Stage plays on television from 1946 to the 1980s: an overview.
In the post-war period, on both BBC and commercial television channels, the broad repertoire of such plays gave television audiences exposure to the full spectrum of classical and modern world drama. In some productions surviving in the archives, styles of performance of considerable historical interest (and on occasion important individual performances) have been preserved. Literally thousands of plays originating in the theatre were performed on television during this period. In this essay, I have chosen individual examples, of both plays and drama seasons, to give an impression of the themes and values underpinning the development of this genre. The westminster project provides a crucial information resource, in the absence of easy access to most visual archival material (where indeed the latter exists), and can be accessed by searching the web for "Screen Plays: the theatre Plays on British Television Database".
What is "television drama"?
In this paper, the term "television drama" describes a studio-based style of continuous (or apparently continuous) performance, sometimes with filmed inserts. Some early studio dramas were electronically recorded for repeat showings, or to be retained in the archive for other reasons, but it was not until the 1960s that the practice of prior telerecording of plays became the norm.
This is now an almost obsolete form of television. It is worth reminding ourselves, not only how some of the early pioneers embraced it as a unique and original form of dramatic performance, but also the way in which it was analysed as seriously as other forms.
Arthur Swinson, a playwright working for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote a handbook for aspiring writers in 1955, updated in 1963 as Writing for Television Today. In this book, he compared the new medium with other forms of drama--sound radio, the cinema and the stage play.
Swinson acknowledged some affinities with film: "The subject matter is viewed through the lens of a camera ... it is viewed on a screen ... its action is mobile ... it simultaneously employs sound and vision ... it employs some of the grammar and punctuation of the film" (25-27). But he emphasised also the links with theatre: there was, he wrote, a sense of "continuous performance": "the actors rehearse their part as a whole as in the theatre, as opposed to a few shots a day as in the film" (29). And because television was then principally a live medium: "the audience has an unmistakable feeling that the actors are performing for their especial benefit. They have not completed their acting long ago and departed, as have the actors in a film" (29).
Television drama, like the theatre, Swinson observed, uses dialogue, plot and dramatic construction. But he added that television "employs more action and less dialogue than the stage play" (30). As an intimate medium, it could substitute close-ups of the actors' expressions for long speeches and use more economical effects than actors might be able to in a theatrical performance. "It needs a simpler, more realistic style" (30).
At the heart of this analysis is a tension: is television drama a scaled-down set of edited images as in a film, or an intimate type of continuous theatre?
Many of the early television drama producers came from a theatre background. Michael Barry, first Head of Drama for BBC Television (from 1952 to 1961), had been artistic producer of the Croydon Repertory in the 1930s. In his posthumously published memoir, From the Palace to the Grove (1992), he evoked the excitement and artistic experimentation of the early days of televised drama, with a continuous, unedited performance captured in sound and vision by a team of technicians operating with quasi-military discipline: "There was nothing singular about the phenomenon of live television production", he wrote, "[but] when [its efficient execution] was achieved on transmission, the viewer might receive the impression that is given by well-executed symphonic playing or by watching an elegantly contested team game" (172).
The coming of video recording in the 1950s and 1960s, and the resulting ability to edit to correct faults and improve performance, was seen as a beneficial development. But it nonetheless meant the loss of something spontaneous and unrepeatable. Barry wrote, of Shout Aloud Salvation, an original historical drama about the Salvation Army, which he produced in 19512: "the challenging edge of the performance sometimes threw up the unexpected; glowing moments of freshness, that the producer and camera were able to seize upon for the enrichment of the production" (177).
A play on television had something of the immediacy of theatre. But it also had the intimacy of film. Barry and other pioneers believed that they were breaking new ground. In his memoir, he writes poignantly, almost inarticulately, of this feeling: "There lingers the belief, like a forgotten gene in the womb, that within the preparation and transmission of live drama there lay the germ, the possibility of an original, if inestimable" (175). None of these early performances were recorded. The very impermanence of this exciting new art intensified the sense of innovation. Barry evoked it with poetic intensity: "Each planned section approached, like a rock face with its imponderable hazards; and, as it was attempted and achieved, our spirits lifted and our hearts sang. It was an experience that made one feel with Wordsworth, '... effort and expectation and desire, and something evermore about to be'" (177).
Stage drama on television 1946-1955: the breadth and range of the repertoire
Given the theatre background of many early practitioners, much of the early drama output was, unsurprisingly, theatrical in origin. The surviving Drama files in the BBC Written Archive Centre suggest an intense search for new material in the post-war years. The range of productions looks to us now impressive and ambitious. But the choices were driven as much by contingencies--the availability (and increasing cost) of performing rights and of actors, the need to get "stars" if possible (without wasting them on sometimes low-standard productions), and special pleading by senior executives--as by the preferences of individual producers.
The files are full of memos by producers and executives about plays which might or might not be suitable for televising, or were likely to transfer from fringe theatres to the West End. Bureaucracy did not help. The producer Royston Morley visited Paris in 1947 and identified two possible plays, but by the time decisions could be made, The Mad Woman of Chaillot (by Jean Giraudoux) was the toast of Broadway and Jean Anouilh's L'Invitation au Chateau had been translated, by Christopher Fry, as the west End success Ring Round The Moon. "We do seem to have been dilatory" commented Robert MacDermott, then head of television drama. (3)
An attempt to create a functioning department out of the fiefdoms of competing producers was made with the appointment of Val Gielgud, who had been in charge of BBC radio drama productions since 1929 and who spent a short period as Head of both Television and Radio Drama in 1950 and 1951.
It was not a happy period in his professional life. In private memoranda, Gielgud reflected his frustration at the absence of clarity over policy, adequate personnel, enough money and "a spirit and tradition of general service as opposed to one of individual exhibitionism". He specifically argued for the establishment of a proper script unit: "Nothing in the situation as I found it on arrival at Alexandra Palace caused me greater dismay ... than the discovery that there existed no reservoir of plays of any kind; while the whole system of script reading was amateurish to a degree". (4) He was dissatisfied with the resources available to him, in terms of rehearsal time, dedicated technicians, training of artists, availability of suitable material, and core staff.
