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‘Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’: University of Westminster symposium

On Friday afternoon around thirty people, including a number of friends and colleagues, gathered at the University of Westminster in Regent Street for the Screen Plays symposium about Greek tragedy on British television. Dr Amanda Wrigley brought together five experts on the subject for discussions to complement the hugely successful BFI Southbank season. (There is one further presentation, on Tuesday evening, of Don Taylor’s 1990 BBC Iphigenia at Aulis, pictured alongside, for which a few tickets are still available: see Following are notes from my own enjoyment of the event, but if you were present on Friday, we would love to hear your thoughts and responses.

Amanda herself opened the event with an introduction to the comparatively small corpus – around two dozen – of productions of Greek plays on British television. But she suggested that these could be approached in a rich variety of ways, including:

    • the extent to which these television productions engaged with, on the one hand, current theatrical trends in staging Greek drama
    • and, on the other, contemporary social and political issues
    • the strong educative impulse with the tradition of Schools and Open University productions
    • the relationship that may exist between television and film works drawing on Greek tragedy
    • and how the viewers engaged with these televisual Greek plays, both critics writing in the press and the domestic audience
    • the question of how television practitioners responded creatively and technologically to the particular performance spaces, styles and conventions of Athenian drama of the 5th century BC
    • and what this response tells us about these televisual interpretations of the ancient play and the directorial intentions behind a production.

Professor Oliver Taplin of the University of Oxford contributed an informal but typically erudite and provocative presentation with thoughts about the 1962 Associated-Rediffusion production of Sophocles’ Electra (shown earlier in the month at BFI Southbank, generating this discussion) and Channel 4’s 1983 television version of the National Theatre’s Oresteia trilogy (screened on Saturday; go here for a discussion). But Oliver was also concerned to question why it is that Iphigenia at Aulis in 1990 remains the last production of a Greek play on television, and this provoked a number of valuable responses.

Amanda’s own paper explored how British television productions of Greek drama have responded creatively and technologically to ideas about fifth-century performance spaces and what we know of the dramatic conventions of the time. She focused in particular on three productions of King Oedipus, each of which she has blogged about here (BBC 1972BBC / OU, 1977; and BBC 1986; see also the response to the screening of the first two here), and she subtly and engagingly compared their strategies and successes.

The third paper was a fascinating contribution from Professor Lorna Hardwick of The Open University, who drew on her long experience of working with Greek plays in OU courses to trace the changes in the ways in which both full (if shortened) productions and dramatised extracts have been employed and in how these have been circulated to and studied by students. Back in 1971 part of Aristophanies’ Clouds was a scatological contribution to the first Arts foundation course and it was broadcast on BBC Two at a time when many who were not formally enrolled on a course would have been watching. By 2005, only registered students could access a DVD of part of Euripides’ Medea. What implications might these different strategies have, Lorna asked, for those concerned to develop contemporary forms of a public engagement pedagogy?

After a welcome cup of tea, Dr Tony Keen of The Open University discussed the extent to which we might describe the BBC’s 1979 Oresteia trilogy, transmitted under the title The Serpent Son, as exhibiting a contemporary science-fiction aesthetic. With a wealth of visual examples (which took us back to the recent screening of The Serpent Son, Part 1: Agamemnon and the afterpiece Of Mycenae and Men), Tony compared the ‘look’ of The Serpent Son, and in particular the studio sets and costumes, to studio sci-fi series from the time, and in particular Doctor Who. A number of production staff worked on both projects, including costume designer Barbara Kidd, and there are undoubtedly interesting comparisons to be made, but Tony concluded that there were also other significant visual influences on this Oresteia, including the visual culture of the Minoans.

The final paper offered a detailed discussion by Dr Lynn Fotheringham of the University of Nottingham of authenticity and historicity in Don Taylor’s Iphigenia at Aulis, transmitted by the BBC in 1990 (the final screening in the BFI season on 26 June). Lynn teased out questions of ‘stylisation’ and ‘realism’ in Taylor’s work and compared his visual approach both with that of Michael Cacoyannis’ feature film Ifigeneia (1977) and with the dominant visual forms of British television costume dramas of the 1970s and ’80s. To see Iphigenia at Aulis in the context of a BBC dramatisation of Mansfield Park was to have another immensely rewarding line of thought opened up.

