The Edwardians on the South Bank

The Edwardians on the South Bank

Following on from the successful Screen Plays ‘Classics on TV’  seasons ‘Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ (June 2012) and ‘Jacobean Tragedy on the Small Screen’ (March-April 2013), the project is delighted once again to be working with BFI Southbank. In May ‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ will present six programmes of television productions of plays written between the 1890s and the First World War. The season, which I have curated, includes notable productions of plays by Oscar Wilde (including An Ideal Husband, above), Harley Granville-Barker, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, J. M. Synge and D. H. Lawrence.

In addition, on the afternoon of Friday 23 May at BFI Southbank we are organising a symposium to explore some of the issues raised by these productions, and we are delighted that Dr Billy Smart will open this with a keynote lecture. Further details of the symposium and the programmes will follow, but here is a first look at the productions to be screened. Public booking has just opened at BFI Southbank online, and full details of the programme are below.
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The city and sex

The city and sex

I am reading a book that drips sex. Émile Zola’s The Kill, in Brian Nelson’s thrillingly good Oxford World’s Classics translation, is one of the most sensuous, sexy books that I think I’ve ever read. This may, I recognise, say more about my sheltered upbringing than the qualities of Zola’s 1872 novel, but I like to think not.

The Kill is the second of the French novelist’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it’s not nearly as well-known as others in twenty-volume series, such as Nana (1880) or Germinal (1885). Given its compelling voluptuousness, this comparative obscurity is perhaps a surprise, although it is connected, I suspect, to the fact that Nelson’s recent translation into English is the first since 1895.

The scene is laid in the Paris of the Second Empire, mostly in the early 1860s, and the story relates the incestuous passion of the thirty-year-old society beauty Renée for her stepson Maxime. The third central character is the avaricious and unseeing Saccard, Renée’s husband and Maxime’s father, and the fourth is the urban environment undergoing the upheavals of Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding. It’s a book about capital and modernity, about the city and sex. And having started reading it via a Kindle app on my iPad, and finding that deeply unsatisfying, I am now devouring the handsome paperback that you see above. Which is tactile, elegant, hard-wearing, responsive, versatile and, in its own quiet way, sort of sexy.

I read a lot of things on my iPad. I read my subscription to The New Yorker. I read scripts and I read the Guardian website. I read academic books about film history and adapting Shakespeare for the screen. But I have definitively decided that the particular pleasure of reading a great classic novel is not to be had from an unyielding glass screen. I need the thoughts of Henry James and George Eliot and indeed Émile Zola to be laid out in distinctive type on particular paper. I want the dialogue and especially the descriptions at which Zola excels to be in the same place on a page when I return to them. And I have to be able to touch the words. I want them to be real.

It is important to me as I consume a novel that I can bend back – but not break – the spine. I delight at the way in which my reading just lightly soils the pages, so that I constantly have the sense of my progress through a volume. And I anticipate with pleasure that I will keep this volume on my shelves, where it will continue to carry the traces and the marks and the memories of my encounter with it. The reading of a great book is, and I think (or trust) always will be, supremely physical.

Don’t make me laugh, Penguin Books

Don’t make me laugh, Penguin Books

Until yesterday’s Guardian article by Gareth Rubin I regret to say that I had not heard of the artist Miriam Elia and her totally delightful website Learning with Miriam. I had, however, seen several of her smart art parodies of Ladybird Books popping up in my Twitter feed. My favourite was the one in which the cover illustration above is accompanied by a facing page of text that reads

There is nothing in the room.
Peter is confused.
Jane is confused.
Mummy is happy.

‘There is nothing in the room because God is dead,’ says Mummy.
‘Oh dear,’ says Peter.

Miriam produced 1,000 copies of her We go to the gallery book and was selling them for £20 each when the m’learned friends from Penguin Books descended and told her she was infringing their copyright. Now she is allowed only to sell enough copies to cover her initial costs and must then cease and desist from making us laugh and making us think and making the world just a little better with her art. What is even weirder, what she is doing may not infringe copyright in a month’s time – and it almost certainly would not be an infringement in the United States, Canada, France and elsewhere.
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The poems of my teacher Brian Jones

The poems of my teacher Brian Jones

Last week, as Richard II Live from Stratford-upon-Avon unfolded, there were several moments when I thought of my English teacher at school, the late Brian Jones. Mr Jones, as he was to us in our mid-teens, was a cool poet who had even been on television. He was also, as I hope we recognised then, a gloriously inspirational teacher, and his classes contributed hugely, vitally, to my love of our language. Which, give or take a twist or two, runs right through to my work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I lost touch with Brian after school, even though, as I chronicled in a blog post back in August 2009, I tried to find him again when I produced a film of The Waste Land in the mid-1990s. My post was written after I’d read Paul McLoughlin’s Guardian obituary, and remarkably the comments to it (which are still archived on this site, even if the formatting is a bit awry) became a small memorial to his influence on many, many others. So now I am delighted to highlight the news that a new edition of his poetry, for so long out of print, has been published.
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The intermedial in action