He accepted that the theatre represented an important source of raw material, and that the emphasis on continuous performance highlighted closer affinities with stage than with film. But he argued that (non-classic) stage plays "need much more radical adaptation than we have been able to give them, to the extent of being literally taken to pieces and put together again to suit the medium". (5)
An unspoken cultural assumption on Gielgud's part was that one of the objectives of the new service was to raise the level of popular taste. In his internal 1950 note Reflections upon the State of Television Drama, Gielgud wrote: "It unfortunately appears to be a fact that the majority of purchasers of television sets seem to have remarkably low dramatic tastes--which may be largely due to the fact that many of them have little or no experience of the living theatre". (6) In 1951, Gielgud responded wearily to an internal complaint about a poor production of The Scarlet Pimpernel (7): "This kind of play [will] always have a great appeal for a fairly moronic audience", adding: "we are bound ... to cast a certain amount of this sort of dryish bread upon the waters, in the hope that it will widen the play audience in general and lead it to an appreciation of better things". (8)
The resulting repertoire was eclectic. A 1955 list of post-1946 productions circulated within the BBC included twenty plays by Shakespeare, eighteen by George Bernard Shaw, as well as plays by Christopher Marlowe (including Edward II), Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Ben Jonson, John webster, John Vanbrugh's The Relapse, William Congreve, Arthur wing Pinero and oscar wilde. The mainstays of the twentieth-century repertoire were also strongly represented: John Galsworthy, J. M. Synge, Somerset Maugham, James Barrie, James Bridie, all of T. S. Eliot's plays up to The Confidential Clerk, Emlyn Williams, J. B. Priestley (including his post-war successes An Inspector Calls and The Linden Tree), the equally contemporary poetic drama of Christopher Fry, all the plays of Terence Rattigan, as well as the then fashionable philosophical playwright Charles Morgan and the Devonian Eden Philpotts. Noel Coward, perhaps reflecting how he had fallen from fashion in the immediate post-war period, was less strongly represented.
The major nineteenth and twentieth century European writers were also present: Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Edmond Rostand, Luigi Pirandello, as well as the contemporary or recent writers who had begun to cross the Channel in the 1930s and immediately after the war--Fritz Hochwalder, Jean-Jacques Bernard, Jean Giraudoux, Jean Anouilh and Jean Cocteau, and playwrights of an older generation, like Arthur Schnitzler and Karel and Josef Capek. There is a narrower range of American writers--Eugene o'Neill, Thornton wilder's one-act works, Robert Sherwood, S. N. Behrman, Clifford odets and Maxwell Anderson. Much of this repertoire would be standard today. But it also included early twentieth century European writers who have faded from view (Hermanos and Joaquin Alvarez Quintero and Jules Romains, both translated by Harley Granville-Barker, and Gregorio Martinez Sierra). (9)
There were plays from the "little theatres" in London--the New Lindsey, the Bolton's, the Q--as well as much material from the commercial theatre of the 1920s and 1930s, where many producers had learned their trade. Distinguished actors like Nancy Price, who had run the People's National Theatre in the early 1930s, were persuaded to re-stage famous productions such as the Depression drama Down Our Street, and Whiteoaks for television. (10)
Many of the plays televised were still being performed in weekly repertory theatres across the country. Interesting evidence of this is found on the website of the late Frank Finlay, listing all the plays in which he appeared as a young actor at the Little Theatre, Sunderland in 1952 and 1953. Over a third of those--mostly now-forgotten west End or Broadway pieces in various genres--were televised between 1946 and 1960. (11)
Some stage work came from the headlines: an experimental play about soldiers about to be demobilised into the "theatre of life"--Exercise Bowler by T. Atkinson (a nom de plume for three authors including the actor-manager Alec Clunes and the playwright William Templeton)--televised in August 1946, shortly after it had been performed at the Arts Theatre; another play by Templeton (The Ivory Tower), suggested by the life of Jan Masaryk, former Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia. But the only example of a left-wing theatre company actually appearing on television appears to be a 1948 Unity Theatre performance of old British music hall, Winkles and Champagne. (12)
None of these productions survive in recorded form before 1953; we can't judge, other than by contemporary reviews, how performances reflected contemporary theatrical styles. Producers wanted to convert the material into something that was neither radio with pictures, nor an attempt at the fluidity of film. They took the essence of the dramatic text, built on the effects that skilled actors could create with a live audience; and then re-interpreted this for an audience of viewers more likely to respond to nuance than broad effect.
Doubts remained. In his history of BBC radio drama published in 1956, Val Gielgud noted: "However admirably adapted it might be, the stage
play broadcast tended to remain a pis aller--all very well for people who could never go to the theatre, but in its own right unsatisfactory" (186). Drawing on the strengths of the theatrical tradition seemed less desirable than carving out a new dramatic language, unique to television, as the next generation of playwrights would begin to do.
