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Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 13 June 2012

Michael Yates’ design for the television production of Electra (The Times, 23 November 1962)

Michael Yates’ design for the television production of Electra (The Times, 23 November 1962)

Tonight sees the second 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 6.15pm showing which features Electra (Associated-Rediffusion for ITV, 1962) and Women of Troy (BBC, 1958), followed by a panel discussion with actor and director Fiona Shaw and classical scholar Oliver Taplin of the University of Oxford. You can book via the BFI website.

Following the first screening on 7 June we tried an experiment, inviting anyone who was at the screening to contribute their thoughts about the programme on this blog. That experiment was really successful – read the Comments here – and so we will continue this for further screenings.

Any and all responses, however brief, would be welcome in the Comments below – and John Wyver and I will also be offering some further thoughts.

My detailed Screen Plays posts about tonight’s productions – Electra and Women of Troy – 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…



11 thoughts on “Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 13 June 2012

  1. Let me kick off what we hope will be as lively a thread as that following last week’s screening with a note of sincere thanks to Professor Oliver Taplin, to Fiona Shaw and to Amanda – an expert chair – for a fascinating post-screening discussion. They ranged widely in their comments about Greek tragedy and television, and elegantly combined reminiscence and analysis, detail and general thoughts.

    I loved the formal precision of Electra, although I did think this time (I had previously watched it on a small screen at the BFI) the performances felt pitched for a large theatre or auditorium, and that they had not been adjusted at all for the demands of television. The Women of Troy extract is a fascinating document, not least for the extraordinary developing shot that must last all of five minutes moving from one chorus member to the next. This feels like both a holdover from an earlier moment of studio drama, when such lengthy shots were the norm, but at the same time something that is formally distinctive and – to our eyes – bold.

    Posted by John Wyver | 14 June 2012, 7:16 am
  2. I was impressed by the treatment of the ‘Women of Troy’ chorus, too, and felt a good deal less involved once Hecuba and Andromache turned up and we switched to a series of conventional one and two shots. I found that the continuous, weaving, shot, really did implicate the viewer in the group, picking up different conversations and perspectives in a way that felt more like actual experience than watching television. I’m not sure what studio it was recorded at – presumably Lime Grove or Riverside – but the sense of cramping that always pervades BBC TV productions before they moved to the purpose-built Television Centre in 1960 was serendipitous on this occasion, in locating the action in a place that did feel like an encampment.

    And June ‘Dot Cotton’ Brown didn’t look all that different 54 years ago.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 14 June 2012, 7:49 am
    • Thanks, Billy, for these insights. I’ll look again at the camera script to see whether the studio is noted. Whenever I watch the Women of Troy production I have a little chuckle to myself when June Brown mentions ‘the square’!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 14 June 2012, 8:27 am
  3. Thanks, John, for starting us off with some excellent insights! We would have been hard pushed to pick better speakers for the topic, so great thanks to both Fiona Shaw and Oliver Taplin for the great discussion afterwards. What a treat!

    Once again, as with the two back-to-back Oedipuses we screened last week, I found it very valuable to see these productions on the big screen, and from film rather than VHS (remembering, of course, that this would have been very different from the original viewer experience). The amount of detail visible in set, costume and facial expression was wonderful. I have a lot of thoughts swimming around my head this morning, so this is just an initial impression, further to my blog posts on these productions (linked to above).

    What struck me about the juxtaposition of these two productions was the sheer accomplishment of Electra compared with the less powerful and less precise (to borrow John’s term) Women of Troy. Peireikon was clearly a company which had lived and breathed the play, and this production, for a long time (since 1961, at least, and Rondiris, the director for the stage, had worked with the play for decades). I agree with John, above, and a comment from last night’s discussion, that the performances could have been scaled better for studio performance and the viewer at home, but its richness and power was nevertheless a heady treat.

    I was much impressed with how the performance of the actors and chorus was thoughtfully presented in dialogue with the set. There were some beautiful tableaux, but they were more than mere static compositions. The use of symmetry in the choreography of actors and chorus would at points complement the strong lines of the stylised set but then the expressive fluidity of the choral movement and their varied use of voices (song, speech, unison and single voices) would break this up to energise the whole. The camera work fascinated me. It would often break the line, presenting angles of view from all round the action in one scene, but this sat not uncomfortably with the stylised aspects of the production and, especially when the camera was on high, it gave me the sense that I was sat in different areas of an ancient theatre looking down on the action. I think there is lots more for me to think about in terms of the organisation and presentation of space, here, and I look forward to developing this and feeding it into the article I’m writing on space in these television versions of Greek tragedy.

