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Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 7 June 2012

Oedipus and Jocasta

Oedipus (Patrick Stewart) and Jocasta (Rosalie Crutchley) © The Open University

Tonight sees the first programme in the five night Screen Plays season Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen at BFI Southbank. A few tickets are still available for the 6.10pm showing which features Oedipus the King (BBC/The Open University, 1977) and Play of the Month: King Oedipus (BBC, 1972); you can book via the BFI website here.

We would like to try an experiment and invite anyone who is at the screening to contribute their thoughts about the programmes in the Comments below. Any and all responses would be welcome, however brief – and Amanda Wrigley and I will also be offering some further thoughts.

Amanda’s detailed Screen Plays posts about the productions – Oedipus the King and King Oedipus – remain available.

Full details of the season and of our 22 June symposium about Greek tragedy on the small screen at the University of Westminster can be found here.

Do please share your thoughts with us…


23 thoughts on “Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 7 June 2012

  1. We had what I thought was a really successful screening – nearly a full house, and a good deal of appreciativ response to both productions. They made a fascinating contrast in so many ways, and it was definitely productive that King Oedipus was screened first. If nothing else, we knew the backstory when Oedipus Tyrannus gave us only the second half of the play.

    I watched King Oedipus last summer in a BFI viewing cubicle, and was rather underwhelmed then. But last night I felt it came across far more successfully on a big screen. I appreciated the low-key, almost affectless playing of the initial scenes, which enhanced the horror of the later ones. Although set in an undetermined modern Byzantine state, the productive achieves a naturalism with the text that is very impressive, and throughout director Alan Bridges demonstrates a mastery of the television studio.

    There are lapses, however, most notably the totally bizarre sequence of bacchanalia that follows immediately on from Jocasta’s suicide. What on earth can Bridges and the production team have been thinking about when they shot this? And if nothing else, it is so poorly achieved.

    The rigorous stylisation and modest resources of Oedipus Tyrannus then complemented the lavish production values of King Oedipus very well. This OU production was made in a tiny studio at Alexandra Palace, which was where some of the very earliest television drama was made in the 1930s and ’40s. So in part it felt like watching an almost archaeological fragment of the medium.

    Amanda’s original post has a studio floor plan, which is well worth taking a look at, and there is a rich history of the studio at the TV Studio History website.

    The knitted headpieces perhaps look like a mistake thirty five years on, but the power of the language as delivered by Patrick Stewart and the rest of the cast still comes through strongly, and the use of dance and music remains impressive. Frustratingly, there were some minor sound problems with the tape (for which we apologise), but I hope it did not spoil people’s enjoyment too much. We were also delighted to welcome to the screening the producer and director of Oedipus Tyrannus, Richard Callanan – and I am hoping that he will share his thoughts and memories here later.

    Posted by John Wyver | 8 June 2012, 4:42 am
  2. I too greatly enjoyed the chance to see both these titles on the big screen: big thanks to the BFI for the chance to put this season together and share these rare titles with so many people! I was delighted with the size of the audience and I do hope that people will be encouraged to post their thoughts about the screening here.

    In both cases the quality of the film was just so much better than the VHS copies I has seen in archives: the richness of colour and detail was superb. Like you, John, I was greatly impressed by the 1972 BBC King Oedipus. The use of space is masterful and the open-plan set does, I think, really interesting things with the ancient Greek indoor / outdoor configuration of theatre space (which we saw more clearly demarcated in the 1977 BBC-OU Oedipus Tyrannus). I’ve given one or two papers about the idea of space in British television productions of Greek tragedy this year and I had yet more Thoughts about the use of the space last night which I look forward to developing and perhaps posting something about here in due course (a supplement, perhaps, to my first, early post on the production at before I get a chance to publish in print.

    Both productions incorporated striking sequences of movement in their representation of the choruses. In the 1972 production, lines from the choral odes were used in the orthodox mass and again in the ‘nightclub’ song to which individuals danced, removed their clothes and embraced in what can only be described as a Bacchic disco frenzy which stands for the third choral ode of the original Sophoclean play. In this production it serves to take us far away from the difficult suicide scene we have just watched but it comes as something as a surprise, to say the least, and it was difficult for to watch without a chuckle. Inventive, I think we must think of it! How would it have been received back in 1972, I can’t help but wonder – any ideas?

