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Greek plays: The Serpent Son (BBC, 1979)

The Radio Times cover for The Serpent Son, 1979I recently spent the afternoon at the BFI watching The Serpent Son, the BBC’s 1979 three-part television adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish), and found it to be quite unlike anything I’ve yet reviewed for the Screen Plays blog and interesting in lots of ways. There is a lot more to be said about the production of these three plays, and perhaps they deserve some closer attention in future posts, but here I will confine myself mainly to some comments on the design of the production and the original BBC commission.

This trilogy was broadcast in three weekly instalments as Agamemnon, Grave Gifts (the production’s title for Choephoroi, the play also known as Libation Bearers) and Furies (the production’s title for Eumenides). The three plays went out at 9.25pm on BBC2 on Wednesday nights (95, 85, and 75 mins respectively). The trilogy was followed by a half-hour ‘sophisticated modern comedy’ in the style of the ancient satyr play which traditionally followed tragic trilogies: Raphael and McLeish’s Of Mycenae and Men—which follows the reunion of Helen (Diana Dors) and Menelaus (Freddie Jones) after the fall of Troy—was directed by Hugh David (1925-1987). Although, as an original television play, this falls out of the methodological net of Screen Plays, it is something I’m very much looking forward to seeing in due course and perhaps blogging about here (‘Commissioning Brief’, 17 October 1978, BBC WAC T48/487/1, Drama Writer’s File: Frederic Raphael).

The director of The Serpent Son was Bill Hays (1938-2006; obituaries here and here), who worked in both television and theatre. Richard Broke produced. Humphrey Searle (1915-1982) composed the music, Tim Harvey designed the set and the costumes were by Barbara Kidd, who had in the years previous worked on Dr Who (to which she returned in 2010).

The Serpent Son features an impressive cast—the lead roles were played by Diana Rigg (Klytemnestra), Denis Quilley (Agamemnon), Helen Mirren (Kassandra), Anton Lesser (Orestes), Maureen O’Brien (Elektra), Claire Bloom (Athene), John Nolan (Apollo) and Flora Robson (Kilissa), with Billie Whitelaw leading the chorus of women in Grave Gifts and Siân Phillips leading the chorus in Furies—but it’s worth consulting the BFI Film and TV Database records for more names (click through for information on Agamemnon, Grave Gifts and Furies).

On playing Klytemnestra, Rigg commented: ‘The modern fashion in acting is understatement, or suggestion, but you can’t do Greek drama like that. You have to delve back into our theatrical traditions, and find the grandeur that existed one—a largeness of expression and spirit which modern texts don’t demand. I loved it: every minute of it. The chances to play that sort of part are few and far between’ (quoted in Henry Fenwick, ‘House of Horror’, Radio Times, 3 March 1979, p.72).

Design: ‘Sci-fi Aeschylus’?

Denis Quilley as AgamemnonThe production design was bold; or, as The Observer put it, ‘it is a startling looking production’ (Jonathan Meades, ‘The Week in View’, The Observer, 4 March 1979, 20). It took some influence from ancient Minoan art, which was popular in the 1970s, but in other ways it was not unlike the design of contemporary Dr Who, suggested my colleague Dr Tony Keen who watched the trilogy with me at the BFI. The continuity makes sense given that the costume designer Barbara Kidd had, as noted above, previously worked on that series. The keywords for the design sought after by director Hays were ‘primitive, barbaric, […] exotic and ritualistic’ (quoted in Henry Fenwick, ‘House of Horror’, Radio Times, 3 March 1979).

The costumes were more striking than the set (apart from, perhaps, the enormous phallus-shrine of Apollo) and it is worth hearing at length how they utterly absorbed Clive James, then television reviewer for The Observer, to the extent that, in this review at least, he had very little to say about any other aspect of the production:

Unfortunately it was hard to stop one’s attentions straying from his [Denis Quilley / Agamemnon’s] physiognomy to his apparel and coiffure. Dressed simultaneously as the Last of the Mohicans and the First of the Martians, he sported a Sam Browne belt, leather pedal-pushers, dreadlocks and a fringe. […] he was well equipped with a suit of armour that strongly suggested American football. […]

Aegisthus also had a bulky carapace, which he seldom took off. It was studded with large nails, or small bollards [pictured here]. […] The top girls looked no less remarkable. As Klytemnestra, Diana Rigg had a wardrobe of Pocahontas numbers for day wear. They came with a complete range of Inca, Aztec and Zulu accessories. But it was en grande tenue that she really knocked you out. The bodice of her evening gown featured a gold motif that circled each breast before climbing ceilingwards behind her shoulders like a huge menorah. It was a bra mitzvah.

