, available for purchase online.

Printed resources

1958 BBC Women of Troy (Guardian review)
1958 BBC Women of Troy (Guardian review)

The ability to search the full text of a great number of print publications through online databases accessible in research libraries has considerably sped up the process of research in many fields. Keyword searches―for example, ‘television’ AND ‘Greek’―across digitized print publication databases such as The Guardian (1821-2003) and The Observer (1791-2003), The Listener (available as a trial resource through selected research libraries), The Times Digital Archive, 1785-1985, and TVTip: TV Times Project 1955-1985 have generated some very useful sources.

1955 Harold Hobson, 'Critic on the Hearth', The Listener
1955 Harold Hobson, ‘Critic on the Hearth’, The Listener

These print publications offer listings and critical writings on stage plays produced on television, but also images―visual fragments of productions which are especially valuable (for example, in terms of visualizing actors in their roles, costumes, and set) for the many cases where no audiovisual recording is extant. For example, in his article ‘Television: Entertainment or Art?’ for The Listener (the first page of which is pictured here), Harold Hobson includes images from television productions of (clockwise from top) James Bridie’s 1930 The Anatomist, Elmer Rice’s 1931 Counsellor-at-Law, and Richard Llewellyn’s 1938 Poisen Pen (The Listener, 3 February 1949, pp. 198-99).

Apart from the television listings for the years 1936-39, the Radio Times is, alas, not yet publicly accessible in a digitised form. The most systematic way of achieving a full list of BBC productions is to go through the Radio Times, day by day, for listings (and also images and relevant articles; see the cover from the 9 December 1955 issue, featuring a portrait shot of Rosemary Harris as Desdemona and Gordon Heath as Othello in Tony Richardson’s production and the listing for the 15 December television broadcast from the same issue). The ‘Greeks on screen’ case study must, however, be largely complete well before we complete our slow march through thousands of pages of the Radio Times!

1955 BBC Othello (RT cover)
1955 BBC Othello (RT cover)
1955 BBC Othello (RT cover)
1955 BBC Othello (RT cover)

Helpful in this regard are institutional listings and indexes. I am thinking especially of the section on drama in the ‘Shelf Lists: Television T1-T5’ file and the ‘Programme Index’ microfilm at the BBC Written Archives Centre.

Invaluable sources for this study are, of course, the writings of other scholars on this topic. A pertinent example is Billy Smart’s hugely informative PhD thesis ‘Old Wine in New Bottles―Adaptation of Classic Theatrical Plays on BBC Television 1957-1985’ (Royal Holloway, 2010). With regard to the problem of writing the history of television productions for which no audiovisual recording exists, Jason Jacobs’ The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000) is exemplary in its approach. (It goes without saying that other scholars―too many to mention here, but see the list of readings in the blog post ‘New Readers Start Here’―have done important work related to the aims and scope of  Screen Plays.)

Other print sources include the published writings of practitioners―for example, Don Taylor’s Days of Vision: Working with David Mercer: Television Drama Then and Now (London: Methuen, 1990)―which can be helpful in achieving a sense of the professional priorities, technical skills and cultural preferences which impact on their work towards the television production of plays.

In this regard, conducting interviews with practitioners who worked on productions televised in recent decades will be a rich source of information for our study. Furthermore, it will be an important part of the Screen Plays project to write essays on creative figures: the first of these, on the television producer Fred O’Donovan (1889-1952), has just been published by John Wyver.

Community knowledge

Finally, another rewarding activity in the initial survey for my case study on ‘Greeks on screen’ was simply to post the preliminary results in my last blog post. Doing so led to information from readers on productions which were not already on my list and for these I remain extremely grateful. There is a long way to go before the list of Greek play productions comes close to being comprehensive but in the past two weeks I have made a good beginning from which more detailed research can begin.

Heading to the archives

Having got a sense of the lay of the land, the next stage is to head to the archives.

The BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, near Reading, is an archive that I’m already very familiar with through my work on radio. Looking for sources for television productions, however, clearly requires a new set of investigative tools. My last couple of visits have, therefore, included some good talks with one of the archivists about the extent to which information on television productions survives and how best to find and access that material. The archivist introduced me to the two resources I mentioned above―the ‘Shelf Lists: Television T1-T5’ file and the ‘Programme Index’ microfilm―both of which will be useful for  Screen Plays.

With a working list of BBC productions, I am now ready to consult the files. However―as with my radio research―I am also ready to deal with disappointment. For my list of around ten BBC television productions of Greek plays, only two production files exist―for the 1958 Women of Troy, the tragedy by Euripides, and the 1964 Aristophanic comedy Lysistrata.