Stage drama on television and public taste
Broadcasting was not covered by the theatrical censorship regime of the Lord Chamberlain. But the main drama of the week was on Sundays and there were restrictions on what was acceptable for transmission. The solitary nature of the audience intensified concerns about the impact of horrific or suspenseful plays. The standards applied were very cautious. Norman Collins wrote in 1949 of his fear that the Lord Chamberlain might extend his control of stage censorship to include television plays if the BBC crossed the boundaries of public acceptability. (13)
A November 1948 note from the then Head of Television Drama argued that Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit should be trailed as "unsuitable for children", "as it's rather sophisticated". (14) In July the following year, Gordon Sherry's popular pre-war thriller Black Limelight--performed three times on BBC and ABC between 1952 and 1961--fell foul of Cecil Madden, then Planner for the Television Service, who in addition to recommending a "not for children" warning, added "on page 56, I suggest you cut out the lines from "Tell me, Lily, am I the first?' to "You little fool". (15)
Some plays did not make it onto the screen, at least for some years. In 1950 Val Gielgud vetoed Daphne du Maurier's September Tide, a drama about a passionate affair between a young man and an older woman, who is also his mother-in-law: "It is not only a bad but an extremely immoral play". (16) In 1953, Michael Barry argued against Lillian Hellman's 1934 play about lesbians, The Children's Hour (which was still not licensed by the Lord Chamberlain): "A production would be bound to have repercussions far wider than the normal use by us of our independence of this censorship". (17) August Strindberg's Miss Julie was rejected: someone had seen the 1950 Swedish film and described it as "depressing". A 1954 memo by Michael Barry was dismissive of Waiting for Godot as a "hybrid of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein". (18)
Theatrical practitioners used to co-operating closely with the Lord Chamberlain did not mind this conservatism. In his memoirs, the impresario Henry Sherek complained that the BBC had televised one of his productions (Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, in 1958) "and left in two filthy lines which the Lord Chamberlain had very rightly cut when I did the play. I pointed this out to the BBC producer after seeing a rehearsal and he said with a sneer: "We haven't got any Lord Chamberlain" (238).
Even as late as 1967, when the Lord Chamberlain's days were numbered, Huw Wheldon, then Controller of Programmes, vetoed John Osborne's A Patriot for Me, based on the life of Alfred Redl, the pre-World War I Austrian intelligence officer allegedly blackmailed into becoming a double agent for the Russians because of his homosexuality: " [While] there is a great deal to be said for producing it ... I have decided that it would be unwise in the extreme to put a play on BBC television which had quite specifically been refused a Lord Chamberlain's licence". (19) Indeed, it has never been televised.
Relationships between television and the theatre
Television's relations with the theatre during the 1940s and 1950s were ambivalent. The live theatre was a source of material and talent without which the nascent television service would have had difficulty filling gradually lengthening schedules. But there was also competition. Producers explored alternative approaches to managing this relationship.
In his internal memoranda as Head of Television and Radio Drama in 1950/1951, Val Gielgud noted that "it is [not] part of the business of television to act as an unpaid advertising agency for plays that without such advertisement would come to grief". In the long run, he argued: "The theatre cannot do without television. Let us establish our own audience standards and professionalismus, and sooner or later the managements will come to heel". (20)
From time to time, productions were brought into the studios at the end of their West End runs, with the original cast, for television transmission --not always happily. In a memo on the 1949 production of Bernard Shaw's last full-length play, Buoyant Billions, Gielgud noted that while it was cheap and convenient "to grab a West End show at the end of its run ... the acting and the scenery were from many points of view deplorable". (21)
By 1951, the theatre managers were taking a more restrictive approach. (22) There were also union difficulties: Actors' Equity argued for additional fees for featured actors, imposed numerical ceilings on outside broadcasts, and vetoed attempts to explore Britain's amateur theatre movement as a potential source of material. J. B. Priestley explored the possibility in the mid-1950s of the BBC becoming involved in a "theatre-in-the-round", to be subsidised by the Arts Council, for arena-style televised productions without elaborate decor, but the BBC saw this as too experimental a concept to justify investing. (23)
Live relays from West End theatres of play extracts continued to form a regular part of the television schedules from the 1940s to the 1960s, but the relationship between theatre and television, both competing for attention and material in a crowded marketplace, remained uncomfortable. An attempt by the BBC to agree an "arrangement" to televise plays from the new National Theatre in 1963 and 1964 came to little. The National's Literary Manager, Kenneth Tynan, was keen, but its Director, Laurence Olivier, was lukewarm. (24) Only a small number of productions eventually materialised. (25)
New channels and changing tastes
In 1955 and 1956, the commercial channels began to appear, notably ATV and Granada, which quickly established themselves as centres of drama production to rival the BBC. Claire Cochrane makes clear in her Twentieth Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire that "the key individuals who formulated enterprise strategies for corporate shareholders in live theatre played an active role in the engine of change" (192). One of the early investors in commercial television was Prince Littler, chairman of the Moss Empires and a director of the Howard and Wyndham chain (which also invested in the new Scottish commercial service, STV, in 1957). (26)
There was a slight but not particularly radical extension of the repertoire. Look Back in Anger, which had been televised in extract by the BBC, was produced as an ITV "Play of the Week" in November 1956 (though not The Entertainer, a more political play--perhaps it was harder to obtain the rights).
More controversial plays appeared, for example on gay themes, such as Julien Green's South, and from the 1930s Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree--or the "daring" 1935 play about decadent aesthetes, Frolic Wind. (27) The star quotient was higher for the prestige productions, such as A Month in the Country, with Margaret Leighton and Laurence Harvey, which launched ITV, Shaw's The Man of Destiny, and Paul Scofield's Hamlet. (28) A wider range of American plays, including Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder, were performed. Granada's role as a regional powerhouse introduced classical Northern drama more consistently to the schedules, with the plays of the Manchester School of the early twentieth century. The 1960s saw seasons of Edwardian and Jacobean plays, and Victorian melodrama, from the historical repertoire, as well as four Noel Coward plays.
