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Greek plays: Sophocles’ Electra (A-R for ITV, 1962)

At 9.45pm on Wednesday 28 November 1962 the ITV audience witnessed an extraordinary broadcast―a production of Sophocles’ Electra in Greek with no subtitles. But this was no antiquarian exercise in declaiming ancient Greek. Rather, this was a television version of Dimitris Rondiris’ internationally touring stage production with the Peiraïkon Theatron company and, using Ioannis Gryparis’ translation, it was given in the living language of modern Greek.

Associated-Rediffusion and the stage production

The production was already pretty well-known. After its 1959 première in Thessaloniki, it had toured Europe and America, and would continue to tour through the 1960s, taking in Namibia, Russia, and several South American countries.

This British television production followed closely on the heels of the appearance of Rondiris’ Electra (alongside Aeschylus’ Choephori and Eumenides) at the Scala Theatre in London, under the auspices of RADA, in the summer of 1961. That Associated-Rediffusion, the British Independent Television contractor for London, should bring Rondiris’ stage production to the small screen must be related to its established international profile and the recent London run, but it certainly also demonstrates a willingness to experiment, and perhaps even take risks.

Private Eye, however, took a cynical view: ‘It’s Greek to the viewers but it’ll look great in the annual report’ (‘Every Night H.M.S. Rediffusion Programmes are Chosen by Captain Bullshine’, Private Eye, 30 November 1962, p. 15).

The Private Eye piece continues with its opinion on how ‘this ignorant little man [Captain Thomas Browrigg] ‘came to be in charge of the weekday viewing of millions, and in particular how he came on to put on such a programme, which he would be the last either to appreciate or to understand’. The suggestion at the end of the cartoon seems to be that the choice of Electra was made solely as a response to the Pilkington Report which had strongly criticized the output of ITV. Observe how the final panel of the cartoon spells out ‘Now, for that shit Pilkington’ in Greek letters.

However, it must be noted that―in addition to a synopsis, given in English as a preface to the production―Associated-Rediffusion published a page-length illustrated set of ‘programme notes’ (see left) in The Times (possibly other newspapers too) on the day of the broadcast, designed to be ‘helpful to viewers throughout tonight’s television production’ (The Times, 28 November 1962, p. 9).

Joan Kemp-Welch, director

Joan Kemp-Welch (1906-1999), one of the first women directors to work in television in the 1950s, was responsible for adapting and directing this stage production for television. She herself is on record as not being primarily concerned with the tastes of the audience: in a press conference for Electra she is recorded as saying that ‘Even if only ten people watch it, this show will still be worth while’. When asked ‘whether this did not seem an unusual production for Associated-Rediffusion in that it is apparently indifferent to the likely number of viewers, she replied: “I do a show for myself and never look at the ratings” ’ (Anon., ‘How’s your Greek?’, The Guardian, 21 September 1962, p. 12).

Kemp-Welch had begun her career as an actor on stage and film, before a decade-long spell as theatre director. Her television career began with the 1955 establishment of Associated-Rediffusion: her output, as one obituary notes, was ‘prodigious and incredibly varied’ (The Independent, 30 July 1999), but one of her particular strengths was adapting theatre plays for the small screen.

The BFI Screenonline website describes Electra as ‘a brave and thoughtful attempt to translate Sophocles into television terms’ which was ‘justly praised by the critics, but for the most part […] unnoticed by the viewers’ (‘Kemp-Welch, Joan (1906-1999)’, BFI Screenonline, accessed 10 June 2011). The Guardian also hails Electra as a ‘brave gesture’ (obituary of Kemp-Welch, published 7 July 1999).

The critical reception

The critical reception does seem to have been extremely positive. Maurice Richardson, writing in The Observer, declares that the production was ‘a smash hit’, albeit an unexpected one:

We were all set for one of those occasional cultural gestures which the companies make once in a while and never let you forget. We don’t expect them to come off because they are seldom really suited to the medium. Indeed, it would have seemed odds-on that Dimitrios Rondiris’s production of Sophocles’s sex-switched Hamlet for the Piraikon company, with its emphasis on the opera and ballet aspect, would suffer grievously. However […] it was a triumphant success.

Everything came across beautifully, including all the most vulnerable parts like the chorus work, the grouping and kneeling, the swan-like hand movements and the rhythmic swaying and the intoning to modern folk-song cadences. The huge set with the steps and the menacing cleft-like doorway into the palace […] kept its impressiveness.

And for once the cameras seemed to have solved the problem of switching distances without any of that unnatural jerkiness. The contrast between the superb tragic close-ups of Aspassia Papathanassiou as Electra and the perfectly co-ordinated gestures of the chorus was smooth and natural.

