On 21 February 1896 in what was then the Regent Street Polytechnic Louis Lumiére (that’s him on the far right) showcased his Cinematographe for the first performance of a moving film to a paying audience in Britain. On Friday what today is the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building hosted an only slightly less auspicious occasion, when some thirty or so interested scholars, together with a contemporary producer or two, gathered for the Screen Plays conference Theatre Plays on British Television.
From coffee a little before 9am to a glass of chilled white wine just after 6pm, we talked and thought and talked some more about our subject, approaching it from a host of different angles. By the close, I think – I hope – everyone felt that they had been engaged and stimulated – and that, if nothing else, the history of theatre plays on television in Britain is an immensely rich field within which there are numerous areas awaiting further fruitful research. Dr Amanda Wrigley and I had planned the day as the first of two conferences for our three-year project, and back in February we were delighted to receive a rich response to our call for proposals. From the submissions, we chose twelve presentations which we corralled into four panels.
After some encouraging words of welcome from Peter Goodwin, Director of Research for the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, the first panel offered three papers under the title ‘The classical repertoire’. Lisa Bolding from the University of Georgia took us back to January 1938 and the two live presentations for BBC of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. There is, of course, no recording from this time, but Lisa drew on material in the BBC Written Archive at Caversham to conjure up a strong sense of this pioneering presentation of a Jacobean tragedy on television.
Russell Jackson, from the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, was able to illustrate his presentation, for he showed extracts from a glorious (and all-but unknown) recording – made for television in the United States, but never broadcast – of Peter Hall’s 1959 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. With Ian Holm as Puck and Charles Laughton as Bottom, this was revealed as a wonderfully rich and resonant production.
The third paper was Daniel Rosenthal’s compelling analysis of the competition between the BBC and a company called British Home Entertainment over televising productions at the National Theatre in the 1960s. Drawing on material from the National Theatre archives and from Lord Olivier’s papers in The British Library, Daniel drew out some of the questionable decisions made then by Lord Olivier, who was both directing the new theatre and had a non-executive seat on the board of BHE. This tale will be detailed further in Daniel’s book about the National Theatre to be published next year to mark the cultural organisation’s fiftieth birthday.
The second panel considered aspects of regional theatre and regional television, and was begun by Lez Cooke from Royal Holloway, University of London looking at the four television plays from Peter Cheeseman’s Victoria Theatre Company in Stoke-on-Trent. Lez is the author of an important new book from Manchester University Press, A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama, 1956-82, and he drew on some of his research from this to outline the interactions of Cheeseman’s regional repertory company with the television companies based in the Midlands.
The current author was next up, presenting some initial ideas about the Stables Theatre Company, an initiative of Granada Television at the end of the 1960s which was intended to produce for both a fringe theatre space in Manchester and for broadcast. The project is a fascinating experiment and is the only time a British broadcaster has owned and operated a theatre company. The Stables lasted for just over two years and produced fifteen television recordings, of which at least one, and perhaps two, were never transmitted. Watch out for more about the Stables on this blog in the coming weeks.
Ben Lamb, who is working on his PhD at the School of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Glamorgan, complemented Lez Cooke’s paper by looking in detail at another aspect of the English Regions Drama department at BBC Birmingham: the 1973 adaptation by Don Taylor of his own stage play The Roses of Eyam. Ben made a convincing case for the distinctiveness and value of this studio production which was made at a time when location-based films were increasingly seen as the future of television drama.
A fire alarm and a consequent odyssey into the street had interrupted our second session, which meant that lunch was curtailed, and we returned to three papers that we had grouped under one of those catch-all headings that encompasses everything and means very little, ‘Society and politics, media and genre’. Fortunately the three contributions were all rather better than this title and the subsequent discussion identified more connections between them than we might have initially thought.
Ruth Adams from King’s College, London offered a sociocultural analysis of Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party and its afterlives. Examining responses to the original broadcast and to its subsequent repeats, Ruth pondered the key question, ‘If the play genuinely reflected little more than the prejudices of a North London elite [as critic Dennis Potter, among others, alleged], would it really be looked on so fondly by so many?’
Our own Amanda Wrigley presented strands of her ongoing work exploring the uses of televised theatre plays by the Open University and especially its A307 Drama course, elements of which were broadcast by the BBC for five years from 1977 onwards. Amanda was particularly interesting on the production in this context – and then the censorship by the BBC – of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, which will be the focus of a future post here.
Cyrielle Garson from the Département d’etudes anglophones, Université d’Avignon, gave a paper on the ‘remediation of the real’ in two recent verbatim plays that transferred to television, Justifying War (2003) and Black Watch (2008). Her analysis, which drew on semiotics and poststructuralist ideas, was perhaps the most theoretical of the day, and was a welcome and bracing complement to the more conventionally historical approaches in evidence elsewhere.
The final panel showcased the work of three distinguished speakers associated with the AHRC-funded Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style research project. From the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at the University of Reading, Billy Smart – who has been hugely helpful with Screen Plays and who contributed an excellent blog post here about a 1959 BBC production of Ibsen’s Brand – analysed the same short scene from three BBC television productions of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which were recorded in 1962, 1971 and 1981. The differences that he pinpointed in his analysis went a long way to justifying his contention that such comparisons across different productions of the same play offer the opportunity of tracing the development of styles of direction and performance in studio television drama.
Jonathan Bignell, also from the University of Reading’s Department of Film, Theatre and Television and Head of School there, contributed an aspect of his continuing work on the plays of Samuel Beckett on television. In this paper he focussed on adaptations of Beckett’s stage plays and he drew out a interesting distinction between those – like Krapp’s Last Tape (broadcast three times in Britain between 1963 and 2006) – which have mostly been staged in a ‘theatrical’ manner, located in a three-dimensional stage space, and those such as Play (1966) and Not I (1975) which were presented in a ‘planar’ way with an insistently frontal mode of address.
The final paper was by Stephen Lacey from the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Glamorgan. Drawing in a rewarding way on the writing of Raymond Williams, Stephen considered the idea of ‘naturalism’ as a particular way of conceptualising the relationship of individuals to their environments, and then he applied this to the consideration of two productions in the BBC’s Performance strand, A Doll’s House (1992) and Ghosts (1987). His original and densely-argued presentation was a very fine way to close out the conference papers.
Except that it was not quite the end. Lisa Kerrigan, Television Curator with the BFI, had a final treat for us in the form of a presentation of extracts from British television theatre plays that had been thought lost but which were rediscovered in recent years in the Library of Congress. Among the fragments that she showed as we enjoyed a glass of wine were scenes from The Typewriter (A-R, 1962, and the subject of my post here) by Jean Cocteau and the BBC production of Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot (1967).
Towards the end of the day a short plenary discussion touched on a number of themes that had run through the event, including the move of theatre plays on screen from television to initiatives such as NT Live and Digital Theatre. (Who would have thought it, Louis?) But none of us had any all-encompassing conclusions to draw – apart from a shared sense of interest and excitement that this area of research appears to offer so many possibilities for the future. On which note, I would like to thank most warmly all of the speakers on Friday and also Amanda who worked so hard to draw the event together – and to look forward to welcoming them and, let us hope, others to the next Screen Plays conference.