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100 television stage plays: [7] 1976-1981

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, 1980; BBC publicity brochure

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, 1980; BBC publicity brochure

Having split the BBC and ITV outputs in the previous four posts, here I am considering them together for the six years before the arrival of Channel 4. As before, this outline of one hundred significant television stage plays 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. At the same time the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s are years that I know reasonably well, as this was when I was writing regular television previews for Time Out magazine. Even so I am sure that there are important broadcasts that I have missed. Do please use the comments below to point out my obvious omissions or idiotic inclusions with which you disagree.

61. The Chester Mystery Cycle by Anon., adapted by Maurice Hussey, directed by Piers Haggard, produced by Cedric Messina, broadcast 18 April 1976.

A two-and-half-hour spectacular shown at tea-time on Easter Sunday in 1976, this production of the medieval religious plays was one of the earliest television dramas to make extensive use of electronic graphics. Writing in the Guardian, Peter Fiddick was enthusiastic:

[T]his production […] was a superb example of the fusion of all the crafts to the service of the text and its spirit, but also creating a new work that stands in its own right.

Its creators would doubtless acknowledge a debt to the inspiration of the late James MacTaggart, who in Candide and Alice Through the Looking Glass pioneered the use of the electronic overlay system as a prime stylistic device for non-naturalistic drama. Yet fine as those pieces were, I think that this latest in that line can claim to have honoured the debt and moved on. The precision, range and richness of the effects was more ambitious than anything we have seen before, and perfectly pulled off.

At the end of his review, Fiddick reminds us that the union agreements for BBC broadcasts at the time meant that productions could only be repeated within two years of the original broadcast date – and that all showings after that were explicitly prohibited: ‘The thought that after two years it should all disappear for ever adds another powerful reason for rethinking television’s copyright agreements’.  (‘The Chester Mystery Plays’, 19 April 1976, p. 8) Fortunately, the recording survives in the archive.

62. The Lively Arts: Not I by Samuel Beckett, directed by Anthony Page, produced by Tristram Powell, broadcast on 17 April 1977.

Not all stage plays for television emerged from the drama departments of the broadcasters. The Lively Arts was a Sunday evening collection of concerts and cultural documentaries produced by BBC Music and Arts, and this edition featured three short Beckett plays. Ghost Trio and …But the Clouds… were television originals (and this was the world premiere screening of both), and they were complemented by a film version of Not I with Billie Whitelaw. Anthony Page had directed the actress in this extraordinary piece, in which the audience sees only the performer’s mouth, at the Royal Court Theatre four years previously. This translation to the screen created a startlingly minimal yet intense moment of television.

63. The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Herbert Wise, produced for Thames by Verity Lambert and David Susskind, broadcast in three parts from 5 October 1977.

Among the ITV companies Thames produced the most adventurous television drama in the 1970s, as evidenced by this expansive production of Ayckbourn’s trilogy. The conceit is that all three plays relate the same events in one house across a weekend, but these are seen respectively from the sitting-room, the dining-room and the garden. Crucially it is not necessary to see all three, or even one of the others, but if you do see more than one, then they can be watched in any order.

On the stage they were premiered, like almost all of Ayckbourn’s work, at The Library Theatre in Scarborough. After running there during the summer of 1973, they were mounted at the Greenwich Theatre in London before transferring with great success to the West End. The subsequent Thames production featured Tom Conti, Felicity Kendal, Richard Briers and Penelope Keith.

64. Play of the Month: Waste by Harley Granville-Barker, directed by Don Taylor, produced by David Jones, broadcast on 4 December 1977.

The 1977-78 season of Play of the Month was the first to be produced by David Jones, who quickly moved it away from the worthy-but-dull “heritage theatre’ associations that had accrued around the offerings overseen by Cedric Messina. 1977 was the centenary of Granville-Barker’s birth, and the BBC did him proud with a production of his 1907 drama that Michael Ratcliffe in The Times described as ‘riveting and intelligent’ (‘Waste‘, 5 December 1978, p. 9).

At the time the noted television playwright Dennis Potter was contributing a weekly column about the medium to the Sunday Times, and his experienced eye recognised how distinctively the stage text had been adapted for the broadcast studio:

Don Taylor, the director, did not try to liven up this now septuagenarian piece by mounting his cameras on a carousel or making his large and accomplished cast swivel their heads like wooden spinning tops. He used, instead, steady close-ups, long takes and a quietly concentrated rhythm which allowed the weight to fall on the words rather than ears or nostrils. (‘A real shaker of a play’, 11 December 1977)

Norman Rodway, Katharine Fahy in Danton's Death

Norman Rodway, Katharine Fahy in Danton's Death

65. Play of the Month: Danton’s Death by George Buchner, directed by Alan Clarke, produced by David Jones, broadcast on 23 April 1978.

