Sunday: a blog makeover

8th June 2014

Yvonne De Carlo in Salome Where She Danced, 1945, directed by Charles Lamont

Although there is no sign of this here, I have been thinking a lot about a new direction for this blog. I have remarkably downtime at the moment and I’m all too aware that I am not posting regularly. The next RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast is coming up fast – Henry IV Part II on Wednesday 18 June. There are other broadcast projects underway, plus I am researching and writing articles on, among other topics, live cinema, Henry Moore, Shakespeare on television and Ken Russell. And I am doing my best to work on the data entry for the Screen Plays database which needs to be complete by the end of the year – and we still have a long way to go. Finding the moments to post here as I have in the past has simply become harder in recent weeks. So I am going to try something a little different. Please bear with me over the coming days as I work out quite how it should work.

I intend to post something here every day – but not to feel that I have to craft an article for each entry. Rather, many of the entries will just be a link or several such or a video or a book I’m reading, with a line or two of commentary. And I’ll keep the past seven days active in a separate updated entry – and then ‘retire’ entries eight days or older into the archive. You’ll get the hang of it, I hope. Anyway, here goes…

Sunday 8 June

Previously on the blog… I used to compile a Sunday links section of things that I had found interesting during the previous week. I miss this, as I think one or two of you do also, and I am hoping that my blog makeover will offer some of the links that I would have previously highlighted. So to begin on this new path I am going to point you towards a terrific series of recent posts on one of the blogs that I admire the most, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Observations on film art.

In April and May David Bordwell authored a wonderful series of posts about film reviewing in the United States in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. They are full of richly interesting ideas about the cinema, writing and the culture of America. He intends to pull these together into an e-book but in the meantime you can read them here:

Otis Ferguson and the way of the camera, 20 November 2013
David Bordwell characterises this piece as the ‘prologue’ to the series. He reflects on the writings of the film critic of The Nation between 1934 and 1942.

The Rhapsodes: Agee, Farber, Tyler and us, 26 January 2014
Introducing James Agee, Manny Farber and Parker Tyler…

I’m captivated by all three. None holds me hostage, though; I write as an enthusiast but not a promoter. What attracts me now, in tandem with the book I’m writing on Hollywood in the 1940s, is what they did in their first decade. Although many readers didn’t notice, these three made writing about American film exuberant and important. They raised it to a level of frenzied acuity that it had never enjoyed before. They helped create, by the delayed action I sketched earlier, the modern institution of movie criticism, with all its virtues and excesses. In the process, they forged some original ways of thinking about American cinema.

 • Agee & Co.: a newer criticism, 9 February 2014
Leftist ideas about popular culture – and especially Hollywood – in the 1940s…

James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler […] wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.

James Agee: All there and primed to go off, 23 February 2014
On Agee on Chaplin and John Huston, and on Walker Evans too.

It’s terribly easy to be sentimental about Agee, and almost as easy to be hard on him. (Brutality, as Stroheim and Griffith knew, has its sentimental side.) But I think that reading him can do something rare in film criticism: He calls you to your best instincts. His dithering can be frustrating, and he often snaps open too many pipes in the sonorous organ of that style.

Manny Farber 1: Color commentary, 17 March 2014

Manny Farber 2: Space man, 23 March 2014

We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

 • Parker Tyler: a suave and wary guest, 2 April 2014

Tyler tries something different [from Agee and Farber]. He’s not a realist but a surrealist. What Agee and Farber praised as “accuracy” or “authenticity” scarcely concerns him. And story–at least, the story the film pretends to be telling–doesn’t matter to him so much. The very first chapter of his first book is titled, ‘The Play Is Not the Thing.’

The Rhapsodes: after lives, 20 April 2014

If there hadn’t been films that pushed the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, even the cleverest reviewers couldn’t have written so fruitfully. Without Sturges and Welles, Huston and Wyler, Hitchcock and Wilder, Wellman and Walsh, Lang and Preminger, Mankiewicz and Val Lewton; without perversities like The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Salome Where She Danced (above) and Turnabout; without ambitious pictures like Citizen Kane and The Story of GI Joe alongside dozens of sturdy programmers, the Rhapsodes would have had little to work with. The cascade of overpowering, exuberant, piercing, and crazy films of the 1940s surely pushed them to go all out. Great criticism can flourish, it seems, when there is great cinema.

Live-blogging The Duchess of Malfi

25th May 2014

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

25th May 2014

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. read more »

Lord K

21st May 2014

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. read more »

Off-message and on- with Malfi

20th May 2014

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”.’ read more »

Catching up…

19th May 2014

It has been just over a month since I last posted, for which I can only apologise. Not that I haven’t had things to write about. Rather too many of them, in fact. Which in part accounts for my failure to contribute anything new here in the past four weeks and more. Last Wednesday I produced the latest Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast of Henry IV Part I, and on Friday there was a shoot for the trailer of Two Gentlemen of Verona. I was at the Shakespeare450 conference in Paris and I have curated the current ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ at BFI Southbank. There is a screening of Don Taylor’s exceptional 1977 BBC production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste on Tuesday evening and a half-day symposium linked to the season on Friday. And today was the press day for Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain (that’s the man himself, above), which I have had a hand in putting together and for which I have written a catalogue essay. These events – and more – now deserve some reflections, which is what I am to provide over the coming days…

Rehearsing television’s return

16th April 2014

The Windmill Girls at an early rehearsal for post-war television; copyright PA Archive

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

10th April 2014

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. read more »

‘Let wonder seem familiar’

8th April 2014

There’s something a bit superfluous and a bit naive and a bit daft about this post. But after last night and this afternoon I just want to express how much at present I love the theatre. Of course I am deeply involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the thrilling and thoughtful and hilarious pair of Henry IV productions (coming soon to cinemas on 14 May and 18 June). But I want here to hymn two other productions that have excited me and moved me and provoked me and prompted tears from me over the past twenty-four hours. One is A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, directed by Ivo van Hove (the link is to an excellent Guardian backgrounder) and still in previews at the Young Vic (until 7 June). The other is Much Ado About Nothing which is directed by Maria Aberg and has just opened at the Royal ExchangeTheatre, Manchester (until 3 May, above). Both, in their different ways, left me touched with wonder. read more »


6th April 2014

To Clapham Picturehouse for Saturday night’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème. And “live” it most certainly was, for only around five hours earlier soprano Kristine Opolais replaced flu-stricken Anita Hartig in the main role of Mimi. Host Joyce DiDonato mentioned this in her opening remarks and then the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb went out in front of the curtain to explain the change to the house and, although he made no mention of the cameras, to the rest of the world. What made the occasion all the more remarkable was that Ms Opolais had debuted in the title role of Madame Butterfly just the previous night. The soprano went to sleep at 5am and was woken with Gelb’s request some two and a half hours later, as the New York Times reports. She acquitted herself thrillingly well, making it all rather extraordinary. And for those of us interested in live cinema the broadcast had several other notable aspects. read more »