Richardson concludes: ‘I’m not sure what the lesson of it all is: perhaps simply that nothing is too difficult to put over on TV if it is well enough done, though it may take Greeks to do it’ (Maurice Richardson, ‘Electra Rocks the Box’, The Observer, 2 December 1962).

The review in The Times agrees in large part with Richardson, concluding that Kemp-Welch and Rondiris were ‘working in their different fields towards the same end: that of making classical tragedy immediate and alive to modern audiences whose grasp of classical Greek is at best (with theatregoers) hazy and at worst (with most of a British television audience) totally non-existent’ (Anon., ‘A Great Tragic Actress in Electra’, The Times, 29 November 1962, p. 16).

Clytemnestra and Electra

Viewers

What of these viewers who The Times imagines as being ignorant of classical Greek and whom, as the BFI Screenonline biography of Kemp-Welch (cited above) suggests, the production largely passed by without notice?

It would be wonderful to have the kind of audience data that exists for some BBC productions, but for now I just have the tantalising―believable, but unreliable―statement that ‘it was estimated that [the production] was watched by more people on television than would have seen it in three years on the West End stage’ (Dennis Barker, ‘Obituaries: Michael Yates’, The Guardian, 18 December 2001, p. 18).

In the September 1962 press conference, Kemp-Welch is quoted as saying that the production would have a wide appeal because ‘it is not an intellectual show but an emotional one. […] Language is no barrier’, a view shared by Rondiris himself: ‘The audience will cry , as our audiences all over Europe have cried. They have not understood a word, but they have cried’ (quoted in Anon., ‘How’s your Greek?’, The Guardian, 21 September 1962, p. 12).

It exists at the BFI!

We must be grateful that a copy of the 58-minute production is preserved in the BFI’s collection and so we are able to get a sense it ourselves, although the gap of a half a century must always be borne in mind. The black and white film contributes something to the beautiful grace simplicity of movement and line, for example, but the absence of colour would have been nothing out of the ordinary for audiences of this time (since colour transmission didn’t come in till the late 1960s: see http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/technology/technology8.html).

(The BFI is now closed for three weeks, so the following notes on the production are drawn from memory and the notes I took in a viewing undertaken a few weeks ago with my colleague John Wyver. I look forward to expanding my thoughts on the production after a repeat viewing in September.)

The production itself is prefaced by a brief introductory talk which helpfully offers―especially in the context of a Greek-language production―a synopsis of the Sophoclean play which includes portrait shots of actors in costume when the speaker (male, identity as yet unknown) names individual characters in the drama. A televised version, if you will, of the page-length advert in The Times, above.

Michael Yates’ design for the television production of Electra (The Times, 23 November 1962)
Michael Yates’ design for the television production of Electra (The Times, 23 November 1962)

There is an impressive sense of space offered by the abstract, but clearly classical, set with its tall pillar-like structures, between which long shadows fall, and strong horizontal lines of steps and central acting space (the orchestra in the Greek theatre). The sparse austerity of the set is complemented by the chorus of around fifteen women, dressed almost identically in long dresses reminiscent of the Greek toga with scarves covering their hair, but it is nicely counterpointed when the chorus break into the beautiful and fluid movements (choreographed by Loukia Sakellaridou) which accompany their musical chanting.

There is minimal music, just percussive drumming and cymbals introduced at key points, but the range of vocal delivery―from powerful, angry declamation to intimate monologue―is impressive. So too is the carefully choreographed camera-work: the multiplicity of camera angles offer, for example, a shot encompassing the entirety of the regal Clytemnestra (Georgia Saris) on the left alongside, on the right, a close-up of Electra’s (Aspasia Papathanasiou) devastated facial expression; and shots from above present the full effect of the choral movement almost as if the viewer were located in the audience of an ancient theatre.

This initial viewing raised a lot of questions for me. How did Michael Yates’ set design drawn on, complement or diverge from the stage design by Kleovoulos Klonis? How did this stage production come to be produced by Associated-Rediffusion? And what was the range of response from the viewers? And the next sources to consult include the BECTU interview with Kemp-Welch at the BFI and the 14-minute videotape of Rondiris’ thoughts on directing Electra held by Edinburgh University Library.

The fact that The Times name-checked Electra as one of independent television’s great achievements, twenty-five years after it was broadcast, certainly suggests that this further research will prove worthwhile (Anon., ‘Independent TV is well away but how far can it go?’, The Times, 24 September 1980, p. 8).

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  1. Pingback: Greek plays: Sophocles’ Electra (A-R for ITV, 1962) | Athenian Drama - 16 September 2012

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