Screen Plays’ Theatre on TV conference

Screen Plays’ Theatre on TV conference

Regular readers will know that I am involved with the Screen Plays research project, based at the University of Westminster and generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project is documenting the history of theatre plays on British television and early next year will publish a database of information about all three thousand-plus television productions of plays originally written for the theatre. Screen Plays has just announced the call for proposals for its concluding conference in London on 20 February 2015, and that seemed like an appropriate prompt for a handful of links about the topic.

The Screen Plays blog

• Call for proposals – Theatre and Television: Adaptation, Production, Performance

Last month Screen Plays organised a successful BFI Southbank season, Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen, which was accompanied by a half-day symposium.

Introduction to the season

My Guardian article about television productions of the plays of Bernard Shaw (above).

• Dr Billy Smart’s symposium keynote, Edwardian values, 1970s television: John Galsworthy on BBC1

Notes from the symposium

Associated with the Screen Plays project is the Illuminations DVD release of the 1960 BBC cycle of Shakespeare History plays, An Age of Kings (above). Details of the DVD box set are here, the 10 5-star Amazon readers’ reviews are here, and this is one of the trailers that we have produced for the release:

Live-blogging The Duchess of Malfi

Live-blogging The Duchess of Malfi

22:26: Hmmm. Really interesting to see, but definitely problematic. Final production credit is Globe on Screen in association with BBC Arts.

22:23: I didn’t think this closing worked in the theatre, and the broadcast hasn’t changed my mind.

22:22: At two and a half hours, this is a lot of television – and length is one of the key problems with theatre on television, at least as far as the executives are concerned. I wonder what the figures are – which we’ll learn tomorrow.

22:20: via @scottpalmerx


22:13: Yet so few of the great lines really land, although I’m more inclined to lay this at the inadequacies of the stage production, rather than the problems of translating to the screen.

22:11: Although I’m tired now,the drama is working more effectively, at times gripping and involving.

22:08: Was this, I wonder, recorded at a single performance? I have now become distracted by trying to work out whether the audience is precisely consistent across all of the shots. It seems to me that there is a woman in a white jacket stage left in the back row of the first gallery who is sometimes there and sometimes not.

22:00: I really, really think theatre on television can be more effective than this. A production with more sense of scale and difference, and with more subtlety, is needed. And the possibility of doing more with the images, more light and shade, more movement, more responsiveness to the drama.

21:31: Darkness on stage means that we don’t see the audience and the few candles give direction and shape and focus.

21:29: via @polyg


21:25 Oh, it really is black! Totally! You don’t often ‘see’ that on television.

21:23: Starting the second part and the single candles in the dark create striking Caravaggio-like effects.

21:20: Interval, with Andrew Marr offering a re-cap – and an odd kind of trailer with ‘highlights’ of Acts 4 and 5. ‘A word of warning – the play is about to get darker, literally… Your screen will go black. IT WILL GO BLACK.’ We’re away from the action for less than two minutes.

21:18: I’m sorry, but this confirms what I thought in the theatre: Gemma Arterton simply isn’t a Duchess of Malfi.

21:07: But overall I fear it’s not ‘working’ on screen as well as I would wish – if, that is, we want to see more theatre on television. If this is regarded as less than a success then it will be too easy for those who don’t want to see further productions to point to this and suggest that the form is inappropriate for the small screen. But I don’t believe that, and I want to understand why this is much less satisfying than a NT Live or Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast to cinemas. Can the weaknesses be blamed on the stage production? Or is doing this from the tiny space of the Playhouse deeply problematic?

21:00: Maybe it’s David Dawson as Ferdinand, or perhaps it’s because we’re moving from comedy to tragedy, or towards the dark, but it feels as if it’s working more effectively now.

20:48: The tone of contemporary comedy really isn’t to my taste. Apart from anything else, I feel it sometimes works against the beauty of the language.

20:43: Much as with the recordings made in the main Globe, the audience is very present here. I find this distracting, making it hard to stay “in” the world and time of the play. Instead, I am constantly distracted by the expressions of those watching. I know that it is crucial for screen versions of stage performances to include the audience but perhaps this needs to be general, distanced, shaded, non-specific, rather than with the particularities of contemporary life.

20:41: The sound is very clean and clear, but like the illumination very even, with little sense of space and perspective.

20:39: Many of the close shots with hand-held candles look very strong, but in the wides a lot of general light seems to spill across the stage in this nighttime scene.

20:30: Anyone attracted by the facile comparison with Tarantino must be feeling a bit bemused by now…

20:24: Not only does it lack shading in the images but also in performances. The Duchess and Antonio together is a gorgeous love scene but is being played as over-pitched comedy. What I can’t quite work is what effect the transfer to the screen is having on what I think lacked subtlety on stage.

20:22: The light is very even across the figures, with no sense of direction from which it is coming. No shadows.

20:18: When I saw this in the theatre I felt too many of the performances were rather one-note, and I again feel that’s the case.

20:14: The image so far is very bright and sharp, with the precision of video rather than any kind of film ‘look’. Some of the cameras have very wide-angle lenses.

