No-one knows exactly how many productions of stage plays have been produced for British television. By the end of the Screen Plays research project we hope to have a reasonable idea, although there will always be borderline disputes about whether such-and-such a production should be included or not. But for the sake of argument let us estimate the total at around 2000, of which perhaps two-thirds were never recorded or have been wiped or otherwise lost. Which still leaves us with a rich legacy of distinguished drama — and it is all the more surprising that so little of it is easily available via DVD or in other (legal) forms.
One of the few published groupings of BBC productions of stage plays is The Bernard Shaw Collection, an eight-disc box set from the BBC Worldwide subsidiary 2 Entertain. (Note that the Amazon.co.uk listing, which is linked to here, mis-states the title of the box set by including “George”, notes that there are six discs when in fact there are eight, and omits two of the ten adaptations, You Never Can Tell (1977) and Androcles and the Lion (1984).) The productions were made between 1972 and 1989, the last of them being Arms and the Man with Helena Bonham Carter and Dinsdale Landen. Over the next few weeks I intend to blog about each of the productions, but to begin with this post details the productions (with one or two critical comments) in the order in which Shaw wrote the originals.
• Mrs Warren’s Profession (1972), written in 1893, published 1898, first produced 1902. With Coral Browne, Penelope Wilton, James Grout, Derek Godfrey, Robert Powell and Richard Pearson; a Play of the Month produced by Cedric Messina and directed by Herbert Wise.
• Arms and the Man (1989), first produced in 1894, published 1898. With Helena Bonham Carter, Patsy Kensit, Dinsdale Landen, Kika Markham, Pip Torrens; a Theatre Night presentation produced by John Frankau and directed by james Cellan Jones.
• You Never Can Tell (1977), first produced in 1897, published 1898. With Robert Powell, Kate Nicholls, Richard Everett, Judy Parfitt, Kika Markham, Patrick Magee, Cyril Cusack and Warren Clarke; a Play of the Month produced by David Jones and directed by James Cellan Jones.
A director who had excelled with the Royal Shakespeare Company, David Jones was given charge of the venerable Play of the Month strand in 1977. There was a perception that his long-serving predecessor Cedric Messina was capable only of elegant but unremarkable stagings, and certainly Jones breathed vigorous new life into the series — although this production did not really give any indication of the achievements to come. Reviewing it for The Times, Stanley Reynolds wrote, ‘It seemed a bad choice of play to open a new season with a much heralded new broom apparently going to sweep through the Play of the Month. Personally I never saw anything wrong with the old broom.’ (‘You Never Can Tell’, 31 October 1977, p. 7)
• The Devil’s Disciple (1987), first produced in 1897, published 1901. With Patrick Stewart, Ian Rihcardson, Elizabeth Spriggs, Mike Gwilym and Susan Woolridge. A Theatre Night presentation produced by Shaun Sutton and directed by David Jones.
In The Listener, playwright David Pownall was enthusiastic about this adaptation:
David Jones’s production was a brave all-round triumph. All the powers of theatre and television were blended in a stern, unwavering struggle with the uncompromising text, squeezing all its colour and brilliance onto the screen.
There have been many arduous arguments about where theatre and television touch and mingle: we know that they are the same actors that we appreciate in the flesh that arrest us in the image; the same directors employ similar instincts and insights in both forms: the small screen does not have to crush the theatre’s breadth and depth into its diminution of the word against the image. There is a fusion there if we only take the trouble to find it. Sharp text, the long scene unrelieved by camera acrobatics, the true study of the human face without gloss or glamour, the real substance of the theatre can be put on television without being warped. (‘Television: Severed Heads’, 21 May 1987, p. 40)
• The Man of Destiny (1981), written 1897. With Simon Callow, Delphine Seyrig, David Troughton and Niall Toibin; produced by Louis Marks and directed by Desmond Davis.
• Pygmalion (1973), first produced in 1912. With Lynn Redgrave, James Villiers, Ronald Frazer, Emrys James and Angela Baddeley; a Play of the Month produced by Cedric Messina and directed by Christopher Morahan.
A time there was in the 1970s when the great critic Raymond Williams wrote regular television reviews for The Listener. In an article in early 1974 (the date is significant, of course) he mentioned this production more or less in passing:
If indeed it is a time of national self-examination it’s as well to read the rubric and, especially I think, the social experiences that within programming as a whole now seem imaginatively preoccupying… in what they call prestige productions the long Tudor Festival is resting, but there is a well-dressed interest in the late Victorians and Edwardians: after the Forsyte Saga, Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT), Vienna 1900 (BBC1), Pygmalion yet again. They are all interesting periods but the ones that don’t get in much are significant: the Twenties, for example, which have some connections, or 1780-1830, the blind spot in orthodox English perceptions of the past, but years which now really bear in on us. (‘Television: The Top of the Laugh’, 10 January 1974, p. 59)
• Androcles and the Lion (1984), first produced in 1912. With Billy Connolly, Jane Freeman, Anna Calder-Marshall, Bernard Bresslaw and Rupert Frazer; originally made for schools television, produced and directed by Ronald Smedley.
• Heartbreak House (1977), published in 1919, first produced 1920. With John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray and Daniel Massey; a Play of the Month produced by Alan Shallcross and directed by Cedric Messina.
‘Fine theatre, yet equally fine television: a rare example of the mixture,’ was Joseph Hone’s verdict in The Listener (‘Rock Bottom’, 26 May 1977, p. 689) But his opinion was not shared by others…
Hard to say quite why this Heartbreak House fell short of recent achievements by the Play of the Month team… beyond noting such unusual gaffes as boom shadow, a sound-level slip and much excessively hard lighting, and that the essential leavening and digestive processes of ensemble performance had not taken place. Not all the players seemed to be acting in the same play… What was missing was pace, harmony and the true consideration to tie all the clever pieces together. (Michael Ratcliffe, ‘Heartbreak House’, The Times, 20 May 1977, p. 13)
• The Apple Cart (1975), subtitled A Political Extravaganza, written in 1928, first produced 1929. With Helen Mirren, Prunella Scales, Nigel Davenport, Peter Barkworth; a Play of the Month produced by Alan Shallcross and directed by Cedric Messina.
• The Millionairess (1972), first produced in 1936. With Maggie Smith, Tom Baker, Charles Grey, Peter Barkworth and James Villiers; a Play of the Month produced by Cedric Messina and directed by William Slater.