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Events, Plays

‘Greek tragedy on the small screen’ is revived in Birmingham!

Diana Rigg as Clytemnestra in The Serpent Son (Radio Times, 1979)

Diana Rigg as Clytemnestra in The Serpent Son (Radio Times, 1979)

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.



4 thoughts on “‘Greek tragedy on the small screen’ is revived in Birmingham!

  1. I remember The Serpent Sun well (I got married in 1979!) I remember the vitriolic attacks, from Clive James and others, not so much the sci-fi costumes, but the modernistic dialogue – where was the poetry, the metre?. There was an accompanying book, which sadly I’ve lost.. We don’t seem to do this type of production any more, maybe we’re too commercial, scared of taking artistic risks? Would love to have this on DVD.

    Posted by David Royle | 4 February 2015, 8:22 pm
    • Thanks for your comments, David. I think this would sell surprisingly well if issued on DVD! You’ve reminded me to dig out a copy of the accompanying book, which is lost somewhere under a pile of papers. It’s about time I looked at it again. Thank you!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 10 February 2015, 9:31 am
    • I’d love to have this on DVD too, David. Sadly, television seems to have lost its connection to theatre and we no longer see productions of the classic plays. I’m researching ‘Agamemnon’ from ‘The Serpent Son’ (using an MP4 file available at the National Film Theatre, Reuben Library). I found a second-hand copy of the text in a Bloomsbury bookshop (however, there are two versions of this published in 1979 and 1990 respectively). It’s immediately clear when viewing the play that the text was radically altered and adapted when the camera script was being prepared – for example, the Watchman does not appear at the start of the play, only later; the order of some of the “scenes” has been changed; and some of the lines originally assigned to the Chorus have been reassigned to the Messenger.

      I think these were splendid productions. I too have read the “vitriolic attacks” from critics and the complaints from viewers which all seem to miss the point: these were televisual productions not theatre productions and so should be understood in those terms. Personally I did not understand the derision aimed at the costumes and did not “get” the connection to sci-fi. I obviously missed a lot of Dr Who! For example, it seemed quite reasonable to me that both Agamemnon and Menelaus should wear armour resembling wings as they are described by the Chorus on the voyage to Troy as two birds of prey, rowing with wings like oars. What a wonderful image that is!

      Apologies for the length of this comment. Would love to hear what others think.

      Posted by Richard Potter | 12 February 2015, 11:35 am
  2. By the way, where would you place newly written Greek/Roman plays? Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” (Southern 1976) or Giraudoux’ “Tiger at the Gates” (ITV 1960), and I believe Rattigan’s “Adventure Story” was already covered. Might be an interesting topic for future pieces?

    Posted by Wels | 3 September 2018, 9:41 pm

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