20:10: Cameras looking at stage from the front and side, and also shooting from the stalls gallery up-stage through the cast and out into the audience. No movement, at least so far; all the visual story-telling coming from the mix/edit, not from developing shots in any way. This presumably because the space is just too small for tracks.

20:05: Among others you might want to follow along with is @DrPeteKirwin.


20:04: A three-minute intro and we’re into the action.

20:03: ‘John Webster was the Quentin Tarantino of the old English theatre.’ Hmmm.

20:00: Andrew Marr welcome us to ‘the televising of a spanking new production…’ Introduction to the Playhouse and the candles, costing £400 per show. ‘Now it’s bold and perhaps crackers to be attempting television by candlelight.’

19:59: Voice-over trail describes the imminent broadcast as ‘Dominic Dromgoole and Ian Russell’s production’; theatre credit and broadcast credit given equal billing.

19:51: I was a huge fan of the 2012 Old Vic production with Eve Best and I greatly admire the 1972 BBC television production with Eileen Atkins directed by James MacTaggart. My detailed Screen Plays blog post about the latter is here.

19:49: I should say that I saw an early preview of this production – and was, to be frank, disappointed with it. Gemma Arterton, while sparkling in the early scenes, did not for me have the tragic range that the role requires. But I’m not sure my critical faculties were at their most acute, given how unbelievably uncomfortable was my £45 pit seat. Tonight, the broadcast is just one element of what I get for my licence fee – and my sofa has soft cushions and a back against I can lean.

19:43: There does feel as if there is a bit of a sense of occasion about tonight, as indeed there should be. This is – I believe – the first television broadcast of a classic stage production from the theatre for which it was created for more than a decade. We have to go back to the early days of BBC Four for the last one, which I think was a close-to-unwatchable Three Sisters. Since then, of course, theatre on screen has been transformed by NT Live, Digital Theatre, RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon and others, but television has stood aloof. Now with a new commitment to performance from DG Tony Hall, this is the opening offering from what may become an important series of such broadcasts.

19:34: … and here are a couple of my earlier posts about #Malfi (my preferred hashtag for the night): Off-message and on- with Malfi and Malfi light and noir.

19:28: … and another, an Adam Sherwin news piece for the Independent, ‘Gemma Arterton says live theatre should be experienced on stage not screen relays’: ‘To be quite honest, I don’t really believe in filming theatre, that’s not what it’s about. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact they were filming it at first – it’s theatre, you’re not performing it for the cameras.’

19:26: One piece of prep – The Duchess of Malfi – BBC Arts at the Globe is the Radio Times preview piece, illustrated with a fetching photo of Andrew Marr; buried in there is this warning, ‘The tiny, historically accurate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a more interesting place to visit than watch.’

19:09: Blogging along with a television broadcast is, I know, so 2008 – and I will also be keeping an eye of Twitter – but I want to try to record my (non-snarky) thoughts about tonight’s recording of The Duchess of Malfi from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The BBC Four broadcast starts at 8pm, but in the meantime, take a look at my thoughts about the James Shapiro curtain-raiser documentary that was last night on BBC Two and is playing out again now on BBC Four.

Malfi light and noir

Malfi light and noir

For all sorts of reasons, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s BBC Four broadcast of The Duchess of Malfi recorded at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. First off, John Webster’s revenge tragedy is one of my favourite plays (along with his other masterpiece The White Devil). Then there’s the fact that this is the first television broadcast of a play from a theatre for at least a decade – and the first Jacobean drama to be seen on the small screen since The Changeling back in 1993. And of course, since I am deeply involved in translating stage to screen producing the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, I have a strong professional interest as well. I saw the production on stage and I plan to live-blog this evening’s broadcast. All of which meant that I was also fascinated to see James Shapiro’s curtain-raiser documentary last night, The Mysterious Mr Webster.
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Lord K

Lord K

Tate Britain this week has opened the exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, which runs until 10 August. There is no sense that I can be impartial about the show, given that I contributed by curating the television extracts (which my Illuminations colleague Todd MacDonald compiled) and writing a catalogue essay about the television programmes that Clark made for ATV between 1958 and 1966. But let me say that I think it’s a completely fascinating – and beautiful – display about a profoundly influential figure in twentieth century culture.

I have long been interested in ‘K’ (as he was always known to his friends) and back in 1993 I directed a BBC documentary about his life and ideas. Twenty years on I have contributed to a new film about him, produced by Kate Misrahi and screening on BBC Two on 31 May (thoughts on that to follow). Here I want to draw together a range of resources about and responses to the exhibition, and over the coming days I will add to this as other pieces appear. I also intend to write further about the choice of extracts included in the exhibition and about the many remarkable art objects that the curators Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard have drawn together.
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Off-message and on- with Malfi

Off-message and on- with Malfi

This coming Saturday BBC Television broadcasts both a documentary about the Jacobean theatre (on BBC Two, Saturday) and a recording of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (on BBC Four, Sunday) shot in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. In many ways this is very good news, not least because this is the first television production of a Jacobean tragedy since The Changeling back in 1993 and the first drama presented from a theatre in at least a decade. Bravo. But let’s start with some not-quite-so-good news, and a bit of a breath-taking quote from Malfi‘s star, Gemma Arterton.

