As noted in earlier posts on schools television transmissions of theatre plays, many of these offered (sometimes severely) condensed versions. The fact that an Associated-Rediffusion production of Euripides’ Medea, the story of a woman who takes revenge on her husband by murdering their children, which ITV Schools transmitted over three programmes in 1963, was specially advertised as ‘unabridged’ suggests that some substantial abridgement may indeed have been the norm in schools productions.
My colleague John Wyver and I have made a start investigating these television productions of theatre plays for schools, with a focus on the 1960s when there seems to have been an efflorescence of productions by both the BBC and the commercial companies. My own starting point has been those productions which also connect with my case study on television productions of ancient Greek plays. So, I have written elsewhere on this blog about the BBC Schools productions of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Bacchae in 1961-62 and the nearly contemporaneous eight-part Associated-Rediffusion series entitled The Angry Gods, which comprised abridged versions of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for ITV Schools. John has contributed really interesting posts on the BBC’s excellent, modern-dress production of Julius Caesar for schools in 1960 and the following year’s rather less engrossing five-part production of Hamlet for ITV. (The links click through to the posts themselves.)
Interestingly, the 1963 Medea appears to be a new production which was the grand finale of a series of eleven programmes, at least four of which were ‘recycled’ from another series transmitted two years earlier – the ‘recycled’ productions being the four heavily abridged Greek tragedies presented in The Angry Gods series, as name-checked above. The eleven-part series of which Medea was the final offering was titled Theatres and Temples: The Greeks. Its purpose seems to have been to throw a spotlight on the development of Greek civilization in the light of its continuing relevance to and impact on the modern world. Accordingly, in between the plays from The Angry Gods and the three-part Medea were three programmes (titled ‘The City State’, ‘The Inquiring Mind’ and ‘Legend and Belief’) which explored democracy, knowledge, architecture, philosophy, poetry, myth and the gods. With this background, the dramatic presentations were intended to offer ‘a deeper study […] of the mind of man’. Specifically, a brochure for schools sets out the purpose of the series in these terms:
This series will attempt to illustrate what sort of people these were whose intellect and artistic sense have left such a lasting impression on Western civilisation. […] It is suggested that this series may be useful to schools in several ways: as a preliminary study of a civilisation of which most children know very little, as a basis of discussion of the many moral problems raised […] (‘Theatres and Temples: The Greeks. Independent Television Programmes for Schools. Notes for Spring Term 1963’, leaflet in BFI Reuben Library.)
As is, perhaps, to be expected, little is known about the actual production. It used the translation of Philip Vellacott, published that year by Penguin (and still in print in the Penguin Classics series), and the very few photographs that I have been able to source online (reproduced here) confirm that the design by Michael Yates (who had worked on Greek tragedy before, with the 1962 production of Sophocles’ Electra) strongly evokes the look of traditional stage productions of Greek tragedy. The casting was impressive, with the title role taken by Barbara Jefford (b. 1930), and her husband Jason by George Baker (1931-2011). We also know, from production files on the Theatres and Temples series in the BFI Reuben Library, that Medea was sold to New Zealand and transmitted by CBS in America – facts which testify, surely, to some level of accomplishment in the production.
Indeed, Associated-Rediffusion included it amongst a list of eleven ‘great series’ and ‘memorable plays and programmes’ in a large advertizement published in The Times on 28 May 1963 (see adjacent image). ‘Are you interested in good television?’, asks the title of the piece, going on to argue that ITV offers a serious, stimulating and valuable alternative to the BBC. The fact that Medea nestles in this select crowd of programmes and series (which includes the previous year’s modern Greek production of Sophocles’ Electra, which I’ve blogged about here, and another production by the same director Joan Kemp-Welch, Harold Pinter’s The Lover) attests to its evidently high status amongst productions of drama for schools. This is the kind of television, reads the review, that the family ought to be watching in order ‘to bring up [children] as decent citizens’. It is fascinating how, at this point in the 1960s, theatre plays were so integral to such a ‘civilizing’ television project, with three of the eleven examples in this advertizement ‘showcase’ taking their original material from the stage (namely, Electra, Medea and Black Nativity; The Lover was written for television; the eleven also included a television adaptation of Constantine FitzGibbon’s novel When the Kissing had to Stop). Amongst the 30,000 viewers who, the advertisement claims, write in to Associated-Rediffusion every month was one schoolgirl who commented that, for her, ‘the fine and overwhelming performance of Medea has had the deepest effect’.
For now, with so little known about the substance of this clearly important Greek tragic three-parter, perhaps the most useful thing that Theatres and Temples offers at present is an example of re-use, or recycling, of dramatic material within schools television. It will be interesting to see how often plays were, in a similar way, re-situated within educative contexts and what this may tell us about how television served the annual cycle of school curricula.