Update: We very much regret that the scheduled presentation of Waste at BFI Southbank was not able to go ahead as planned. The screening was rescheduled for 6.00pm on Tuesday 17 June.
The centenary in 1977 of Harley Granville Barker’s birth was marked by a revival of the playwright’s The Madras House, directed by William Gaskill for the National Theatre, and by Don Taylor’s remarkable BBC television presentation of Waste. The two productions demonstrated how finely-crafted are Barker’s major dramas, how powerful a playwright he is, and how pertinent and relevant is his social analysis. Waste is one of the presentations in the Screen Plays BFI Southbank season ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’. The production has never been released on DVD and this is a rare chance to catch a truly powerful studio production.
Waste was written in 1907 and immediately banned by the Lord Chamberlain, the stage censor. To secure his copyright, the playwright had to arrange a reading at the Savoy Theatre in January 1908 in which Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Gilbert Murray participated. The first public performance, in a significantly re-written version (which up-dated the context, and is used as the basis for Taylor’s production) only took place in 1936. When Play of the Month came to present the play in 1977, Michael Billington, writing in Radio Times, reflected on the background to the ban:
The reason given at the time for the ban was ‘the extremely outspoken reference to the sexual relations’ between the hero and a married woman and the mention of a ‘criminal operation’ (illegal abortion). And it is quite true that the play is about a radical politician, Henry Trebell, whose Bill to disestablish the Church of England and divert its surplus funds to education runs into trouble when he is tainted by sexual scandal.
But it is hard to believe that is was purely sex that unnerved the Lord Chamberlain … clearly what upset the censor was Granville Barker’s breathtaking candour about the interaction of sex and politics. (‘Recycling Waste‘, 1 December 1977, p. 10)
In Taylor’s production Paul Daneman takes the role of Trebell, and Annette Crosbie is his wife, Francis. But in many ways the emotional centre of the play is Amy O’Connell, the woman with whom Trebell has a brief affair. Jan Macdonald has written that ‘intellectually, the argument [of the play] is loaded in favour of the men. In their worlds of scholarship and visionary political reform, Amy is worthless for all but bearing children’. But the effect of seeing a fine production – and Taylor’s is undoubtedly that – is very different. Hannah Gordon brings great sympathy to Amy, and as Macdonald also notes, she is played ‘as an intelligent woman using her only weapon, her physical attraction, to make an impact on a male-dominated world’ (The New Drama, 1900-1914, London: MacMillan, 1986, p. 83).
In a review in The Times, Michael Ratcliffe praised in particular Don Taylor’s handling of the two long scenes between Trebell and Amy, which he described as ‘powerful, embarrassing, memorable, but he was also enthusiastic about the drama’s third act which focusses on the other politicians debating with each other what is to be done with Trebell:
As a dramatic representation of the way English politicians talk, think and come to a decision, this act is superior to anything in Shaw or anyone else before or since: compare only the evasive and shallow caricatures of today. André Morrell, Robert Lang and Stephen Murray played it within a knife’s edge of ham, but on each occasion delicately withdrew in time. I found it spellbinding. (‘Waste‘, The Times, 5 December 1977, p. 9)
By far the most substantial critical engagement with this television production to date is that by Dr Billy Smart is his as-yet-unpublished PhD thesis, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles – Adaptation of Classic Theatrical Plays on BBC Television 1957-1985’ (Royal Holloway, University of London, 2010). Smart notes that
The commissioning of this demanding play, and the employment of Taylor, who had long been exiled from the BBC Drama Department, was a product of the brief tenure of David Jones as producer of Play of the Month. Jones had been recruited from the theatre, as Artistic Director of the Royal Court (1975-7), rather than from within the BBC, and was encouraged to treat theBBC1 classic play adaptation as a site for experimentation, in both repertory and directorial approach. (p. 153)
Don Taylor was perhaps the most passionate and articulate advocate of multi-camera studio drama as a creative form, although the majority opinion among television drama directors even by the late 1970s was that single-camera shooting on film allowed for greater expressiveness. As Taylor later wrote,
True television drama has a quite different aesthetic from film-making. It tolerates, in fact it relishes imaginative, argumentative and even poetic writing in a way the film camera does not. It is at its best in long, developing scenes, where the actors can work without interference from the director’s camera, using their own timing rather than his. It is a writers’ and actors’ medium which puts its premium on content; dramatic thinking and emotion that is earned, passion that comes from deep wells of feeling plumed by good words, not manufactured for melodramatic effect. (Don Taylor, Days of Vision, London: Methuen, 1990, p. 38)
Billy Smart argues that Taylor guides the viewer’s understanding of the play and its ideas through a measured use of close-ups – not always of the character who is speaking – precisely-framed group compositions and long takes. But the drama found little favour with the audience in 1977, attracting an audience of only 5.7% (compared to the 50.7% watching The Silver Jubilee Royal Gala on ITV). Detailed audience feedback included impressions that viewers found the play ‘old-fashioned, disappointing, too wordy or merely boring.’ As Billy Smart reflects,
This muted response suggests that Granville Barker’s dramaturgy remained overly demanding for television viewers, even if as imaginatively and sensitively handled as by Taylor. Compounding this difficulty was Granville Barker’s particularly opaque plotting, wit and characterisation, attributes which audiences had come to expect to be commendably intelligible in Edwardian plays, as regularly articulated in BBC audience research for other productions.
Having their unconscious expectations confounded alienated viewers who generally enjoyed Edwardian dramas, although Waste contained some consolation in its attainment of visual pleasure, especially in the country house Act One. The reaction to Waste, illustrating how an adaptation could fulfil part of an audience’s framework of expectations while failing other parts, complicates our understanding of the form of the generic period adaptation. The setting and costumes confirmed an expectation of visual pleasure in period detail, but the play’s dense content failed to provide a clear narrative that viewers could derive pleasure from following.
The questions raised by Don Taylor’s production of Waste will be among those discussed during the Screen Plays symposium on Friday 23 May 2014 at BFI Southbank. We are delighted that Dr Billy Smart is giving the keynote lecture, and details of the event can be found here. All are welcome and there is no charge for the event, but we ask that you e-mail Dr Amanda Wrigley [firstname.lastname@example.org] if you wish to attend.