Val Gielgud had argued in a memorandum to the Director of Television in May 1951: "The supply of straight stage material is not only bound to diminish but in my view, ought for the sake of the medium, to diminish very considerably in the future". (29) By the late 1950s the argument was becoming more pronounced. Michael Barry wrote in August 1957:
We have passed into a new era of social history and this is being strongly reflected by the younger writers. Many of the plays in the thirties are period pieces and require to be chosen with care if their sentiment, language and customs are not to strike the audience as outmoded. Priestley's Dangerous Corner possesses sufficient quality to be a borderline case, but the Edgar Wallace plays belong to another world entirely, with the pre-war pieces by authors like Merton Hodge and [John] van Druten ... our viewer reports reveal a quick reaction to what is called old-fashioned. (30)
But the television companies continued to revive the authors that Barry had listed. (31) In 1958, an embarrassed note by Barry to the Controller of Programmes says: "I am unable to defend our performance of The Frog (32) [a version of a 1936 stage play by Ian Hay from an Edgar Wallace novel, directed by the distinguished television auteur Rudolph Cartier] on any count. This was ludicrous ... The kind of things that were entertainment in our youth are absolute nonsense today". (33)
The widening intellectual debate in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the availability of a broader range of affordable paperback literary and dramatic texts, the growth of subsidised arts activity, which in turn encouraged the sense of a more extensive and sometimes experimental canon, well beyond what was likely to be attractive to commercial managements, all may have encouraged a more systematic approach to selecting work from the stage for televising individually or in seasons. A note from Barry in June 1957 observes the view that "the time [has] come when Sunday Night Theatre should become instead something that would better be described by 'The BBC presents Great Theatre'". (34)
"Great Theatre" on television
The first fruits of this approach were found in the BBC's 1958 World Theatre season. This began with Henry V and The Cherry Orchard, and continued with, among others, Euripides's Women of Troy, Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough and Heartbreak House by Shaw. The highest audience reaction was not, interestingly enough, for the popular comedian Tony Hancock as Gogol's The Government Inspector, although that got the largest audience, but Carl Zuckmayer's The Captain of Kopenick. The season included Ibsen's The Master Builder, just six weeks after ATV had also staged it. (35) An internal BBC note recorded broadly positive press comment about the principle of such a season while expressing some reservations about the actual choice of plays. (36)
There was still criticism from custodians of taste. In April 1958, an MP in the Northern Ireland Parliament described one play--presumably the play broadcast the previous Sunday, Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude--as "pure filth and unfit to be seen by young people"; another questioned the suitability of "programmes like this, which now come on a Sunday evening, and consist of a pagan philosophy which could only be interpreted by people who had an advanced biological education ...?" (37)
A second season of World Theatre followed in 1959, including two 59 Theatre productions by Caspar Wrede and Michael Elliott that had originated on stage at the Lyric, Hammersmith--Ibsen's Brand and Georg Buchner's Danton's Death--as well as Donald Wolfit as Jonson's Volpone, and Flora Robson in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. (38)
In 1960 the BBC broadcast Shakespeare's history plays (except for King John and King Henry VIII) as an "adventure serial" entitled An Age of Kings, to great critical and popular acclaim. (There are intriguing, but unrealised, suggestions on file of a more imaginatively cast production than eventually materialised--names mentioned included Leslie Caron as Queen Katharine, and Tony Hancock and Wilfred Lawson as Ancient Pistol and Falstaff.) (39)
In 1960, the BBC also mounted Twentieth-Century Theatre, presented as "a selection from sixty years of notable drama". The choice reflected various types of classic--monumental (Shaw's Man and Superman), iconic (Journey's End by R. C. Sherriff), the well-made play (Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus), experimental (The Insect Play by the Capek Brothers), social realism (Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow's Love on the Dole), controversial or "daring" pieces (Miles Malleson's The Fanatics) and neglected writers (Ronald Mackenzie's Musical Chairs). (40)
There was some attempt to develop a system behind the choices: Donald Bull, Drama Script Editor, suggested
The Playwright as a sensitive organism responding to the special pressures and motives of his time: the Play as a mirror and brief chronicle. This theme would embrace, for example, such very different works as The Vortex and The Days of the Turbins [Mikhail Bulgakov's original title for his play The White Guard], but I do not see how it could compass, say, [Philpotts's] The Farmer's Wife, which has only the justification that it ran. Or, more pointedly, The Rising Sun [the Dutch playwright Herman Heijermans's 1908 "play of the middle class"], whose only justification that it is a good play. (41)
The plays by Philpotts and Heijermans did not in the event feature in the series. The eventual season was packaged as a selection of the best, or at least reasonably typical, works from the previous sixty years in the British, American and European theatre. (42)
By the early 1960s, stage plays were being scheduled on television in a way that tried to reflect social relevance and the selection of higher quality texts. The BBC producer John Elliott wrote in July 1963: "We are no longer catering for the elderly matinee audience with plays that used to be taken from [Samuel] French's catalogue". (43) Attempts at a rationale were not always convincing. In 1963, the BBC's Festival, a season mainly of stage plays, was branded modishly as drama for people "in the know ... who are curious and interested in the arts, in history and cultural evolution. Plays by new writers of 'kitchen sink drama' will also be included ... No play ... will be chosen unless it has a particular meaning for today". (44) The season included Samuel Beckett (Krapp's Last Tape), Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Prima Donna), Jean-Paul Sartre (In Camera and The Respectable Prostitute), and Cocteau (The Human Voice) as well as Ibsen, Brecht, Pirandello and Shaw. The only classical text performed was a version of Lysistrata. Donald Baverstock, Head of BBC One, was sceptical: "I have never believed in [the] explanation of Festival as for 'literate people thirsty for the finest in theatre history' and so on: this seems to me culturally unclear, a vague aspiration rather than a helpful criterion of selection". (45) Peter Luke, the producer of Festival concurred: "The ultra-catholicity of the bygone season was a good idea in principle but in practice makes no sense to the public or even to the ultra-professional viewer". (46)
The new channel, BBC Two, in 1964 staged a season of notable West End plays, mostly from the 1950s, including Anouilh (Traveller without Luggage--he had also featured in Festival with a production of Ring Round the Moon) and T. S. Eliot (The Family Reunion) as well as more commercially mainstream writers. The stage play was now being presented as part of a canon and sometimes also as an event. One of the problems with Festival, BBC executives thought, was that the title suggested "event television" more than the iconoclastic choices warranted. But the BBC clearly assumed that there was an audience for productions of stage plays that created a sense of a special occasion.
