To BFI Southbank later for all eight hours of the Channel 4/Primetime version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. I’ve said before that the stage production, seen over a Saturday in the Aldwych Theatre in the late summer of 1980, remains one of the defining theatrical experiences of my life. And the television adaptation that followed two years later, after the theatre show had enjoyed an extraordinary success, is also pretty good. But it’s a long time since I watched the whole thing, which is what I’m to do today – in addition to chairing a panel with co-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, writer David Edgar and David Threlfall, who was such a moving Smike. As the show was coming together, The South Bank Show secured good access to the rehearsals – and much (although frustratingly not all) of Andrew Snell’s documentary is on YouTube, in what appears to be an off-air recording. For this post I have gathered up the four sections and written a few notes on each.
There are lots of striking things about this ‘making of…’ film, not least of which is how many people are smoking in rehearsals and group discussions. The YouTube version has no opening titles, and we begin in media res with the casting announcement – seven weeks (!) after rehearsals began. The cast had expressed preferences about the leading roles they would have liked to play, and John Caird explains that ten wanted to Nicholas and eight Smike. ‘Six of the company are unhappy about the casting,’ Melvyn says in voiceover, ‘and decide to leave the company.’ The character of Kate is discussed by John Caird and David Edgar, and this exchange carries over…
… where it is complemented by an examination of what motivates Ralph Nickleby, and we see fragments of John Woodvine’s magisterial characterisation. We also see something of the early stages of the relationship between Nicholas (Roger Rees) and Smike, and the development of one of the wonderfully comic exchanges between Fanny Squeers (Suzanne Bertish) and Tilda Price (Julie Peasgood).
Edgar in interview talks about how he wrote the scene where Nicholas rejects Fanny, and how he tried to make Fanny a more sympathetic and richer character, stripping away some of Dickens’ pompous descriptiveness. Roger Rees considers the effect of integrating elements of Dickens’ narration.
And finally, this short, incomplete section features the first rehearsal with the music of the late, great Stephen Oliver.
The great debate
Watching these fragments of the documentary, much as is the case with any documentary, there is no sense of the discussion about the filming before the cameras were allowed into the rehearsal room. So it’s fascinating to read The Nicholas Nickleby Story, an illustrated book by assistant director Leon Rubin about the development of the theatre show, which was published by Heinemann in 1981. Rubin recounts in detail the debate about whether or not to let The South Bank Show make a feature-length programme.
Trevor Nunn, apparently, was initially dead set against the idea, while John Caird was enthusiastic (which partly accounts for Caird’s greater presence in the finished film). David Edgar and Rubin himself were ambivalent. As Rubin writes,
Rehearsal is a very private process. Within the four safe walls of a rehearsal room actors and directors must have the time and opportunity to allow themselves to make mistakes. They must be free to say and do stupid things, if necessary. With a television camera watching, all our instincts go towards trying to appear good-natured and intelligent and impressive all the time – the opposite of what a healthy rehearsal process is all about.
The counter view was that Nickleby was a major RSC project, and the company then (and it could be argued now) was not very good about recording its work as fully and carefully as it might. The vigorous debate was opened up to the cast and eventually a voting system was put in place. Everyone would be asked to indicate – anonymously – one of three answers to the question ‘Shall we agree to London Weekend Television coming to film us?’ People could vote 1) Yes; 2) No, but I will agree if a majority vote yes; and 3) Absolutely no.
In a first ballot most people voted ‘Yes’, with only a few ‘Nos’ and a single veto. This caused much upset within the company, but Trevor Nunn went back to LWT and secured some guarantees, including the principle that the cameras would stop filming if requested to do so. There was another vote, and despite there being two absolute objections this time, it was agreed that the filming could proceed. As Rubin observed in the book, ‘So much for democracy’.