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The Edwardians: J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (BBC, 1960)

‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’, our third ‘Classics on TV’ season at BFI Southbank, opens on Thursday with a spectacular double bill. Following the sumptuous 1969 BBC production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, directed by Rudolph Cartier, is the 28-minute production of the one-act play Riders to the Sea by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909). Produced by the BBC for broadcast to schools in 1960, Riders to the Sea has much to recommend it: the production was, in fact, considered to be such a powerful presentation of the drama that it was repeated some months later in an evening slot of 9.30pm with the clear intention of reaching a larger adult audience. This powerful tragedy is set in a sparse set, reflecting the harshness of the environment on the Aran Islands, with the sound of the life-taking sea-waves dominating the soundscape. Dame Sybil Thorndike plays the role of old Maurya who has lost her husband and all of her six sons to the sea, and – with the death of the last – reaches a kind of peace. Sean Connery makes an appearance as her son Bartley, and her daughters Cathleen and Nora are played by Olive McFarland and Jan Kenny respectively. But do come and see for yourself on Thursday at the BFI! Continue reading


The Edwardians: Play of the Month: An Ideal Husband (BBC1, 1969)

This Thursday, 1 May, sees the start of our new season of BFI Southbank screenings, Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen. We begin with a tremendous double bill of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in a sumptuous 1969 version directed by Rudolph Cartier together with a – dare I say unmissable – rarity from 1960: a BBC schools production of J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea with Sybil Thorndike and Sean Connery. My colleague Amanda Wrigley is composing a post about Synge’s one-act poetic drama; this contribution is simply an introduction to the Wilde. Continue reading

The True Mistery of the Passion in Bristol Cathedral (BBC, 1960)

Today being Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar prompts me to look back at a television production of a play which was transmitted on a Maundy Thursday over fifty years ago. When I was recently doing some data entry for the Screen Plays database the production caught my eye because it was staged in the unusual location of the nave of Bristol Cathedral. What a technically challenging location this may have been for the performance of a play for television transmission, with its potential complexities with regard to space, lighting and sound. The play in question is The True Mistery of the Passion, James Kirkup’s translation and adaptation of the 15th-century French mystery play Mystère de la Passion by the brothers Gréban, which seems, in this 1960 BBC production by James Acton-Bond to have achieved a remarkable intimacy, making the viewer at home feel part of the drama’s internal ‘audience’ of medieval villagers. Continue reading

Design for Murder adapted to a theatre setting (BBC, 1958 and 1961)

The characters in Alex Atkinson’s classic thriller Design for Murder are the cast and creatives of a forthcoming West End production who have gathered in the designer’s flat to talk about the play. In both known productions of the play – the 1958 BBC production by Michael Elliott and the 1961 BBC production by Patrick Dromgoole – the play was adapted such that the gathering takes place in a deserted theatre rather than in the theatre designer’s flat. The 1961 production, at least, was also shot in a theatre space rather than in the studio. This brief blog post reports what the critic in The Times thought of the use of the theatre space by the producer in 1961. Continue reading

Scenes from Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor (BBC, 1937)

I am writing an article about British television adaptations of specific Shakespeare stagings, the most recent of which is the BBC television film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar in 2012. There are just under fifty such productions which, either from the theatre or from a studio or very occasionally, with with Julius Caesar, from a location, present either substantial excerpts or a full version of a specific theatre production. For a long time I believed that the first such production was Scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1937) which on 29 November 1937 broadcast part of Andre van Gyseghem’s Embassy Theatre staging of the play. But now I believe that there is a credible earlier candidate for this laurel. Continue reading

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace