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In or out? Again

Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North, BBC

Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Our Friends in the North, BBC

Questions continue to engage us about which productions are eligible for our projected database of stage plays broadcast on British television. A previous post, In or out?, worried away at the question of whether presentations of musical theatre should be included – with the conclusion that they should be. Now I have a different quandary, prompted by a BFI Southbank screening yesterday of two of the three surviving episodes of Diary of a Young Man (BBC, 1964).

Scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath, Diary of a Young Man may or may not have been based on a stage play, Jack, by McGrath. Which, as we’ll see, is a tricky enough question to determine. Added to which, at the time the serial was produced and transmitted, Jack had not been presented in a theatre. Later, the play was staged – although under a different title – by the 7:84 company, and after that two other television productions, also with different titles, were produced based on the same or similar material. And following through the questions prompted by all this, we end up with a worry over whether or not the Peter Flannery-scripted BBC serial Our Friends in the North (1996) should be in or out of our database.

The dispute about the authorship of Diary of a Young Man is revealed in Lez Cooke’s valuable monograph Troy Kennedy Martin (Manchester University Press, 2007). Cooke quotes McGrath claiming, ‘Diary of a Young Man was based on a stage play of mine, called Jack‘ (p. 80). Troy Kennedy Martin, however, insisted to Cooke that he had no knowledge of the play when Diary… was being written. He felt that McGrath’s contributions to the scripting were restricted to those that a director would be expected to offer. (McGrath was going to direct Diary…, although eventually the six episodes were shared between directors Ken Loach and Peter Duguid.) The disagreement was serious enough for the agent Gareth Wigan, who represented both writers, to become involved, and Kennedy Martin reflected that ‘in the end I kind of relented.’ (Cooke, p. 80)

In 1977, working with the 7:84 theatre company which he founded in 1971, McGrath staged The Life and Times of Joe of England, a play with music which was first performed in Basildon, Essex. Three years later he directed his own two-part script The Adventures of Frank (4 and 11 November 1980) for the BBC’s Play for Today strand. This, he said, ‘was partly based on [The Life and Times of Joe of England], partly on the original play [that is, Jack], partly on Diary of a Young Man‘ (quoted in Cooke, p. 80)

Does this slightly tortuous development mean that either Diary of a Young Man and/or The Adventures of Frank should be included in the Screen Plays database as television productions of stage plays? My current feeling – although I am open to persuasion – is that neither qualify. The scope of the project was conceived to be stage plays presented on British television as acknowledged productions of the original plays in whole or as substantial extracts.

On this basis, King Lear used as a plotline in Coronation Street (as, however unlikely it may seem, was the case in 2006), is not an acknowledged version of Shakespeare’s original. We have never considered that this kind of adaptation is part of Screen Plays‘ brief. Ditto, Andrew Davies’ re-imagining of Othello (ITV, 2001), with a black Metropolitan Police Commissioner played by Eamonn Walker as the central character. Interesting as such an adaptation is, it falls outside the boundaries for Screen Plays.

Following this logic, then, neither Diary of a Young Man nor The Adventures of Frank qualifies for the Screen Plays database. They may (or may not) be drawn from original stage plays, but they are not presented as an acknowledged production of such. Which brings us to Our Friends in the North.

This was originally written by Peter Flannery and produced as a stage play in 1982 by the Royal Shakespeare Company (I saw the production at what is now the Donmar Warehouse). In this form its chronicle of political life in Newcastle took the tale up to the 1979 General Election. The television version then took fourteen years to reach the screen (the story is recounted in the Wikipedia entry for the series), by which time Flannery had developed the characters and included events through to the early 1990s. Nor by then was there any sense that Our Friends… was a stage play produced for television. A masterpiece of the small screen Our Friends in the North may be (let’s make that… ‘is’), but an entry in the Screen Plays database? No.

At least for the moment.


5 thoughts on “In or out? Again

  1. But ‘Our Friends In The North’ is an acknowledged production of the original play in extract form – it’s just that there’s a lot of additional stuff! Plenty of the stage scenes survive, and the structure of it is recognisably the same until it gets up to 1979. The same criteria that you use to exclude it could also be applied to cut out a lot of ‘opened-out’ filmic adaptations such as Alan Bennett’s ‘A Question of Attribution’ or David Hare’s ‘The Absence of War’.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 6 September 2011, 7:39 am
  2. I agree with Billy about including ‘Our Friends in the North’, for the reasons he gives – would it be useful for the database to flag up the distinction between faithfully reproduced stage plays (if such creatures do exist) and those that have have been ‘opened-out’ in ways that make them deviate from the original in any significant way?

    Posted by Chris Dymkowski | 8 September 2011, 10:46 am
    • Yes, that’s a very interesting idea, Chris, although I wonder quite how easy it would be to decide which was which. I think that the database entries will in any case have to indicate the degree of ‘opening out’ that a production or simply an original text has gone through in its journey to the screen.

      Posted by John Wyver | 8 September 2011, 2:01 pm
  3. Oh, while I remember, I’ve discovered yet another well-remembered TV play that originated on the stage… Johnny Speight’s ‘If There Weren’t Any Blacks, You’d Have To Invent Them’ was first performed by the RSC in 1965. LWT made two entirely separate TV versions, both of which survive;

    9 Nov 1968. Directed and produced by Charles Jarrott.
    3 Mar 1974. Directed by Bill Hays. Produced by Rex Firkin.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 8 September 2011, 11:50 am

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