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Greek Plays: King Oedipus (BBC, 1972)

Ian Holm as Oedipus

Ian Holm as Oedipus

Last month my colleague John Wyver and I watched three Greek tragedies in a row at the BFI―no mean feat! Today I post my response to, and some further research on, the second of these, a 1972 BBC production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, under the title King Oedipus.

This work-in-progress forms part of my Greeks on Screen case study, and it follows previous write-ups on Euripides’ Women of Troy (BBC, 1958), Sophocles’ Electra (Associated-Rediffusion for ITV, 1962) and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (BBC, 1964). Next week, I will be turning my attention to another, and very different, version of Sophocles’ Electra which was televised by the BBC in 1974 [this 26 August 2011 post is available here].

Sophocles’ King Oedipus (the title given to the play by the translator) was televised in colour as part of BBC1’s Play of the Month series at 9.25pm on Friday 24 November 1972. Play of the Month was the longest-lasting series of theatrical adaptations for the small screen broadcast by the BBC, running from 1965 to 1983 (see Billy Smart, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles―Adaptation of Classic Theatrical Plays on BBC Television 1957-1985’, PhD thesis, Royal Holloway, 2010, p. 46). It received a repeat broadcast two years later in 1974.

E. F. Watling's The Theban Plays

E. F. Watling's The Theban Plays

It was directed by Alan Bridges and Cedric Messina produced (as he had done for scores of Play of the Month productions). Nicholas Lom is credited as the script editor; he worked with E. F. Watling’s translation of the play, which had first appeared in the Penguin Classics series in 1947 with the latest reprint being in 1971.

The Times announced that King Oedipus would be ‘Sophocles in a modern setting and a prestigious production at that’―although, curiously, the newspaper doesn’t seem to have carried a review of it after it was televised (The Times, 24 November 1972, p. 27). In fact, I came across only one substantial review of this production in my preliminary search of the broadsheets.

This reviewer, Nancy Banks-Smith, was extremely impressed. She begins: ‘One could argue (and I am very argumentative) that King Oedipus […] will be the play of the year, not the month. I don’t remember anything this year as good’ (Nancy Banks-Smith, ‘Television: Oedipus Rex’, The Guardian, 24 November 1972, p. 12).

Banks-Smith referred again to the production the following month, in the section she authored on television in the piece ‘Pick of the Year: Guardian critics choose the most memorable events of the ’72 calendar’ (with a dig at the cultural output of the BBC’s commercial rival):

The BBC provides caviare [sic] for the general with the conviction of one who feels that fish is good for the brain (King Oedipus was the very best beluga). ITV puts its faith in fish fingers.

(The Guardian, 16 December 1972, p. 8).

As with the 1962 ITV production of Sophocles’ Electra, the subject of my last post, we must be thankful that a copy is preserved in the BFI’s collection. (The BFI is currently closed for a couple of weeks: the following notes on the production are therefore drawn from my memory of and my scribbles made during a viewing I undertook a few weeks ago with John Wyver. I look forward to expanding my thoughts on the production after a repeat viewing in September.)

From the start it is clear that this is a big production, with a lavish budget. We begin outside, amongst the people of the city, who are gathered to listen to a loudspeaker announcement being conveyed from a balcony above. We then shift scenes to the enormous room to which that balcony, replete with microphones, is attached.

It is not easy to find the cultural anchor points in this setting (by designer Tony Abbott). It is a feast for the eyes, lavishly decorated. There is a range of southern Mediterranean, middle eastern and north African reference points in clothing, skin colour, decor and religion (for example, Orthodox priests). There is also a distinctly colonial feel: Oedipus (Ian Holm) and others are in uniform, smoking; Jocasta (Sheila Allen) and her attendants, arranged around a couch, are finely turned out in smart, colourful modern dress and hats, with Jocasta looking in this scene every inch the colonial wife in Betty Aldiss’ costume design.

With the various groupings of people and numerous attendants present, there are almost as many people here as there were in the outside crowd scene, cleverly suggesting the sense of the non-individualised collective that the ancient Greek chorus bring to traditional stage productions of Greek tragedy, in which the action takes place outside, before the omnipresent chorus. In many scenes throughout the production people wander across the shot in the background, giving a constant ‘choral’ sense of wider perspective and commentary on the action.

Selected lines from the choral odes are, however, in the main, cut and paste into the dialogue of the play: for example, in a council meeting around a large meeting table, some of those present speak lines from the choruses. Although two choral odes are incorporated more wholly into the production with music (by Herbert Chappell) and movement. Both of these examples are, in different ways, quite extraordinary. The first takes place outside; figures in uniform suddenly start moving to music in a rhythmical, and quite unexpected and unexplained, way as if performing an exercise routine or training. The second example I will come to shortly.

There is an excellent use of space in the open-plan set―for example, in the fabulous dinner scene with Oedipus, Jocasta and their children sat around a large dining table, eating together. Husband and wife whisper to each other against the sound of the children’s chatter, the clink of cutlery against china, and a stringed instrument playing in the background. When they need to talk with more privacy, they move to stand in a colonnaded area some metres away, with the children eating at the table still potently within shot behind.

Oedipus and Jocasta relocate to their bedroom for the scene in which she tells of how her former husband Laius came to meet his death. The bed, with its heavy significance, is central to the scene: Jocasta lies upon it in the foreground as Oedipus relates the journey which first brought him Thebes. So is the mirror, into which Jocasta gazes as she relates the tale of Laius’ death to Oedipus. (Mirrors, I learn from my colleague John Wyver, are often used in scenes involving deception or self-deception; certainly here we have a case of the imminent dawning realisation of the truth.) After all this, husband-son and wife-mother have a long and frenzied embrace and kiss―their last―lying together on the bed.

At several points in the production, the private thoughts of Oedipus and Jocasta are effectively made audible to the audience: for example, Oedipus is heard to say ‘I will know who I am’, whilst his lips remain closed, as he sits amongst a drinks scene.

As Jocasta is, inevitably, seen to drop from a noose, the scene shifts to what can only be described as a Bacchic 1970s disco frenzy. Workers and soldiers dance their cares away, gradually removing items of clothing until some are naked save for their pants and couples move from dancing to embrace as the scene moves to form an almost orgy. This, as you may have guessed, is the second of the two extraordinary chorus scenes alluded to above; it draws its inspiration from the third choral ode in Sophocles’ play, from lines 1086 to 1109, in which the chorus speculate joyously about Oedipus’ birth.

Soon afterwards Oedipus learns who is really is, and the horrible, inevitable blinding occurs: Oedipus takes his wife-mother’s brooch and stabs out his eyes. From this point in the drama Ian Holm’s unenergetic style of delivery makes more sense. Early in the drama he comes across with little charisma, appearing as a man who is small in both stature and presence, and perhaps a little tired of life. Now he appears as a man overtaken by weary resignation to his circumstance. He is simply more convincing with his bloodied eyes.

Banks-Smith in The Guardian writes well of this:

Ian Holm […] used the dry, unpunctuated delivery of tired authority. That unnatural inflexion up at the end of a sentence so the last words won’t be lost. That flicking away of a phrase like ‘the gods curse all who disobey this charge’. It is the antithesis of actorish. A functional rattle like the sound of guns outside. Such a Sandhurst reading of the part means that this Oedipus cannot scream. When he finally sees himself, always an intolerable sight, he hisses, he exhales, breathes out forever.

(‘Television: Oedipus Rex’, The Guardian, 24 November 1972, p. 12).



4 thoughts on “Greek Plays: King Oedipus (BBC, 1972)

  1. Brilliant!

    Posted by Delroy Lindo | 26 August 2011, 11:18 am
  2. Hello – I have reviewed both this and Oedipus Tyrannus from last night’s screening on my blog:

    Posted by Louise | 8 June 2012, 4:52 pm


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