Just as we have brought to a close our fourth and final season of screenings at BFI Southbank, marking the end of a wonderful four years of collaboration on the topics of Greek tragedy (2012), Jacobean tragedy (2013), Edwardian drama (2014) and American playwrights (2015), we are absolutely delighted to announce that part of our very first season is about to be revived at the Library of Birmingham under the guardianship of Dr Elena Theodorakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham.
You can read more about the nine Greek tragedies and one quasi-satyr play that featured in the original season elsewhere on this blog. Together they offer a fascinating range of approaches to the foundational plays of Western drama and the screen presentation of ancient Greece, illuminating the richly interesting variety of ways that British television has experimented with capturing the force of these ancient tales on the small screen from the late 1950s to 1990.
In association with the revival of the season (which I curated for BFI Southbank in 2012), I am delighted to have been invited to give a lecture based on my work in this area. I will be speaking on ‘Drama, War, Sex, Education: Greek Plays on British Television, 1958-1990’ at 5.30pm on 12 March 2015 at the University of Birmingham.
Dr Theodorakopoulos has worked with the Library of Birmingham to arrange two evenings of screenings in the Studio Theatre. Catch them whilst you can!
6.00pm, 26 February 2015: King Oedipus and Oedipus the King, introduced by Dr Theodorakopoulos [buy tickets]
King Oedipus. Play of the Month. BBC, 1972. Dir. Alan Bridges. With Sheila Allen, Anthony Bate, Ian Holm, Alan Webb. 75 min.
King Oedipus was directed by Alan Bridges and Cedric Messina produced (as he had done for scores of Play of the Month productions). Nicholas Lom was script editor, working with E. F. Watling’s translation of the play, which had first appeared in the Penguin Classics series in 1947 with the latest reprint being in 1971. The Times announced that King Oedipus would be ‘Sophocles in a modern setting and a prestigious production at that’ (24 November 1972, p. 27). Nancy Banks-Smith was extremely impressed: ‘One could argue (and I am very argumentative) that King Oedipus […] will be the play of the year, not the month. I don’t remember anything this year as good’ (‘Television: Oedipus Rex’, The Guardian, 24 November 1972, p. 12).
+ Oedipus Tyrannus. BBC and The Open University, 1977. Dir. Richard Callanan. With Rosalie Crutchley, John Forbes-Robertson, Ronald Radd, Patrick Stewart. 50 min.
This production was one of sixteen which were co-produced with The Open University to support the work of distance-learning students who were enrolled on its A307 Drama course. Since it was also transmitted on television it will also, of course, have reached a wider public audience in its annual transmissions over the five cycles of the year-long course’s life from 1977
6.00pm 5 March 2015: Agamemnon and Of Mice and Men, introduced by Dr Theodorakopoulos [buy tickets]
The Serpent Son, part 1: Agamemnon. BBC, 1979. Dir. Bill Hays. With Helen Mirren, Denis Quilley, Diana Rigg. 95 min.
The Serpent Son, a television Oresteia, was broadcast in three weekly instalments as Agamemnon, Grave Gifts and Furies. It was played by an impressive cast — Diana Rigg (Klytemnestra), Denis Quilley (Agamemnon), Helen Mirren (Kassandra), Anton Lesser (Orestes), Maureen O’Brien (Elektra), Claire Bloom (Athene), John Nolan (Apollo) and Flora Robson (Kilissa), with Billie Whitelaw leading the chorus of women in Grave Gifts and Siân Phillips leading the chorus in Furies. On playing Klytemnestra, Rigg commented: ‘The modern fashion in acting is understatement, or suggestion, but you can’t do Greek drama like that. You have to delve back into our theatrical traditions, and find the grandeur that existed one—a largeness of expression and spirit which modern texts don’t demand. I loved it: every minute of it. The chances to play that sort of part are few and far between’ (quoted in Henry Fenwick, ‘House of Horror’, Radio Times, 3 March 1979, p.72).
+ Of Mycenae and Men (written by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, translators of The Serpent Son, in the manner of a Greek satyr play). BBC 1979. Dir. Hugh David. With Diana Dors, Bob Hoskins, Freddie Jones. 30 min.
The last part of The Serpent Son was followed a couple of days later by a half-hour modern comedy written by the translators Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. In its place after the tragic trilogy, Of Mycenae and Men takes the form of a kind of satyr play: it follows the reunion of Helen and Menelaus, played by Diana Dors and Freddie Jones respectively, after the fall of Troy.