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’.
The selection here is of ten productions from across the channels from the following eight years, and these contribute to the outline of one hundred significant television stage plays and our first tentative map of the history of the form. As before, I am certain 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.
71. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by David Edgar after Charles Dickens, directed by Jim Goddard, produced for Richard Price Television Associates by Colin Callender, broadcast in four parts on Channel 4 from 7 November 1982.
The eight-hour stage adaptation of Dickens’ novel, staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird for the Royal Shakespeare Company, opened in London in June 1980. For some of those who saw it (and that includes me), it remains one of the supreme theatrical experiences of our lives. Jeremy Isaacs, Director of Programmes at the new Channel 4, wanted a major cultural statement with which to launch the new channel – and he recognised that large-scale stage work could be an effective response to the arts output of the other channels.
The arts on Channel 4 began with performance. Given Arena and Omnibus on BBC, and on ITV LWT’s South Bank Show edited and fronted by Melvyn Bragg, it did not seem a good idea to me to offer a regular single-subject format at the same length and in the same slot each week […] However hard to schedule, we would find space for the major event. We began with Nicholas Nickleby, specially reworked for television. A live theatre performance does not show up well on television; performances geared to the back of the upper circle have to be scaled down for the camera, and for viewers at home. So Nickleby was remade for television, on the stage of the Old Vic. (Storm over 4: A Personal Account, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, pp. 168-169)
I am currently re-watching the recording, and so look out for further thoughts here soon.
I was rightly upbraided for not acknowledging the BBC’s mammoth Shakespeare cycle that between 1978 and 1985 brought thirty-even of the plays to the screen. For some, the series epitomises the problems of ‘stagey’, studio-bound productions of stage plays for television, and certainly a number of the recordings, especially in the early years, are very disappointing. But once Jonathan Miller was appointed the series producer, the plays were approached with much greater imagination by their individual directors. Jane Howell’s Henry VI trilogy is unquestionably one of the highlights.
Michael Brooke has written well about the three productions at BFI Screenonline: Henry VI Part One; Henry VI Part Two: and Henry VI Part Three. See also my Screen Plays post An Age of Kings: ‘France will be lost ere long’ which compares one scene from this production with the same scene mounted in the BBC’s previous Histories cycle in 1960.
73. King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Elliott, produced for Granada by David Plowright, broadcast on ITV on 3 April 1983.
Laurence Olivier’s swansong as a major actor, and his only full-length Shakespeare conceived directly for television. Parts of the production are on YouTube, including this scene that begins in Act IV Scene 6:
74. The Oresteia by Aeschylus, directed by Peter Hall, produced by the National Theatre, broadcast in three parts from 4 May 1983.
Pending Amanda Wrigley’s encounter with the tapes in her series of blogs about Greek plays on television, this is Channel 4 director of programmes Jeremy Isaacs’ recollection of the production six years after the broadcast.
Peter Hall’s National Theatre production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia […] was done in the hammering anapests of a new verse translation by Tony Harrison, and with music by Harrison Birtwistle that rose and fell under the actors’ declamation. It was also done in masks, as in ancient Greece. Channel 4, unlike the BBC or Thames, had no facilities of its own. The National Theatre, therefore, set up a production company to record the Oresteia. Peter Hall insisted on recording four separate stage performances – the masks and the declamatory style made stage performances in this case acceptable [cf. Nickleby above] on four separate cameras, thus leaving himself with sixteen different full length tapes to edit to a satisfactory whole. Pouring over them off-line at his home, he took weeks and weeks over it. The final edit, too, was expensive. The show went over budget. The National Theatre decided not to act as its own production company again. (Storm over 4: A Personal Account, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, p. 169)
Remarkably, at least for the present, you can find the full production here on YouTube.
75. Moving by Stanley Price, directed by Les Chatfield, produced for Thames by martin Schute, broadcast on ITV in six parts from 9 January 1985.
This is one of the rare stage plays to have been adapted for television as a sitcom. Penelope Keith and Ronald Pickup star, and the series was recorded without a studio audience.
76. Theatre Night: Playboy of the West Indies by Mustapha Matura after J. M. Synge, directed by Nicholas Kent, produced by Alan Shallcross, broadcast on BBC2 on 13 October 1985.
Stage plays by Black writers have only rarely been produced for British television, and Mustapha Matura’s reworking of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, which sets the action in Trinidad some fifty years later, was one of the earliest. The play was originally commissioned by Nicholas Kent and first staged by him at the Oxford Playhouse and London’s Tricycle Theatre in 1984. The following year, Kent translated the production to the screen. Writing in the Guardian, Hugh Herbert welcomed the television version:
Like Synge, Matura shows us a backward, gullible, superstitious peasant community of weak men and dominant, frustrated women. The outsider, Ken (Jim Findlay) is accorded the status of superman when he claims to have killed his father. […] Matura has produced a piece that is funny, lyrical and, in the end, moving. (‘Lean times’, 14 October 1985, p. 13)
77. The Theban Plays by Sophocles, directed by Don Taylor, produced by Louis Marks, broadcast in three parts on BBC2 from 16 September 1986.
For The Listener Al Senter wrote a useful introduction to Taylor’s extraordinarily ambitious trilogy (stripped on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night in the same week):
The director of the three plays, Don Taylor, shows either extreme foolhardiness or hubris of heroic proportions by himself producing a translation. Although his version at times somewhat uneasily yokes together the Olympian and the demotic, it largely succeeds in supplying speakable, performable and comprehensible dialogue.
Oedipus the King is generally held to be Sophocles’ masterpiece, and here Taylor’s directorial vision, which grows cloudy later in the story, is most acute. Michael Pennington’s white-suited monarch is every inch the golden-boy Oedipus […]
[In Oedipus at Colonus] David Myerscough-Jones’s design, elsewhere so sure-footed, seems oddly contrary to the spirit of the play. Sophocles, allegedly the father of scene-painting, describes lushness and verdure, but here we have the obligatory slabs of rock in a surreal landscape surrounding what resembles Selfridges’ Christmas Grotto. […]
With Antigone we return to a Thebes ruled by terror where King Creon’s photograph hangs Big Brother-like from every wall of the palace and where spies and informers roam. […]
The casting is abnormally, almost ostentatiously strong and although such wholesale raids on the upper slopes of Spotlight can lead to excess, there is much to savour in the performances. (‘Encounter group’, 11 September 1986, p. 29)
This is the opening ten minutes of Antigone:
Also writing in The Listener a fortnight after Al Senter, Peter Lennon was in no doubt about the achievement of the series:
Don Taylor […] has in the past demonstrated his ability to bring energy and passion to archaic subjects, notably in his account of a sacrificial plague village in his play The Roses of Eyam. He now succeeded in creating something magisterial for the great ceremonial Theban tragedies. (‘You wus framed!’, 25 September 1986, p. 34)
78. Another Country by Julian Mitchell, directed by Marek Kanievska, produced by Alan Marshall, broadcast on Channel 4 on 26 March 1987.
With Channel 4’s commitment to supporting low-budget feature film production, it was conceivable in the 1980s for films developed from stage plays to achieve a release in cinemas as well as finding an eventual home on television. Another Country, loosely based on the school days of Guy Burgess (‘Guy Bennett’ in the play), premiered in 1981 at the Greenwich Theatre before transferring to the West End. Marek Kanievska directed the film version which was released in 1984. Vanessa McQuarrie writes about the film for BFI Screenonline.
79. Road by Jim Cartwright, directed by Alan Clarke, produced by Andree Molyneaux, broadcast on BBC2 on 7 October 1987.
Inevitably, the closer we come to the present day, the more chance here is of finding notable productions on YouTube, as with Alan Clarke’s remarkable and dynamic film of Jim Cartwright’s contemporary drama. This is part one of five:
The following extracts come from Alan Clarke, the excellent oral biography edited by Richard Kelly (London: Faber & Faber, 1998):
Colin Campbell Hill [production manager]: It was late autumn 1986 and we were due to go into the studio December or January. The designer, Jim Clay, had done a fantastic studio set – I think he’d laid tarmac – and it was all there ready to shoot. Then came a BBC electricians’ strike. And Alan would go out and jokingly beg them to stay out, because he was so desperate not to go in and shoot. […]
[The production team regrouped to make the production as a film on location.] Eventually we settled for Easington Colliery, which became such a key character in the film. Some houses were still occupied, there were still some people at work, but very few. It was a sad, declining place.
David M. Thompson [co-producer]: I think the last scene is one of the most extraordinary pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Alan was an angry person, not overly political but there was a broadly political agenda about giving people a voice who wouldn’t otherwise have it. I think that’s most effectively expressed in Road, in that big speech of Jane Horrocks’s – about finding your own voice and becoming a person.
John Ward: The whole film is Steadicam, aside from the fianl overhead shot – we cut a hole in the ceiling and I think it’s handheld, the camera wedged in place.
Pam Brighton [theatre director]: I thought Road was the best one Alan did – superbly made, as perfect a piece as you could get. The intensity with which he caught the atmosphere and the sense of those lives was absolutely remarkable.
80. The Mahabaratha adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, directed by Peter Brook, produced by Michael Propper and others, broadcast on Channel 4 on 26 December 1990.
Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of the classical Indian epic ran for nine hours when it was premiered in 1985; his television version,made with the support of Channel 4 and other broadcasters, ran for six hours – and a shorter version was made for theatrical and DVD release. This was the last of Channel 4’s large-scale performance projects developed from the stage, which effectively came to an end with Michael Grade taking over as director of programmes in 1987.