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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‘This day of triumph’ #AAoK

‘This day of triumph’ #AAoK

Last week the first shrink-wrapped copies of Illuminations’ DVD release of An Age of Kings arrived at our offices. The event marked the culmination of at least two years’ work by my colleague Louise Machin and I, along with our designer Loic Leveque, and the essential support of Todd MacDonald and Tom Allen. It also represents, given the advance paid to BBC Worldwide as well as the design, sub-titling and duplication costs, a significant investment by the company. So go here to buy your copy for the bargain price of £34.99.

We very much hope that An Age of Kings will be the beginning of a major new project to release great television adaptations of classic theatre plays, which we are conceiving in conjunction with the AHRC-funded University of Westminster research project Screen Plays. Before I explain why I believe An Age of Kings is so significant, and how we plan to promote and support the release, here is a taster:


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[ ]amin Britten on Cam[ ]

[   ]amin Britten on Cam[   ]

Each time I return grumpily to the topic of today’s post I feel the need to apologise to regular readers. I know that I have taken on several times before the vandalism represented by forcing 4:3 archive footage into contemporary 16:9 frames, but Saturday night’s Benjamin Britten on Camera (available on BBC iPlayer until 28 November) cries out for attention. This is an intelligent programme about the relationship between the composer and the BBC during the late 1950s and ’60s and it features a wonderful selection of gems from the Corporation’s archives.
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Fifty years on

Fifty years on

Far be it from me to rain on the National Theatre’s fiftieth birthday parade, but allow me to make a few slightly-less-than-gushing remarks about the recent two-part Arena documentary and tonight’s compilation album of extracts. (The two films are on BBC iPlayer for the next four days: The Dream here and War and Peace here – and you have a week to re-run the live gala 50 Years on Stage here.) It has been thrilling to see British theatre given such attention when by and large it remains one of the artforms that is less present than it might be on television. But I have to say that I have found all the self-congratulation just a touch too cloying.
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Mash to the future

Mash to the future

On Thursday evening Arena premiered the first of two films looking back at the history of the National Theatre. I am going to wait for the second to air before posting about them, but I do want to look today at significant developments on the Arena website. Initiatives there seem to me to be pointing towards the future of British television.

First off, there are two mash-ups of Shakespeare speeches, both of which I have embedded across the jump. (Yes, embedded – that I think is a first for BBC content.) And it’s worth musing on each of these for a moment. One, perhaps inevitably, is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be…’, the other is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Both feature extracts from Illuminations productions, and part of why I am writing this post is to help me work out quite what I feel about that.
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Time for ‘An Age of Kings’

Time for ‘An Age of Kings’

We are thrilled to confirm that Illuminations is to release the BBC cycle of Shakespeare’s History plays An Age of Kings as a 15-episode, 5-disc DVD set on 8 December. You can place your advance order here.

An Age of Kings has never previously been released for home video in the UK and it has been seen only very occasionally since the single repeat of the series in 1962. Yet it is a wonderful compelling account of all eight of Shakespeare’s histories, with a stellar cast including Robert Hardy, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Sean Connery. This landmark production was broadcast live from, first, Riverside Studios and then Television Centre, on Thursday evenings once a fortnight from April to November 1960.

First details about the release are here. Then over the coming weeks on this blog we will feature lots more information about the series and about our release, and we will be developing a range of online resources, starting with our new Twitter feed @AnAge of Kings; do please follow that for all the latest news.

‘Nobody cares’: return to Reading

‘Nobody cares’: return to Reading

At the end of last week, I posted about the Spaces of Television conference at the University of Reading. I greatly enjoyed the three-day event and I learned a lot from many of the presentations. One of the panel sessions was particularly rich and I want to return to Reading today to draw out some strands from that discussion. For ‘Archives and Access’ the organisers had assembled an exemplary line-up, of which more below. But it was the passionate and (almost) despairing speech by Tony Ageh, Head of Archive Development at the BBC, that made the most impact.

Tony has been working vigorously for the past five years towards the goal of granting full access, through both commercial and non-commercial channels, to everything, everything – programmes, stills, written records and more – of which the BBC has a copy. Given the centrality of the BBC to each of our lives and to national and international history since 1922, this is an aspiration of the most profound cultural importance. Yet as he said, ‘hardly any progress has been made in the past five years’. As we’ll see, this is not entirely true, but in terms of any fundamental shifts towards a world in which such access is possible he is absolutely correct.

And why?

‘Nobody cares’, Tony said. Or rather, ‘Almost nobody cares’. Or again, ‘Not enough people care anything like enough’.
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‘Thus play I in one person many people’

‘Thus play I in one person many people’

Rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Richard II with David Tennant start a week tomorrow, Tuesday (the cast get the Bank Holiday off too). And we deep in the preparations for the Live from Stratford Upon Avon broadcast to cinemas on 13 November. During the past seven days we confirmed our on-screen host (hurrah!), shot the trailer and began to film the weekly production diary which will start to appear online on 30 August. But before we begin things proper I thought it might be interesting to offer a little background about previous British screen versions of the play. To date, there has been no feature film – Rupert Goold’s highly cinematic treatment for television’s The Hollow Crown (2012) comes the closest, while the 1949 Ealing Studios film Train of Events features an amateur dramatics society performing the play’s last scenes. Including The Hollow Crown, there have been seven full-length small-screen productions so far.
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A subject of scandal and concern

A subject of scandal and concern

On Monday afternoon at BFI Southbank I am introducing two early films by Robert Vas (1931-1978) together with a television obituary of Vas made by Barrie Gavin and colleagues. (The obit is on YouTube but – frustratingly – the embedding function is disabled.) Barrie will be present this afternoon, I believe, along with others who worked with and admired the filmmaker. For I am far from alone is believing that Vas is one of the greatest documentarists to have worked in Britain. He stands alongside Humphrey Jennings, Philip Donellan, Mike Grigsby, Marc Karlin and others, each of whom in their own way forged a distinctive film poetry from reality. Do please watch the film and read Byrony Dixon’s BFI ScreenOnline piece to get a sense of Robert Vas’ work. Yet as I noted in my 2008 post Robert who?, the director is all-but-unknown today and not one of the major films that he produced for the BBC is legally available. (The early films Refuge England, 1959, and The Vanishing Street, 1962, can be found on the invaluable BFI DVD set Free Cinema.) The inaccessibility and consequent invisibility of Vas’ work is – simply – a subject of scandal and concern.
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