    The 1977 BBC-OU production of Oedipus Tyrannus I had only seen once before and it was great to see how my memories from that first viewing need revision. For example, I had remembered Patrick Stewart’s acting as somewhat less vibrant than it appeared to me last night, especially in the second half of the production. I think the confines of Studio A at Alexandra Palace complemented well the stylised acting and choral movement and lent a really useful concentration of focus on the main action. And it was wonderful to see again such a startling example of the care, resources and attention with which drama was being put on television in the early days of the BBC / Open University collaboration. But it was *very* good to talk with the director and producer of this production before the screening and be reminded that the viewer would have seen a much more grainy and impoverished image on their television screens back in the late seventies.

    Overall, I relished seeing two very different television versions of the same play back-to-back, versions which demonstrate the wide spectrum of possibilities open to the director of studio-based theatre plays. Thanks again to the BFI for this opportunity!

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 8 June 2012, 6:49 am
  3. Loved both versions. The Play for the Month version looks dated now, but since it tries to be specific to a time, rather than ‘timeless’, the conventions are appropriately dated rather than inadvertently dated. It was good to be able to contrast the abridged Watling translation with Ferguson’s full translation, to see what choices were made, although the constant translation of Zeus to God (which δεος would allow but not Ζευς) to make it more compatible with the Greek Orthodox styling of the priests was perhaps a step too far. Nevertheless, Watling’s was a fine example of economic language that worked very well in context.

    Amazing to see so many wonderful, famous actors in an OU production – Patrick Stewart, Rosalie Crutchley, Ronald Radd, Roy Marsden to name but a few. If only they did that these days!

    Posted by TMINE (@RobTMINE) | 8 June 2012, 8:39 am
    • I’m really pleased you enjoyed the screenings and thanks so much for taking the time to write! I do hope you will come to more of the screenings. The BFI seem to have lost the season webpage owing to today’s redesign, but hopefully it will reappear early next week!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 8 June 2012, 5:30 pm
  4. Fascinating to see two productions in such different styles yet created only a few years apart, in 1972 and 1975.

    The first starred Ian Holm, with huge resources (a big studio, a budget big enough for crowd scenes and a rather limp orgy), the second (with a heroic performance from Patrick Stewart) made on a tiny budget by my former colleague, Richard Callanan, in the minute BBC Open University Productions’ studio at Alexandra Palace where I also worked.

    The second production was very faithful to Sophocles’ text and also to the spirit of what we imagine of Greek drama. There was a chorus and the chorus danced as well as spoke, bore witness to tragic events as well as observing and analysing the action just as we think happened in ancient times.

    The costumes were grand rich re-imaginations of what we imagine from that period, glinting with gold in the studio lights, in rich warm colours. The actors wore half masks made of a glassy plastic substance which I found distracting. But in the final scenes, Patrick Stewart’s blood red mask, the stylized ribbons of blood pouring from his damaged eyes, made an unforgettable impression.

    The first production was much less faithful to the original but I found it immensely effective.

    Ian Holm is not, and could never be, a tall, strong, charismatic hero. He played, initially, from the heart of what Hannah Arendt unforgettably called ‘the banality of evil.’ There was no rhetoric, no actorish fireworks but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He seemed as evil as Eichmann or Hitler himself.

    He played Oedipus as a bureacrat who murders and rules by the pen, not the sword.

    After the first scenes, he was in civilian clothes, a crumpled linen suit as if for a hot climate, in Egypt or North Africa or Greece. And he was always surrounded by flunkies, security men, un-named functionaries of many races, creeds and skin colours, who (one felt) would be quick to do his bidding, however outrageous.

    Starting at such a low level of dramatic projection, Ian Holm had a wide range to exploit, a mountain to climb. His performance grew, expanded and will live in the memory. It was overwhelmingly truthful.

    At the end, I was in floods of tears, tears of pity and identification and empathy with his misery. I do not remember seeing a performance on television which has moved me more.

    I am so glad to see them both together. I did wonder if it would be too much but it definitely wasn’t.

    Curiously enough, I don’t think I had ever seen Richard’s production before although we were close colleagues on the same series of programmes.

    It was good to see how well it held up, even by comparison with a much more opulent and grandiose production from one of the BBC’s mainstream drama departments.

