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100 television stage plays: [5] BBC, 1965-1975

The Wars of the Roses, 1965, BBC/RSC poster

The Wars of the Roses, 1965, BBC/RSC poster

This post continues our outline of one hundred significant television stage plays which offers a first tentative map of the history of the form. Some of the productions no longer exist, and of the ones that are still in the archives, there are many that I have not (yet) seen. Undoubtedly there are also numerous important broadcasts that I have missed or that I know nothing about. Do please use the comments below to point out my obvious omissions and idiotic inclusions.

In part because of the growing confidence of productions for BBC2, this is a rich decade for drama at both the BBC and ITV (offerings from which during these years will be the subject of the next blog). The start of the long-running Play of the Month series (1965-83) indicates that classical stage plays were increasingly seen in these years as occupying a separate place in the schedules, distinct from the general drama output. At the same time the BBC was committed to the presentation of classical theatre in a way that would not be the case in later decades. Writing in Radio Times in 1975, the critic Chris Dunkley noted that the managing director of BBC television had recently said, ‘We feel that, like the theatre at large, we should be wanting if we did not ceaselessly recreate the classics – Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw and so on.’ (‘Review’, 27 March 1975, p. 74)

41. Thursday TheatreJohnson over Jordan by J. B. Priestley, directed by Lionel Harris, produced by Bernard Hepton, broadcast 4 February 1965.

‘I have seldom had so enjoyable a dramatic experience on TV,’ wrote the Financial Times critic T. C. Worsley of this production of Priestley’s 1939 drama:

[T]hree things made the play ideal television material. First — Mr Priestley’s firm craftsmanship made certain from the start that we would not be let down as we are in so many tele-plays either by over-reaching or under-working — he knew exactly what effect he wanted to get and, whatever you might think of it, he got it. Then the interest is concentrated almost wholly on one character, and that character was played by Sir Ralph Richardson. Finally, the expressionist form is one that television can deal with very comfortably and successfully: the camera is up to all the expressionist tricks. (Television: The Ephemeral Art, London: Alan Ross 1970, p. 101)

42. The Wars of the Roses by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Hayes and Peter Hall, produced by Michael Barry, broadcast in three parts from 8 April 1965.

The Royal Shakespeare Company had had a huge hit with an adaptation by John Barton and Peter Hall of three of Shakespeare’s history plays. Adopting a very different production strategy to their earlier History plays cycle, An Age of Kings, the BBC went to Stratford-on-Avon at the close of the season and filmed the plays on stage in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. I have posted previously about the episode devoted to Richard III here.

43. Play of the Month: Luther by John Osborne, directed by Alan Cooke, produced by Cedric Messina, broadcast on 19 October 1965.

Alec McCowen starred in this opening broadcast of the Play of the Month series, which The Times said promised to be ‘a glittering and lavishly cast series of television drama’. Osborne’s play had been first seen on the stage four years before with Albert Finney, but here it was presented with substantial cuts. The Times was ambivalent in its response;

Mr Alan Cooke crowded the screen with people, linked scenes with obtrusive woodcuts, played photographic tricks and trained cameras down long perspectives which allowed his actors the freedom of a very big style. […] The play stood up very well to truncations and distractions, profited from the big scenes which emphasized the Reformer’s loneliness, but did not find its gaps plastered over by visual excitements. […] Mr McCowen, usually neat, nervous and elegant in technique, would not in anticipation have been one’s first or second choice for the role, but his performance was a continual excitement. (Anon., ‘Crowded Screen in Luther “Epic” ‘, 20 October 1965, p. 16)

44. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and Alan Bridges, produced by Cedric Messina, broadcast on 5 February 1967.

A recording of this production was one of the titles rediscovered in the Library of Congress archives recently and screened at BFI Southbank. My discussion of the production is at the Illuminations blog here.

Ian McKellen in Edward II, BBC45. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, directed by Tony Robertson, produced by Mark Shivas, broadcast on 8 June 1970.

Ian McKellen was the star of the Prospect Theatre Company’s 1969 productions of Marlowe’s drama and also of Shakespeare’s Richard II. The BBC recorded both plays, and the impressive Edward II has been released on DVD, albeit only in the USA. I have written in detail about the recording here, in a blog post illustrated with a number of framegrabs.

