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Plays

Arthur Miller on the small screen 2: Granada productions in the late 1950s

Alan Bates as Kenneth in A Memory of Two Mondays (Granada, 1959)

Alan Bates as Kenneth in A Memory of Two Mondays (Granada, 1959)

Given the popularity of Arthur Miller’s American tragedies on the stage and in educational curricula in Britain, it is not surprising to find that at least twelve productions of the plays were transmitted on British television networks from 1957 to 1997. What is a little surprising is that there has been no systematic study of Miller’s theatre plays on the British small screen. In February this year I posted my first instalment of a study of these television texts in response to this lacuna, focusing on three productions of Death of a Salesman which were transmitted in 1957 (Granada), 1966 (BBC, Play of the Month) and 1996 (a five-part BBC series for schools).

Very shortly after publishing my thoughts on Death of a Salesman I gave birth to twins, Matilda and Dylan, and for this reason part two of this case study has been quite a long time in the writing! Today, three months to the day later, I pick up the narrative with a glance at Granada’s three other Arthur Miller productions which followed hot on the heels of the 1957 Death of a Salesman.

In its second year of broadcasting the north of England weekday franchise Granada mounted Death of a Salesman, and this was soon followed by productions of All My Sons, A Memory of Two Mondays and The Crucible – all of which were British television premieres.

As noted in my last blog post, Miller’s attractiveness to the commercial networks around this time and the seeming reluctance of the BBC to engage with his work until the 1980s (the BBC’s 1966 Death of a Salesman was the anomaly in the production chronology) need to be understood in the context of institutional factors such as Granada’s employment of Canadian Silvio Narrizano (1927-2011) as head of drama output and Miller’s political position in America and how this may have impacted on the different television networks’ perceptions of his performability. Whereas the BBC seemed largely to steer clear of this American theatrical giant, Granada on the other hand – even before the Court of Appeal in August 1958 annulled Miller’s conviction for contempt of Congress (for refusing to name former members of the American Communist Party to the House of Un-American Activities) – had produced both Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, and these followed close on the heels of a production of Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in March 1957.

‘There is something about the American theatre which appeals to the best in Independent Television’, wrote a critic in The Manchester Guardian in response to All My Sons, the second of four Miller plays mounted by Granada from 1957 to 1959 (‘Television Notes: The Time of Your Life’, The Manchester Guardian, 20 October 1958, p. 5). All My Sons was produced and directed by Cliff Owen and presented – as were the other three productions – in the ITV Play of the Week series. The 14 May 1958 transmission seems to be the only time that the play has been produced on British television, although BBC Radio had broadcast it on the Home Service two years earlier in 1956 (which was eight years after its British stage premiere).

The Times considered that this production of All My Sons – a play on the topic of wartime profiteering, with structural echoes of Sophoclean tragedy – was ‘sombrely concentrated’ and as ‘equally distinguished’ as Granada’s Death of a Salesman almost six months earlier. This assessment may have had something to do with the fact that Albert Dekker, the American actor who had played the role of Willy Loman in Salesman, also took the role of the protagonist Joe Keller in All My Sons: his performance of the self-made businessman who had shipped damaged aircraft parts out of his factory during the Second World War, leading to the deaths of twenty-one pilots, was considered to be ‘a perfectly controlled progression from guilt-ridden self-ingratiation to a savage power which lent unassailable dignity to his confession’ (‘Study of Wartime Profiteering: Arthur Miller Play on Independent Television’, The Times, 15 May 1958, p. 5). Reflecting on Dekker’s performance in The Observer, Maurice Richardson wrote ‘Let no one tell you under-acting is necessary on television’ and, for another critic, Megs Jenkins who played Keller’s wife Kate, traversed the emotional landscape from ‘hysterical obstinacy’ to a ‘final acceptance of tragedy’ ‘most sensitively’ (‘Cephalopod Culture’, The Observer, 18 May 1958, p. 14; Anon., ‘Harrowing Drama but Convincing: All My Sons’, The Manchester Guardian, 15 May 1958, p. 5).

Granada’s A Memory of Two Mondays, transmitted a few months later on 27 February 1959, presents an elegy to the difficult lives of the workers in a New York warehouse at the time of the Great Depression. This production of a fairly recent and therefore little known work, which had premiered in the US just four years earlier, was prefaced by a lengthy introduction in the TV Times. The reviewer in The Times found the play itself, with its focus much more on character rather than plot, wanting, but admired the ‘moments of dramatic resonance’ and ‘sombre performances’, particularly that of Alan Bates as Kenneth, that Silvio Narizzano (who also produced Granada’s Death of a Salesman) was able to elicit (‘Demand for Pity: Defects in Memory of Two Mondays’, The Times, 28 February 1959, p. 4).

Later that year, on 3 November 1959, The Crucible – perhaps as the more accomplished and better known play – seemed to make more of a splash amongst the critics, with Richardson in The Observer considering it to be ‘a powerfully glossy production’ in a review which offers a few tantalising hints about the visual aesthetic of the production by Henry Kaplan:

‘For the long and very strong cast there was a lot of black shadow to suggest the tempter’s home ground and offset the prim white collars of the girls who had been kicking over the Puritan traces dancing naked in the woods. It was spectacular viewing, particularly the bedside interrogation of the allegedly possessed Betty and the mass hysteria in court. Susannah York had a field night as Abigail, the nymphomaniacal pseudo-witch who causes half the trouble by her passion for her master, Sean Connery.’ (Maurice Richardson, ‘Television: Dark House Dramas’, The Observer, 8 November 1959, p. 15)

Kaplan was another Canadian working alongside Narizzano at Granada; interestingly, in the same year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a television adaptation of the The Crucible. Stimulated especially by the Granada productions into reflecting on the absence of Arthur Miller’s plays on American television networks, Arnold Zeitlin went to Miller himself for an explanation, which came in three parts:

‘1. […] I refuse to permit their being cut to an hour or an hour-and-a-half in conformity with my belief that any good work is already reduced to its minimum length by definition. The English produce my work at full length and for that reason I have permitted them to show all my plays.

2. For many years, no work of mine was permitted on TV by virtue of the blacklist. […]

3. I would not sell any play to television without a large payment because part of my annual income derives from amateur and semi-professional productions which I believe would probably be fewer once my work was seen on TV. Also, I would not sell anything unless I had complete control over casting and direction just as I have on stage or on screen.

[…] I don’t believe that authors should, in effect, give away their works for practically nothing but should receive a minimum of 50 per cent of everything earned by those works. An author does not exist so that others may get rich from his labor.’ (‘Why You Can’t See an Arthur Miller Play’, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 October 1960, p. 56.)

Granada’s Death of a Salesman and All My Sons are regrettably lost, but both A Memory of Two Mondays and the first fifty minutes of The Crucible are listed as surviving in The Kaleidoscope British Independent Television Drama Research Guide (ed. by Simon Coward, Richard Down and Christopher Perry, 2010). I am grateful to Lisa Kerrigan for the information that the BFI holds copies of both titles: The Crucible exists on master umatic tape so it is not, unfortunately, viewable; I do, however, look forward to adding a substantial postscript to this post once I have consulted the VHS copy of A Memory of Two Mondays.

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