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Plays

A307 Drama: Six Characters in Search of an Author (BBC / The Open University, 1977)

© The Open University

© The Open University

Around this time last year (how time flies!) I wrote two blog posts about a series of sixteen co-productions between The Open University and the BBC which were shown on television as part of the course materials supporting the work of distance-learning students who were enrolled on the annual A307 Drama course (1977-1981).

In the first of these posts, I explained the aims of the course (for students to develop a critical understanding and appreciation of drama both as literature and in performance) and how it was taught (through ‘correspondence tuition’, radio and television); the rationale behind the selection of plays; the course team’s awareness and discussion of the course materials of the challenges in using television to encourage students to think about plays in performance on the stage; the ‘broad(-er)casting mission’ of The Open University to serve not only its paid-up students but also the general public (through these television, and radio, programmes and the publication of the book From Sophocles to Fugard); and the production conditions (modest sets in the relatively small Studio A of Alexandra Palace). I then turned my attention to the first programme in the series, a production of the second half of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. My second post discussed the second programme in the series, a condensed production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

© The Open University

© The Open University

In today’s post I will focus on the television production of a condensed version of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) which was transmitted as the twelfth of the sixteen television productions. This production of Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, which used Frederick May’s English translation first published by Heinemann in 1954, was one of the four A307 productions directed and produced by John Selwyn Gilbert who, I am happy to say, I had the chance of interviewing over the summer and whose papers and other materials I have had the benefit of consulting (in the John Selwyn Gilbert Collection, BFI Library). The other three productions John directed were William Congreve’s The Way of the World, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt which I hope to look at this autumn.

First, it’s really interesting to note that a quick scan of the television listings for this production of Six Characters over the five years of the course’s life, overturns the common perception that OU programmes were only shown very early in the mornings of weekends on BBC2:

1977, 7.05am on a Thursday morning on BBC1;
1978, 12.15pm on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2;
1979 [information not available via The Times Digital Archive];
1980, 10.10am on a Saturday morning on BBC2;
1981, at some point after 8.05am and before 2.20pm on a Saturday on BBC2, and also at 5.40pm on a Wednesday evening, also on BBC2.

What is even more interesting is that in 1980 this production of Six Characters was shown as part of a triple-decker, billed as Drama from the Open University, shown on one Saturday evening on BBC 2 (7.30-9.20pm) – a programme intended, absolutely, for the general public. Introduced by the presenter, producer and broadcasting executive Huw Wheldon (1916-1986; pictured left), the evening’s entertainment included sequences from Waiting for Godot (which was very likely the A307 production directed by Richard Callanan) and John Gielgud’s The Grand Inquisitor (from another, as yet unidentified OU course). A television critic in The Times, who believed that ‘there are just as many eavesdroppers on the daily Open University TV and radio programmes as there are bone fide students’, encouraged the audience not to worry about the absence of ‘educational context’ for these productions:

My advice is: enjoy these sequences for the dramatic experiences they are. They have, in any case, a kind of completeness about them, and there is always Sir Huw, with his prefaces and epilogues, casting light on dark areas and, at the same time, doing a powerful job for the Open University itself. (Anon., ‘Personal Choice’, The Times, 5 July 1980, Saturday Review, p. 9; article pictured adjacent).

The play’s inclusion in the course, between studies of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg on the one hand and Shaw and Brecht on the other, relates to its crucial place in the development of modern drama as a metatheatrical meditation on the act of dramatic creation. Through a play-within-a-play structure, Six Characters explores the conception of character and the philosophical aspects of actors performing characters on stage. The characters of the title intrude upon a company of actors who are rehearsing another Pirandellian play, The Play of Parts [Il Giuoco delle parti] (1913), demanding that they be allowed to realise themselves as characters in their family drama before the assembled gathering of actors, director and stage technicians who, the Director (played by Charles Gray) decides, will later stage this new drama. ‘You be the author!’, the Father character (Nigel Stock) challenges the Director who is, by turns, annoyed, amused and intrigued, eventually agreeing to function as their new ‘author’, their second begetter, giving them life on the stage. In this meditation on authorship, the Director later complains of how difficult it is to direct a play when the author – by whom he means the group of characters – is present.

Director and his company observe the newly arrived Characters © The Open University

Director and his company observe the newly arrived Characters © The Open University

Over the opening captions and images (for a sample, see the first and second images, above), a voice-over notes that the fifty-minute production mainly comprises the middle section of the play, which culminates in the seduction scene between the characters of Father and Stepdaughter (Lisa Harrow). This is introduced by a highly concentrated but very effective version of the first of the two acts which has been condensed into about ten minutes. The production ends about two-thirds of the way through Act 2, just as (in the play) the Director instructs for the curtain to be dropped. As well as directing and producing, John Selwyn Gilbert was also responsible for adapting the text for television.

Both at the beginning and at the end there are clever hints that this is a television production of the Pirandellian play and not a theatrical staging. At the start of rehearsal, before the entrance of the Characters, the Director asks the Leading Man (John Westbrook) to ‘Do me a favour and face three-quarters’ (in the 1995 Penguin translation by Mark Musa), whereas the script for the television production has been re-written so that the Director instructs him to face ‘towards camera a bit, about three-quarter face’ (my emphasis). Similarly, at the end of the television production – at the point in the play when the Director makes repeated demands for ‘curtain!’ – this instruction is translated into ‘Fade to black! Fade down’, at which the screen momentarily turns black and the Director curses the ‘damn fool’ who did this, in a very nice metatheatrical-television moment.

