Postcard from Reading, part 1

20th September 2013

The modern campus of the University of Reading is a pleasant place, especially when flattered by the late afternoon sun of a mild autumn day. That’s where I have been for the last three days, taking part in an enjoyable and enlightening academic conference. Spaces of television: production, site and style [link: .pdf of conference schedule] was intended to be the culminating event of a major research project with the same title, although the organisers may now put together a further one-day conference about design for television. I found the panels, papers and discussions immensely stimulating and I was delighted to contribute one of the keynote lectures. Today’s blog picks out some of the highlights (including a Doctor Who re-enactment by Andrew Ireland, from whose PhD the header image comes) while a future post (now planned for Tuesday) will discuss in more detail a richly interesting panel about television archives.

The interests of Spaces of television project, which is headed by Professor Jonathan Bignell, are outlined on the project’s web page:

It concerns television fiction produced in the UK from 1955-94. It analyses how spaces of production (in TV studios and on location) conditioned the form and visual style of programmes, and how fictional spaces represented on screen used the opportunities and constraints of studio and exterior space, film and video technologies, and liveness and recording.

The idea of approaching this history through thinking about spaces – of where television was made, of how it circulated, of the places if can be found today – proved to be a productive idea, which was sufficiently defined to provide a focus but also appropriately broad so as not to be restricting. My offering started from the space of the stage of Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Stratford stage was where in the autumn of 1964 a BBC crew of more than fifty people recorded all three plays in the RSC’s trilogy The Wars of the Roses. This adaptation by John Barton and Peter Hall of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III was a defining production for the company, and despite having mounted in 1960 An Age of Kings, the BBC’s own History plays cycle, the Corporation devoted considerable resources to recording it. I have been researching its production, with my interest stimulated in part by working on the live-to-cinemas broadcast of the RSC’s Richard II on 13 November. This will also come from the RSC’s main stage in Stratford, although of course the theatre has been extensively re-modelled since 1964.

Frustratingly, The Wars of the Roses is not available on DVD (although we hope to remedy this in 2014) but a poor-quality off-air recording is on YouTube. The three plays were originally shown in full on BBC1 and then for a BBC2 screening they were re-edited into eleven parts, and it is this that is illegally available. This is the first part:

For me, there are all sorts of fascinating aspects to this television adaptation – some which I tried to tease out in my presentation – but those will have to wait for future posts and, I hope, a more substantial publication of some kind. One point, however, is that I tried really hard to find behind-the-scenes photographs of the production process at Stratford, but despite extensive searches in the RSC archives, the BBC stills database and the collections of various freelance photographers, I drew a complete blank. If anybody has a clue about where such photographs might be, I would love to know.

Perhaps the most engaging presentation at Reading was from Dr Andrew Ireland, who until recently was on the staff of the The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at Bournemouth University [which is where his brief bio still sits]. At Bournemouth Andrew did a PhD which was centred around a re-enactment experiment of part of an episode of Doctor Who.

He was interested in the studio production processes for broadcasting live television when Doctor Who began back in 1963, and to explore this he took the script of half of the Tooth and Claw episode from 2006 and re-made it in an approximation of a Lime Grove studio fifty years ago. As he explained, this was less about the end-product, which he screened for us in the session, than it was about the process of directing in these conditions.

The BBC and Stephen Moffatt gave him permission to do all this within an academic context, and sadly this means that the re-enactment itself cannot circulate more widely. But the full text of the PhD, including illustrations, is available as a free download here. This includes a range of illustrations, one of which – showing models for the studio shoot – I have reproduced above. I found this fascinating and it quickened my interest in the idea of re-enactment as a method for exploring the history of television drama.

Professor John Ellis gave an elegant keynote which focussed on a scene from Joseph Losey’s 1967 film Accident. This oblique and oh-so-English art film was scripted by Harold Pinter, who also has a cameo role as a distracted television producer. The central character, played by Dirk Bogarde, visits the production offices to meet another producer, who turns out to be sick. It’s a brief scene but as John illustrated with a close reading it reveals much about the conditions of television creation nearly fifty years ago. And as he demonstrated, the contrast with the office layout of  the BBC’s shiny new Broadcasting House reveals much about how television has changed over the years.

Another highlight was a presentation by Professor Jason Jacobs exploring the co-production complexities of the film drama series The Third Man, which was made by the BBC, National Telefilm Associates and British Lion, as well as one or two other entities. Jason’s careful dissection of the deals, rights, funding, potential profit shares (although in fact there were none) was at least as full of interest – and a good deal stranger – than the series itself. This is one of the few fragments currently available online.

One of the frustrations of an event like this, which often had three separate and simultaneous strands of papers, is that you miss much that sounds promising. But I did catch a very good panel with contributions by three of the academics who have been central to the Spaces of Television research: Dr Billy Smart, who deconstructed a scene from a 1976 episode of Within These Walls; Dr Leah Panos, who explored a 1972 Armchair Theatre play, The Folk Singer; and Professor Stephen Lacey, who discussed the BBC’s 1990s series of classic theatre plays, Performance.. My Screen Plays colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley also gave a really interesting paper about the director Joan Kemp-Welch.

One of the strengths of the Reading event was the involvement of practitioners, and we heard reminiscences from among others directors Piers Haggard and Brian Farnham and designer Darrol Blake. Not only is it often immensely engaging listening to those who worked in television in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but they are also hugely important for helping us all understand what it was like in a very different television world and how the production processes shaped what we saw on our screens.

The final afternoon also saw a panel dedicated to the topic of television archives – but this demands a separate post which will follow tomorrow.

Update (late Saturday): I had every intention of completing Part 2 today but in fact the issues are complex and need a bit more time than I can devote to them today; my aim now is to publish that post under the title ‘Nobody cares’ on Tuesday.

But in the meantime do read Andrew Pixley’s enthusiastic, informed and generous response to the conference on The Mausoleum Club Forum (it’s about the ninth contribution down).

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