Terence Hardiman as Aegisthus[…] While the aristos had obviously been dressed by Jap, Courrèges and Zandra Rhodes, the lower orders were clad in rags. These were not, however, ordinary clothes that through long wear had ended up as rags. These rags had been designed as rags. Male members of the chorus wore shaggy jock-straps and hairy plimsolls under their rags. Women members wore their rags arranged as lap-laps. Refugees from Alternative Miss World or the Eurovision Sarong Contest, they formed little heads-together backing groups while the men pounded out the rhythm with crooked staves. […]

But it was Kassandra who took the biscuit. Helen Mirren played her as an amalgam of Régine, Kate Bush and Carmen Miranda. In a punk hairstyle the colour of raw carrots and frock left open all down one side so as to feature a flying panel of her own skin, she did a preparatory rhumba around the set before laying her prophecies on the populace. ‘Now do you get it?’ she hissed, but she was too late. Klytemnestra had persuaded Agamemnon to peel down to his gamma-fronts and take a bath. Blood mingled with the Pine Essence. Fancy things were done to frame the image. The whole deal looked like a dog’s breakfast. (Clive James, ‘Belfast Dreamer’, The Observer, 11 March 1979, 20)

One viewer wrote in to the Radio Times to say why the production hadn’t worked for him. His letter, which appeared under the header ‘Sci-fi Aeschylus’, suggested that, although the ideas in Aeschylus may be ‘complex and alien’, ‘tragedy isn’t sci-fi’: ‘the small screen’, he commented, ‘is for events that can be imagined happening in people’s homes, in real places. You can make Agamemnon work on TV if it looks like something that could actually have happened’ (Arthur Pritchard of Wakefield’s letter published in the Radio Times, 7 April 1979, p.79). Several other letters from viewers were published alongside. One Gladys Hall of Pagham, Sussex objected that ‘the ridiculous and extravagant costumes […] turned it into a farce. Why not the simple and graceful costumes of Ancient Greece?’ On the same Letters page the producer Richard Broke was given a chance to respond to his viewer-critics, and to criticisms of the ‘inauthenticity’ of set and costume he points out that Aeschylus’ drew his characters from myths and legends in the far distant past.

Other viewers were more positive about the production’s merits: R. S. Stanier of Oxford thought it ‘one of the most adequate English versions of a Greek plays I have ever seen’, while Helen Tullberg of Monmouth was full of praise, saying that ‘The standard of adaptation, production and acting have all been amazingly high and I felt the plays come to life as never before’.

Klytemnestra kissing swordOne of the most striking things about this production is the use of decorative borders around the moving image (probably the work of Joanna Bill who was credited with Graphics). In Agamemnon they seemed to be used at three kinds of moment: first, to frame flashback sequences; secondly, to show action which occurs inside-the-palace when the chorus are outside; and, third, to highlight particularly important lines in the text or images on the screen. (See the adjacent image of the moment when Klytemnestra kisses the sword she has used to murder Agamemnon and Kassandra, within a blue-ish marbled frame.)

The use of these borders gets more daring as the trilogy progresses: they become mobile, framing the action and closing in on particular aspects of it—and not always simply mirroring the rectangular dimensions of the screen. ‘I’m fed up with the shape of the screen’, said the director Bill Hays in a Time Out interview, ‘and everyone’s reliance on endless close-ups. So I’ve tried to alter that, focussing the audience’s attention in different ways’ (quoted in Clive Hodgson and John Wyver, ‘Classics for Pleasure’, Time Out, 2 March 1979).

The BBC commission

IThe Serpent Son translation, published by Cambridge University Presst was three years earlier, in 1976, that the BBC commissioned a translation of the Oresteia trilogy from the screenwriter and novelist Frederic Raphael (1931-) and Kenneth McLeish (1940-1997), a writer, playwright and translator who had translated all the surviving ancient Greek plays, many of which have been produced on the professional stage (including, for example, Sophocles’ Electra by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988 and revived in 1991).

The idea to tackle a trilogy had blossomed in conversation with the artist and writer Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) who also did work for television, and ‘the project went through several metamorphoses—weaving a new trilogy of plays around the Minotaur legend, re-completing a trilogy that no longer exists’ (Henry Fenwick, ‘House of Horror’, Radio Times, 3 March 1979). Soon after Raphael and McLeish got to work, Ayrton died, but work continued and the translators decided to revert to the original plan of translating the entire trilogy. It may be that the recurrent use of a drawing of Orestes’ brain (‘brain coral’, as the camera script calls it), blending in to a model of a maze, shot from above and in which Orestes often appears with Apollo, is something of a tribute to Ayrton who wrote and created many works which drew on the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth created by Daedalus (his autobiographical novel is titled The Maze Maker, 1967).