    Posted by John Selwyn Gilbert | 8 June 2012, 8:42 am
    • Thank you, John, for your reactions to these two productions. I am myself moved to hear how the 1972 production moved you. I enjoyed both productions in a way I had not from studying them frame-by-frame for my research. Of course, seeing it on the big screen was a very different experience from its original television transmission, but it was a rare and, for me, unforgettable treat. I too wondered if it would be too much to show two Oedipuses side-by-side, but I think the fact that the second was only half of the play enabled us to bear all that tragedy in one evening! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 8 June 2012, 5:35 pm
  5. I found this a very interesting and thought-provoking screening and would like to share a few of my thoughts about it with you. I very much enjoyed the ‘back to back’ presentation of the two versions which invited fruitful comparisons, and an appreciation of the infinite possibilities for approaching the dramatisation of Greek tragedy on television. I agree with John that you got the programme order absolutely right, as I was better able to engage with the more stark and formal Oedipus Tyrannus after having enjoyed the more naturalistic and fluid King Oedipus.

    The different characterisation of Oedipus in each production was really striking, I felt, and was down to not just the divergent approach to script and performance styles, but also seemed to be attributable to the directors’/actors’ different interpretations, with Ian Holm’s Oedipus a more vulnerable, weak, fatalistic figure compared to Patrick Stewart’s more commanding, confident and arrogant portrayal. The different physical attributes of the actors – Stewart’s greater height and the fact that Holm is shorter than Sheila Allen, who plays Jocasta, contributed to this, and their position within the spatial organisation of the sets was another factor, with Stewart occupying ‘centre stage’ and standing throughout, whereas Holm is often seated and I had a frequent sense of him being swamped or subsumed by the many figures around him.

    Although Holm’s more naturalistic, vulnerable performance invited greater audience engagement/empathy with Oedipus, in some ways the unfolding of the tragedy made more sense through Stewart’s more distancing, arrogant and cocksure portrayal of a character who is finally brought down through these revelations. Alan Bridges’ production had a greater feeling of fatalism throughout, however, which was emphasised also by the (correct me if I’m wrong Amanda and John) slightly different order of events through which the messenger’s/shepherd’s stories are heard: I had the strong feeling that Holm’s Oedipus would have guessed the truth about his incest much earlier than was depicted, whereas more is held back from Stewart’s Oedipus in the Callanan production. This seemed to me to create a kind of tension in the Holm version between its naturalistic acting style but less convincing narrativisation.

    Another interesting aspect of the different performance styles, touched on by John above, was Holm’s rather detached, listless delivery of his dialogue in the early scenes. This seemed to be an important qualification of the generally naturalistic approach taken, and a nod to the original formal style of Greek staging, as well as reinforcing the fatalism of the tragedy and contrasting with the later intensity of Holm’s performance. Another fascinating aspect of his performance in the first part of the production concerned his use of his eyes. In many scenes his gaze is cast slightly downwards, and in some of the shot, reverse shot sequences his eye line does not appear to match that of the person whom he is addressing, emphasising the sense of his ‘not seeing’ the truth, and anticipating his later blindness. Incidentally, I really loved the red mask worn by Stewart in Oedipus Tyrranus to represent his gouged eyes – really effective with the red strips of cloth hanging down as streaks of blood.

    On the question of the out of place Baccanalian sequence in King Oedipus, who knows how it would have come across in 1972, and, with respect, whilst it is obviously dated, I suspect it might have raised a chuckle or two even then. However, I quite enjoyed having it in the production and don’t feel it was altogether a mistake. It really does function as an emotional valve for releasing some of the tension created in the horrifying scene of Jocasta’s suicide, and it also injected a kind of physicality into the theme of incest, as a sort of reminder of what exactly the coupling of Oedipus and Jocasta entailed. Actually I found the earlier choreographed soldier dancing more out of place (Amanda’s phrase ‘military callisthenics’ was very apt). Also, the late 70s drama school/ Kate Bush style swaying body and raised hand movements of the chorus in Oedipus Tyrannus were quite amusing, prompting the question of whether it really is just impossible to incorporate modern dance into a tragedy in a television studio production without it appearing slightly bizarre and camp.

    Amanda mentions the indoor/outdoor configuration of space in her post above, and this is something about the two productions that certainly got me thinking, as someone who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, but is interested in studio mise-en-scene. I could certainly see parallels in how the two productions seemed to erode distinctions between exterior and interior settings: In the more formally stripped back Oedipus Tyrannus this is signified through the juxtaposition of the sky blue cyclorama and branches with the odd marble-cum-1970s carpet pattern of the door frame and circular stage. In King Oedipus the treatment of space is stranger and, again, in a kind of productive tension with its naturalistic aspirations. The way in which the atmosphere of the public areas beyond Oedipus’ interior space (a sort of palace, court and office rolled into one) was visible through doorways and audible on the soundtrack – often intrusively, was very interesting, although at times I felt that there was an ‘overload’ of visual and aural stimuli as a result.

