Peter Hall put the RSC on screen

13th September 2017

Much is being written about the truly extraordinary achievements of Sir Peter Hall, whose death at the age of 86 has been announced. Mark Lawson’s piece for the Guardian is already a highlight: deeply informed, admiring but far from uncritical. And Michael Billington’s obituary is here. I feel especially close to one strand of his work with the RSC, which he brought into existence in 1961, since I am writing a book about film and television adaptations of the company’s work. Soon after Peter Hall transformed the Stratford Memorial Theatre company into the RSC he was pushing for it to do television and a little later in the decade he was one of the key figures that led to the setting up an – ultimately unsuccessful – film partnership.

Even if some of the television broadcasts with which he was involved no longer survive, we do have – in large part thanks to Peter Hall – remarkably rich moving image traces of the RSC in the 1960s. And part of his legacy is a number of major adaptations, including a 1959 television (which was never broadcast) and a 1969 movie version of his Stratford production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a compelling version of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and a television masterpiece, The Wars of the Roses (which we were thrilled to release on DVD last year).

The Wars of the Roses was the defining stage production of Peter Hall’s years as Artistic Director and one of the RSC’s supreme  achievements, and the 1965 television adaptation is acknowledged as among the greatest of translations of Shakespeare to the small screen. A stage and then screen version of the Henry IV plays and Richard III, created by Hall with John Barton, it was the product of a contract between the BBC and the RSC signed in 1962 that committed the parties to making four productions together. This was then extended to accommodate The Wars of the Roses, which was on stage in 1963 and ’64, and four further collaborations before the end of 1966.

In these first years of the 1960s, and especially just before the first National Theatre productions in 1965, the RSC was an extraordinarily vital company under Peter Hall, and with a public profile to match. Fortuitously, given that so much television drama from the decade has been lost, we have six and a half (counting The Wars of the Roses trilogy as three) recordings of exceptional productions that capture much of the energy, originality and brilliance of the company at this moment.

Having undergone an internal revolution led by Hall, the RSC was mounting exciting productions of not only Shakespeare and his contemporaries but also controversial works of contemporary drama. And in its experimental productions by Peter Brook and others it was challenging the boundaries of what the theatre could be. BBC Television, while wary of the more outré elements being developed by the company, was delighted to deliver on its public service responsibilities by taking both full-length versions and filmed fragments of the company’s mainstream productions to audiences that were geographically, socially and culturally excluded from the company’s theatres. Indeed in April 1961, Peter Hall told the Daily Mail, ‘We have not gone into this because of money; we won’t get much out of it. But if we can interest the man in the street in the theatre through television then it will be well worthwhile.’

As a consequence, archival survivals from the time include, in addition to The Wars of the Roses, a gloriously played version of The Cherry Orchard with John Gielgud and a young Judi Dench, a production of As You Like It in which Vanessa Redgrave dazzles as Rosalind, a record of Clifford Williams’ hit version of The Comedy of Errors at the Aldwych Theatre, and just half (at least currently that’s all that can be found) of a richly-hued All’s Well That Ends Well, which was British television’s first colour production of a Shakespeare play.

Peter Hall’s early RSC production of Giraudoux’s comedy Ondine, with his then-wife Leslie Caron in the lead, was broadcast – or at least Act 2 of it was – from the Aldwych theatre in 1962, but this appears no longer to exist. And from later in the decade there was a BBC broadcast of a similarly obscure French play, Marguerite Duras’ Days in the Trees, which was directed by John Schlesinger with Peggy Ashcroft. This, too, is lost.

Peter Hall’s surviving feature film work from these years includes a truly dreadful movie developed from Henry Livings’ play Eh!, which the director had staged at the Aldwych with David Warner. Transformed into the film Work is a Four Letter Word, 1968, with Warner and – honestly – Cilla Black, this was Hall’s debut feature film and is best forgotten (although there’s a BBC archive clip of him on set here). And then there is his feature film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1969, with Judi Dench, Diana Rigg and David Warner again, which was the fruit of the RSC’s feature film company for which Peter Hall was the driving force.

Under Peter Hall the RSC valued and nurtured its relationship with BBC Television. Yet throughout these years the company also explored other screen options, including producing for the nascent Pay-TV service operated by British Home Entertainment and taking tentative steps towards making media for what would come to be known as video cassettes. A study of the confidential minutes of RSC’s Executive Council meetings, however, suggests that for Hall, as for a number of others leading the organisation, the cinema was the prize that was especially coveted.

In the mid-1960s the RSC’s Executive Council came to believe that movies were at least one answer to the company’s persistently precarious finances, and as a consequence they – cautiously – signed a contract that would by the turn of the decade prove to be a burden rather than the hoped-for boon. This committed the company to enter a three-picture deal to make screen Shakespeares for the Hollywood production entity Filmways. Central to these films  was the cinema producer and RSC governor Michael Birkett, son of a prominent barrister and, on his father’s death in 1962, inheritor of the title of Lord. By June 1966, Peter Hall was enthusing to the Sunday Times that ‘the future of our company is bound up with films… [although] I can’t see us ever calling ourselves the Royal MGM Shakespeare Company or anything like that.’

The fruits of Lord Birkett and Peter Hall hitching the RSC to Hollywood included the film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But as this was in production there was a contractual crisis when Paul Scofield decided he did not wish to continue with a promised screen version of Macbeth. The joint venture also led, albeit obliquely, to King Lear, 1970, made by Brook, Birklett and Scofield in an arrangement that ultimately had little connection with the theatre company. Yet this film is perhaps the boldest and most distinguished screen version of any RSC stage production. The hoped-for dollars, however, remained frustratingly elusive, and as the company entered the 1970s, and as the fall-out from the failed venture continued, the RSC was forced to recognise that its saviour as a financially challenged theatre company was not to be the cinema.

For the full story of all of this, you will have to wait for my book. In the meantime, like so many others I am intensely grateful that Peter Hall’s fascination with both television and the cinema means that we have so much from the 1960s to appreciate and enjoy today.

Image: David Warner as Henry VI in the BBC production of the John Barton and Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses.

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