Our next screening in this month’s ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ season at BFI Southbank is David Jones’ 1987 BBC production of Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple. Shaw described the play as a ‘melodrama’ but as played here it is a delightful comic costume drama.
The setting is a small New England town during 1777, the second year of the American War of Independence. The charming, rogue-ish and instantly sympathetic Dick Dudgeon (played by Mike Gwilym) returns to the community to inherit his father’s estate just as the British soldiers arrive. In a case of mistaken identity, Dick allows himself to be arrested and threatened with the gallows instead of Pastor Anderson (Patrick Stewart). Neither he nor we are quite sure why he does this (which is part of how smart Shaw is) but his reasons certainly include his feelings for Anderson’s wife, Judith (Susan Wooldridge). One of the production’s great pleasures is seeing a fine quartet of actors at the top of their game, including Ian Richardson who turns up late on as General Burgoyne.
Bernard Shaw wrote the drama in 1896, comparatively early in his career as a playwright even though he was forty years old. He was struggling to earn a living as a critic and novelist, but he conceived the notion of composing an old-fashioned melodrama for the actor-manager – and melodrama specialist – William Terriss. Terriss was intrigued but when the author finally read him the manuscript he fell asleep part way through. Undaunted, Shaw saw the play become a hit in New York, which in turn prompted Terriss to prepare a production back in London. But before his plans could be realised, Terriss was stabbed to death at his theatre’s stage door.
In a thoughtful analysis of the play, the critic Colin Wilson has written,
Shaw decided to combine his own intense moral preoccupation with the crudest and silliest elements of melodrama… Examined closely, the play is seen to be a tissue of absurdities. If it had been badly written, the audiences would have regarded it as an insult to the intelligence… If it had been written ‘straight’, without the ironic overtones, Shaw would have been classified with Marie Corelli and Mrs Henry Wood, the best-selling sentimental novelists of the day. As it is, the audience can revel in the romantic situations while convincing themselves that the pleasure is intellectual. Shaw gets the best of both worlds.
Wilson also observes that the centre of the play is the clash of egos between Dudgeon and Anderson, although
For Shaw, the real point of the play is that Anderson, in spite of his clerical collar, is a born soldier, and has no innate sympathy with the ideals of Christianity, while Dick, in spite of his professions of allegiance to the devil, is a born Christian who finds it natural to risk his own life to save another man’s. (‘How “the Devil” hauled Shaw up from Hell’, New York Times, 13 November 1988, online here)
In 1987 the producer and director David Jones had been tempted back to the BBC to mount the Theatre Night series, which was one of the strands, like the subsequent Performance (1991-1998), that attempted – ultimately without success – to keep classic theatre plays in prime-time slots. Jones had joined the BBC in the late 1950s and had worked on the arts magazine Monitor, but he was also directing for the stage and in 1964 he left the Corporation to join Peter Hall at the recently established Royal Shakespeare Company. He mounted numerous successes for the RSC in the 1960s and ’70s (often working with Gwilym, Stewart and Richardson), and then in 1979 moved to the USA, where he was to die in 2008. But he continued to work in Britain, including on feature films like 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) and a number of under-appreciated television productions, including this Shaw adaptation and the film Langrishe, Go Down (1978).
David Jones had set up a production of The Devil’s Disciple with the RSC to mark the two hundred anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, but somehow Jack Gold actually directed this. But he remained intrigued by the play, as he told the Radio Times,
Until very recently I used to be allergic to GBS and all that sterile debating you get in some of his work. But The Devil’s Disciple is different… I’m just learning to trust myself with comedy and I found and still found it a real exercise in wit. (Hugh David, ‘Act of Independence’, Radio Times, 14 May 1987, p. 14)
Jones was also interested in exploiting what multi-camera studio drama (as it turned out, in its dying days as a form) could contribute to a production of Shaw’s play. As he reflected,
The scenes between Susan Wooldridge and Patrick Stewart as the Andersons are a revelation. They’re essentially very quiet, domestic moments, but no one’s ever been able to play them like that on stage. We could bring the camera in close and just let the words speak for themselves.
Writing in The Listener, the novelist and playwright David Pownall hailed The Devil’s Disciple as ‘a brave, all-round triumph’. ‘All the powers of theatre and television’, he wrote, ‘were blended in a stern unwavering struggle with the uncompromising text, squeezing all of its colour and brilliance onto the screen.’
Pownall’s encomium continued by making a strong case for the value of theatre plays on television, even as the electronic medium was largely turning its back on works written for the stage:
There have been many arduous arguments about whether theatre and television touch and mingle: we know that they are the same actors that we appreciate in the flesh that arrest us in the image; the same directors employ similar instincts and insights in both forms: the small screen does not have to crush the theatre’s breadth and depth into its diminution of the word against the image. There is a fusion there if we only take the trouble to find it. Sharp text, the long scene unrelieved by camera acrobatics, the true study of the human face without gloss or glamour, the real substance of the theatre can be put on television without being warped. Nowhere is it written down by television’s Aristotle that the form must, of necessity, belittle and cloud as it dazzles and pricks. (‘Severed Heads’, The Listener, 21 May 1987, p. 40.)