    Finally, I just wanted to (reassure?) you that I thought the video sound problem you mention that occurred on Oedipus Tyrannus, was part of the production! It was experienced as a faint echo throughout the production, with mainly Patrick Stewarts’ voice still audible in between his speeches. Sometimes it was a ‘pre-echo’, so we would faintly hear dialogue that he had not yet spoken. I thought this was a fascinating use of sound to signify the foretelling of Oedipus’ parricide and incest in Teiresias’ prophesy, later proven true. So it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the screening at all. I was fascinated to learn that such a sound error can occur in video that has been stored for a long time. Does anyone know any more about the technicalities of this? I wasn’t intending to go on for as long as I have, but I hope it is of some interest or use.

    Posted by leahpanos | 8 June 2012, 10:21 am
    • The sound problems was probably caused by ‘print through’. If magnetic video or audio tapes are left for many years without being run, the loudest analogue sounds recorded may ‘migrate’ through to earlier or later sections of the tape. Therefore you experience a pre- or post- echo, as we did yesterday.

      Posted by John Selwyn Gilbert | 8 June 2012, 5:19 pm
    • I’m so grateful to you, Leah, for your critical insights. I’ve seen the 1972 King Oedipus a few times before, but I had never been as struck as I was last night by the disparity in height between Oedipus and Jocasta and how it effectively contributes to characterisation. But last night, seeing it on the big screen and in one go (without hitting the pause button to take notes!), it was really obvious. And when he was sat on the sofa in the bedroom, I had the sense of him as a little boy, hands in pockets, shoulders shrugged, petulant. Again I had that sense in a head shot of him and his mother-wife Jocasta.

      And YES: the eyes. This is another thing I had not noticed as strongly when watching the VHS – the extent to which (especially, I think, in the first half of the play) Oedipus refrains from making much eye contact. His gaze is directed downwards and to the middle distance, rather than at the person or people he is addressing. Of course, much is made of the theme of sight / knowledge and the language of seeing in the play, and this was a very clever televisual technique to get this across. It was brought out all the more for me in contrast with Patrick Stewart’s confident direct gaze at the camera early in the 1977 BBC / OU production. Thanks very much for sharing your idea that Holm is in several scenes seated with figures moving around him, which offers much food-for-thought.

      Yes, I agree with you that the ‘nightclub-orgy’ scene does function as an emotional valve *and* serves usefully to remind us of the physical act of incest. In the original choral ode, which is sung, the Chorus speculate about Oedipus’ birth. Is he the son of a god and a mountain nymph, perhaps? The emotional charge of the ode is uplifting, all the more to serve as contrast which what is to come soon after.

      I’m fascinated by your take on the signification of space in the 1977 BBC-OU production. I had understood all action here to take place out-of-doors, with the central doorway representing the traditional entrance into the palace. The walkway and the small circular acting area spatially separating – for most, was it, or all of the time? – main actors from chorus in a way which harks back to ancient performance conventions. But, of course, with the slight confusion of having the main actors in the circular acting space, which echoes the ancient orchestra, in which the chorus were more usually located. But, if I understand correctly, you read the walkway and circular acting area as more of an indoor space with the chorus located outdoors? This is really interesting and would be conceptually possible given the stylised nature of other aspects of this production. Again, thought-provoking, thank you so much for engaging so thoroughly with last night’s programme!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 8 June 2012, 6:12 pm
      • I had not seen either of these pays since their first transmission in the seventies. Like others here, I found them both fascinating and stimulating. They have given me a lot to think about!

        I was interested in reading comments from several people who remarked on the improvement of their watching experience on the big screen compared to their experience of watching the same play on the small screen. These plays were, of course, designed for the small screen set up in individual homes rather than for the larger cinema screen and its rather different (larger, diverse) audience. Was the improvement merely in terms of quality of sound and picture or in the interaction between drama and viewer? Did the larger screen experience enhance understanding of the drama?

        Several people have commented that they found the interaction of the actors and chorus in the “orchestra” in the OU production out of tune with received ideas about how an ancient Greek drama was performed, i.e. that chorus and actors were largely kept apart. I find this difficult to accept. There must be many moments in Greek tragedy when it would be essential for actors and chorus to perform and interact on the same level. This is the view taken by Christopher Ley (The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus) and of Michael Ewans (see his introduction to his translation of The Oresteia) and others, and one which, I believe, makes a lot of sense.

        I’d be grateful for any comments!!

        Posted by Richard Potter | 13 June 2012, 7:28 pm
  6. For ‘was’ read ‘were’ – sorry about that.