My strong feeling at the end of the day was that the symposium and the parallel screenings, taken along with Amanda’s blog entries and with the publications that we feel certain will follow, exemplify what we hoped Screen Plays as a research project might stimulate. At the same time, they suggest that there is a great deal still to be explored in a host of stimulating and revealing ways in these productions and the contexts in which they were produced and viewed – as well as in, literally, thousands of other stage plays on British television.



7 thoughts on “‘Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’: University of Westminster symposium

  1. Wish I could have gone – sounded great! Shame it was on a weekday in the afternoon, rather than the evening or a weekend.

    Re: The Serpent Son: was there a discussion of how much the look of The Serpent Son was intentionally rather than subconsciously an echo of Doctor Who and other shows? Interestingly, Kidd didn’t work on any of the gaudier Who stories that preceded The Serpent Son and although I can see similarities with her work on Kinda in some ways, that obviously followed The Serpent Son by several years rather than preceded it (although I can absolutely see the similarities with her contemporaneous work on Blakes 7).

    Posted by TMINE (@RobTMINE) | 25 June 2012, 12:55 pm
    • On the whole, I think it’s a deliberate attempt to get away from a realist aesthetic, rather than a deliberate attempt to imitate Doctor Who.

      And whilst we can see that a number of people who worked on The Serpent Son had previously worked on Who, if you were a BBC staffer below the level of producer or director and stayed long enough, sooner or later you were almost bound to work on Doctor Who – perhaps we should be surprised that fewer people involved with TSS had a background on Who.

      Posted by tonykeen46 | 25 June 2012, 1:50 pm
  2. A very stimulating and enjoyable event on Friday – many thanks to Amanda and John. It raised many big questions, including reasons for the lack of Greek drama on TV since 1990 and why TV seems so reluctant to engage with stage based productions anyway. Lots of ideas – TV commercialism vs education and culture, costs and risks (the BBC Shakespeare project in the late seventies/early eighties still hovers), studio funding arrangements, commissioning processes, fear of disastrous audience ratings, the lack of a major figure to champion the cause.

    I would offer up two thoughts. Firstly, thinking small screen rather than just TV, could there be a worldwide market for Greek drama DVDs for education and entertainment, based on stage productions (as with the Shakespeare’s Globe DVDs)? Secondly, Greek drama can have popular and national appeal! As an example, I would point to Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides production of Medea which toured in 2010 – I saw it in Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, along with many others, on a proverbially wet March Saturday afternoon. If only it could have been captured on DVD at the end of its run! Not being in TV or theatre, I can naively ask the question – why not a DVD Greek drama series using recordings of low cost stage productions?

    Posted by David Royle | 26 June 2012, 3:06 pm
    • What Greek tragedy there has been on television since 1990 has, I think, mostly been short extracts of stage productions in arts magazine programmes such as The Culture Show. I’m pretty confident that should Greek drama return to the television screens, it will be in the form of recorded versions of stage productions, rather than (as has been mostly the case in the past) specially-commissioned productions.

      As I mentioned at the symposium, I think Sky Arts may be worth watching here. They clearly have ambitions, having brought back (and rightly so) The South Bank Show, and broadcast some productions from The Globe. So it’s not impossible.

      Posted by tonykeen46 | 20 July 2012, 3:26 pm
      • I seem to be proved right on both counts. Sky Arts 2 are currently broadcasting Stephen Berkoff’s Oedipus, recorded at the Nottingham Playhouse.

        Posted by tonykeen46 | 22 April 2013, 10:05 pm
  3. Sadly (and frustratingly) I was unable to attend the symposium due to illness. However, I will be keeping an eye on this page for everyone’s comments. David Royle’s comment about the lack of Greek drama on television since 1990 is an interesting one: what was discussed here? I also think his suggestion of the creation of a DVD Greek drama series is an excellent one. However, there are a few Greek tragedies available commercially on DVD (see the Amazon website) and a larger selection available on Youtube (although these are mainly excerpts).

    I am currently researching the reception of the Greek tragic chorus in film and television. I would be very pleased to correspond with anyone interested in this area – so please do get in touch!

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank John Wyver and Amanda Wrigley for all the hard work they have put in to create such an exciting and valuable resource. It’s one I’ll be returning to often!

    Posted by Richard Potter | 27 June 2012, 9:12 am

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