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Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 19 June 2012

Tonight sees the third programme in the five-night Screen Plays season Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen at BFI Southbank. Tonight we will see Agamemnon, the first part of the 1979 BBC Television version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy which was transmitted under the title The Serpent Son; it will be followed by the original television play Of Mycenae and Men, which takes the form of an ancient Greek satyr drama. (No tickets for the 6.10pm showing are available via the BFI website but it may be worth getting on the standby list in case some become available immediately before the performance.)

Following the earlier two screenings on 7 and 13 June we tried an experiment, inviting anyone who was at the screening to contribute their thoughts about the programmes on this blog. The experiment has been really successful – read the Comments on King Oedipus and Oedipus Tyrannus (7 June) and Electra and Women of Troy with panel discussion with Fiona Shaw and Oliver Taplin (13 June) – and so we will continue this for all the remaining three 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 – Agamemnon and Of Mycenae and Men – 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…



9 thoughts on “Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 19 June 2012

  1. In my introduction to last night’s screenings I said something about wondering whether these two programmes would stand the test of time. I had feared that the audience would find the phallus-shaped altar of Apollo, the weird (but often wonderful) make-up and the sometimes crazy costumes in Agamemnon (Part 1 of The Serpent Son) a little amusing. I had also worried that the Carry On style humour of the satiric afterpiece Of Mycenae and Men, which parodies the Agamemnon story, would be too dated to be enjoyable. In other words, would the audience find the tragedy funny and the comedy, well, a bit tragic?

    I was surprised on both points. Not only was there a palpable sense of rapt attention amongst the full house during Agamemnon but a good proportion of the 150-strong audience also seemed to find the comedy absolutely hilarious! Certainly, for me, both titles were more enjoyable watched in a large group rather than on my own in front of the television set (where I have been researching them for a book I’m writing on Greek tragedy on the small screen), and of course there was the wonderful clarity of image and depth of colour which just isn’t available on the VHS copies I have had on loan.

    I am still thinking about how last night’s viewing changes or reinforces my thoughts about these two programmes and I will post more about that on here later. But I’d really love to hear what other members of the audience thought of the screenings. Do please share your thoughts…

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 20 June 2012, 8:41 am
    • Amanda – I’ve put my comments on the individual pages relating to Agamemnon and Of M&M. I agree with you that they’re very much of their time, and I must say I didn’t find Of M&M quite as hilarious as the people around me seemed to. Thanks for putting this series on – I’m only sorry I couldn’t get to more of it.

      Posted by Paul Steeples | 20 June 2012, 10:29 am
      • Thank you, Paul – I shall take a look at your comments, and I’m so pleased to hear that you’ve been enjoying the season!

        Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 21 June 2012, 7:59 am

    I saw the original transmission of all three epsiodes of this adaptation on a small black and white TV, but I had unclear memories of the details. I was delighted to see the ‘Agamemnon’ again (and would have liked to see the other two as well).

    I’d forgotten the strange framing devices, and the full effect of the costumes and make-up were lacking in B&W, all the more striking in colour and on a larger screen.

    Some aspects of the production failed to convince, I think – for example Apollo; perhaps visualising a deity is just too difficult. But the primitive tat of the chorus of old men contrasted with the stark lines of Klytemnestra’s costume very effectively. (Not quite sure about the eagle armour of the Atreides and its rather bizarre variation for Aegisthus ….) Once one took on board that virtually no-one of importance was going to look as if they had stepped out of an illustration on an Attic vase, the visual squalor of some and the splendour of others was impressive.

    I found the music the most irritating and intrusive element of the production. Maybe it was not helped by the complete lack of subtlety in the soundtrack (a symptom of age as well as technology perhaps), but the wind instrumentation was anachronistic (and therefore now very dated) and at many points seriously drowned the diction. The continuous music throughout the opening exposition was an unfortunate distraction.

    Another misjudgement (to my taste at any rate) was the occasional use of the Ambrosian Singers to chant fragments of the chorus. The transition from the rough and world weary voices of the old men speaking individually, to the perfectly tuned tenors and basses of a professional choir wrecked the atmosphere.

    These blemishes aside, I marvelled again at the power of the drama as interpreted by a fine cast. Diana Rigg’s performance in particular was a masterclass in how to bring language and characterisation designed for an amphitheatre down to the intensely intimate scrutiny available to a TV camera – her voice by turns beguiling and astonishingly commanding; but at the same time every flicker of the eyes important.

    The visual presentation contributed to the overall effect, though I’m not sure that the framings were always successful. The completely abstracted main set afforded no distraction after its initial strangeness wore off (far less tricksy than Apollo’s maze, though that cleverly grew out of the opening titles). But the space allowed both for extreme close-ups and a variety of more distanced groupings. The decision to allow the crowd into the bath chamber and later throne room was a clear departure from the original static set of a Greek drama, and perhaps sat uneasily with the chorus’s refusal to intervene while the murders were taking place, but it reinforced the dynamics of the violent transition of political power very strongly.

    Amanda has remarked in her comments on each screening on the distinctive experience of seeing the transmissions with an audience. This is of course at odds with the idea of TV viewing, but I have to agree that seeing these plays in a cinema enriches the experience – both because the screen is larger and because there are other people there. This is not entirely surprising since the plays were after all originally intended for very large audiences. The experience of viewing them in company may simply be better.


    I had not seen this before – an amusing idea but fitfully executed I think. Some clever jokes, but without a studio audience to respond directly it seemed a bit heavy handed. However it certainly provided a lightening of tone after the intensity of ‘Agamemnon’.

    Posted by Nicholas Watkinson | 20 June 2012, 10:53 am
    • Completely agree with you about the music, Nicholas – both instrumental and choral. I had meant to comment on this too, but forgot.

      Posted by Paul Steeples | 20 June 2012, 10:58 am
    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful response to Agamemnon, Nicholas. It’s very good to be reminded what a different experience the screening was from watching on a b&w television in 1979! Unlike you and Tony I didn’t find the music too intrusive: it was definitely very much there, but I felt it added something to, rather than detracted from, the rest of the production. But I agree about the discrepancy between the bedraggled chorus men and the Ambrosian singers. An interesting splitting of the chorus that we will see again in Tuesday’s production of the BBC Iphigenia at Aulis from 1979 and that we saw in the 1972 BBC Oedipus. I agree that it’s a bit odd on the one hand to have the chorus traditionally fearful of entering the palace (because, in terms of ancient staging conventions, they can’t leave the playing area) and then, on the other, to have them wander in later! I’m thinking about indoor and outdoor space in these television Greek tragedies a lot at the moment and I find the spaciousness of the set in The Serpent Son a puzzle that I’ve not yet quite resolved!

      Aha, perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Of Mycenae and Men more on Tuesday night: watching it alone for research purposes has been quite hard labour. But with the crowd laughter on Tuesday I enjoyed it and found myself laughing along. Perhaps we’re just used to the sound of studio audiences to provide the impetus, or the permission to laugh at this kind of comedy? Or was it the ‘theatre effect’ – the collective response of the audience – in operation?

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 21 June 2012, 8:11 am
  3. I think it’s fair to say that the music, which is often too loud, is the weakest part of the production. It is also, in some respects, the most traditional. Humphrey Searle had composed music for a number of radio productions with a Greek theme, as well as for a Greek-set Doctor Who.

    Posted by tonykeen46 | 20 June 2012, 1:37 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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