The twists and turns of their BBC commission is reflected in the archives. The original agreement states that they would produce both a translation and a ‘modern television version of the three [Oresteia] plays’ (‘Commissioning Brief’, 24 February 1976, BBC WAC T48/487/1, Drama Writer’s File: Frederic Raphael). However, further documents in this file suggest that this initial commission was almost immediately altered to include only Agamemnon from the Oresteia trilogy, with the addition of Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Antigone; in November 1976 this plan was scrapped and they reverted to the original commission to translate the whole Oresteia. In the summer of 1978 (after, presumably, they had delivered the translation and television adaptation for The Serpent Son?) Raphael and McLeish sign up to write further translations and television scripts of Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae, and Aristophanes’ Birds, for a series under the title The Cage of Reason. As far as I am aware, these promised television scripts, if they were every completed, did not make it to screen—but, of course, I’d be delighted to be proved wrong on this! A couple of months later, in autumn 1978, they signed up to writing Of Mycenae and Men, the modern comedy which, as I mentioned above, followed The Serpent Son in the convention of an ancient satyr play.

In the same year as the trilogy was broadcast, Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish’s translation of the trilogy was published by Cambridge University Press as The Serpent Son. Aeschylus: Oresteia. The book cover features a colour image of Diana Rigg as a bloodied-mouthed Clytemnestra, having just kissed the sword with which she has slain her husband Agamemnon and his spoil of war Cassandra. The cover image, reproduced here (above), shows her standing at the edge of the enormous sunken bath, in which we can see his armour floating and around which lie pots and pans and a disturbed carpet showing signs of struggle. Perhaps it is testament to the impact this production had in some circles that the Oresteia translation published in the same year by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford) also included images from the BBC production (in particular, we are told, ‘the handsome actresses’: D. A. N. Jones, ‘Here be Monsters’, The Listener, 26 July 1979, p.2).

A note on the archival copies

Sacrifice of IphigeniaAn exciting discovery during the viewing at the BFI was that there are actually two versions of Agamemnon preserved. One version, which Tony and I watched all the way through, had a 17-minute ‘prologue’ which went through the back-story—including Helen being taken to Troy and Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (see image here)—pretty thoroughly. The other version, we discovered, condensed this prologue down to seven minutes, delivering a lot of the backstory via a narrator with brief visuals from what we had seen in the longer version. Richard Broke said that the intention was to ‘clarify a complex story by at least presenting events in chronological order’ (Radio Times, 7 April 1979, p.79). Certainly, the shorter, narrated version made the background to the Oresteia more readily comprehensible, and it became clear from a consideration of the timings that it must have been the shorter version which was broadcast in 1979. But the question why the longer version was made, and retained in the archives, remains intriguing.



7 thoughts on “Greek plays: The Serpent Son (BBC, 1979)

  1. For one reason and another, Agamemnon/Of Mycenae and Men was the only show I was able to attend in the BFI series (although I’d have liked to be at all of them). As Amanda Wrigley said in her introduction, the productions were very much of their time (a glam-rock Apollo in particular) but were very interesting to see. I thought they dealt with filling in the backstory pretty well. I think you either have to go into this in some detail or leave it alone entirely, relying on the bare bones of the story, and having decided on the former, they handled it pretty well. I’d have been fascinated to see how they handled the other two plays, particularly Eumenides, which seems to me to be less suited to the Minoan/sci-fi approach they chose to take. Obviously, the visual effects have dated, but the use of frames was very effective, and reminded me strongly of the Tom Phillips/Peter Greenaway TV Dante that Channel 4 put on a few years later.

    I’ll comment on Of M & M separately…

    Posted by Paul Steeples | 20 June 2012, 8:51 am
    • Thank you, Paul – very interesting thoughts here. And I’m sorry that the schedule for the season didn’t permit showing the full trilogy, as would have been ideal.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 21 June 2012, 8:15 am
  2. Fascinating post. I’d be very interested in seeing this – mostly for the cast and the costume design. Is there some way I can do this, perhaps via the BFI archive?

    Posted by Zhu Bajie | 15 February 2013, 8:04 pm
  3. Im so glad to see someone write about this. How can we see it again?

    Posted by Ernest Leonardo Meyer | 26 February 2014, 2:41 am
  4. It gave me great pleasure (and a certain relief) to read what has been said, at such appreciative length, about The Serpent Son’s TV production. I wish only that Ken McLeish were still alive to share it. He was deeply wounded by the way in which our work was received at the time, possibly because I had had a certain success with The Glittering Prizes and so was ripe for destruction.
    Frederic Raphael

    Posted by Frederic Raphael | 20 October 2016, 11:55 am
  5. Very true! Kenneth was, indeed, hurt by the reception and particularly by the responses of Clive James – which he regarded as unjustified and attention seeking! He was proud of the show and of the collaborative efforts he was involved in with his friend Frederic Rafael.

    Posted by Martin McLeish | 5 December 2021, 12:48 pm


  1. Pingback: Greek plays at the BFI | preterpunctuality - 11 October 2015

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