The culmination of this approach was the 1967 reorganisation of the flagship drama strand Play of the Month. The initial offerings in 1965 and 1966 had been thought by BBC bosses to be "a bit ho-hum". (47) The seasons were reorganised, under the supervision of the playwright Gerald Savory, who had taken over as Head of Plays (and had earlier been a producer for Granada, as well as having worked in American film and television).
The classic and modern classic repertoire was raided again. Savory wrote in December 1966: "Play of the Month in future will concentrate on more established theatre ... meaning classics, well-known theatre plays and adaptations of well-known fiction ... Special attention will be paid to CSE/GCE choice of Shakespearean works". Plays would be rigorously but not brutally cut ("There is scarcely a normal stage play that is not improved by some judicious editing".) "The plays themselves", he added, "will be properly adapted for TV and sufficiently extended in setting to remove any feeling of staginess about the production". (48)
Savory's initial plans for the first of the re-vamped season included two Shakespeares (Henry VIII, Romeo and Juliet), two 1930s West End successes (the German play Children in Uniform (49) and Emlyn Williams's adaptation from the French, The Late Christopher Bean), Cyrano de Bergerac and Arms and the Man (also a "set text" that year). In the event, of these only Romeo and Juliet, Children in Uniform and Cyrano were produced, the latter with Eric Porter rather than, as Savory had envisaged, Peter o'Toole.
The repertoire of the series, which continued on and off for the next sixteen years, was predominantly taken from the established classics--Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Galsworthy, Coward, Rattigan --interspersed with a small number of pre- and post-war West End plays (The Corn Is Green; Rodney Ackland's The Old Ladies",50 N. C. Hunter's Waters of the Moon)--and some less familiar American works--Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke, and James Thurber and Elliot Nugent's comedy about free speech at university, The Male Animal. In the series' later years, the canon was extended to include post-1956 works like Look Back in Anger and Chips With Everything, and contemporary authors--Athol Fugard, Edward Bond and David Mercer--as well as earlier works: the Chester Mystery Plays were given a technically inventive production, using all the studio resources then available to evoke the texture of a mediaeval manuscript, in 1976.
However, most of these productions made little attempt to re-think the plays for contemporary audiences or to find sub-texts that might resonate differently from their original settings. The style resembled that of the grand West End productions of the 1940s and 50s by H. M. Tennent: strong casts, richly detailed sets and costumes, meticulous direction. Texts were sometimes ingeniously edited for television--Rattigan's Separate Tables, for example, was converted from two self-contained one-act plays into a single play in two halves with skilful interweaving of dialogue. Nevertheless, the overall effect was usually of a definitive, standard interpretation of a classic work. The same values imbue the six twentieth-century plays produced by Laurence Olivier for Granada between 1976 and 1978, in two seasons that included Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes, Bridie's Daphne Laureola, Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Pinter's The Collection.
The apotheosis of this themed approach was the BBC Shakespeare productions, televising the whole of the then accepted canon (except for Two Noble Kinsmen) between 1977 and 1985. The making of these television plays, and the accompanying programmes setting each drama in a scholarly and historical context, has been extensively written about (51)--not least the tensions throughout the project between the conventional dramatic framework envisaged by the initial producer, Cedric Messina, and the more imaginative approaches pursued by his immediate successor, Jonathan Miller. The results were mixed in the views of most critics. The consensus was that while the standard was uneven and sometimes disappointing, there were peaks of excellence. Such tensions were probably intrinsic to a project aiming at a monumental and definitive set of productions of Shakespeare on television, and drawing on the widest and most imaginative range of artists and approaches to realise this objective.
The 1980s and after: changing tastes
The ethos of Play of the Month survived into similarly-themed (but shorter) seasons of stage plays in the 1980s, some translating stage productions to the television screen, and with a degree of emphasis on rediscovering neglected texts: Theatre Night (1985-1990), and Performance (1992-1996). (52) But by the late 1990s, the tradition of continuous electronically-recorded television studio drama originating on the stage was beginning to disappear, to be replaced by stage productions recreated on film, or more recently, live theatre performances recorded and relayed on high-definition video.
In British Television Drama, Lez Cooke describes the process: "The 'logic of convergence' ... between the television play and the cinema film ... became inexorable. Social realism, arguably the dominant tradition in the single play from the mid-1960s onwards, dictated the use of film" (138). As he goes on to record, single plays themselves became prohibitively expensive to produce and began to disappear from the schedules. So completely has the style originated by Michael Barry and his peers in the 1940s and 1950s disappeared that the ubiquitous phrase "TV film" or "TV movie" is used in some reference works, very misleadingly, to describe studio productions of the period which were nothing like films. (53)
There was a sense that televised productions of stage plays were looked down on by those in the theatre. As Richard Eyre, Director of the National Theatre from 1988 to 1998, said of the pre-1980 period:
Theatre on television was always over-lit and had tinny acoustics. It was neither good television nor good theatre, a dilution of the original and unlikely to win over the unconverted ... The point about theatre is that you have to be there in the same space at the same time with a live audience in the presence of a live performer. (54)
Eyre himself became converted to television with the coming of new and more sensitive camera technology. But until the late 1970s and 1980s, with directors like Eyre, Jonathan Miller, and David Jones making the transition, relatively few directors moved between the two media. Stuart Burge, Michael Elliott and Ronald Eyre are perhaps the three most obvious examples from an earlier generation. There were moments when relationships forged in the new medium influenced the old: in late 1952, George Devine met Tony Richardson in the latter's BBC production of a Chekhov story and began a friendship that led to the establishment of the English Stage Company. (55) But there is little sense of television leaving its mark on theatre, either in choice of repertoire or production style, other than perhaps in more recent years when innovative directors began to incorporate video technology into stage productions.