    Incidentally, I would absolutely love to see a recording, or at least photographs, of the stage production from which this television version was created, and if anyone can help with information on possible sources for this I would be very grateful! It would be really useful to be able to assess better Joan Kemp-Welch’s particular contribution, for example, and to compare Michael Yates’ set design for television with the stage design.

    The fragment we have of Women of Troy is, in itself, hugely valuable and it’s fabulous that both a chorus and an episode was recorded. The contrast between the experience of the ordinary women of Troy, delivered conversationally amongst small groups, and the more stiff-upper-lip royals was striking. It helped to get across the full significance of the fall of the city for the whole community. I’m particularly fond of the chorus in this production: the camera work is impressive and the way that the choral odes are broken down and refashioned to chime with contemporary memories of the Second World War (as I’ve said before on the blog here) is superb. Like Billy, I was less engaged with the fates of the royals. Their emotions were stifled, as if they hadn’t got the performance language for expressing such horrors. (The contemporary critics were rather unkind about this too.)

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 14 June 2012, 8:24 am
  4. I thought the Electra was very interesting. Despite the language barrier, it was gripping stuff. I also noticed a certain non-realist aesthetic in the set deign (and that the sets wobbled when the cast bumped into them!).

    What I noticed most this time in the Trojan Women, having read a translation of the play just before, was how little the text on screen corresponded to Euripides. Yes, that is an ode about the fall of Troy, but Euripides doesn’t put it like that. As you’ve observed, there’s a lot imported into the text that reflects the VE Day celebrations.

    And I agree about the lead performers. Rosalie Crutchley, in particular, seems very detached from her emotions, delivering her lines as if she’s in one of those Noel Coward plays where no-one can quite … express themselves. Crutchley was a good actress (I see she went on to play Clytemnestra, Jocasta and Eurydice on television), and I suspect here she may have been taking directorial instruction. (And she does get better as the scene progresses.)

    Posted by tonykeen46 | 14 June 2012, 4:14 pm
    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to last night’s screening, Tony. Yes, that’s right – Crutchley does seem to have been the television director’s choice for classical roles. (I didn’t notice the set wobble in Electra, but I’ll look out for that when next viewing!) I look forward to seeing you at next Tuesday’s screening of Agamemnon and Of Mycenae and Men!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 14 June 2012, 5:14 pm

    I was looking forward to the ‘challenge’ of a foreign language play without subtitles and was not disappointed! But the visual element of the production was astonishing – the starkness of the set perfectly offsetting the ritual and almost hieratic grace of the chorus movement, and the chorus itself finely attuned to the bearing of Electra in particular, so that their gestures accentuated her consuming emotional state.

    The speaking style struck me as extraordinarily passionate and yet mellifluous. It is hard to know of course whether this is too much a consequence of hearing sound without understanding words, but the intonation of both the chorus and of the actors seemed to be subtle, musical at times, tender, harsh and quite beyond (or quite different from) what English can provide.

    The problem of language was touched on in the panel discussion, not least with the observation that the modern Greek version did not do justice to the classical Greek original. Knowing neither, I can hardly comment on the aptness of this remark, but I can report that I had a far stronger sense of the poetic and musical intensity of the play in hearing the apparently unstoppable flow of unknown words, than in reading a translation. And if modern Greek can show me that, what would a comptently spoken classical Greek show me?

    The emotional intensity of the work is of course bound up with the language since it is the words as much as the gestures which conveys it – and there I suspect lack of understanding hindered total absorption; but could an English-speaking cast produce group work of this calibre? The stage productions I’ve seen recently have gone in a different direction with choral work; it’s perhaps an insoluble problem when every translator bemoans the falling away from the original.


    A small portion of a gruelling play is hard to judge fairly. Interestingly, this excerpt shows the long tradition of the English approach to the Greek choral odes – even in 1958 the speech was split. Though by modern standards a bit clunky in technical execution, and ponderous vocally, I thought that parts of the reminiscence of the war worked extremely well, with some women worried about family while others were just out for a night on the town.

    Also I was more impressed than some with Andromache’s speech. Since part of what she was saying is that she must preserve appearances and maintain dignity it’s hardly surprising that she spoke in a restrained way! And flickering behind it all was a dread, just let out in a moment’s self-disgust at the prospect of finding another man acceptable (even if under duress) after Hector. The farewell to Astyanax was not so convincing; and as for Hecuba, it was almost impossible to tell what the overall shape of the performance might have shown.

    A shame that these early productions led to so few later ones – as was rightly bemoaned in the panel discussion – as there has been so little chance to see if any lessons were learned.

