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Greek plays: Lysistrata (BBC, 1964)

1964 BBC Lysistrata - Diane Cilento in the title role (Radio Times)

1964 BBC Lysistrata - Diane Cilento in the title role (Radio Times)

As I mentioned in my recent post Getting going: research resources and approaches, my recent foray to the BBC Written Archives Centre to consult materials for my Greeks on screen case study led to the discovery that only two production files were extant for my list of around ten BBC television productions of Greek plays. The two productions for which these (fairly substantial) production files exist are the 1958 Euripidean tragedy Women of Troy and the 1964 Aristophanic comedy Lysistrata. In my last post, I wrote about Women of Troy, and today I tackle Lysistrata.

That these two productions in particular should have been well documented in the archives is fortuitous, for there are some thought-provoking points of closeness and difference between them: they were broadcast just six years apart, making for an interesting comparison of the presentation of what are popularly understood to be anti-war plays from ancient Greece, albeit in the different genres of tragedy and comedy. As we shall see, the anti-war theme was strongly represented in both productions: indeed strikingly similar production choices―such as the integration of film clips showing the explosion and fall-out of atomic bombs―were used to translate the ancient ‘anti-war’ theme of the plays to the modern day threat or fear of nuclear war.

The production of Women of Troy had been preceded not only by a clip of the atomic bomb explosion, but also others of burning cities and crowds of refugees; this underscored the set which had been designed (by John Cooper) to look like a refugee camp. Similarly, the production of Lysistrata, broadcast nearly six years to the day later, was described by The Times as ‘Televised Aristophanes with a Nuclear Slant’. Indeed, the opening of Lysistrata employed a film clip of a mushroom cloud superimposed over an image of the Athenian Acropolis. This linking of ancient and modern pleased some critics, but not all. The Times critic went on to say that ‘The insertion of atomic fall-out on the opening shots of Greece helped to suggest the relevance of Aristophanes’ theme today’, but, writing in The Listener, John Russell Taylor found ‘the device of starting with an atomic explosion […] decidedly cheap’ (Anon., ‘Televised Aristophanes with a Nuclear Slant’, The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15; John Russell Taylor, ‘Television Drama: Farce with a Message’, The Listener, 23 January 1964, p. 167). Some viewers, noted the BBC Audience Research Report, found this opening ‘very baffling and almost decided to switch-off on this account’ (BBC WAC, Audience Research Report VR/64/39).

Radio Times, 9 January 1964, p. 41
Radio Times, 9 January 1964, p. 41

Lysistrata; or Women on Strike (to give the television adaptation its full title) was directed by Prudence FitzGerald for the BBC’s Festival series. (This was her second for the series; the first had been Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.) The critic in The Listener, despite his doubts about the nuclear opening, testified to having enjoyed the production more than any in the Festival series for some time ‘partly because it was shorter and more economical (only fifty-five minutes) and partly because we all really enjoy an occasional dirty joke […] the dirty jokes were on this occasion put over very coolly and unblushingly by most of the cast’ (The Listener, 23 January 1964, p. 167).

Patric Dickinson’s translation of this pretty explicit and bawdy ‘sex-strike’ comedy had been cut substantially, and adapted for television, by Marc Brandel so that it ‘did not offend the sensitive mass audience’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15). Still, some viewers let the BBC know in no uncertain terms that they had found aspects of it ‘disgusting and coarse’ (Audience Research Report). One incensed viewer (who nevertheless seems to have watched to the very end) wrote a sternly worded letter to the Director of the Television Service, complaining in particular about Lysistrata but also more broadly about ‘The pre-occupation with sex and infidelity which permeates the BBC’ (letter from Mr H. B. Stanton to ‘The Director of Television Service’, 16 January 1964, in BBC WAC T5/2160/1). Clearly Lysistrata was not, for some, the only bit of sauciness on television in the early 1960s.

Dickinson’s text had been produced on BBC Radio a few years earlier in 1957. There, perhaps it was the absence of the visual dimension that made aspects of this comedy work particularly well in the audience’s imagination. Consider what the following review of a scene from the 1957 production suggests about what was effectively left to the imagination on radio, and what may well (despite Mr Stanton’s position) have received a far more modest portrayal on the screen: the actor playing Myrrhine, it is said, ‘really seemed to be having the time of her life in the strip-tease scene, which was therefore easily the funniest’ (Roy Walker, ‘Drama: Venus v. Mars’, 5 December 1957, p. 957).

The Audience Research Report for the 1964 television production reports that the audience was 12% (of, presumably, the adult population―so, around five million) and that the ‘reaction index’ amongst the 220 viewers from the sample of Viewing Panel who completed a questionnaire was 54 (the average for Festival plays was 53). The Viewing Panel were evenly divided between those who ‘very much enjoyed themselves watching it’ and others who had very little good to say about it. For example, a clergyman ‘liked the play immensely’ and other enthusiasts found it ‘a vastly entertaining affair, full of cheek, fun (at the expense of men, various housewives noted gleefully), and an unblushing broadness of expression that made “great stuff for adults” ’. On the other hand, for half the audience ‘it was no joke but everything that was disgusting and coarse, thoroughly embarrassing to watch in mixed or family company and, said certain older members of the sample[,] likely to have a harmful effect on young minds’.

The Times considered that ‘it was not so much the timelessness of the play’s theme that was on trial as the ability of the screen to make Aristophanes’s points as entertainingly as the Royal Court revival made them in terms of the stage seven years ago’ (the reference is to the English Stage Company’s 1957 production directed by Minos Volonakis and starring Joan Greenwood as Lysistrata). Although cast and script were strong, the critic continued, ‘the production was curiously stagey and bedevilled with technical hitches’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15).

