A lost masterpiece

22nd April 2013

On Thursday night BFI Southbank screened Roland Joffé’s 1980 BBC television adaptation of John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This was shown as part of ‘Classics on TV: Jacobean tragedy on the small screen’, a season of television productions of early seventeenth century dramas curated by Screen Plays, the academic research project on which I am working with Dr Amanda Wrigley.

On the basis of my memories of seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore on transmission more than three decades ago and of viewing more recently a poor VHS copy of – for some reason – only the first half, I wrote a Screen Plays blog post about the film. I knew this was a significant television production but I was unprepared for the impact of Thursday’s viewing. For me, as for many others in the sold-out auditorium, seeing the drama on a big screen was quite simply overwhelming. This is a major work of British film – I am not embarrassed by the word ‘masterpiece’ – that is all but unknown. And it is is crazy, crazy, crazy that it is hidden away in the archives and has hardly been seen for the past thirty-three years.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was shot entirely on location at Chastleton House, the rooms and grounds of which are used to brilliant effect. Working on 16mm film, director Roland Joffé and director of photography Nat Crosby crafted a 135-minute drama that updates Ford’s radical tale of incest and social corruption to the early Victorian period. In many ways, the production could be a social realist film of the 1970s, much like The Spongers (1978) on which Joffé and Crosby also collaborated. And by enhancing the mercantile context and developing the focus on financial exchange that is a key element of the original text, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore becomes an effective riposte to what was then the new Thatcher government’s concern for ‘Victorian values’.

All of which is important but none of which would have held the audience spellbound without the consummate performances of a top-notch cast at the top of their respective games. Kenneth Cranham, who plays the incestuous brother Giovanni, introduced the screening with some charming anecdotes, including the fact that he had been cast and contracted to play the painter Stanley Spencer in quite another film before Joffé changed that project over a weekend to this Ford adaptation. He delivers a truly compelling interpretation of a man obsessed, who is driven to challenge the social norms and the intellectual framework of his times.

As his sister and lover Anabella, Cherie Lunghi is luminously fine, and at no point more so than when she listens to Giovanni expressing his love for her. The words are almost all her brother’s, but the camera remains fixed on her face – and fixed, and fixed – as in her eyes flicker a sense of surprise and then passionate acceptance. Alison Fiske delivers a dazzling Hippolita, wronged by Soranzo, who is portrayed by Anthony Bate with an insouciant superiority. Then there is Tim Piggot-Smith as a malevolently controlling and sadistic Vasquez, plus Rodney Bewes and Ron Pember as the comic relief couple who manage to make the Jacobean jokes genuinely funny.

The true greatness of the film, however, lies in the unremitting harshness of its dark vision of the world. The passion of the incestuous couple leads to the blithely consummated poisoning of one character, the blinding with boiling water of another, and the eventual brutal stabbing of Giovanni at a formal dinner. But Giovanni’s death comes after he has himself killed his lover and cut out her heart. He wraps the organ (a sheep’s heart, Ken Cranham told us over a drink) in a handkerchief and then presents it à table before Anabella’s husband and father.

All of these extraordinary occurrences are treated dispassionately by a camera that unobtrusively keeps its distance. Indeed we see events much as many of the characters do, through doorways or windows in a closeted world of secrets and lies. This sense of visual objectivity is complemented by an acting style that is intense but rigorously controlled, and both of these aspects of the film do much to enhance the desperate horror of the ways things are. And at the end, as Victorian society covers up these transgressive terrors, the world turns much as it did before, although one family has been torn apart and another has achieved a quiet triumph.

When watching television from three decades and more ago, it is often necessary to make certain allowances for the norms of the medium then. No such adjustments were necessary on Thursday, for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore comes off the screen as determinedly modern and with a hard-edged brilliance that at times is reminiscent of the films of Robert Bresson and at others of the work of Ingmar Bergman.

For the academic, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is fascinating not only as an adaptation of a key early modern text. It needs also to be analysed as a cultural response to the early years of Thatcherism, to be considered in terms of its sexual politics, of its engagement with the English landscape tradition, of its confrontation of notions of heritage, and much more.

So how can it be that a film of this quality and interest is entirely unavailable? It was transmitted only once, it has never been released on VHS or DVD, and there is next-to-no critical writing about it. (A rare detailed discussion is by Professor Martin White in his Palgrave Macmillan ‘Handbook’ companion to the play published in 2012.) This ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is unknown and invisible. Did I mention that I think that such a situation is crazy? First off, some concerted conservation work should be done on the print and soundtrack. Then it should be celebrated at a festival or two, screened with fanfares on BBC Four and given an appropriately contextualised DVD release. Only then will it begin to take the place it deserves in our cultural history.

As a footnote, I should mention that I am currently working with the BBC towards the release from the archives of classic theatre plays in a new series of DVDs. If it’s at all possible, I am determined that ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore will be of the first titles in our catalogue.


  1. John Burgan says:

    Bravo John! Open up the archives…I remember this being broadcast at the time, I was in my last year of 6th form – would love to see it again

  2. John Wyver says:

    Luke McKernan writes wonderfully about the screening and about the issues that the production inaccessibility poses here


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