Stage and screen: first questions for The After

13th April 2020

John Wyver writes: For those of us who have been working in screen adaptations of stage performances it feels as if, in the specific as well as the general, over the past three weeks the world has turned upside down. From being just one strand in the work of theatre, opera and dance companies, nice-to-have for many but perhaps not absolutely at the heart of things, recordings in many forms of stage performances have become central. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been enjoying free streams of content that, until ten days ago, and in large part because of rights restrictions, was accessible only by scholars.

Performance companies, large and small, have been showcasing their work online, for one night only or for just seven days or for months, and for free or for a donation or as part of a trial for a streaming service. We have been privileged to engage with productions from the National Theatre, Berlin’s Schaubühne, Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London’s Royal Opera House, Rosas in Belgium, The Wooster Group, Royal Shakespeare Company and countless others. And there’s much more to come, from the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative and from other projects still being worked through.

A greater degree of mainstream critical attention has been paid to stage to screen translations in the last three weeks than in the past decade. There have been numerous coordinated Twitter parties, watch-alongs and post-show Q&As on Zoom. Companies are also beginning to make original work for online. In many ways all of this digital activity is thrilling and heady and more-than-slightly overwhelming.

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Sunday links

12th April 2020

John Wyver writes: for this week’s round-up of reading and viewing that has engaged me over the past week I tried to limit stuff related to Covid-19, but somehow that proved hard to do – the first links are all pretty essential, and the mood lightens a little ‘below the fold’.

Special Report – Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm: I tend not to include links to day-to-day reporting but this is exceptional journalism, datelined 7 April, from Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill at Reuters; I’ve seen surprisingly little pick-up.

• Vector in chief: Fintan O’Toole is simply brilliant on Tr*mp and the crisis, for New York Review of Books:

to understand Trump’s incoherence, we have to take into account two contradictory impulses within the right-wing mindset: paranoia and risk. The right appeals to the fear of invasion, of subversion, of contamination. But it also valorizes risk. The contemporary Republican Party, through Trumpism, has managed to ride both of these horses at the same time.

Shockwave: hardly a cheering read, nor an easy one, but nonetheless essential — from the LRB Adam Tooze on the likely consequences of the pandemic for the world economy.

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‘Radio Times’ at Easter in the 1930s

10th April 2020

John Wyver writes: considering the two television covers of Radio Times from October 1936 in an earlier post piqued my interest as to what the covers of the weekly listings magazine were like throughout the rest of the 1930s. How, for example, did Radio Times use its covers to celebrate Easter during what W H Auden famously called ‘a low dishonest decade’? So I poked around in BBC Genome and came up with the somewhat surprising answer, hardly at all. Christmas was a major event for the magazine, reflecting its significance for radio, and later television, from the BBC, but at least on the covers of Radio Times religious services and bunnies very much took a back seat to sport and other attractions.

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‘Radio Times’ welcomes television

8th April 2020

John Wyver writes: The Future States conference, about which I have been writing and which continues online until 17 April, is focussed on illustrated magazines in the interwar period. In Britain, much of the academic work on this topic, at least in relation to popular titles, has considered the mainstream illustrated weeklies from mid-1930s on, and most notably Picture Post. But I have long been fascinated by Radio Times, the BBC’s weekly magazine which enjoyed a monopoly for broadcast listings.

From late October 1936, the ‘Television’ edition of Radio Times (which I believe was only around one-fifth of the copies printed each week, and only available in London) also included television listings and features, and these pages (available – albeit with significant gaps – via the invaluable BBC Genome) are an unparalleled source for understanding the early years of the new medium. Today, I want to muse a little about the only two pre-war covers of the magazine that featured television, published on 23 and 30 October 1936.

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Half-time at ‘Future States’

7th April 2020

John Wyver writes: for the past week or so I have been … what? ‘attending’, perhaps, or ‘participating in’, or ‘watching’, the Future States conference. I’ve posted before about this, and about its innovative online format, here and here, and I have been asked to offer some brief closing remarks for next week’s plenary session. So this is something of a try-out for that contribution – and I would be very pleased to hear from anyone else who may be experiencing the conference. Also, it’s not too late to register and be part of what I’m finding is a really interesting initiative.

The focus of the conference is ‘Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’, and while I am most certainly not a periodical studies scholar, I am really interested in the methodologies being developed in this field as well as specific aspects of the topic. My interest before I started looking in a little more detail at readings for the conference, and also at the contributions, was most strongly focussed on Britain and interwar photography, and especially its intermedial links with documentary film and early television. But it has been productively enlightening to learn about magazines in Canada, the Soviet Union and Australia.

