BFI Southbank is midway through a season of the television plays of the radical writer Trevor Griffiths. Tuesday last featured the playwright reflecting on his career (and I was frustrated I couldn’t attend) but still to come are showings of:
Tonight, 18.20, 11 May: Through the Night – an exceptional 1975 BBC studio drama drawing on the experiences of Griffiths’ then-wife being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, with a remarkable performance by Alison Steadman under Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s direction.
20.30, 16 May: Country (with Penelope Wilton, above) – perhaps Griffiths’ masterpiece, this is an extraordinary 1981 BBC film, directed by Richard Eyre, set in a country house at the end of World War Two as the Labour Party wins the election; it’s hard to argue with season organiser Marcus Prince’s assessment that this is ‘one of the greatest analyses of class power to grace our screens.
18.15, 23 May: Hope in the Year Two + Fall of Eagles: Absolute Beginners – in the former, filmed in 1994, Elijah Moshinsky directs Griffiths’ stalwart Jack Shepherd as French revolutionary figure George Danton; in the latter, the playwright dramatises the Bolshevik/Menshevik split during the Russian Revolution.
Long ago, I co-wrote with Mike Poole a book, released by BFI Publishing in 1984, about the television plays of Trevor Griffiths. Powerplays: Trevor Griffiths in Television is very much a text of its time – and astonishingly, that time is 33 years ago. But on pulling my copy off the shelf yesterday, I found that parts of it are still at least readable – and that they speak of a cultural politics that is at once distant and immediate. Here, for example, is a section from the introduction that Mike and I co-wrote:
Griffiths’ understanding of the medium [that is, television] underpins the strategies he has developed for working within it. And this understanding begins with that recognition of its importance: the theatre ‘is incapable, as a social institution, of reaching, let alone mobilising, large popular audiences… there are fewer cinemagoers in Britain now than there are anglers; fewer regular theatre-goers than car-rallyers. For most people, plays are television plays “drama” is television drama.’
Such importance inevitably involves control. The system of control and its relation to those who benefit from it is complex, but what is important for Griffiths is that the control is not, and indeed cannot be, absolute. Drawing on the writing of H.M. Enzensberger, he sees television as a ‘leaky’ system which can be exploited to make and transmit works subversive of itself and of the understandings dominant within society. In part this ‘leakiness’ is due to television’s size and scope, for it could only be rigidly policed by a censor’s office larger than any other element within it. Moreover, ‘direct leakage is not the only sort: for example the “meanings” or “messages” of plays are often encoded in such a way that the controllers of television output are incapable of decoding them with any precision.’
We do not wish in this introduction to offer a substantial elaboration and critique of this, or of our own, theory of the media. Ours will be implicit in what follows: Griffiths’ is essential to the plays, and his roles in their production. In particular, this last remark accounts for his obduracy in resisting imposed changes to his scripts and the importance he attaches to the resultant struggles.
Closely related to this is his conception of an active, individuated audience. In a preface to two published television scripts, he admiringly quotes Raymond Williams: ‘The telly-glued “masses” do not exist; they are the bad fiction of our second-rate social analysts. What the masses might do is anybody’s guess. But the actual men and women, under permanent kinds of difficulty, will observe and learn, and I do not think in the long run they will be anybody’s windfall.’
Griffiths’ recognition of its importance, its ‘leakiness’ and its active audience is intimately bound up with the two strategies with which his work has become associated in media debates over the last decade: entryism or ‘strategic penetration’, and a continuing commitment to naturalism. We will return to both of these on numerous occasions in our analysis. Here it is sufficient to note their inter-connectedness.