Father and Stepdaughter embrace on the set, watched by Mother, Director and others in the 'audience' © The Open University

Father and Stepdaughter embrace on the set, watched by Mother, Director and others in the ‘audience’ © The Open University

Other neat televisual effects include the intelligent use of lighting which works in dialogue with the location of Characters and Actors in this rehearsal space – specifically, whether the Characters are ‘performing’ themselves and the Actors functioning as their audience, or not. In the opening scenes the Actors (and the production team) are seen to be flamboyantly and colourfully dressed, with the Characters appearing in the dark, sombre outfits of mourning (for Mother’s recently deceased husband). When they assume the role of audience, however, the Actors fade rather into the background, often appearing in dim light, as here in the adjacent image, with some faces darkened in shadow. The moment the Characters step onto the newly re-dressed set to unfurl their family drama the lighting invigorates and animates their presence.

Mother walks in on Father and Stepdaughter, and is instructed by Stepdaughter to ‘Scream, Mummy, scream!’ © The Open University

Still, there is much back-and-forth movement between the set and the area from which the Actors, and sometimes some of the characters, watch the drama unfold. The Director moves fluidly between both areas, for example, and the Leading Man and Leading Lady (Diana Fairfax) rehearse the seduction scene between Father and Stepdaughter on the set (much to the dissatisfaction and hilarity of the respective Characters). Another example is when Mother (Mary Wimbush) rushes onto the set to snatch the wig off Madame Pace’s head (Claire Davenport) on watching her suggest to her daughter, the Stepdaughter, that she prostitute herself with an older man. Again, towards the end of the television production, Mother watches Father and his Stepdaughter (her biological offspring) embrace, replaying the moment when they meet in a brothel, he as her client. Mother watches from beyond the ‘fourth wall’, where she stands next to the Director (see image above), but walks onto the set via a side door to play her part, reacting energetically to her daughter’s instruction (from the embrace) to ‘Scream, Mummy, scream!’ (see adjacent image).

Characters observing as audience and giving each other such prompts (indeed, ‘Are you running this rehearsal or am I?’ says the Director to the Stepdaughter) all wonderfully ‘play out’ the drama’s deliberations on the nature of stage representation. The Director explains to the Characters that ‘The things you express are material for the actors. You can’t exist here. The actors will play you’. The Father is upset and frustrated: ‘It will be difficult for him to give a performance of me, as I really am. It will be how he interprets what I am, as he sees me’ – a dilemma which, lying as it does at the heart of their craft, the Actors find exasperatingly funny. At last, the Characters concede that their personal drama is ‘something that becomes theirs and no longer ours’.

These deliberations are all the more powerful for being staged under eloquent lighting in such a small space as that afforded by Studio A in Alexandra Palace. Here, adjacent, I offer a very rough sketch of the studio plan which exists amongst John Selwyn Gilbert’s papers at the BFI. Indeed it seems that John could have used a slightly larger space, but the tightly efficient studio layout and camera positions, together with an intelligent lighting design, work extremely well together to offer an effectively concentrated focus. This was the last of the four productions John Selwyn Gilbert did for A307 Drama and he felt that it was, as a result, the most accomplished. I look forward to writing about the earlier evolution of his style in future posts, beginning with Woyzeck.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “A307 Drama: Six Characters in Search of an Author (BBC / The Open University, 1977)

  1. A fascinating piece, as ever. I’ve been interested in this series ever since finding a copy of ‘From Sophocles to Fugard’ in a charity shop over a decade ago, and I was watching the Ubu play from this series only a few months ago: I look forward very much to the feature on that episode.

    To answer one of your points (and albeit going off on a tangent), because I was researching this myself a few years ago I believe the ‘unidentified’ OU course to feature John Gielgud in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ was ‘Personality and Learning’ (E201), which was, rather surprisingly, an educational psychology course. There was also a similar course a few years later entitled ‘Personality Growth and Learning’ (E281) but I have no idea whether they continued using the Gielgud programme for that one too.

    E201 also featured a television play especially written for the OU (there were a few!), dramatising an episode of corporal punishment from several different viewpoints, written by Brian Clark, who also wrote ‘Whose Life is it Anyway’ and ‘Telford’s Change’ amongst other works, so it wasn’t the only drama made for that particular course.

    Posted by Gordon Ridout | 21 September 2012, 10:22 am
    • Very many thanks for your thoughts, Gordon! My interest in this series, too, was caught by a charity-shop find of From Soph. to Fugard – a fascinating publication, isn’t it? I do hope to survey all sixteen productions, plus quite a few OU-BBC plays-for-television from later decades, but my attention is currently somewhat restricted by access to recordings. Be very interested to hear (perhaps offline) where you sourced/accessed the viewing copy of Ubu roi!

      Grateful to you for pointing me in the direction of E201 and for reminding me that the OU-BBC work also resulted in new work for the medium. Beyond the methodological net of Screen Plays but hugely interesting all the same. If your researches have resulted in something you’d be happy to share or direct me to I think I’d learn a lot from you about these tangential areas! Thanks so much for writing in any case – good to hear from you.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 21 September 2012, 12:58 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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