These files can be mined for great riches, including documents detailing the running order of scenes, studio plans, costume design, list of properties, captions accompanying the production, how much the different creative forces were paid for their work, directorial intentions behind publicity choices, reasons for the selection of one translation over another (in the case of foreign language plays), rehearsal schedules, choice of film extracts to illustrate aspects of the play, machinery required to assemble the set and produce effects such as wind, and arrangements for recording the programme. These production files can also contain the scripts used for dramas, and on occasion the marked-up camera scripts with instructions for the studio crew during recording.

Also, evidence sometimes exists in production files for how the viewing audience experienced the production. There are the invaluable BBC Audience Research Reports which offer a sense of the size of audience for and general reaction to a given programme, in addition to quotations from listeners offering more detail about the often wide range of ways in which individual members of the audience experienced a production; this information is based on questionnaires completed by a sample of the audience. Production files may also hold personal letters to the director from members of the public and people already known to them, expressing their response to the televised production.

The BBC Written Archives Centre is a familiar locale for me, but I have yet to discover the possibilities available for researching the ITV and Channel 4 productions on my list. (All suggestions welcome!)

One of the crucial questions for the television studies scholar investigating a production is ‘Does the text exist?’ with ‘text’, of course, referring to the recording of the production as broadcast―surely the most vital piece of evidence. Perhaps it is my theatre historian hat which enables me not to be daunted by the absence of a recording and which, I admit, inclines me to look first for printed and documentary sources: for a long time I have been ‘reconstructing’, if you will, productions of plays performed on both stage (and, indeed, radio) for which there is no audiovisual record.

BFI logoAnd yet there are a good number of recordings preserved (for the post-1955 period) in the Television Collection of the National Archive of the British Film Institute (BFI): some titles are available to view free of charge at one of the Mediatheques around the UK; others can be seen by students and non-commercial researchers by appointment.

The BBC Television Archive also has extensive holdings, as archivist Adam Lee explains in a video interview posted online. But beyond the (welcome) selection of programmes made available via the BBC Archive website, the corporation has no formal arrangements in place for viewing access by academic researchers or interested members of the public.

Another valuable repository of recordings is YouTube. John Wyver drew on this resource in the blog post ‘Play of the week: The School for Scandal earlier this month. He notes the uneasiness with which the researcher utilizes recordings of productions which have been posted on YouTube in contravention of copyright regulations, but acknowledges that the site can be an invaluable point of access to productions not otherwise available on DVD or in archives.

My approach

The goal of my research process is simply to gather as much information as possible about all aspects of a production―be that on stage, radio or television―from the embryonic beginning when it was simply an idea, to the establishment of a creative team and the development of collaborative working processes, to the aesthetics etc. of the production itself, through to the evidence that exists for the various ways in which members of the audience engaged with it. At the beginning of the process I have a clutch of research questions but I try to remain open to new questions arising from the sources I encounter during the process.

The history of a television production of a stage play must also, surely, engage with other contemporary cultural manifestations and political resonances of the play in question. In other words, the researcher must demonstrate (1) an awareness of other productions of the play on stage and in film, and indeed also the publication history of the play, its take-up in libraries and its appearance in school curricula (on libraries and reading Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) is incredibly helpful); and (2) a sense of the possible political, cultural, and social resonances of a play at a particular time (to take an obvious example, the introduction of film extracts showing atom bombs into the BBC television productions of both Euripides’ Women of Troy (1958) and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1964), and the way these extracts were experienced by the audience, can be understood to speak to the threat, or fear, of nuclear war at this time).


2 thoughts on “Getting going: research resources and approaches

  1. Amanda,

    I am very interested in your research. A few years ago I completed an MA in Classical Studies at the Open University which contained a module on the Greek Theatre, a field I find both fascinating and exciting. For my dissertation I researched the role of the choros in the Electra plays.

    Like you I became aware a while ago that little, if any, research had been carried out on Greek tragedy on British television. I am therefore about to embark on research for a PhD (hopefully with the University of Reading) into the reception of the Greek choros in television productions of the late twentieth century. I will be looking at those productions for which a recording still exists so will be using the facilities at the BFI as well as any commercially available DVDs.

    Posted by Richard Potter | 31 July 2011, 6:32 am
    • Thanks very much for writing, Richard (and apologies for my late response; I’ve just returned from leave).

      It’s fantastic to hear that you are planning to embark on a PhD on Greek drama in late 20c British television productions and Reading would be a great place for this. Your idea of focusing on the chorus strikes me as a good one. Comparisons with other media — the stage, film, radio, etc — would be illuminating here.

      I look forward to talking more and seeing how your research develops! Let’s keep in touch.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 4 August 2011, 8:07 am

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