And if the history of post-war British theatre (to quote Richard Eyre again) is one of a developing "oppositional" role in society, (56) how comfortable would the major broadcasters have been with this? In 1961, Michael Barry wrote to a "theatre-lover" who had complained about too many plays in the contemporary, realistic mode:
We live in a period during which two generations find themselves widely, even passionately opposed in outlook. We would be at fault in ignoring on the one hand or giving undue emphasis on the other to, one particular point of view. (57)
Plays created for television reflected "oppositional" values more naturally. Taking plays from the stage did not preclude this approach: modern stage plays, especially documentary works like Alan Plater's and Alex Glasgow's Close the Coalhouse Door, and 7:84's The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil were produced for television, as were some theatre works of the 1970s, such as David Edgar's Destiny and Trevor Griffiths's Comedians.
But the majority of plays making this journey have come from the mainstream of commercial or publicly-subsidised theatre. And classic texts, on the whole, were not imaginatively re-interpreted, as for example Bernard Miles did at the Mermaid in the 1960s with his battledress Henry V, (58) or more recently Stephen Daldry with his re-discovery of Priestley's An Inspector Calls. The artistic choices were catholic but judicious.
Distinguished artists performed in both media. But television and the theatre, even if not appealing to parallel audiences, proceeded along parallel lines. The hybrid nature of theatre drama on television never quite succeeded in establishing itself as an art form in its own right.
The speed with which advances in technology have confined interest in earlier work to specialist audiences has not helped: nor has the fact that so much of the early output was unrecorded or wiped after transmission. The little that has survived tends not be easily available for viewing or reference. The scope of theatrical drama on television, however randomly it may have developed, is nevertheless very wide. It expanded as audiences accepted more avant-garde and experimental modes of drama. The television theatre play in this way reflected some of the changing taste and style of post-war theatre.
Few major theatre playwrights, however, wrote masterpieces for television: and the reverse is largely also true. The main works of the pre-eminent post -war theatre playwrights in the 1950s and 1960s, for example Terence Rattigan or John Osborne, were written for the theatre. Rattigan wrote one substantial play for television, Heart to Heart, but it is not a major work. (59) Osborne wrote A Subject of Scandal and Concern, a historical drama produced by the BBC in 1960, but neither this nor his occasional later works are prominent in his canon. Nor did the major television dramatists of the 1950s and 1960s--Alun Owen, Clive Exton, John Hopkins, for example--produce memorable theatre work. By the 1970s, with the emergence of a generation of younger playwrights--David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton and their successors--the tradition of studio-based productions of stage plays was disappearing, and the idea of writers' crossing over from stage to film to television "plays" on film was becoming more common.
But even though the archive is incomplete, there is a wealth of surviving material of importance in evaluating the history of twentieth-century theatre. There are versions of classic and non-classic texts that should enable us at least to get a sense of acting and production styles of an earlier age in an environment closer to the theatrical conventions then observed, and thus flesh out the history of mid-century drama in Britain.
Most of this material is not publicly available, no doubt for legal reasons and because it is assumed that older styles of production and performance have little entertainment value for contemporary audiences. When material does emerge (other than when exhibited occasionally at the British Film Institute) --for example on DVD and VHS sets--it is not always as rigorously presented or curated as it might be. The University of Westminster project is the first attempt to create a comprehensive database with accompanying scholarly apparatus. Yet even with a vast amount destroyed because it was seen as ephemeral, what has survived suggests that there will be material of historical interest.
Here are a few examples. From the 1958/59 seasons of World Theatre, we have Hermione Baddeley in David Garrick and George Colman's The Clandestine Marriage, Joan Plowright, Felix Aylmer and Athene Seyler in The School for Scandal, and the Flora Robson/Rudolph Cartier production, already referred to, of Mother Courage. From the 1963/64 Festival season, we still have Leo McKern as Brecht's Galileo and Cyril Cusack as the Father in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. A few televised relays from the theatre survive from the 1950s and 1960s, including of productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company (and its precursor, the Shakespeare Memorial Company). A BBC Schools production of Synge's Riders to the Sea survives from 1960, with Sybil Thorndike. There is much more, although in relative terms much less than one might wish, from before the 1970s. There is a need to get this material more into the public domain--so that it becomes part of an attempt to tell the story of theatrical acting style as well as the development of the visual media.
One should not sentimentalise the past. Many of these productions may have been unmemorable and trapped within the theatrical conventions of their time. But one should not condescend to the past either: the scale of this attempt to encompass the world repertoire puts the ambition of contemporary commissioners of drama to shame. My own memory of stage plays on television in the 1960s and 1970s is one of richness: good and sometimes high quality versions of a wide and imaginative range of works, including many classic texts. These productions will have introduced even occasional viewers to an impression of theatrical performance and to a sizeable proportion of the world canon. Their contribution to the history of twentieth-century British theatre deserves to be remembered.
(1) the BBC television service, which had been inaugurated in 1936, was suspended for the duration of the Second world war and resumed on 7 June 1946.
(2) By Charles Terrot and Michael Barry.
(3) Memorandum of 4 February 1949 from Royston Morley, and ms. comment by Robert MacDermot, BBC written Archives Centre (WAC) T5/326/1.
(4) undated memorandum by Gielgud to Controller of television entitled "Reflections upon the State of television drama", BBC WAC, T16/62/1.
(6) Gielgud memorandum, BBC WAC, T16/62/1.
(7) The play by about an Englishman rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine during the Revolution, the 1903 success of which led to Orczy's equally successful series of romantic novels about the eponymous hero.
(8) Memorandum of 22 January 1951 from Val Gielgud to Controller of television Programmes, BBC WAC, T5/449.
(9) The paper, entitled "Plays produced on BBC Television between the re-opening of broadcasting in 1946 and September 1955", is to be found on BBC WAC, T5/2, 239/1.