This extraordinary studio version of Buchner’s drama of the French revolution is probably the most radical of the productions ushered on to the screen by Play of the Month producer David Jones. The genesis of the production is traced in the essential oral biography of the director, who died in 1990, Alan Clarke, edited by Richard Kelly (London: Faber and Faber, 1998). On being asked to contribute a production to Play of the Month, Clarke’s first choice was Buchner’s Woyzeck, but then he saw Werner Herzog’s movie and felt that there was little he could add to that. Script editor Stuart Griffiths and David Jones nudged him towards Buchner’s only other complete drama:

Alan was always a very political creature [Jones recalled], he had this very humanist left-wing attitude. And the play is about this great revolutionary tragedy – why did Danton go under and Robespierre survive? (Alan Clarke, pp. 107-08)

Finding that none of the existing translations were satisfactory, Griffiths and Clarke worked on their own adaptation. They pulled together a remarkable cast (Ian Richardson, Michael Pennington, Norman Rodway) and recruited Stuart Walker as the designer.

One issue that came up almost straightaway [Walker remembered] was how he was going to shoot the piece. He was then into his long lenses, and he was the first television director who’d raised the topic with me. It’s common enough in film, but in television you’ve got zoom lenses and it’s all close-ups, mid-shots, one-shots.

In the studio [Jones recalled] the cameras were never closer to the actors than about fifteen yards. It was impossible to see what he was shooting unless you were looking at the monitors. He got a very cool, detached feel to it. (Alan Clarke, p. 110)

I have seen the production only once, at the time of its original transmission, but I recall its tableau-like scenes as looking extraordinary. For me, this is a priority to re-visit as soon as is feasible.

66. Macbeth by William Shakespeare, directed by Philip Casson, produced for Thames by Trevor Nunn, broadcast on 11 February 1979.

I blogged in detail about this ‘masterly, minimal’ Macbeth for Illuminations in February 2010; that piece is here, along with a complementary post about the poor state of the master tape’s video preservation evidenced by the production’s current DVD release.

67. Play for Today: Comedians by by Trevor Griffiths, produced and directed by Richard Eyre, broadcast on 25 October 1979.

Director Richard Eyre first staged Griffith’s play about an evening class for comics at the Nottingham Playhouse, from where it transferred to the National Theatre at the Old Vic and then, in January 1976, to Wyndham’s Theatre. Two years later Eyre took over as the main producer on the BBC’s Play for Today strand, and he transferred the play to the screen, with Jonathan Pryce reprising his central performance. Some of the original’s expletives were trimmed from the script, but enough remained for BBC management to effect a last-minute change to its place in the schedules. Play for Today usually began after the Nine O’Clock News at 9.25pm, but Comedians was transmitted at 10.10pm. The playwright wrote an angry letter to the Guardian:

True to form, […] Nanny Beeb’s cultural bouncers, [Bill] Cotton and [Alasdair] Milne, have shunted the play towards the witching hour, without consulting writer, director or anyone else creatively involved in making the play. At its new transmission time, the programme will now lose several million potential viewers (about which, I should add, writer, director, actors and technicians care passionately).’ (Letters, 25 October 1979)

68. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, directed by Roland Joffé, produced by    broadcast on 7 May 1980.

I intend to make this remarkable film adaptation of Ford’s 1633 Jacobean tragedy, which transposes the Italian tale to mid-Victorian England, the subject of a separate post later this week.

69. Play for Today: Psy-Warriors by David Leland, directed by Alan Clarke, produced by June Roberts, broadcast on 12 May 1981.

The script was he first stage play written by the actor David Leland, who took as his subject the use of interrogation techniques by the British army in Northern Ireland.  It was staged at the Royal Court Theatre and then Clarke was able to get it made at the BBC. Its intense visual style can be judged from this extract available on YouTube:

70. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Trevor Griffiths, produced and directed by Richard Eyre, broadcast on 13 October 1981.

This is a great production of Chekhov’s classic which works with Trevor Griffiths’ adaptation that is alive to the politics of the early twentieth century. It was shot in the studio by Richard Eyre using only a single camera, which creates a visual style quite different from the conventional grammar of multi-camera shooting. We’ll return to it on this blog, but its production history is traced in detail in Powerplays: Trevor Griffiths in Television by Mike Poole and John Wyver, London: BFI Publishing, 1984, pp. 150-58.



3 thoughts on “100 television stage plays: [7] 1976-1981

  1. I’m not sure that you can really justify the inclusion of no productions whatsoever from the first four seasons of the BBC Television Shakespeare! The two really significant ones are the Kevin Billington Henry VIII and the John Cleese/ Jonathan Miller Taming of the Shrew. You might be withholding an Elijah Moshinsky production until the next list, but I’d also nominate the 1981 All’s Well That Ends Well as his best production.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 26 September 2011, 6:53 am
    • Billy, you’re right, of course – my only excuse is that I didn’t want too much Shakespeare in the list as a whole, and I intend to include The Third Part of Henry the Sixt, as directed by Jane Giles, in my next contribution. For me, the Henry VI plays are the very best of the BBC Television Shakespeare, although I’ll own to not knowing them all as well as I ought. I need to revisit the Moshinsky productions and also Miller’s own contributions. And before you pick me up on it, I realise that Jane Giles’ Henry VI Part One and Part Two were broadcast in 1981 – so I have absolutely no excuse for my omissions. Thanks, as ever, for the comment.

      Posted by John Wyver | 26 September 2011, 8:28 pm
  2. On reflection, I think that you can’t really omit Abigail’s Party either, because of its large general audience, its long cultural afterlife, and as a case study of how a contemporary fringe production could be transferred to the studio with minimal alteration.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 2 October 2011, 4:54 pm

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