    Posted by John Selwyn Gilbert | 8 June 2012, 5:20 pm
    • Weird to watch a production I directed some thirty-five years after I had last seen it. There were things I liked and things I didn’t like.

      I loved the performances and the style they were delivered in. There was muscularity, directness, humanity and power. The words sang out with pace and rhythm. The actors were in no way apologising for an antique script, they were struggling with dignity against the awfulness of indifferent and malicious gods, in our secular terms against ‘the human condition’. In Greek tragedy there is no redemption and we face that bleakness in the theatre again now in plays from Beckett to Sarah Kane and so many others. Quite detached from my own role in it, I found the play very moving.

      I forget the details of the rehearsals. I only remember the closeness with that range of first class actors, Patrick Stewart, Rosalie Crutchley, Ronald Radd, John Citroen, Derek Godfrey, Joe Melia, Roy Marsden. All have played leading roles in theatre and television and here they combine into an exceptional unity of presentation. All of them work with focussed concentration and shining intelligence. After a good script, what actors most need is a director who sees and hears what they are doing. The credit remains with the cast but I take pride in the fact that I didn’t obstruct them!

      I loved Judith Bingham’s music, strange, ambiguous, haunting. It underlined the awfulness of the story without distracting from it. (There’s more information about her, her compositions and recordings since then at her website

      I apologise to the dancers. They were desperately under-rehearsed. Pressure of time meant they didn’t get the attention they deserved. I think they could have worked well if they too had had the precision and muscularity of the actors. (And perhaps an extra yard or two of material in their costumes!).

      I don’t know what I would now do about the knitted headgear. It seemed to work on some of the characters but was a distraction on others. Using the half-masks of perspex was intended to make the teaching point about historical use of masks in Greek theatre. We always knew it would look strange in the naturalist medium of television. Putting aside the teaching objective, with hindsight I now think the formality of the performances would be enough to suggest the ritualistic element in the play. On the other hand perhaps wearing those masks had a positive affect on the style of performance..

      Like all neophyte directors at that time I overused the zoom lens. In my defence they were still a novelty to us. Our first Open University productions at Alexandra Palace used ‘turret’ lenses where you could select different angles (wide-shot, close-up, etc.) by swivelling lenses on the front of the camera but you could not zoom. Over the years I learned to avoid zooming altogether.

      John Wyver and Amanda Wrigley have kindly pointed out the technical limitations of the studio at Alexandra Palace. If you look at the floor plan reproduced at you will see just how cramped it was with four cameras and two sound booms. Each square on the plan represents 2×2 feet. You can see that the performance area was approximately 18ft x 22ft. Editing technology (and budget) at the time restricted what we could do. The whole programme was recorded in segments (maybe 10 or 12 in total) and simply joined together in editing. Critically for comparison with today’s standards we had no post-production sound dubbing facility – so we could not add or subtract sound afterwards – hence the creaking wooden rostra which are meant to be stone! The current defect on the soundtrack (pre- and post-echo) is regrettably the result of old age and storage.

      Many thanks to Amanda Wrigley, John Wyver and the BFI for organising this viewing – it was a wonderful (probably unique) opportunity.

      Posted by Richard Callanan | 8 June 2012, 5:29 pm
      • Thank you, Richard, for posting your thoughts and recollections. It is enormously valuable to your perspective, as director and producer on the 1977 BBC / OU production, and very good to hear your response on seeing the production for the first time after a few decades. I am so glad that we are in touch and I look forward to continuing the conversation we started yesterday!

        Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 8 June 2012, 7:20 pm
  7. Let me echo as warmly as I can Amanda’s thanks to everyone who has commented – this makes a wonderfully rich thread of information and insight, and it’s exciting for us to see the blog come alive in this way.

    Also, thanks to Louise who has reviewed the screenings at LouReviews:

    Posted by John Wyver | 9 June 2012, 6:42 am
  8. It was wonderful to see the 1972 King Oedipus, again. I remember seeing it when it was screened on the BBC forty years ago! I was then fourteen years old and had just embarked on my Greek O Level! Back then I’d found the production mind blowing, exciting and moving; to the extent that a sense of the amazing quality of Ian Holm’s performance has stayed with me all this time. I’d retained two particular visual images from the production, that of Jocasta’s body hanging, and then Oedipus blinding himself with her brooch.

