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:
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. Read more »
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. Read more »
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. Read more »
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.
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.
‘Nobody cares’, Tony said. Or rather, ‘Almost nobody cares’. Or again, ‘Not enough people care anything like enough’. Read more »
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. Read more »
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. Read more »
Eugene O’Neill’s remarkable play Strange Interludeopened at the National Theatre today to some strong reviews. Michael Billington for the Guardian praises the ‘excellent’ production (directed by Simon Godwin) and awards the evening 4 stars. Even at three hours twenty minutes, it’s well worth seeing, with some great performances (including from . Moreover, productions of the play come along comparatively rarely – the last on the London stage was in 1985. Which makes it all the more remarkable that back in 1958 there was a BBC Television production shown in peak-time on two Sunday evenings. In September last year I wrote about this production for the Screen Plays: Stage Plays on British Television blog and I am taking advantage of the National Theatre success to post a slightly revised version here. Read more »
Yesterday, I thoroughly enjoyed the full seven hours of the BBC’s 1953 Coronation coverage which BBC Parliament re-ran in (almost) its entirety. You can read the blog that I wrote here as well as see the numerous screengrabs that I took along the way, and the coverage is on iPlayer (until Sunday 9 June) here, here, here and here. And if you only watch one fragment of it, do take a look at the delightful introduction with Sylvia Peters – who hosted the broadcast in 1953 and who, astonishingly, did the same for BBC Parliament yesterday.
Taken together, this material is a historical and televisual document of the highest order, and I very much hope that the fine new digitally restored print is soon made available on DVD. I was engaged by numerous aspects – by the brief ‘intimate’ images of Price Charles, for example, in the Abbey and framed in a window at Buckingham Palace; by the centrality of the endless military parade in the afternoon; by the realisation that the BBC did not have sufficient facilities to cover the whole of the Queen’s route either to or from the Palace; and by the fact that the engineers in 1953 seem to have saved a roll of 35mm film (on which the recording was being made) by missing out a section of the ‘break’ at 2pm when television was showing simply the front of Westminster Abbey and listening to the bells.
Most of all, the full broadcast showed how ‘light’ was television’s touch on this event. Throughout there was a strong sense that the BBC was ‘simply’ relaying all of this to the nation and the world (albeit in an operation of huge technical complexity). Apart from Sylvia Peters, there were no in-vision announcers, there were no interviews, no studio couches from which experts could pontificate, and only the most modest of graphics. Even Richard Dimbleby and the other commentators allowed lengthy sequences of images simply to unfold in front of us with few words. Television appeared to shrink back from making its own mark, withdrawing from any apparent mediation, even as it was constructing a media event with profound consequences for its own form and for the nation.
Thanks to the BFI, there is a fascinating comparison to line up against the BBC’s coverage in extracts from Long to Reign Over Us, 1953 (embedded below, and from which I have taken a framegrab above). The production is an amateur film of very high quality made by John de Vere Loder, 2nd Baron Wakehurst (he also provides the narration), and it is in sparkling colour. The picture of London in June sixty years ago is both familiar and deeply strange, just as the world appears in all the very best documentary footage.