46. Hassan by James Elroy Flecker, produced and directed by Rex Tucker, broadcast on 6 January 1971.

James Elroy Flecker’s orientalist confection was a huge (posthumous) hit on the London stage in 1923 and it was one of the first major drama productions staged by the BBC at Alexandra Palace in June 1937. Quite what the corporation was doing reviving it at this stage is a mystery (perhaps archival research will enlighten us), but they threw substantial resources at it, along with two theatrical knights and Nyree Dawn Porter. In The Times, Leonard Buckley pronounced it ‘veritably an absolute wow’. As his review continued

The performance played it hard for exotic costumes and exotic groups. Slaves pattered. Eunuchs eunuched. The silhouetted minaret pointed to the sky… In the name part Ralph Richardson brought that curiously impressive nonchalance he so often brings to the box. There was a steely command about John Gielgud’s Caliph and from both there were diction and timing beyond compare. (‘Hassan‘, 7 January 1971, p. 9)

Since the production survives, doubtless I will have the chance to make up my own mind about it, but at the moment I am rather more inclined to go along with the response of Raymond Williams. The great cultural critic was writing regular television review columns for The Listener in the early 1970s, and he ended one of these (‘Being Serious’, 14 January 1971, p. 60) with this laconic observation: ‘A suitably confected Hassan can be put down as experience.’

47. Play of the Month: The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Alan Bridges, produced by Cedric Messina, broadcast on 21 March 1971.

This highly distinctive production is discussed in depth by Dr Billy Smart in his (as yet, unpublished) PhD thesis, ‘New Wine in Old Bottles: Adaptation of Classic Theatrical Plays on BBC Television 1957-1985’ (Royal Holloway, 2010). He describes ‘the programme’s muted and chaotic aesthetic’ and analyses the audience response report in the BBC Written Archives to suggest that the production polarised opinion among its viewers: ‘[Alan] Bridges’ approach to the play either provoked great attention and stimulation or great irritation in viewers, with a neutral response being comparatively rare’ (p. 234). Bridges was clearly attempting to innovate with the spaces and technology of the studio, and his achievement in doing so will form the focus of a future post.

48. Play of the Month: Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, directed by Rudolph Cartier, produced by Cedric Messina, broadcast on 14 May 1972.

I think it is fair to say that Leonard Buckley, television critic for The Times, liked this production:

Picture hats and dripping pearls marked this production. But it brought us moments last night as exquisitely tense as any we have had from television. […] Cedric Messina’s production was a model of how a classic should be transferred. Television so often tries to be too clever by half. Here by contrast the stage was extended only enough to give more substance to a minor character or more point to a movement than the theatre could allow. […]

[O]nce again, the dear, maligned, unpredictable BBC gave us a play that made one proud to have a television set. I confess that I wept for the tender beauty, the humour and the sadness of this one. And I do not care who knows. (‘Lady Windermere’s Fan‘, 15 May 1972, p. 9)

49. The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by George Tabori, directed by Jack Gold, produced by Tony Garnett, broadcast on 7 November 1972.

I have been interested in stage plays on television for, well, at least thirty-five years. I began to write television previews for Time Out in 1977, and stage plays were one of topics on which I focussed. Across those years I have been waiting to see Jack Gold’s film version of Brecht’s parable, which re-casts the coming to power of Adolph Hitler as a gangster movie. Yet the film, which stars Nicol Williamson and enjoyed excellent reviews, is one of the more inaccessible television dramas, never (as far as I know) given a broadcast repeat, not shown at the NFT, unreleased on VHS or DVD. Perhaps, I thought, this research project is my chance, and I was heartened to find that there is a copy in the BFI National Archive.

Writing this post I was then a little astonished to discover the film has been posted in sections on YouTube, the first of which (with the usual cautions about illegal postings of such material) I embed here. The other sections are there too, although they take a little searching out.

50. Play for Today: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath, directed by John Mackenzie, produced by Graeme Macdonald, broadcast on 6 June 1974.

Sharply contemporary even as initial focus is the Highland clearances, this is a remarkable film adaptation of a 7:84 touring production of John McGrath’s play. A record of a performance is intercut with a wide range of other material which brings the story of Scottish disenfranchisment by the English right up to date. Firmly structured by the director John Mackenzie, polemical, political and angry, this is a long way from the polite elegant productions of classics that were cluttering up the Play of the Month strand by now.

Ewan Davidson has written about the film for BFI Screenonline (available here):

The play might seem a little patronising of its audience at times but this is countered by the honesty of its editing, which does not exclude the occasional look of wry amusement, scepticism or bemusement on the audience’s faces. On other occasions the audience is visibly moved. This, and the wholehearted participation, cheering and clapping, is a ringing endorsement of the play. The theatre voiceovers, the filmed reconstructions and the aerial shots of the landscape are all equally involving. The interviews with the riggers alone are a priceless historical document.



2 thoughts on “100 television stage plays: [5] BBC, 1965-1975

  1. I’d probably swap Lady Windermere for Cartier’s 1969 production of An Ideal Husband,simply because that survives in the archives.

    I hope that the BBC’s print of The Gangster Show is in better shape than that one! Such was the impact of the production that it was repeated twice within the two years after transmission, the second time on BBC1.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 10 September 2011, 9:36 am
  2. Hi, re the Arturo Ui uploads on YouTube, they have been put on by Nicol Williamson’s son, who has been dedicated in sharing his father’s work.

    Posted by Louise | 9 February 2013, 9:54 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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