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Greek plays: Philoctetes (BBC Schools, 1961-62)

I’ve just watched my first BBC Television programme of a Greek play produced for schools broadcasting in the 1960s — Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Or, to be precise, I watched one of three programmes which, taken together, offered pupils first an introduction to the play, and then an abridged version of it over two further programmes. Only the second of these three programmes seems to survive in the BBC archives.

The documentary sources suggest that this schools production of Philoctetes — which was given alongside another of Euripides’ Bacchae — was first transmitted sometime in 1961, although there is further evidence for transmissions in the autumn of 1962. The BBC’s internal catalogue suggests a September 1961 date of first transmission and, in the same year, the agent of the translator of the play Kenneth Cavander wrote to Martin Esslin, head of drama at BBC Radio, stating that the translation had been ‘specially done for BBC TV Schools and [it] got most awfully good notices’ (letter from Margaret Ramsay to Martin Esslin, 19 October 1961, BBC WAC Scriptwriter, Kenneth Cavander, file 1, 1954-62).

‘Greek Drama’ series for Sixth Forms

There is, however, more concrete evidence for the 1962 re-transmission: observe the adjacent image of the cover of a booklet which was presumably sent out to schools to aid teachers in their presentation of this audiovisual material in class. It offers a few pages on the form of Greek drama, the chorus, and the characterisation and issues in each play.

The booklet strongly suggests a philosophical reading of the plays, which is supported by the fact that it was not a classicist or literary or drama scholar who presented the first introductory programme for each play, but the moral philosopher Bernard Williams (1929-2003), then a lecturer at University College London. The booklet introduces the plays as follows:

These six programmes are the start of an attempt to answer the questions: how has the appeal of the best Greek drama survived two millennia? How (when Sheridan, Shaw and even Shakespeare seem to speak from their own time) do the Greeks manage to sound up-to-date and immediate? […]

Neither [play] is at first sight a tract for our times. But in this legendary guise Sophocles and Euripides look at two large questions that continue to face man in society. The first, posed by Sophocles, is: Can a great man withdraw from a great work because he despises his fellow-workers? The second, from Euripides, is: Can a society that respects law and order accommodate the violent instinctive urges that lurk inside every one of its members?

No information is offered about what actually constituted the introductory programmes and it would be very interesting to know whether the model was similar to that offered by some ITV Schools programmes at this time which seem to have been concerned with the behind-the-scenes craft that goes into making a theatre production for television, as the cameras in these stills (adjacent) for an Associated-Rediffusion Schools production (probably the production transmitted in Sprint Term 1959) of Twelfth Night testify.

We have here, the prop-maker, the scene-painter, and two moments from rehearsal. This kind of behind-the-scenes discussion chimes with some of the advice that Open University students were, in the next decade, given on how to respond in an informed way to televised productions of theatre plays (discussed in my post on the 1977 co-productions between the BBC and the Open University for the A307 Drama course).

The booklet informs us that Philoctetes was one half of a series on Greek drama intended for Sixth Forms, and that this series on Greek drama was accompanied by another, transmitted in the same term, entitled ‘Cubism and After’. The ‘Greek Drama’ series — which consisted of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Bacchae, both produced by Ronald Eyre (1929-1992) — was broadcast at the following dates and times in 1962:

17, 20 September, Philoctetes, introduction
24, 27 September, Philoctetes, part 1
1, 4 October, Philoctetes, part 2
8, 11 October, The Bacchae, introduction
15, 18 October, The Bacchae, part 1
22, 25 October, The Bacchae, part 2

So, each element in the series was transmitted twice, once on Mondays (11.30-12.00) and again on Thursdays (10.00-10.30), no doubt to maximise the possibility of accommodating them within the school schedule.

It is fantastic that the first half of Philoctetes (so, the second of the three programmes on the play) exists as a viewing copy in the BBC archive. Bacchae too exists on film, but not as a readily accessible viewing copy in either VHS or DVD formats. (We hope that the BBC will digitize this in due course thus making it available for research purposes; if so a blog post on it will follow). What is particularly exciting about Bacchae is that, first, all three programmes exist so we will be able to see what kind of approach was taken in the introductory programme and, second, the play involves more opportunities for changes of scene and therefore comparison with the relatively static Philoctetes.

The play, and the production

Philoctetes is the Greek warrior who was abandoned on the island of Lemnos by his colleagues who were on their way to wage war on Troy. Since he was suffering from a foully infected snake-bite Odysseus decided that they should proceed without him, and the Greeks left his cries of agony and the stench of his wound behind. For ten years Philoctetes fended for himself, using the unfailing bow and arrows he had received from the god Heracles. But, in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Odysseus learned from a seer that Troy would never fall unless Philoctetes could be persuaded to fight with his bow and arrows.

The Sophoclean play focuses on Odysseus’ scheme to get Philoctetes to Troy which involves Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, tricking him into releasing the bow. With its degree of uncertainty and ambiguity with regard to Neoptolemus’ state of mind and the chorus’ sympathy towards Philoctetes’ plight, the play is a study in psychology and morality.

