This post continues our initial outline of one hundred significant television stage plays. The aim is to offer a 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.
Periodisation in these posts is, I recognise, fairly random — and nowhere more so than with this arbitrary decade from ITV’s output. In these years before the comfortable broadcasting duopoly was challenged by Channel 4, Sky and the slew of other services that followed, the regional companies continued to produce high quality single dramas, many of which still were derived from originals written for the theatre. But by the mid-1970s, the commitment to such productions was being reined in.
51. Blood and Thunder: The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, directed by Derek Bennett, produced for Granada by Philip Mackie, broadcast on 4 January 1965.
In early 1965 Granada’s head of drama Philip Mackie produced both this Jacobean tragedy as well as Middleton’s Women Beware Women. A recording was one of those rediscovered recently in the Library of Congress archive (the programme had previously been thought lost) and to mark this Lez Cooke contributed a thoughtful piece to BFI Screenonline:
In adapting the play for television Mackie dispensed with the comic asylum secondary plot from Middleton and Rowley’s original play and compressed some of the action in order to reduce the length to 75 minutes. While this results in a slightly perfunctory narrative in places, the key elements of murder, intrigue and duplicity remain. […]
[Director Derek] Bennett makes good use of a split-level set designed by Peter Phillips, with a number of scenes shot from above, in long shot, giving the impression of eavesdropping on conversations as the scenarios of intrigue and duplicity unfold. A high-contrast lighting design adds to the atmosphere of deception and dark deeds that permeates the play, the creative staging successfully conveying the labyrinthine complexity of the castle of Alicante within which the tragedy unfolds.
The production is available to view in the BFI Mediatheque on London’s South Bank.
52. Play of the Week: The Rules of the Game by Luigi Pirandello, directed and produced for Associated Rediffusion by Cyril Coke, broadcast on 15 February 1965.
In writing about this production, the Guardian broadcast critic Mary Crozier encapsulated a rationale for stage plays on television that was widely accepted at the time:
Drama on television goes through some bad patches, but at present on both channels a lot of effort seems to be going into producing plays from the theatre which must always form part of the output of television, and which in fact show television as a sort of standing repertory.
This is at least part of its function; and as the demand for drama is constant and the huge television audience may never see these plays otherwise, every production of this kind is valuable. (‘Pirandello on ITV’, 16 February 1965, p. 9)
In addition to this broad argument, Ms Crozier was positive about this particular production, praising the acting of Gwen Watford and Anthony Quayle, and observing that ‘Cyril Coke’s direction kept the play always on the move, quick and glancing’.
53. Play of the Week: A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, produced for Associated-Rediffusion and directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, broadcast on 4 April 1966.
Arthur Miller originally wrote this tale of the New York docks as a one-act verse drama. The more conventional two-act play in prose was premiered in London, in a 1956 production by Peter Brook. Sidney Lumet directed a movie version in 1961, with Raf Vallone playing the lead, and the actor reprised his role for this ITV production five years later. The photograph is one of the few traces left of that broadcast, since no recording is known to exist.
Originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain for public theatrical performance, Mr Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge [sic] was last night given its television premiere by Rediffusion. It is reassuring to see something once considered suitable only for a minority now readily accessible to the majority. And last night’s production was a faithful rendering of this ennobling modern tragedy. […]
The Rediffusion production, directed by Miss Joan Kemp-Welch, rather lacked […] atmosphere and was distinctly undercast in the lesser roles. None the less it worked because true to the fundamental passions in the play. Raf Vallone, repeating his film success, was a superb hero: tough, uncomprehending, infinitely to be pitied. And Miss Katharine Blake, Miss Francesca Annis and Mr John Collin gave strong support. (‘Arthur Miller’s ennobling modern tragedy’, The Times, 5 April 1966, p. 13)
54. Star Performance: The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, directed by Ted Kotcheff, produced for Associated-Rediffusion by David Susskind, broadcast on 30 November 1966.
Unlike A View from the Bridge, there is an archival record of Cocteau’s hour-long telephone monologue performed by Ingrid Bergman, no less. What’s more, it is available on YouTube in six parts, the first of which is embedded below. At the time of its first showing, the television critic of The Observer, Maurice Richardson, wrote, ‘Ingrid Bergman gave a magnificent, genuinely haunting performance […] I’ve never seen this better done.’ (‘Stars of monkeyland’, 4 December 1966, p. 24)
55. Playhouse: Entertaining Mr Sloane by Joe Orton, directed by Peter Moffatt, produced for Associated Rediffusion by Peter Willes, broadcast on 15 July 1968.
