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100 television stage plays: [10] 2001-2011

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. There were fewer stage plays on British television in the first decade of the twenty-first century than in any previous ten-year period. The maturing of multi-channel broadcasting, coupled with additional competition from other home entertainment forms and the internet, increased the pressure on free-to-air terrestrial channels to deliver ratings. Filmed original drama was perceived to attract audiences far more effectively than stage plays, and the high production costs of the latter were only rarely out-weighed for commissioning channels by any reputational value, which in any case was in most cases thought increasingly to be of marginal worth. Continue reading


Rattigan on DVD: Sunday Night Theatre: Adventure Story (BBC, 1961)

The recent BBC release of the The Terence Rattigan Collection DVD box-set has thrown up a true curio. The earliest production in the set, the 1961 staging of Adventure Story was in fact the second television presentation of Rattigan’s historical drama about Alexander the Great. The BBC staged it first in 1950 (no recording was made), the year after it had failed in the West End. Quite why it was accorded two productions in just over a decade is a mystery – especially since this unremarkable 1961 production reveals all of the weaknesses of the text. Continue reading

100 television stage plays: [9] 1991-2000

By the 1990s, televised stage plays were increasingly rare on all of television’s terrestrial channels. At the BBC the form was now largely confined to the impressive Performance strand, the ITV companies now had next-to-no interest, and Channel 4 arts and drama offerings were looking elsewhere. The reasons for this decline are complex, and will be a key part of the broader story that our research aims to explore. But for the present, this outline of one hundred significant television stage plays, offering a first tentative map of the history of the form, has far fewer options from which to choose for this final decade of the century. Continue reading

Greek plays: Lysistrata redux (BBC, 1964)

Although it now seems very likely that no recording of the 1964 BBC production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (about which I first blogged a couple of months ago) exists, I have recently come across a copy of the camera script in the Written Archives Centre. The script, based on Patric Dickinson’s translation of the play, informs us that despite the production’s opening shot of a mushroom cloud over the Acropolis this was no political modernization of what is commonly understood to be a feminist and anti-war play. One striking thing about the script is how much sexually explicit reference from the original play is left in, most of which refers to the men’s painfully aroused state, which poses interesting questions about how this may (or much more likely may not) have been represented visually. Even if the production accommodated an awkward tension between what was said and what was seen, the verbal references alone, passim, would surely have been sufficient to attract the attention of Mary Whitehouse who was just at this point beginning her long campaign to Clean Up TV. Continue reading

From the theatre: Coliseum Night (BBC, 1939)

In the recent post From the theatre 1938-1939 I detailed the BBC’s outside broadcasts from London’s theatres in the year leading up to the outbreak of war. The first of these transmissions was a presentation of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married from the St Martin’s Theatre in November 1938; others included a series of variety shows from the London Coliseum. In strict terms, ‘variety’ falls outside the brief of Screen Plays as a research project, but I hope you will tolerate my stretching of that brief a little in this post. Relationships with theatre managements were immensely important to the fledgling television service and the exchanges between the BBC and the Coliseum’s management for these variety presentations are a revealing strand of this story. Continue reading

International Theatre: A Month in the Country (John Clements / A-R for ITV, 1955)

A Month in the Country is the first stage play produced for ITV, but it is not in any sense a typical television drama of the mid-1950s. Like John Clements’ production of The Wild Duck (1957), this lavish Turgenev adaptation was not recorded in a television studio using multiple electronic cameras. Rather it was shot on 35mm film with a single camera in a movie-style set (and fortunately it survives in the archives). The cast, including Margaret Leighton, Michael Gough and Laurence Harvey, could have graced a top-level feature, and the director Robert Hamer had only six years before made one of the defining classics of the British cinema, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Continue reading

Long Day’s Journey into Night (ATV for ITV, 1973)

I am delighted that Network have just released on DVD the 1973 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. This is a studio adaptation of a famous National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier from two years before. At the time of the stage premiere, Michael Billington wrote of Olivier’s performance in the final act that it was ‘as sustained a piece of great acting as we have seen in years.’ Thrillingly, the force and achievement of the production is captured, and in some ways even enhanced, by the shift to the small screen. Forty years on, this intelligent presentation feels modern, immediate and involving. Continue reading

100 television stage plays: [8] 1982-1990

British television changed fundamentally with the arrival of Channel 4 on 2 November 1982. Independent production became for the first time a viable method of working with broadcasters – and the channel in these early years took seriously its statutory mandate ‘to encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’. With ten productions from across the channels from the following eight years, this outline of one hundred significant television stage plays continues our first tentative map of the history of the form. Continue reading

Armchair Theatre: The Creditors (Thames, 1972)

Having just watched Philip Saville’s production for ITV of his own adaptation of Strindberg’s drama The Conspirators, I am wondering if there is any production in the history of the television stage play more mis-judged than this one. Doubtless they are out there in the archives, but this Armchair Theatre offering from 1970 is possibly in a class of its own when it comes to productions that are uneasy, under-achieved and – simply – bad. Continue reading

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace