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’s 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 tentative map of the history of the form, has far fewer options from which to choose for this final decade of the century. My choices below are largely mainstream, so if there are significant broadcasts that I have missed – especially in the less obvious areas of the schedule – do please use the comments below to point out my omissions.
81. The Ship, devised and produced by Bill Bryden, directed by Bill Bryden and Derek Bailey, broadcast on BBC2 on 26 December 1991.
The Ship began life as a celebrated performance staged in an empty Harland & Wolff shipbuilding shed in Govan as part of Glasgow’s year as European Capital of Culture. Bill Bryden worked with the local community to develop a tale of the launching of a great vessel. The television version includes elements of documentary but is mainly sensitive documentation of the theatrical event. For more on this, see my Illuminations blog written when The Ship was screened in early 2011 at BFI Southbank.
82. Performance: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, directed by David Thacker, produced by Simon Curtis, broadcast on BBC2 on 21 November 1992.
Throughout the 1990s, Performance on BBC2 took forward the tradition of Play of the Month but attempted, under its executive producer Simon Curtis, to inject a more contemporary sensibility. Hugh Hebert’s short Guardian review of this Ibsen presentation (currently the most recent one on British television) catches the sense of the series and of the way in which it was regarded:
With A Doll’s House, Performance offered another shrewd choice for a series dedicated to reinstating television studio drama with dazzling casts. This week an Ibsen classic dependent on the claustrophobic space where the doll wife is trapped by the convention-bound Torvald, played like a true bank manager by Trevor Eve. Juliet Stevenson is electric in the speed of her mood changes and in the barely contained power she evokes as she takes control of her life. (‘Television’, 23 November 1992, p. A8)
Towards the end of his life (he died of AIDS in 1994), Derek Jarman made a austerely beautiful low-budget adaptation of Marlowe’s drama. The £1 million budget was brought together by Working Title, British Screen and the BBC, and the film was shot at Bray Studios in the summer of 1991. Just after the wrap, Jarman gave an interview to the Guardian‘s Derek Malcolm:
‘I’ll tell you why there’s no conventional sets. It’s because we can’t afford them. We haven’t got enough extras and we can’t spend much money on costumes either. […] But it still looks marvellous, and that’s what I want. It’s not just a question of needs must, though it would have been lovely to have had more money. We’re making a positive virtue of our poverty. […]
‘So much of the play is no longer of interest to modern audiences. What is interesting is the relationships, between Mortimer and Isabella and Edward as well as between Edward and Gaveston. All that’s completely relevant today. I don’t have to add anything of my own, except visually to stop it looking like filmed theatre.’ (Making a virtue of poverty – ‘Nothing distracts from the Marlowe’, 11 July 1991, p. 28)
84. Performance: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 by William Shakespeare, directed by John Caird, produced by Simon Curtis, broadcast on BBC2 on 28 October 1995.
Atmospheric, earthy, fast-moving and lit like a Rembrandt – this Shakespeare adaptation by director John Caird compels attention right from the first stratagems, feuding barons and cutpurses. Starring Rufus Sewell as Hotspur, Jonathan Firth as Prince Hal, Ronald Pickup as Henry IV and David Calder as Falstaff, it’s a naturalistic, richly-costumed production that probes the moral and psychological contradictions within a period of social strife where ‘honour is a mere scrutcheon’, but also where errant young princes also grow into wise, brave leaders. (Anon., ‘Television & Radio’, The Guardian, 28 October 1995, p. B72)
85. Our Friends in the North by Peter Flannery, directed by Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James and Stuart Urban, produced by Charles Pattinson, broadcast on BBC2 in nine parts from 15 January 1996.
A great and glorious drama serial following four friends from Newcastle upon Tyne across the years between 1964 to 1995. It was originally written for the theatre by Peter Flannery and staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. Wikipedia has a useful section about the production’s journey from stage to screen; there is also a good 2010 Guardian interview with the writer here.
86. Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Herbert Wise, produced by Jack Emery, broadcast on BBC1 on 5 February 1997.
Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the mathematician, computer scientist and code-breaker, has compiled an engaging web page about the process by which his book was adapted first as a stage play by Hugh Whitemore (in 1986) and then, a decade later, into this television version. Derek Jacobi played Turing both on stage and for the small screen.
87. Performance: My Night with Reg by Kevin Elyot, directed by Roger Michell, produced by Simon Curtis, broadcast on BBC2 on 15 March 1997.
Kevin Elyot’s drama was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994, where it was directed by Roger Michell. The setting is London’s gay community in the mid-1980s. Michell later directed this film adaptation for the BBC.
88. Performance: Richard II by William Shakespeare, directed by Deborah Warner, produced by John Wyver and Shaun Deeny, broadcast on BBC2 on 22 March 1997.
Deborah Warner staged Shakespeare’s drama in the Cottesloe Theatre in 1995 with Fiona Shaw playing the king. My production company Illuminations had previously collaborated with Deborah and Fiona on a television film of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and for this television adaptation we took the production from the stage and filmed it with a single cameras across twelve days at Three Mills Studios in east London. Most of the cast, including Richard Bremmer as Bolingbroke and Graham Crowden as John of Gaunt, came across from the stage production, although the role of the Duke of York was newly taken by Donald Sinden.
A more detailed description of the film is here. We are actively working to try to release this production, which has been little-seen since its first broadcast, on DVD. On YouTube here is the deposition scene from the television version with Ian McKellen from 1970 juxtaposed with the same section of the play from this recording.
Penny Woolcock’s blood-freezing […] feature-length film hurls the play smack into the middle of a lawless, multi-cultural Birmingham housing estate. King Duncan is a small-time drugs dealer who flings a ring to Macbeth for his part in petrol-bombing the opposition. […]
Penny has no background in drama; she is actually a documentary maker, which is how she met the residents of [the housing estate] Ladywood in the first place. In her award-winning 1994 documentary Shakespeare on the Estate, she, along with director Michael Bogdanov, took the whole works of Shakespeare to Ladywood.
There was one thing Penny refused to fiddle with [for Macbeth on the Estate]: ‘I was always clear there was to be no compromise on the language. Why would you tamper? Shakespeare’s words have such an impact.’ (Charlotte O’Sullivan, ‘Mac Brum’, The Guardian, 30 March 1997, p. C10)
90. The Colour of Justice by Richard Norton-Taylor, directed by Nicholas Kent, produced by Simon Curtis, broadcast on
Channel 4 BBC2 on 21 February 1999.
In the 1990s London’s Tricycle Theatre under its artistic director Nicholas Kent specialised (as it has continued to do) in documentary stagings of official enquiries, including the Scott arms-to-Iraq investigation as well as the Nuremberg war trials and the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. Richard Norton-Taylor’s edited version of the public inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence was a powerful engagement with racism in the community, and the stage presentation in January 1999 was highly praised. Channel 4 responded with a rapid turnaround television production.