Joe Orton’s desperately dark domestic comedy was a stage sensation in the summer of 1964, but it took Associated Rediffusion four years to bring it to television. The ITV series Playhouse was usually broadcast at 8.30pm, but this production was consigned to a special late-night slot, starting at 10.30pm. ‘Splendid television’, was the verdict of the Guardian‘s critic Stanley Reynolds, who continued:
We had brilliant performances from Sheila Hancock, looking just like a middle-aged and rattled Sandie Shaw as the over-sexed Cathy [sic, the character is called Kath or Kathy], from Clive Frances as the amoral bisexual Sloane, and from Edward Woodward as Ed, the sportsman homosexual who struggled with his sister Cathy for possession of the handsome monster Sloane. (‘Television’, 17 July 1968, p. 6)
Happily, the production survives. Janet Moat has contributed a short assessment to BFI Screenonline and there is a discussion at the website Television Heaven which quotes extensively from a contemporary TV Times feature by Milton Shulman.
56. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, directed by Gordon McDougall, produced by Julian Amyes, recorded in 1969 but untransmitted.
One of the most intriguing of all theatre-television cross-overs is Granada’s experiment in 1969-1970 with the Stables Theatre Company. Set up by Gordon McDougall, this was an initiative to produce plays for both the stage and screen, and a dozen or so productions were broadcast before the company went bankrupt at the end of 1970. There is very little written about productions from The Stables, and I intend that one of our case studies will explore these plays and the context in which they were created. As one of the choices here, I have highlighted a recording of Shakespeare’s romance (which apparently still exists) with Sam Dastor and Katherine Barker as the lovers. According to an entry on the authoritative Shakespeare: An International Database on Film, Television and Radio, ‘The director was unhappy with the televised production of the stage play (which had been very well received) and it was never transmitted.’
This prestigious production with Laurence Olivier and Constance Cummings is released on DVD by network. [Update, 8 October 2011: I have now posted a detailed Screen Plays post on this (wonderful) production].
58. Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, produced and directed for ATV by Trevor Nunn, broadcast on 28 July 1974.
At BFI Screenonline Michael Brooke writes very well about this important production with Janet Suzman, Richard Johnson and Patrick Stewart:
Sourced from a celebrated 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company production originally directed by Trevor Nunn, this ATV adaptation was broadcast two years later. It was something of a landmark in television Shakespeare in that director John [sic; in fact, Jon] Scoffield specifically attempted to devise an intelligently stylized visual language appropriate to the small screen. Here, sets are reduced to background shades of colour (blinding white for Rome, sultry yellow for Egypt, black for the inside of Cleopatra’s monument) and sound effects are just as important as onscreen props in conveying a sense of place.
It was staged almost entirely in medium to tight close-up, with a few cutaways to deliberately out-of-focus impressions of distant action, creating the effect of a mirage. This was intended to throw attention on the actors’ delivery of the original text.
59. Occupations by Trevor Griffiths, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, produced for Granada by Jonathan Powell, broadcast on 1 September 1974.
Trevor Griffiths’ study of the conditions of revolution, set in Turin during the 1920 metal-workers’ strike, was originally commissioned for the Stable Theatre Club (see above). It was subsequently produced by Buzz Goodbody with great success for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Granada version cut the two-hour-plus text to seventy-eight minutes and, while unquestionably inventive, it distorts and diminishes the political edge of the text. With Mike Poole, I have written in detail about the production in Powerplays: Trevor Griffiths in Television (London: BFI Publishing, 1984), pp. 30-42. Here’s one quote:
The strangest aspect of the production is that Jack Shepherd plays Gramsci on his knees. Gramsci, according to the text, is ‘of dwarf-like stature … seriously hunch-backed’ though ‘in spite of his deformity, he moves with grace’, and Griffiths recalls that this way of playing him was decided upon only two days before the recording. The result looks absurd. (p. 41)
60. The Way of the World by William Congreve, directed and produced by Peter Duguid, broadcast on 5 March 1975.
One of the later flourishes of ITV’s engagement with stage plays was Thames Television’s set of six adaptations of Restoration comedies shown in 1975. The first of these was Peter Duguid’s sparkling version of William Congreve’s classic, which Nancy Banks-Smith hymned in the Guardian: ‘it was long, and lavish … a perfectly gorgeous play’. (‘Way of the World on television’, 6 March 1975, p. 10)