(10) In 1949 and 1951 respectively. Nancy Price (1880-1970) had already filmed Down Our Street in 1932: Whiteoaks was based on the romantic novels by Mazo de la Roche. There were also fourteen live relays of productions from the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green, near Alexandra Palace, between 1946 and 1949. John wyver's very interesting entry "Live from the Intimate Theatre, 1946-1949, part 2" on the Screen Plays blog gives a strong sense of the technical challenges and artistic quality of these broadcasts.
(11) See the page "Little Theatre, Sunderland, the Mayville Players, Director of Productions L. Griffith-Knight, 1952-53" on the official website of Frank Finlay.
(12) Winkles and Champagne was a memoir of the old-time music hall by Maurice Wilson Disher, published in 1938: the unity Theatre production was written by Bill Rowbotham, who later had a long and distinguished acting career under the stage name Bill Owen.
(13) In a memorandum dated 24 March 1949 to the Head of Television Programmes relating to a forthcoming production of St John L Clowes's play Dear Murderer, BBC WAC, T5/326/1.
(14) Memorandum dated 4 November 1948, BBC WAC, T5/57.
(15) Memorandum dated 6 July 1949, BBC WAC, T5/55.
(16) Memorandum dated 14 august 1950, BBC WAC, T5/326/2.
(17) Memorandum dated 8 April 1953, BBC WAC, T5/326/4.
(18) The notes in question are to be found on BBC WAC, T5 326/4. Basil Bartlett, Drama Script Supervisor, adds: "The one really incomprehensible thing about this play is that it has been played with immense success in Paris and in 40 German theatres!" "Pull the plug and shout hurrah!" replies Barry. Godot was televised in 1961, Miss Julie not performed by the BBC until 1965, although it was an early ABC production.
(19) Savory's undated memorandum and wheldon's reply of 29 June 1967 are on BBC, WAC, T5/782/4.
(20) Gielgud memorandum, BBC WAC, T16/62/1.
(21) The Buoyant Billions file is BBC WAC, T5/72. The cast included a young Denholm Elliott, and the exotic 1930s cabaret and musical star Frances Day, who acted as an intermediary with Shaw over the discs made of the production, as he strongly objected to any recording that might reduce his box-office earnings from the play.
(22) An April 1951 file note by the Head of Programme Contracts makes clear that it would be impossible to bring a production from the New Boltons Theatre (run by the actor/manager Peter Cotes, the younger sibling of the film directors, the Boulting Brothers) until twelve months after the repertory rights had been released, which was only likely to be after the provincial tours following the west End run had come to an end. (Memorandum dated 19 April 1951 by w L Streeton, BBC WAC, T5/326/3).
(23) Priestley's idea, proposed to Grace wyndham Goldie, was that the Arts Council might support if the BBC did, leaving the remaining third to be raised from private backers, but Michael Barry's view was that the BBC were already facing too high a level of capital expenditure on buildings, equipment and studios to become involved in such a project: memorandum dated 21 February 1955, BBC WAC, T16/62/2.
(24) Tynan wrote to Michael Peacock, the new Controller of BBC Two, in October 1963: "I am strongly of the opinion that there should be a link between the National Theatre and the BBC, and a possible way of forging one would be to incorporate National Theatre actors, directors and productions in the proposed Sunday night drama series on BBC Two". But Laurence Olivier, who had a commercial interest in a pay-per-view alternative, was never enthusiastic; and some internal BBC minuting suggests that the Corporation saw itself as the real National Theatre of the Air, compared with the Old Vic's more restricted, metropolitan clientele. Letter from Tynan to Michael Peacock, Controller of BBC Two dated 8 October 1963, BBC WAC, T16/369/1. Daniel Rosenthal gives a full account of the discussions that took place in his book, The National Theatre Story.
(25) Much Ado About Nothing and Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear were shown in 1967. Franco Zeffirelli, who had directed Much Ado on stage, was dissatisfied with the studio production, and asked for his name to be removed from the credits; and olivier was equally dissatisfied with the quality of the Feydeau, recorded from a stage performance by cameras positioned in the stalls (Rosenthal 114).
(26) An October 1955 BBC note of a lunch meeting with the theatre manager Donald Albery records Albery's belief that "Littler had himself been opposed to it ... but the big financial houses who run Littler ... ordered him in. The result was that [the Littler group] ... had a longer lever to make artists work for them and not for other managements". Personal note by Sir George Barnes, Director of BBC Television, dated 25 October 1955: BBC WAC, T16/62/2.
(27) By Richard Pryce from the novel by "Richard Oke" (a pseudonym for Nigel Stansbury Millett) published in 1929.
(28) Val Gielgud was dismissive about the prestige productions staged by the commercial channels in their early years in his memoir on BBC Radio Drama: "the occasional Month in the Country seems no more than a mild and unconvinced attempt to show that an ITA production too can have 'class'" (147).
(29) Memorandum by Val Gielgud to the Director of Television dated 18 May 1951, BBC WAC, T5 326/3.
(30) Memorandum by Michael Barry to Controller of Programmes, Television, dated 1 August 1957, BBC WAC, T16/62/2.
(31) Hodge's The Wind and the Rain, a sentimental romantic drama about Edinburgh medical students, was an ITV Play of the Week in 1959: van Druten had a second, posthumous, reputation as the author of the stage original of Cabaret, but his 1920s and 1930s stage plays (Young Woodley, The Distaff Side, London Wall) were still being performed on BBC and ITV well into the 1960s.
(32) Hay's play was based on Wallace's 1925 novel, The Fellowship of the Frog, about a ruthless criminal mastermind running, in the words of The Times 1936 reviewer, "a sinister brotherhood which is terrorising the country ... the theatre reeks with sensationalism". Ivor Brown in the Illustrated London News of 25 April 1936 described it as a "spacious and spectacular melodrama".
(33) Memorandum from Michael Barry to Controller of Programmes, Television, dated 23 July 1958, BBC WAC, T5 2090/1.
