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‘Edwardian Drama on the small screen’: notes from the symposium

Title-card for Strife, BBC, 1975On Friday afternoon Dr Amanda Wrigley and I hosted a small symposium at BFI Southbank to complement our screening season ‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’. We were delighted with the stimulating discussion and we are very grateful to both our speakers and to those who contributed with questions and responses. This post is a brief note about the event with one or two reflections on what I took away from it.

We began with Dr Billy Smart‘s keynote, ‘Edwardian Values, 1970s Television: John Galsworthy on BBC1’. This detailed analysis (which is now available online Forgotten Television Drama blog) explores, with the help of numerous illustrative framegrabs, the different studio drama strategies employed in The Skin Game (1974, directed by William Slater), Strife (1975, James Cellan Jones) and Loyalties (1976, Rudolph Cartier). As he said, he aimed to explore two questions:

how the specific form of Galsworthy’s drama might have been particularly well suited for television; and suggest what value viewers derived from these productions – not just the aesthetic pleasures of watching period drama, but also what emotional meaning and moral values that they might have found in the plays.

On Saturday Billy posted his piece online at the blog for his current research project, , including a host of illustrative framegrabs. This is a terrific contribution to scholarship about Galsworthy’s plays on television and more generally about television studio drama of the 1970s.

Radio Times cover featuring An Ideal Husband, 10 May 1969Contrasting papers by Dr Michell Paull and Dr Leah Panos addressed the 1969 BBC television production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, with which the BFI Southbank season opened. Michelle’s ‘An Ideal Husband – a realistic marriage? Wilde, feminism and Britain in 1969’ applied a textual analysis to the cuts made by the television version to Wilde’s original and considered the relationship of these to feminist ideas in the 1960s. Leah’s ‘Colour, Cartier and An Ideal Husband’ discussed the production as the first classic theatre play on television play to be recorded in colour. The paper raised intriguing questions about Cartier’s mise-en-scene and its potential meanings.

After tea, Amanda presented her paper ‘J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (BBC, 1960) in its schools television context’, which took as its focus another of the season’s presentations. Amanda has contributed a blog post here, and on Friday she extended this with new research looking at the place of twentieth century drama in schools output during the 1960s. And I offered what I think of very much as work-in-progress about the prevalence of productions of Bernard Shaw, especially in television’s early years.

Finally, we were delighted to be joined once again by Robert Knights, who in 1979 directed The Voysey Inheritance by Harley Granville Barker, another of our season’s offerings. Rob spoke vividly about the context of production at the BBC in the late 1970s and about the rehearsal and recording process of a major play like this. His talk was an immensely engaging complement to the range of scholarly methodologies being applied in the earlier papers.

For me, the symposium underlined the idea that Edwardian drama is an especially interesting focus for considering theatre plays on television and the kinds of aesthetic and ideological issues that such plays raise. This is partly, of course, because there are so many television productions of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century plays, although the range is largely restricted to society stories and plays associated with the ‘New Drama’. So there appears to have been a strong affinity between these turn-of-the-century plays and the production possibilities and poetics of multi-camera studio drama. Considering the reasons for why this might have been the case continues to be a fascinating research focus.

The aspect of the symposium with which I was most pleased was a recognition of an emerging dialogue on the part of television historians like ourselves with academics working both in theatre studies and in the study of film. This dialogue has been an aim of the Screen Plays project from the start but this symposium made it concrete in ways that perhaps it has not quite been before. And this gives us something to build on in our final months, especially as we move towards our closing conference early in 2015. The first details of this, along with a call for proposals, will be announced soon.


4 thoughts on “‘Edwardian Drama on the small screen’: notes from the symposium

  1. Very interesting, thanks. I hadn’t realised Cartier’s An Ideal Husband was so early in terms of colour drama. It makes sense though as he was responsible for the test production that all the camera/technical crews had to do to familiarise them with colour, so presumably he was one of the earliest directors to be trusted with a major colour drama. Was this covered by Dr Panos’s paper?

    Posted by Oliver Wake | 31 May 2014, 7:31 pm
    • Thanks Oliver – yes, Leah’s paper considered in some depth the relationship between the production and Cartier’s earlier involvement in the test productions for dramas shot in colour. It was a really interesting contribution.

      Posted by John Wyver | 31 May 2014, 7:36 pm
      • I’m pleased to hear that. Thanks John. I’ll look out for the paper should it be published.

        Posted by Oliver Wake | 1 June 2014, 11:45 pm
      • We’re hoping that we may be able to develop a journal special issue from the symposium papers, and if so we’re very keen that Leah’s paper is a contribution to that.

        Posted by John Wyver | 2 June 2014, 3:53 am

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