The BBC has three times mounted Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, a feature film adaptation of which, directed by Terence Davies, is released this week. The BBC productions were broadcast with two decades between each one, in 1954, 1974 and 1994, but only the third of these survives in the archives. (There is also an earlier feature film, made in 1955 by Anatole Litvak with Vivian Leigh.) The 1994 studio recording is released on the five-DVD boxset The Terence Rattigan Collection (further details of which can be found in here) and this post is devoted primarily to that version, with some notes too about the earlier two outings for the small screen. I have yet to see the new film, but when I do I will add some comparative notes below; Philip French’s characteristically thoughtful Observer review gives a strong sense of Davies’ approach.
Julian Amyes directed the first television production for BBC Sunday Night Theatre on 17 January 1954, just after two years after its London stage premiere. Googie Withers (as Hesther Collier) and Kenneth More (Freddie Page) headed the cast (More had created the role on the stage, and reprised it for Litvak’s film the following year); Robert Harris played Sir William Collyer, a judge and Hesther’s husband who she has left to live with Freddie – additional credits are here.
Anthony Curtis, writing in The Listener, praised the production to the skies:
What, if anything, was actually gained on television by this contemporary play? To be sure, new facets eveywhere, especially of the two main characters – Hesther superbly played by Googie Withers, and Freddie done with a seemingly instinctive naturalness by Kenneth More. Both were slyer, sharper, richer than they have been hitherto. Miss Withers’ striking, almost Buddha-like aspect reveals beneath the cameras subtle depths that even the front row of the stalls would miss. […] Miss Withers’ facial movements in the telephone conversation in the last act when she tries to lure Freddie back from the night-club in the last act could indeed be preserved on film as a locus classicus of television acting. [Sadly, of course, it was not.] (‘Drama: people and puppets’, 21 January 1954, p. 1953)
‘Our radio critic’ in The Manchester Guardian was similarly enthusiastic:
Here for once there was the rare occasion when the effective stage play seems to overcome the difficulties of television and avoid that distortion, slight or great, that the medium so often imposes. Good acting and clever production mattered, but the play itself, with its narrow setting in the gloomy Bayswater flat, its refusal to allow any easy escape for its triangle of unhappy people, was essentially one that had nothing to lose by the concentration and immediate impact given by television production. (‘The Deep Blue Sea’, 20 January 1954, p. 5)
For the 1974 Play of the Month broadcast director Rudolph Cartier assembled a cast headed by Virginia McKenna, Peter Egan and – as Collyer – Stephen Murray. Writing in The Guardian, Peter Fiddick wondered about the wisdom of reviving a play with so many period trappings but concluded that it eventually revealed ‘a rather powerful portrait of a woman under stress’. Indeed, he recognised the drama’s resonance for a world beginning to acknowledge the early force of feminism as the play showed
a more unexpectedly fashionable characterisation of a woman who had moved from a marriage in which she was an emotional chattel, through a relationship in which was a willing slave, into which one can only can liberation, emotional and social.
Fiddick, however, was underwhelmed by the production, at least in the scenes towards the start:
I had not thought to see from Rudolph Cartier such four-square direction, characters shoulder to shoulder into the camera for the big moments, as we got in these early stages. But it was as though they, too, all got the feel of how the play speaks to today. (‘The Deep Blue Sea on BBC1’, 18 March 1974, p. 8)
From the Almeida to Performance
The third BBC production began as a highly praised version for London’s Almeida Theatre that opened there in January 1993. Karel Reisz directed on stage and reprised that role for television, although I fear to comparatively little effect. Penelope Wilton brings Hesther from that production to the screen, but instead of Linus Roache, Colin Firth is cast as Freddie and Ian Holm is preferred to Nicholas Jones who at the Almeida played William.
Rattigan’s immaculately ‘well-made’ text takes place across a single day in the single set of a flat on Ladbroke Grove (we also get to see the hallway). Reisz eschews any option for opening out the drama and mostly plays out the erotic longing, emotional cruelty and callous thoughtlessness in unremarkable mid-shots. I regret that at no point did I feel drawn into the drama, and much as I believe in the value of mounting theatre plays on television, and in creating small screen versions of established stage hits, this production of The Deep Blue Sea seems to have many of the failings that have so often afflicted such transfers.
There is little evidence of attempts to use with imagination or creativity the potential of the television studio. Beyond efficient coverage of the blocking, the cameras are not employed to develop the emotional impact of unfolding events. And the performances more or less uniformly aspire to a flat naturalism that fails to serve the heightened theatrical language. But perhaps this is too harsh; blogger Alex Ramon at Boycotting Trends concludes: ‘the production is compelling throughout, and comes to a graceful and moving end’.
Part of my difficulty with this Performance strand version is that, while Penelope Wilton brings intelligence and pathos to her Hesther, I fail to see her express the developing understanding of the character’s successive roles as submissive wife, infatuated lover and newly independent woman. This is not helped by the unvaried pacing, which rarely allows Rattigan’s words to hit home. There should be a sense of desperation to these figures, even if this is mostly kept behind the facades that each puts forward to the world. But Penelope Wilton, Ian Holm and Colin Firth are too polite, too considerate, with few indications of how each is caught between personal devils and their individual deep blue seas.