Screening Serjeant Musgrave

12th November 2012

I thought it might be time to bring this blog up to date with the news from my ‘other’ project, Screen Plays. This is a three-year research initiative based at the University of Westminster and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. With my colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley, I am exploring the history of theatre plays on television and working towards a book, a collection of papers and a freely accessible online database with details of all 3,000-plus British television productions since 1930 of plays originally written for the theatre. The project is almost at its halfway point, we have just had our first conference and we continue to develop an active blog, to which today I contributed a discussion of John Arden’s play Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (above) which was produced by Granada in 1961 and is available as a Network DVD. For more on all of this, read on…

On Friday 19 October around thirty scholars and others interested in our topic met at the University of Westminster to listen to a dozen papers about stage plays on television. It’s fair to say that we thought that it was a very stimulating event – and you can read my report on the day here. One of our Advisory Board, Dr Luke McKernan from the British Library, also blogged the conference and you can see his thoughts here.

Back in the summer we also put together a half-day symposium about Greek tragedy on the small screen, which accompanied Amanda’s Classics on TV season at BFI Southbank. Again, there is a report online, as well as detailed discussions of the productions that we screened. Our next Classics on TV season is scheduled for the spring at BFI Southbank and is likely to showcase television productions of Jacobean tragedy – sign up with the Screen Plays blog for further news about this.

As for the blog, we are contributing regular posts about a range of theatre plays on television, like my discussion of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance today. Here is an extract from the post – and you can read the whole piece here.

The play was first presented by the English Stage Company at London’s Royal Court Theatre in the autumn of 1959, and one of the more surprising aspects of Granada’s adaptation two years later is that it was made at all. Billington records that the original production

… emptied the Royal Court like a dose of salts, and infuriated critics […] in spite of Lindsay’s Anderson’s brilliant production and Ian Bannen’s demonic performance as Musgrave, the play achieved only twenty-one per cent sales at the Court box office. (State of the Nation, pp. 116, 117)

For Granada, director Stuart Burge took over responsibilities from Lindsay Anderson, but several of the cast came across from the English Stage Company production. […] Critical attitudes to the play also changed rapidly, so that in early 1962 Ian Rodger could write in The Listener that Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was one of ‘the two most important plays of the nineteen-fifties’ (the other, inevitably, was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) (‘Two Milestones’, 15 March 1962, p. 487).

Stuart Burge’s 78-minute studio production for Granada of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is such a radical adaptation – undertaken by the playwright himself — as to almost constitute a new play. All of the action now takes place in the centre of an anonymous northern town torn apart by a bitter dispute at the colliery. The opening and closing scenes, on a canal wharf and in a prison cell respectively, are folded back into a single studio setting (designed by William Brodie) that effectively encompasses the barroom, a bedroom, the stables and outhouse of an inn, streets and a cemetery, and – for the climactic scene – the town square.

In case you have any doubts, the production stands up exceptionally  – and it’s wonderful to have it available again on DVD.

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