    I’m sorry to say I’d no recollection at all of the ‘Bacchic’ dancing scene so am unable to say how that went down in 1972. I know I watched it then with my mother but I can’t recall any reaction at all from her. Watching the scene again on Thursday I found it somewhat ridiculous, but it’s possible my fourteen year old self may have been shocked or disturbed by it.

    Before going to the BFI I had wondered, although thought it unlikey, whether a production of forty years ago would seem stagey, dated, and basically be knocked off the pedestal on which I’d placed it. Not a bit of it (though granted some of the costumes and hairstyles were dated, but surely that is only to be expected?)! I loved the modern setting, the naturalism, the quality of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta, the interior space allowing for official happenings as well as private conversation or thought, and then the further interior of the bedroom. I agree that Ian Holm used his eyes as part of his characterisation in the first part of the play. Together with his lack of height, his flat delivery, his almost down-turned mouth, his way of often not looking directly at the speaker powerfully suggested someone not at ease in his public role of ruler. This contrasted with the direct gazes of Creon, Jocasta, and the Prime Minister (who, it now occurs to me, was possibly something of a gentle, wise, father figure).

    So far no one has mentioned the creation of the character of Prime Minister from some of the lines of the Chorus. I thought it was an effective way of commenting on action so far, enhancing mood, giving advice etc while reinforcing the sense of Oedipus as both a public and private man. The actor playing the role was superb.

    The depiction of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta was thoroughly convincing. The naturalistic playing made possible a depiction of their sexual relationship which was moving while also reinforcing the viewer’s awareness of the incest taboo. The discrepancy in the couple’s height helped here.

    And not only their relationship. We were given a sense of a real family, so here we saw all four children (in unspeaking roles) in two scenes. When the tragedy came it was believable that the sons didn’t cry but the girls did.

    The director was absolutely right to dispense with the role of Messenger and allow us to see the horrific happenings of the suicide and self-blinding. Ian Holm’s performance was desperately moving from this point on.

    As for the external, choreographed choric scenes. Although they didn’t have the power of the naturalised interior scenes, they did at least reinforce the sense of Oedipus and his family having a wider significance than the simply private.

    Finally, I should comment on the Oedipus Tyrannus. While it was interesting to compare the two, for me, Oedipus Tyrannus suffered from being shown alongside King Oedipus. It’s didactic intention and low budget were all too obvious. Moreover, the chorus dancing was risible, the chorus speaking irritating, their masks and teacosy style headdresses distracting. There was a subdued sense of dignity and power in the stylised performances of the main characters but the overall effect was to distance this viewer.

    Posted by Elizabeth Butler | 9 June 2012, 10:34 pm
    • Thank you, Elizabeth, for taking the time to share your thoughts on these two productions. I really value your comments, especially given that you were part of the original audience for the 1972 production! Fascinating to know that some scenes had stayed with you over the intervening decades.

      Yes, I think the division of the chorus is really, really interesting in this production. The creation of the Prime Minister role is noteworthy, as you suggest. I think, overall, it was an ambitious and (for me) overall successful way of trying to reflect different aspects of the ancient chorus in a modern interpretation and it’s an integral part of the director’s innovative conceptualisation of space. I’m currently writing my thoughts on the use of domestic and family space in this production into a paper for publication – more on that before long, I hope!

      Thanks once again – it’s good to hear from you and I do hope that you will come to some more of the screenings!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 11 June 2012, 8:01 am
  9. In 1972, I would have aspired to directing this kind of cutting edge drama produced by Cedric Messina. The orgiastic scene and female nudity was an essential sign of being avant-garde at the time. But how irrelevant these signs and concepts seem today! It was a marvellous evocation of a corrupt autocratic world exploiting exotic orientalist images, where the setting was transferred from pagan to christian with the help of Greek Orthordox priests. But I struggle to find a relevance of the Oedipus myth to this exotically blended stew. As we learn in Callanan’s 1977 production, Oedipus’ tragedy was pre-ordained by the Gods and the point is that there is no way us mortals can escape this determined fate.It just don’t work in a christian society, however decadent. There’s no redemption available.

    Ian Holmes compared to Patrick Stewert is a ‘Weedy-pus’- why? Oedipus is, I thought, an heroic figure although fatally flawed by divine intervention. Why the sensitive psychological study of Holmes? It certainly wasn’t through his actions or misdeeds that the tragedy was set in motion. This isn’t Ibsen.