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Sunday links

4th April 2020

John Wyver writes: after nearly a week of not posting to the blog, here’s the reading and viewing that has caught my attention over the past week, with just a few elements of Covid-19 related media.

Why the coronavirus crisis should not be compared to the Second World War: exemplary analysis, for New Statesman, from historian David Edgerton, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, the best history book I’ve read in years….

The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19: … and this is a remarkable, detailed, rigorous History & Policy paper drawn from a virtual roundtable held on 25 March, with convenor Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell , Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen , Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam – brilliant to see such responsive, informed historical discussion.

Appeasing Brexiteers: while we’re in historical mode, this is a fascinating comparison, published on 26 February, by Dr Andrew Black at The Federal Trust of Chamberlain’s Munich moment in 1938 and recent events among the Tories.

Why this crisis is a turning point in history: John Gray, also for ‘The Staggers’, with perhaps the most thoughtful “what next?” piece I’ve seen:

An advantage of quarantine is that it can be used to think afresh. Clearing the mind of clutter and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

How to set up an ICU: my goodness, this is good (and scary), on the demands of setting up NHS Nightingale and the like, for LRB by Lana Sprawls, a junior doctor training in paediatrics:

We don’t know what is about to happen. But we can be sure that the question will be asked whether, if we had done more to increase bed and staffing numbers (known to be dangerously low for many years), we would have been better equipped to fight the pandemic. 

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Prepping for ‘Future States’

30th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Today sees the start of the online conference ‘Future States: Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’ which I introduced last week. Organised by the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, this is operating with a nearly carbon-neutral conference format which over the next fortnight-plus will combine videos delivered by Youtube, related presentation materials on the conference website, links to additional resources and online forums (fora?) and chat. There’s a Twitter feed as well. I’m also delighted to say that the organisers have asked me, along with Barbara Green, professor of English, University of Notre Dame, to contribute some brief closing remarks at the start of a plenary session from 14 April.

I’ve been doing a little prep for the conference, of which more below. I’m hopeful that the contributions and exchanges with other participants will offer some much-needed stimulation — not to mention pleasure — in these dark days. I am deeply intrigued about the conference format and whether this is a viable sustainable alternative to conventional conferences with their huge carbon footprints.

And of course I’m really interested in the conference topic, which Andrew Thacker introduces briefly here, in the first offering from ‘Future States’ (available until 5 April) which has just gone online. Professor Thacker offers the briefest of guides to the field of modern periodical studies and puts forward the wise suggestion, appropriate in pretty much any context, that we will do well to learn from Antonio Gramsci.

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Sunday links

29th March 2020

John Wyver writes: the usual weekly dose of writings that have engaged me over the past week, including inevitably some Covid-19 pieces, complemented by one or two video fragments that I have found especially important – starting with…

The secret thoughts of Laura Jesson (as voiced by Celia Johnson): I love this beautiful video essay, below, authored by Catherine Grant. As she wrote on Friday on Facebook:

I decided to release this video in the wild today. It has been screened in public a lot in the last years. But I hadn’t got around to publishing it. It’s one of my videos about Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) and so also about Englishness and the (for me) terrible sadness of Brexit, as the time of the referendum was precisely when I began making it. It’s a video of and for lamentation, to be sure, and now feels like a good time to share it.

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Hobson’s choices: stage to screen

28th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Earlier this week I introduced the television reviews for The Listener written by Harold Hobson between May 1947 and September 1951. I want to dig into these further, today looking at a selection of the critic’s responses to theatre productions on television during these years. Hobson had been writing about the London stage for the Christian Science Monitor since 1931, and in 1945 he became deputy theatre critic, working under James Agate, at the Sunday Times. As Michael Billington wrote in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Hobson (who died in 1992);

The belated discovery by the Sunday Times‘s proprietor, Lord Kemsley, of Agate’s homosexuality led to Hobson, an approved family man, being appointed his successor in 1947. 

Hobson’s deep interest in the stage meant that in The Listener he wrote about both productions originally mounted in the theatre that were transferred to television and, more often, about television’s own productions of stage plays (which will be the focus of a future post). As a consequence, his columns are of particular interest to those of us who are engaged by the questions of translation from the stage to screens.

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Is ‘theatre’ mutating?

27th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Maybe this post will go a step, or indeed several such, too far. But humour me. I started out from a tiny moment of pleasure this morning when I saw that Andy Dickson had reviewed in the Financial Times the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon screen adaptation of Simon Godwin’s production of Hamlet (above, with Paapa Essiedu) that I produced back in 2016. I’m going to end up wondering whether one of the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis might be a substantially new conception for us all of the essence of theatre. Hamlet, first, however.

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