1964 BBC Lysistrata (The Listener)
1964 BBC Lysistrata (The Listener)

The production made visual reference to ancient Greece with, for example, costumes consisting of robes, cloaks and sandals, and the introduction of sacrificial goats. As can be seen from the image from The Listener, the set also included strong Grecian references, with great columns suggestive of the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis (the scene for the main action of the play). The set was considered by more than one critic in the press to have looked ‘improvised’, and the ‘acoustics of the outdoor scenes were unmistakably “studio” ’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15). The Audience Research Report backs this up: viewers reported that they found the set ‘slipshod’, ‘terribly artificial’ and ‘cardboard fake’. So too does the privately expressed opinion of the producer, Peter Luke: in an internal memo in which he complains bitterly about the Design Department’s contribution, considering that the set ‘would have done admirably for a rather dull production of John Gabriel Borkman’ (typescript memo from Peter Luke to H.D.G.Tel., 31 December 1963, in BBC WAC T5/2160/1).

1964 BBC Lysistrata - Ann Bell as Kalonike
1964 BBC Lysistrata – Ann Bell as Kalonike

‘Occasionally’, considered The Times, ‘close-up camera effects, such as the women’s reluctant oath to withhold conjugal rights, made good television’ (The Times, 16 January 1964, p. 15); yet some viewers were displeased with what was termed the ‘suggestiveness’ of these close-ups. (I should note that, at the time of writing, I am waiting with bated breath to learn whether an archive copy of Lysistrata exists; if it does I’ll note my impressions of it in a second part to this post).

With regard to the propriety and politics of putting Lysistrata on the small screen, it is fascinating to note that a television adaptation of the play had, just over three years earlier, been banned by four of west Germany’s eight broadcasting corporations. The objections to Fritz Kortner’s adaptation The Mission of Lysistrata were that it ‘was immoral, that it rejected the pacifists as well as their opponents, and that anyway it was a failure’. Speaking on behalf of the north German broadcasting company, Herr Monk, by contrast, stated his understanding of the obligations of broadcasting law:

that we serve international understanding, that we utter a warning for peace and social justice, […] that we defend democratic freedoms, and that we allow differing opinions to be expressed. (Anon., ‘Television Ban on Lysistrata: Decision by Four German Groups’, The Times, 12 December 1960, p. 11).

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “Greek plays: Lysistrata (BBC, 1964)

  1. Just a footnote, on 8 October 2011: Diane Cilento has died in Australia, a day after her seventy-eighth birthday; the New York Times obituary is here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/movies/diane-cilento-oscar-nominated-actress-dies-at-78.html

    Posted by John Wyver | 8 October 2011, 8:33 pm
  2. Thanks very much, John — I hadn’t seen this.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 9 October 2011, 10:56 am
  3. I remember seeing this as a 15 year old schoolboy and was entranced by the “sauciness” and incredible humour. I was not so worried about the sets as the production, in my memory, was so good. I have thought about this production from time to time and note that websites like IDBM do not have the cast lists and the actors do not have it mentioned in their body of work. I also recall the many critics on the following Points of View with the one exception of a man who pleaded for it to be reshown!

    I have often wanted to see this again so have you ever located an archive copy?

    Posted by David Nicholson | 16 August 2012, 8:30 am
    • Thank you, David, for writing with your memories about this production. Unfortunately, Lysistrata does not seem to have survived in the BBC archives, so memories such as your own, as well as what can be gleaned from reviews and such, are all the more important. I’d be interested to know whether you knew the play, or anything about it, before you saw it on television? Thanks again for writing! Any other thoughts or memories you have about it would be very welcome!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 16 August 2012, 9:24 am
      • Amanda, thanks for your reply. When this was aired I did not know of the play but I must have read the Radio Times and thought it worth a look. I seem to recall that this was aired on a Wednesday and that was the day my parents went out to their bridge club so I was free to watch whatever I liked. This often meant programmes such as Play for Today etc. so I was used to seeing quality drama on these days. Having seen this production I have had a liking for the storyline and also enjoy the Beardsley drawing from the early part of the last century, some of his prints have been copied and form part of the decorations in my house.

        With regards to the archive it is so sad that a copy has not been kept. Like so many old episodes that have been lost it seems a bit like artistic vandalism to just junk things without a care. Having read your article it has made me want to see a production at some time on the stage. I will try to keep an eye open for a new production but I expect, due to the subject matter and “sauciness”, these will be few and far between.

        Posted by David Nicholson | 16 August 2012, 1:55 pm
    • I too saw the broadcast, at the age of 14 (with my mother). It was recommended by my English teacher, and discussed in class afterwards; looks like only the philistines contacted the BBC! I’ve searched for a video of it occasionally, and am sad to learn that it was lost.

      Posted by sunflowerinrain | 18 May 2015, 6:14 pm
  4. That’s really interesting to know, David – many thanks. As it happens, Lysistrata is often revived on the stage but very often updated to reflect modern concerns. It’s regularly performed by students groups so it may be worth keeping an eye out for college and university theatre listings. It’s also part of the touring Actors of Dionysus’ repertoire, although I note that their planned spring 2013 revival of the play is now not going ahead; but do keep an eye on their website to see when they return to it (http://www.actorsofdionysus.com).

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 16 August 2012, 5:47 pm

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