    Callanan’s production displays the ritualistic character of the Drama. Sophocles’ play, I imagine, owes much to an need to perform a ritual, to purge the audience of guilt and reaffirm the inevitability of divine destiny. It’s not a play in the modern sense that tells a story, it’s a performance of a drama where participants already know the outcome. The OU production does this well within the inevitable confines of studio A and small budget. It conveys a closer idea of Greek drama than the Messina one attempts to. The acting, as has been said, is strong and mostly impressive. The actors create the parts in a stylised ritualistic way but bring plenty of character, and strength and originality to the roles. I’ve seen this robust characterisation on Greek vases representing drama, so feel that it’s especially apt here. Now for the quibbles: I have always thought the costumes and masks to be not Greek enough. Too much of an attempt to modernise? Why not reflect more of the wonderful images provided by ancient Greek art?

    Finally, I’d like to say that despite the wobbles of the Messina 1972 production, what a fantastic thing it was for the BBC to want to – and be able to – put on such a play, and weekly. The BBC respected its audience rather than pandered to its lowest tastes. Such a play was experimental and, by all accounts, well received by its audience. The freedom to experiment and be creative was of great value. At the time, we probably failed to realise how vulnerable and precious this was. OU production, similarly, showed respect to viewers. Apart from OU students, they had a following with the general public and the BBC and OU were not afraid to risk stretching people’s expectations culturally and intellectually.Its the ‘stretch’ and ‘risk’ as well as the quality of acting that contributed to the success of the OU’s A307 DRAMA course.

    Posted by Nick Levinson | 12 June 2012, 12:03 pm
    • Thanks so much, Nick, for your comments on the two back-to-back Oedipuses. Really good to hear thoughts on the orgiastic/nude scene, then and now, and how you feel that the style of the 1977 BBC-OU production better communicates the issues inscribed in the Sophoclean play. It’s also really useful to hear your wider comments which contextualise these productions within the cultural landscape of the BBC and the OU, and of course their audiences, in the 1970s. I’m looking forward to speaking with you further on these topics! Thanks again for taking the time to write up your thoughts.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 12 June 2012, 2:06 pm
  10. Watching King Oedipus, I was struck by the uniqueness of Alan Bridges’ directorial style, and the thinking about how drama can function on television that lay behind it. All of the Bridges productions that I’ve seen – which range from Sophocles to Ibsen to Peter Nichols – have a very incoherent and chaotic aesthetic, where the viewer picks up what’s going on, rather than feels that they are told it. This means that everything in his productions tends to look a bit odd, but when it works gives a real sense of genuine surprise and authenticity as to the unexpected way which dramatic changes of fate and circumstance can happen in both plays and life.

    In visual and spatial terms what struck me in particular about the production was Bridges’ willingness to cut into space without doing much to establish it first, suddenly presenting the viewer with close-ups of characters who I wasn’t sure where they were in the room. The continual use of offstage local sound was also bold, though perhaps worked better when heard in the NFT, rather than it would have done heard through a single, already muffled, TV speaker forty years ago.

    I must say that I was really taken by the brief bacchanalian freak-out, the jump-cut into which provides a tremendously effective juxtaposition with – and commentary upon – the death of Jocasta, especially as we don’t really get much of a chorus in this version. The abruptness of the scene’s introduction and the sensible brevity in which its shown give it a genuine shock value seen either on a small 1972 living room TV or as a pristine original 2″ videotape seen in a cinema. It even struck me as a fairly convincing orgy, though perhaps I should just get out more…

    Ian Holm’s Oedipus didn’t strike me as very despotic – though I didn’t get the impression that he would have been much of a good King before he found out about all of this – but as an inately melancholic man who quickly realised that he was about to be swallowed up by fate.

    To get a sense of King Oedipus in its broadcasting context, here’s a list of all of the Play of the Month productions in that 1972/3 series, their writers and directors – quite a classical repertory. No copy survives of productions marked (X).

    15 Sep 1972. * The Millionairess G.B. Shaw William Slater
    20 Oct 1972. * Hedda Gabler Henrik Ibsen Waris Hussein
    24 Nov 1972. * King Oedipus Sophocles Alan Bridges
    20 Dec 1972. * The Magistrate (X) A.W. Pinero Bill Hays
    07 Jan 1973. The Adventures of Don Cervantes Alvin Rakoff
    Quixote (ad. Hugh Whitemore)
    16 Feb 1973. Candide Voltaire James MacTaggart
    15 Apr 1973. A Room with a View (X) E.M. Forster Donald McWhinnie
    (ad. Pauline MacCaulay)
    16 May 1973. * The Caucasian Chalk Circle (X) Berthold Brecht Bill Hays

    Posted by billysmart | 12 June 2012, 2:42 pm
    • Thank you, Billy, for contextualising this production for us! I agree that it’s really important to compare Bridges’ directorial style across several productions and I value your description of his ‘very incoherent and chaotic aesthetic’. I’m really looking forward to seeing more examples of his work and will look forward to talking with you further about this. Thanks for sharing your expertise and insight!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 12 June 2012, 3:19 pm
  11. Richard, thank you for your comments! Good to know that you enjoyed the two screenings.