‘PHILOCTETES’, ‘A play by Sophocles’ and ‘In a translation by Kenneth Cavander’ are the three captions which open the play, superimposed in white letters against the black and white background of a rocky island foregrounded by the sea, whose waves we hear gently crashing. The image of the rocky island is held for a few seconds as the first words of the play — ‘The island of Lemnos, sea, sand, rock. No-one comes here, no-one lives here’ — are spoken by Odysseus (played by Alan MacNaughtan, 1920-2002), thus lending the sense that he may be speaking from the boat as it approaches Lemnos. We then cut to Odysseus on land, who continues: ‘This is where I put him ashore, Neoptolemus, on this island’.

The set, designed by Charles Lawrence, is necessarily sparse. Rocks and a cave are really all that is required. Although the set was very probably located within a studio, the fact that when Odysseus and Neoptolemus are shot against the sky the clouds move naturalistically from right to left and that the noise of people scrambling up rocks sounds authentic (unlike, say, bangs against the ‘walls’ of palaces in some other Greek plays on television) really helps to give the impression, at least, of an outdoor setting. So far, this is the only television production of a Greek play that I’ve seen which gives a sense of landscape through the long view we get early on in the production across a mountainside. (This made me remember the wonderful sense of space one gets when watching a play performed in ancient theatres such as that at Epidauros where, beyond the stage, you can see for miles.)

The second of the two scenes in this production is the interior of Philoctetes’ spacious cave, which is darkly lit and accompanied by the sound of water dripping from rocks. The entrance to the cave is placed high up, thus leading to some effective camera work when Philoctetes first comes across the visitors. Before Neoptolemus has won Philoctetes’ trust through his act of deception, Neoptolemus and his men are placed down below, forced to look up at Philoctetes, who has his all-important bow in hand. Once Philoctetes believes he is safe and among friends he comes down to their level. This placing of characters is reversed later in the play when Philoctetes, suffering badly from his ailment, for the first time entrusts the bow (and therefore his livelihood, and his worth to the Greeks) to Neoptolemus — Philoctetes is sitting and Neoptolemus stands above him, all powerful (see adjacent image). The young Alan Howard (1937-) played Neoptolemus, and Richard Pasco (1926-) Philoctetes.

Costumes are perhaps as to be expected: Odysseus and Neoptolemus are dressed in fine clothing which is customarily short, beautifully draped and adorned with metal buckles. The sailors are more basically and scantily clad. Philoctetes looks every inch the hero fallen on hard times, with ragged clothing and wild hair (much wilder than in the picture on the front of the booklet). There is some effective make-up on Philoctetes’ putrid leg-sores.

As with the BBC production of Euripides’ Women of Troy a couple of years earlier (on which I have written here), there is a distinction made between the acting of the main characters and that of the chorus. Here, the main characters speak with gravitas and authority, whilst the ship’s crew come across as ordinary men, speaking more naturalistically and variously sat around a brazier, walking around the set, etc. In the play, the Chorus have a great deal of sympathy towards Philoctetes’ plight, and the camera emphasizes how this sympathy may also reflect what Neoptolemus is thinking: when Philoctetes askes Neoptolemus to imagine what it’s been like these past ten years, instead of focusing the camera on Neoptolemus’ face, the camera pans across the faces of the Chorus who have just been saying how deeply they themselves empathise with him.

This first half of the play ends at line 838, just after Philoctetes has fallen into a deep sleep following an agonising spasm of pain. ‘Don’t disturb. Let him sleep’, instructs Neoptolemus, to which the Chorus respond, in individual voices: ‘Now, sir, what’s it to be?’, ‘Have you thought what to do next?’ and ‘Can you go on? Can you persist with your plan now?’ Neoptolemus’ face contorts and the credits roll, thus ending the first half of the production on a tantalising climax. The sound of the waves accompanies the closing credits.

Kenneth Cavander the translator

Those who read this blog regularly may recall that the translator of Philoctetes, Kenneth Cavander, also provided the translation for Women of Troy, the very first Greek drama produced on television in 1958.

Cavander’s translations of Greek plays had been all the rage at Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, in 1955 and 1956: his Hippolytus was the first English translation of a Greek play to be staged by the Oxford University Dramatic Society as its 100th major production, soon after which other student groups performed his Birds, Oedipus the King and Thesmophoriazusae.

As early as 1954 he had been sending in translations of Greek and Roman plays to the BBC for consideration, and in 1955 he invited Val Gielgud, head of drama, to see Hippolytus which was immediately picked up for performance on radio. In 1961, his agent offered BBC Radio his translation of Philoctetes and it was produced on the Third Programme by Charles Lefeaux in 1963. This is a good example — one of many — of the productive interconnections between the two media.

Cavander did much else for BBC Radio and Television in these years, not to mention the stage, where his talents have been more readily observable: I think particularly of The Greeks, a three-evening series of ten classical plays on which he collaborated with Royal Shakespeare Company associate director John Barton in 1980, but see his website for more recent work on the stage and television.



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