Having now seen eight out of the ten programmes from the BFI’s welcome unLOCked screenings, I am happy to hail the 1957 ITV production of The Wild Duck (shown tonight at BFI Southbank) as the major discovery of the season. For the most part, these rediscovered prints from the Library of Congress archive have been early recordings of multi-camera studio dramas. Not The Wild Duck, which rather — and remarkably — is a 35mm feature film of a theatre production shot on a sound stage at Shepperton Studios. In part as a consequence of such an unconventional production process, this ‘filmed play’ has an entirely distinctive visual style and a rare dramatic effectiveness.
The actor and producer John Clements staged The Wild Duck, which was directed by Murray Macdonald, at the Saville Theatre at the end of 1955. With Emlyn Williams, Dorothy Tutin, George Relph and Michael Gough in the cast, the production was a hit with critics and audiences. Clements was also working as an adviser on drama for the new ITV company Associated-Rediffusion, which provided London weekday programmes. As he seems also to have done with other classic plays (contemporary production notes, reproduced by the BFI, mention Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and a Seagull) he transplanted the stage production, with its full cast, to Shepperton and there employed the film director Charles Crichton to shoot a screen version.
Working with what I assume to be just a single film camera, Crichton and his director of photography Walter J. Harvey (an expert at shooting ‘B’ pictures quickly and cheaply) achieve far more than simply documentation of the production. Each shot is calculated, each choice of framing and camera lens motivated by the relationships between the characters. On occasions Crichton also scores striking visual coups, as when the shadow of Gregers Werle (Gough) looms up against the door of the Ekdal household, dominating and destroying the family that the character believes he is helping.
The camera inhabits the rooms of this insistently interior Ibsen drama, constantly shifting its position and orientation, and just occasionally moving to adjacent spaces to look back into the central emotional area. Small lapses of continuity and breaks in performance development can also be recognised as the outcome of the shot-by-shot coverage and a film edit, but the gains in focus and visual intensity most definitely outweigh these negatives.
This is not, however, a production distinguished solely by its visuals. Both Emlyn Williams and Michael Gough are entirely convincing in their variants of self-importance and self-delusion, while Dorothy Tutin imparts glorious intensity to the young girl Hedvig. The other great strength is the text, which was translated by Max Faber and adapted for television by Alwyne Whatsley. Trimming the original drama with considerable care, this version manages to make Ibsen’s often over-wrought symbolism almost entirely acceptable, and yet without slipping into a simplistic naturalism.
The opening of the stage text’s Act II is interpolated into Act I, and these two acts comprise the first part of the television drama before the first commercial break. Acts III and IV from the stage are run together as the central act on television, and Act V occupies the small screen’s final third. More of the text is filleted from the earlier acts, and some of the texture of the main characters is inevitably lost. Nonetheless, more than fifty years on from its first showing, The Wild Duck is revealed both as individual and immensely impressive.
Finally, I must add a note to self: John Clements is clearly a fascinating focus for further research, as are those tantalising mentions of productions of Turgenev and Chekhov. Let’s hope they can be the subject of blog posts in the future.
Related posts: International Theatre: A Month in the Country (1955, John Clements / A-R for ITV), with a more detailed discussion of Clements’ work as a producer.