    Re you point about interaction of chorus and main actors: yes, of course. My question (‘The walkway and the small circular acting area spatially separating – for most, was it, or all of the time? – main actors from chorus’) was wondering about my memory of the 1977 BBC-OU production specifically. You will have been attending to this more closely than I with your special interest in the Chorus: did any of the six-strong chorus step onto the round acting space? And did any of the actors step out of that space? My sense is that ‘for the most part’, as I said in my comment above, they were kept on separate planes in this production, but perhaps you can help confirm my sense of this!

    Thanks for your contribution and I look forward to talking with you about the chorus further!

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 14 June 2012, 6:45 am

    ‘King Oedipus’ had my immediate attention because its manner of depicting the scene was so unusual – all those people milling about both inside and outside, all the background noise and distraction that made the opening speech (echoing through a speaker system) quite hard to follow.

    This demanded real and close attention on my part (on the viewer’s part) in order to sort out what was important, whose words should turn out to be significant – a bold attempt to give us not a reverent production of a classic, but rather a chance to look at a crisis as if it were really unfolding (and as if it were really our crisis too). The ‘cabinet’ briefings; the cuts away to military posturings in the marketplace; even (if I’m not mistaken) the background recitation of one of the great chorus odes by the girls as if it were a homework recitation at the dinner table all emphasised the profusion of life vying for attention with the main predicament.

    Reflecting on this now, I realise how spoonfed we so often are as TV viewers as regards to the the way our attention is directed towards what is deemed by others to be important (not only dramatically, in fictions, but also in news coverage).

    Here the viewer had to work rather harder to gain any certainty about what exactly was significant – an interesting echo perhaps to the floundering of Oedipus when his usual way of approaching problems proves insufficient. Ian Holm’s understated performance was extremely effective in showing this inadequacy; but the whole style of the production mirrired the problem becasue there was so much to attend to, and a real challenge to grasp what mattered amidst the ‘noise’. And yet – perhaps partly due to familiarity with the play – I found the concentration required by this approach to be most rewarding; and it’s quite a compliment to be treated as an intelligent viewer!

    Though perhaps one might usually expect Oedipus to be predominant I thought it a real strength of this production that one could sense the catastrophe spreading to others as well, disrupting political alliances as much as family meals.

    I think there were flaws – the bacchanalia did not ‘work’ for me and there were simply too few soldiers performing their drills to cow the populace (or enthuse them?) – but these were minor complaints. I found the acting style almost totally persuasive, modulating as it did from deep introspection and even ostensible listlessness, to highly charged aggression, misplaced triumph and all too dreadful despair.


    I found it harder to warm to ‘Oedipus the King’ – perhaps I took it to be rather too didactic in its production values, to earnest in trying to re-create a version of classical Greek performance style. I found the masks distracting not per se, but becasue they were shiny, so clearly not made of any material to hand in classical times. The chorus also failed to convince; I was not sure why (with so few) not all of them spoke. (The contrast with the far more ambitious and more assured Electra chorus in a later screening was very great)

    Here we were not so involved personally; Oedipus and Jocasta were clearly royalty and so their predicament was compelling almost more at a ritual level. Interestingly, to me Jocasta’s hubristic disparagement of oracles was more shocking in this context because more starkly portrayed – an instance when the human clutter of the other production really did obstruct an important issue.

    I had seen neither of these productions before; nor was I even aware of them. I came away really glad to have seen them both, and to have seen them both together.

    Posted by Nicholas Watkinson | 15 June 2012, 6:59 pm
    • I’m really pleased to hear that you enjoyed these two Oedipuses placed back-to-back, Nicholas. It could all to easily have been all too much tragedy! I think the fact that the second production was a partial production helped here, and the fact that they were drawing on very different performance aesthetics. Good to have your thoughts on both. I’m especially interested in what you say about how the 1972 King Oedipus required you to work harder at your viewing than you are invited to by contemporary television, and how you found this labour most rewarding. That certainly gives us something to reflect upon! Thanks again for taking the time to write – it’s really valuable to have your thoughts and response.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 18 June 2012, 2:25 pm

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