The intermedial in action

Upstage there is a set with an enclosed room and other smaller spaces, including two booths like those used for sound recording. The room is dressed as a kitchen, with walls which have extensive glass panelling allowing the audience to see inside. Downstage there are elements of furniture, a table for sound effects, and video cameras, monitors and lights. This is the setting for Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner’s astonishing Fraulein Julie, originally staged at Schaubuhne Berlin and at the Barbican only until tomorrow. (I started this post on Tuesday night but it’s been a crazily busy week, so apologies for the tardiness of its appearance.) Over 80 taut minutes, the actors and creatives make and mix a live “film” after Strindberg’s play, with live sound effects and music. The appeal is both to the mind and to the heart, with an experience embedded in the late 19th century but also acutely, precisely of now. Yet for me this bold, sometimes breathtaking experiment brought to mind nothing so much as live television drama as it used to be made in the studio twenty.thirty, even fifty years ago.
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Sex and death at BFI Southbank

Sex and death at BFI Southbank

As part of the Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television research project which I am co-ordinating with Dr Amanda Wrigley at the University of Westminster, I have curated a BFI Southbank season of television adaptations of Jacobean tragedy. The season starts in three weeks’ time with a very special event: a showing of Granada TV’s 1965 adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women followed by a discussion with Dame Diana Rigg, who stars in the production, and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran. Booking opens today for BFI members and at 11.30am on 12 March for everyone else: www.bfi.org.uk and 020 7928 3232.

The full programme is below.
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On reading a good book

On reading a good book

My blog schedule for the week has been disrupted by a slow recovery from a modest bout of ‘flu, so apologies for the absence of new posts in the past few days. Spending more time in bed than usual did allow me to catch up with some reading, including the recently published The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This is the 100th volume from Persephone, which over the past decade or more has specialised in publishing neglected twentieth-century writing, much of it by women. The Persephone story is told well in the Observer feature One shade of grey by Rachel Cooke and this is the link to their richly interesting online catalogue. I want simply to hymn this particular 450 page volume, in part for its contents but mostly – and this is particularly important in this age of the tablet – for its materiality.
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The book of ‘The Film’, part 2

The book of ‘The Film’, part 2

I posted yesterday about my discovery of the remarkable book The Film: Its Economic, Social and Artistic Problems, which published in English by The Focal Press in 1948. Do take a look at that blog for an introduction to the volume, and allow me to return to it here to highlight two strands that I find of particular interest. One its its unabashed Marxist analysis of the woes of the film industry, illustrated with wonderful diagrams of monopoly capitalism in action (a detail of one is above). The other line of thought that chimes with much that I am thinking about in current productions is concerned with the distinctions between Film (which is often capitalised in the book and regarded as essentially monolithic) and Theatre (ditto).
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The book of ‘The Film’, part 1

The book of ‘The Film’, part 1

One afternoon in Canterbury recently I stumbled upon The Chaucer Bookshop, a second-hand treasure house that I realised I had last entered as a schoolboy some forty years ago. I was delighted to find that it was thriving in this age of Amazon, and I was thrilled to discover several books about film and television (the only ones I in any sense collect) that I had never come across before. Foremost among these was a handsome 1948 volume from The Falcon Press: The Film: Its Economic, Social and Artistic Problems by Georg Schmidt, Werner Schmalenbach and Peter Bachlin, and with Hermann Eidenbenz (the links may need Google Translate) as its art editor. Printed on heavy, shiny paper, this is an extraordinary volume entirely deserving of the discussion of its genesis, its analysis and its truly remarkable design that I aim to develop in this post and a follow-up.
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Pride and Prejudice: 12 for 200

Pride and Prejudice: 12 for 200

I thought others might do this to mark the anniversary today of the publication of Jane Austen’s great and glorious Pride and Prejudice. But as I’ve yet to see such an anthology, I thought I would make one for myself – and anyone else fascinated by how dear Jane has been adapted for the cinema, television and now the web across the years. Here, then, are 12 clips for a 200th birthday. (There were originally 10 clips in this post, but I am grateful to Stuart Ian Burns – see comment below – for pointing out my omission of Lost in Austen, which is now included below, along with the trailer for Bride and Prejudice.)

1. Pride and Prejudice, 1940

Below is the original trailer for the Hollywood adaptation with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Robert Z. Leonard directed with Aldous Huxley (!) as one of the credited scriptwriters. The film was derived from the 1936 stage version written by Helen Jerome and is set several decades later than the time of the novel. According to Wikipedia,

The film is substantially different from the novel in a number of ways; most notably, the confrontation near the end of the film between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet was radically altered, changing the former’s haughty demand that Elizabeth promise never to marry Darcy into a hoax to test the mettle and sincerity of Elizabeth’s love.


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