(34) Memorandum by Michael Barry to Deputy Director, Television, dated 21 June 1957, BBC WAC, T16/62/2.
(35) Donald Wolfit played Solness for the BBC; Andre Morell for ATV.
(36) "World Theatre: A report on press reaction" (undated), BBC WAC, T16/62/2.
(37) Parliament of Northern Ireland: Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), House of Commons official Report, Volume 42, No 4, Thursday 3 April 1958. Strange Interlude was first performed on Broadway in 1928: its subject matter (which included a woman engaging in a series of sexual affairs and, fearing inherited insanity, planning to abort her unborn child) was controversial and led to its being banned in a number of US cities.
(38) Some of the rehearsals for Mother Courage were filmed and included in Richard Cawston's 1960 documentary portrait of a composite day in the life of the Corporation, This Is the BBC.
(39) Various assorted casting suggestions for An Age of Kings can be found on the BBC file (WAC, T5/609).
(40) Miles Malleson (1888-1969) is better remembered today as a character actor: The Fanatics was a 1926 play on the theme of sexual emancipation. Musical Chairs was a 1931 play set in the Polish oilfields, described by some contemporary critics as Chekhovian, by Ronald Mackenzie: it was a considerable success in the west End in 1932 in a production with John Gielgud. Mackenzie was killed in a car accident in France shortly afterwards at the age of 29.
(41) Memorandum by Donald Bull to Head of television Drama dated 8 October 1959, BBC WAC, T5/2239/2.
(42) the audience Research Reports suggest that the most popular play in the series was Dodie Smith's pre-war family drama Dear Octopus, and the least popular the Capek Brothers' symbolist The Insect Play.
(43) Memorandum by John Elliott dated 17 July 1963, BBC WAC, T5/2, 394/1.
(44) A draft publicity article for "Radio Times", BBC WAC, T5/2, 079/1.
(45) Memorandum by Donald Baverstock dated 1 July 1964, BBC WAC, T5, 2298/1.
(46) Memorandum by Peter Luke to Head of Drama Group, Television dated 2 June 1964, BBC WAC, T5/2, 079/1.
(47) Memorandum by Michael Peacock, Controller, BBC One to Head of Drama Group, Television, dated 23 November 1966, BBC WAC, T5/1, 794/1.
(48) Memorandum by Gerald Savory to Controller, BBC One, dated 7 December 1966, BBC WAC T5/1, 794/1.
(49) Mudchen in Uniform was a melodrama (the original title was Gestern und Heute) by Christa Winsloe (1888-1944), set in an oppressive Prussian girls' boarding school. Leontine Sagan's 1931 German film version had been a fashionable success, and the play ran for 265 performances in London in 1932.
(50) From a novel by Hugh Walpole.
(51) The Wikipedia entry for this series of plays gives a detailed list of publiclyavailable references.
(52) Among the neglected works revived in Performance were Rattigan's After the Dance, J. B. Priestley's A Summer Day's Dream, and Ronald Mackenzie's The Maitlands.
(53) See, as just one example, the National Theatre programme for their 2015 production of Patrick Marber's version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country (entitled Three Days in the Country) in which all previous television versions of the play are described incorrectly as "TV films".
(54) Sir Richard Eyre, Sunday Telegraph, 2 November 2014.
(55) The meeting is recorded in Irving Wardle's The Theatres of George Devine (159). Richardson's first approach to Devine to appear on television had been given short shrift: "I can't be bothered, the thing bores me to hell".
(56) Michael Billington wrote in State of the Nation: "I remember an official lunch at which Eyre used the precise word 'oppositional' to describe the theatre's role in society, only to be greeted with an archly raised eyebrow from the Chair of his Board, Mary Soames" (337).
(57) Draft letter from Barry, BBC WAC, T5/2, 239/4.
(58) Directed by Julius Gellner.
(59) It was produced in 1962 as the inaugural offering in an occasional series of plays given simultaneous productions by some foreign television networks, The Largest Theatre in the World, and can be found on the BBC box set DVD, The Rattigan Collection, 2011.
Barry, Michael. From the Palace to the Grove. London: Royal Television Society, 1992.
Billington, Michael. State of the Nation. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.
Cochrane, Claire. Twentieth-Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2011.
Cooke, Lez. British Television Drama: A History. London: BFI, 2003.
Gielgud, Val. British Radio Drama 1922-1956: a survey. London: Harrap, 1957.
Jacobs, Jason. The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2000.
Rosenthal, Daniel. The National Theatre Story. London: Oberon Books, 2013.
Sherek, Henry. Not In Front of the Children. London: Heinemann, 1959.
Swinson, Arthur. Writing for Television Today. London: A. and C. Black, 1963.
Various authors, no editor credited. The Armchair Theatre. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.
Wardle, Irving. The Theatres of George Devine. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.
This essay is the first of a series of essays and reviews using important online resources. Screen Plays: The Theatre Plays on British Television Database is an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded, University of Westminster -based project (Principal Investigator: John Wyver, Research Fellow: Amanda Wrigley) that aims to document every British television production of plays originally written for the stage. It includes information on audio-visual and print sources for each production, including "reviews, scholarly writings, practitioners' autobiographies" and (where they exist) actual recordings, both archive and commercially available. Much of the work documented was not preserved but the database provides a wealth of material to enable us to trace a rich and varied history.
Sir David Warren is a retired British diplomat, who served as British Ambassador to Japan from 2008 to 2012. He has had a long interest in the history of 20th century theatre, and presented an earlier version of this paper at a University of Westminster conference in February 2015 to mark the conclusion of the AHRC-supported project, in his capacity as a Visiting Professor at De Montfort University linked to the Theatre Archive. He is also Chair of Council at the University of Kent, and a Visiting Professor of East Asian Studies at Sheffield University.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2017|
|Previous Article:||Helen Taylor becomes Miss Trevor, actress.|
|Next Article:||Theatre History and Historiography: Ethics, Evidence and Truth.|