    Posted by Nicholas Watkinson | 15 June 2012, 7:35 pm
    • Thank you, Nicholas, for your thoughtful response to the two screenings. It’s really good to have your comments and I’m happy to see that they raised lots of important questions for you. Electra was really astonishing, wasn’t it? I agree that in some senses it is unfair to judge Women of Troy side-by-side with it; still, it is interesting to see these two very different productions of Greek tragedy which were transmitted just a handful of years apart.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 18 June 2012, 1:55 pm
  6. Was the lack of subtitles a barrier or an enabler in order to enjoy Electra on TV? As a native speaker of modern Greek, I found myself trying to block off the text (the delivery and enunciation of which were rather hastened) and focussing on the televisual language instead. With all due respect to Oliver Taplin’s point (during the Q&A) about how prescriptive one should be regarding the ‘right’ staging of ancient Greek tragedies, I found the performance of the main actors rather unfortunate, reminiscent of a bucolic melodrama. Despite how revered Dimitris Rondiris is, his work has been heavily criticised for the emotional hyperbole of the performances and the misinterpretation of Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.

    So, I solely focussed on the televisual form. And I was amazed by how beautifully choreographed the camerawork was, with original shifts from the individual to the chorus, let alone the production design and the settings. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that this television production bettered and modernised Electra even more than its original theatre production; it is one of these cases that McLuhan’s aphorism ‘the medium is the message’ seems apt to me. I think that the lack of subtitles in this screenplay offers a unique case study and exercise for television historians (who don’t speak Greek) to enjoy with fresh eyes the particularities of televisual aesthetics, usually sidestepped by the heavyweights of performance and representation.

    I do wonder, though, how ATV managed to broadcast this production without subtitles. Had there been precedents? (for example of televising non-Anglophone films, plays, operas with or without subtitles before 1962?) Was the lack of subtitles in Electra due to technological limitations during a live production? Or, was it a matter of aesthetic choice, i.e. to offer wide British audiences a taster of what it might feel and sound like watching a Greek tragedy in the theatre of Epidaurus in the early 1960s, when Greece had started becoming a new destination for British tourists?

    And a last (but not least) point: congratulations to Amanda for this event and for all the excellent and original research posted in this website. This event and season are exemplars of academic research reaching out to new audiences!

    Posted by Katerina Loukopoulou | 18 June 2012, 12:24 pm
    • I’m very grateful to you, Katerina, for your honesty about how the production of Electra reached you as a speaker of modern Greek. It is clear from the contemporary response to the production in 1962 and some of the comments in response to the screening on 13 June that in the performance of a modern Greek text, regardless – or perhaps because of? – lack of linguistic comprehension, lay a great deal of the power of the production. The force and pitch of emotion was certainly in 1962 very different from (as we saw with the 1958 BBC Women of Troy) how tragedies were played in the English language; perhaps this foreign-language production plus the very different Greek performance aesthetics gave the British audience new insights into how to understand and enjoy a Greek tragedy in performance, rather than just in translation on the page. (And this is something I’ll continue to think about as I write up my thoughts on this production for an article!) So it is all the more interesting to hear what you say about emotional hyperbole and reminiscences of ‘bucolic melodrama’: we must be grateful to you for your perspective on this.

      The question of subtitles remains an interesting one and I would love to discover more about this as I continue my research. Very important to try to ascertain, too, whether this was the first foreign-language programme without subtitles, I agree. I can’t say much about this at the moment, but perhaps other readers / contributors to this blog (looking especially at Billy Smart and John Wyver here!) can speak more knowledgeably on that. I am personally fascinated by the copious aids to ‘translation’ of the meaning and action of the play that were provided in print and in the introductory talk before the production. Clearly, a degree of comprehension *was* something that A-R felt to be vitally important to the success of the production. Without these aids I doubt whether there would have been such a lot of comment from critics and ordinary viewers along the lines that ‘despite not understanding a word I found it the drama easy to follow’.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I look forward to speaking more with you at the symposium on Friday!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 18 June 2012, 2:14 pm
  7. I’m fascinated that both Katerina in her comments above, and a member of the audience in the panel discussion, criticised the modern Greek rendering of ‘Electra’ from within a knowledge of the language, whereas I found myself swept along by its musical (or maybe, to be less loaded, its aural) quality, lacking any understanding of what was being said.

    What struck me was the emotive force of the speech and the general acting style – yet evidently this itself was criticised at the time as being not true to tragedy (too emotive or melodramatic); and was seen by the Greek speakers in our audience as unsatisfactory.

    This does raise intersting questions about how we respond to drama when immediate language comprehension is lacking. I wonder if the emotive power of the sound would have been compromised by subtitles. I’ve become used to reading opera surtitles now (even at the ENO which sings in English!) but it may be weakening the full force of the operatic experience – seeing ‘Electra’ unmediated was quite different.

    Posted by Nicholas Watkinson | 20 June 2012, 9:55 am

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