Regular readers of the Screen Plays blog will know that one of my interests is the relationship between the BBC and The Open University (OU) in the making of television productions of theatre plays which were designed both to support the study of the OU’s distance-learning students and to appeal to the general public. It is fascinating to discover how the institutional relationship between the OU and the BBC and, more specifically, the professional collaboration between academics and television producers on productions of theatre plays shaped the evolution of a pedagogy for drama which was at times not only innovative in terms of teaching and learning at a distance but also sometimes radically responsive to trends in both scholarship and contemporary theatre.
Hitherto, I have focused my attention on some of the sixteen productions which were made for the important A307 Drama course which ran annually from 1977 to 1981 (my latest blog post on the A307 production and transmission of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is available here, with links at the start to my posts on other A307 productions). A307 was the first Open University course dedicated entirely to the study of drama but, of course, televised performances of theatre plays (whether extracts, condensed versions or full productions) had not been absent from the curricula of courses prior to this.
In fact, owing to the characteristically multidisciplinary nature of the OU curriculum, plays had been an important part of the very first OU courses in 1971. Take the very first iteration of the Arts Foundation course (A100, which ran 1971-77), the aim of which was to introduce several thousand new students each year to university-level study across a range of subject areas, including art, civilization, culture, drama, history, literature, music, philosophy and poetry. The study resources for ‘Which was Socrates?’, two A100 units on the ancient Greek philosopher which were focused on the extant literary sources upon which a picture of the historical Socrates may be built, included a twenty-five minute television production of scenes from Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy Clouds (first performed in 423 BC), a play in which Socrates appears as a character.
In Clouds Socrates is caricatured as a typical sophist, a teacher who received payment to impart to the young the new learning – for example, rhetoric and natural science – and who was often considered to be a corrupting influence. Strepsiades, an elderly farmer facing financial ruin thanks to his profligate son and fashionable wife, believes that Socrates, who he has heard can make the worse cause appear the better, can teach his son to defraud his creditors. His son Pheidippides, however, refuses to be taught by Socrates so Strepsiades instead enrols in the school (termed the ‘Think-Tank’ in this production, page 5 of the script in the OU Archive). Strepsiades, however, turns out to be too stupid to learn anything and his son eventually takes his place, using his new learning to justify beating his father. The father, in disgust, sets fire to Socrates’ school.
The television production of the abridged play was introduced in a seemingly traditional way with a brief talk by the classicist Professor John Ferguson, Dean of the Arts Faculty, who had translated and adapted the Greek text for this performance. (Ferguson went on to translate Oedipus Tyrannus into English for the A307 production of the play.) There are, however, some production choices which seem to gesture towards the ways in which the OU would, in order to develop students’ critical awareness, come to contextualise such televised plays as merely one performative interpretation of the play being studied and, furthermore, one which was very much a result of multi-camera work in a studio setting. These production choices are illustrated in the two shots set side-by-side in the adjacent image: on the left is a moment from the opening in which the camera zooms in on Professor Ferguson from a vantage point which encompasses two cameras either side, thus establishing transparency about the studio setting; and, on the right, the viewer sees a brief overlap between the end of Ferguson’s introduction and the first entrance of the character Strepsiades (Juan Moreno).
In a 1974 journal article, entitled ‘Classics in The Open University’ (Greece & Rome 21.1: 1-10), Ferguson records that the play was presented ‘in conditions as near to the original as we can get in the studio’; furthermore, he advises, ‘it is important to see it as drama, comic drama, and low comic drama’ (p. 5). This goes some considerable way to explain the full-head masks and wigs, the over-size phalloi, and the use of the ekkyklema (a wheeled platform which is thrust out of the central doors at the back of the studio: see adjacent image) and the mechane (a crane which lowers Socrates in his basket down from on high). One can indeed see some resemblance between the masked and wigged character in the centre of the ancient vase-painting, above (purportedly a scene from another Aristophanic play, Birds) and the representation of the comic characters on screen. The ancient models would certainly have given Deisgner Paul Munting and Costume Supervisor Judy Pepperdine some out-of-the-ordinary challenges. ‘Eyebrows were raised’ at Ferguson’s insistence on the ‘authentic’ aspects of the production, remembers the producer Nick Levinson (author’s interview with NL, 19 June 2012).
Ferguson’s introduction prepares us for the fact that Strepsiades will be played as a ‘country bumpkin’ by Moreno. The students and Socrates, by comparison, are terribly well spoken and generally refrain from the farmer’s colourful language – ‘crapping’, ‘fart’, ‘pissing’ and ‘arses’ (‘What the hell are their arses staring at the sky for?’, p. 8, he asks of the geology students seen in the ekkyklema tableau in the image above) – mildly colourful, to our well-worn ears, but one wonders what the audience thought of it in the 1970s? This abridged version includes most of the memorable scenes of the play: Strepsiades encountering the students of the ‘Think-Tank’ and Socrates up high in his basket, his meeting with the Clouds who make up the Chorus (cavorting around in their voluminous sheets in slightly ridiculous fashion, played – as in the ancient performance tradition – by men: see adjacent image) and the scenes with his son Pheidippides. There’s a decent amount of farce, with Socrates and Pheidippides, at different points, beating Strepsiades on the bottom with a cane, Strepsiades reinterpreting the Victory sign as the two-fingered gesture and even a (somewhat surprizing) vigorous mime of masturbation as he joyously utters the words ‘He pulls his own pudding!’ (p. 21).
There is not a great deal of evidence for what OU students and the general viewing public thought of this ribald presentation of Aristophanic comedy. Lorna Hardwick, who was a tutor on A100 and later professor in the OU’s Classical Studies department, recalls that the production had a contemporary shock value which led to viewers writing in to national newspapers (although, regrettably, I’ve yet to locate any of these responses in the online newspaper databases available to me). Fascinatingly, in his Greece & Rome article Ferguson himself records that ‘One of the more moving letters I have received came from a tutor in the Isle of Wight to say what a therapeutic effect the Socrates units had had on long-time prisoners in Parkhurst gaol!’ (‘Classics in the Open University’, Greece & Rome 21.1, 1974, 1-10: p. 5. My emphasis).
Nor is the accompanying half-an-hour discussion programme on the production, transmitted a few days afterwards in each but the first year of the production’s annual life, a great deal of help. Ferguson gathers in a studio with three students to explore the play’s usefulness as a historical source for Socrates, for sophism and for ancient scientific interests – and not much is said about the slapstick and sometimes childish boisterousness of the production which, Lorna Hardwick recalls, sprung from the ‘hope that students and their families who might be watching with them would be entertained, even excited’ by the absence of classical reverence (source: talk by Lorna Hardwick, Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen symposium, University of Westminster, 22 June 2012).
Warm thanks to Lorna Hardwick, Nick Levinson and Steve Morris for interviews and help with materials.