In an interview in this week’s Radio Times, she speaks about how she thinks theatre doesn’t translate well to television, and she recalls her recent appearance at the BBC shindig for Tony Hall’s announcement of a new commitment to the arts. A clip from Malfi was the supposed highlight, after which she was interviewed on stage by Alan Yentob, when she enthused about the whole experience. Except that, as she now reveals, she was far from keen on the extract. ’I had to do that thing at the BBC,’ she tells Radio Times. ‘When they showed a clip I was mortified. And then I had to go, “Oh yes, it’s great”.’
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Rehearsing television’s return

Rehearsing television’s return

British Pathé has just published a wealth of new material on its wonderful YouTube channel (there is more about this from The Drum), and among the delights (only 5 views so far) is a newsreel spot about the return of the BBC television service after the second world war. The service, which had been operating since November 1936 from two small studios at Alexandra Palace (for more, go here and here), shut down when war was declared in September 1939. Although radio remained the BBC’s main focus in the early years of peace, television started again to broadcast the victory parade celebrations on 7 June 1946. This ‘exclusive’ Pathe report, which I’d not seen before, shows a rehearsal for an early broadcast with The Windmill Girls (also in the photograph above)- and it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways.

Let’s put to one side the objectifying male gaze that is shared by the television set-up and the newsreel camera. Although of course it’s interesting to see that this production context is an almost exclusively male world. A woman pianist tickles the ivories just out of shot, much as music was made on the earliest silent film sets, and next to her is a watchful companion. But otherwise all of the work is being done by men.

Traces of early television are rare (there are no recordings of full programmes until 1953), and this brief clip offers one of the best records of what making television involved in the early years of the medium. Note how small Studio B is, how basic is the background settings, how tightly grouped are the three cameras, and how the caption is a painted board which one of the cameras reveals before turning towards the action. Incidentally, the producer calling the shots is Cecil Madden, the BBC’s first head of television planning.

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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Our Ken

Our Ken

Every conference is a curate’s egg, and you always hope that the good parts make up (and more) for those that are less so. A two-day gathering in Brussels this week dedicated to the films of Ken Russell (above, on the set of Tommy, 1975) had a very decent tally of the good, and at the same time was curiouser than most such events. Taking part in Imagining the Past: Ken Russell, Biography and the Art of Making History were scholars and academics along with some like editor Roger Crittenden who had worked with Ken Russell in the 1960s and ’70s. Present too was Russell’s indefatigable biographer Paul Sutton, who is one book into a projected five-volume ‘Life’ (he it was who suggested the comparison with James Boswell’s life of the good Dr Johnson). And then there was the filmmaker’s widow, the delightful Lisi Tribble Russell (@awhitetable). All of which made for a significantly more diverse discourse than academia usually accommodates.
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Television at the Summer Exhibition, 1939

Television at the Summer Exhibition, 1939

Remarkably, astonishingly, the image agency Getty Images has announced a new initiative to allow the embedding of many of its photographs for non-commercial use in blogs (like this one) and social media channels. A simple new embed tool permits the legal use of more than 35 million images as long as the attribution is included along with a link back to Getty for commercial licensing.

This feels like a game-changing project and I want to reflect on it further in a future post. But I thought to mark the news I would highlight just one image from the Getty millions. Browsing the site, and with my current interests in early television and the arts, I found the glorious shot below of a pre-war television broadcast from the Royal Academy. Getty currently has it catalogued in this way:

circa 1939: A BBC television crew filming artist A K Lawrence varnishing a painting of Queen Elizabeth and her troops at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

I am fairly sure that in fact it relates to the broadcast titled Television Surveys… No 9 at 2.30pm on 24 April 1939. The Radio Times billing is above, and this describes the programme as ‘a visit with Edward Halliday to the galleries at Burlington House to see some of the exhibitors putting final touches to their pictures and sculpture.’ Halliday (1902-1984) was primarily a portrait painter – and you can find 79 images of his work at Your Paintings here. A. K. Lawrence (1893-1975) had been elected as a Royal Academician the year before the broadcast – and there are 33 Your Paintings canvases by him here, including Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury, 1588, which you can see in the photograph. This huge canvas is apparently now in the collection of Essex County Council – I wonder if it’s on show anywhere.

Clues, or readings for True Detective

Clues, or readings for True Detective

The remarkable True Detective started on Sky Atlantic last Saturday, while in the States HBO has already aired the first six episodes of the opening series of eight. As a consequence, there has been plenty of time for the series to prompt a slew of critical writing – and it’s a selection of this that I highlight here. Anything that can stimulate this kind thoughtful engagement from such a variety of perspectives – including Jason Jacobs’ remarkable philosophical musings – has to be special. New viewers and readers might do well to begin with a trailer, of which this is the fourth that HBO released:

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