University of Westminster at Alexandra Palace, 19-20 February 2015
Few forms of TV drama have historically been more neglected within television studies than the adapted stage play. With the exception of Jeremy Ridgman’s handy 1998 collection Boxed Sets[i], little has been published on the theatrical adaptation, and passing mention of it in historical overviews has often taken the form of lazy generalisations (“stagey”) that pay little attention to either what was adapted or how it played. Yet the stage adaptation was a mainstay of British television until the 1980s, with thousands of productions covering a tremendous range of styles (pretty much every type of drama from theatre history was attempted on screen at least once) and approaches.
Over the past four years the University of Westminster’s AHRC-funded ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’ project has done tremendous work in rectifying this neglect. Other television historians have looked on with admiration (and concern!) at the extensive quantity of work that John Wyver and Amanda Wrigley have generated; an exhaustive blog (a model of how to maintain an online research site), two conferences and two one-day events, many papers and articles, and four seasons at BFI Southbank. Thanks to their hard work, much more is now known about the stage adaptation. Each time that one of hundreds of case studies presented to the wider world by Wrigley and Wyver is read about or seen, it sticks in the memory of an academic, eventually becoming referred to and cited, adding depth and perspective to collective understanding of the history and development of television drama.
February’s conference at Alexander Palace (including a visit to the BBC’s first TV studios), the final event of the project, demonstrated the range of perspectives and methodologies that study of the adaptation can bring to television (and theatre) studies. Stephen Lacey’s keynote (‘‘All drama which owes its form or substance to theatre plays is OUT’: conflicting ideas about ‘theatricality’ in UK television drama’) usefully set out a theoretical context for the historical disparagement of the stage play, and discussion over the following two days, referring backwards – to Troy Kennedy Martin’s 1964 denunciation of stage-derived naturalist television drama and Susan Sontag’s distinction between the ‘theatrical’ and ‘cinematic’ – and forwards towards the resilient survival and thriving of theatrical staging and narrative in current television drama (see Nanicelli 2014)[ii].
David Warren’s impressive and thorough overview of the fluctuating standing of the form at the BBC and ITV from the ‘50s to the ‘70s offered insights into both canon formation and institutional understandings as to the wider value and purpose of television drama. Charles Barr showed how study of the adaptation compliments classical film studies textual analysis, via application of naturalist thought about frontal perspective through the proscenium arch. Susanne Greenhalgh’s analysis of three different interpretations of the same scene from The Changeling over 40 years showed something of the unique value that the stage adaptation can offer textual analysis, through periodical revivals of texts that carry centuries of performance history.
Negotiations to take theatrical productions across media can provide distinctive insights into archival research, as demonstrated by three papers. John Wyver’s research into early television unearthed a print of one of the earliest live TV relays of a theatrical performance (filmed adjacent to – and simultaneously with – the TV cameras, so an accurate record of what viewers would have seen), the climactic dance of the Lambeth Walk from a 1939 production of Me and My Girl at the Victoria Palace. Lez Cooke’s paper also concentrated upon extracts from an early production, 1953’s Anastasia (recently presented as part of the ‘TV’s Forgotten Dramas’ season at BFI Southbank), following its commercial history and unlikely survival through documentation. Jonathan Bignell used the BBC’s sporadic productions of Samuel Beckett as a springboard for investigating the tricky territory of the development of rights and copyright as applied to television.
Studies of television versions of recent and contemporary plays can illuminate analysis of the careers of practitioners such as playwrights, actors and directors. This was seen in papers about the parallel TV and stage career of Joe Orton in the 1960s (James Charlton) and the rare screen productions of the plays of John Osborne (Billy Smart). The stage adaptation also provides unexpected openings to investigate television drama beyond that produced by drama departments, such as Sally Shaw’s research into 1970s black theatre presented through the BBC’s community programmes unit, Leah Panos’s work into the theatrical extracts incorporated into the ambitious weekly live BBC Arts performance strand Full House (1973-4), and Amanda Wrigley’s continued research into the little-known dramatic productions of the Open University throughout the project.
Although stage adaptations are rarely seen on present day British television, research into them can yield particularly rewarding insights, such as the transformation of David Haig’s My Boy Jack from Hampstead Theatre to lavish ITV Daniel Radcliffe star vehicle, with the resultant implications for the story’s narrative thoughtfully drawn out by Kate Iles. John Wyver provided insights drawn from his parallel career as television producer in his interview with Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who directed television versions of Macbeth (2001), Hamlet (2008) and Julius Caesar (2012) for Wyver’s company, Illuminations Media.
Although the February conference was the final event of the Screen Plays project, two further records of its work are still to come; an edited collection and a vast, searchable online database of all screen adaptations made for British television, a prototype of which was demonstrated at the event by Amanda Wrigley. This site will incorporate much in the way of useful context beyond the invaluable record of what was made, by whom, and when. This database will leave a permanent record of the good work done by the project, and will prove an invaluable resource for future television and theatre scholars.
Billy Smart is Research Officer at the AHRC-funded ‘Forgotten British Television drama: 1946-1982’ project at Royal Holloway ( http://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/ )
[i] Ridgman, Jeremy (ed.), Boxed Sets: Television Representations of Theatre, Luton: University of Luton Press, 1998, pp.141-58.
[ii] Kennedy Martin, Troy, (1964), ‘Nats Go Home: first statement of a new drama for television’, Encore 48, March-April
Nanicelli, Ted (2014), ‘The Naturalist Theatrical Aesthetic of Bottle Episodes’, Critical Studies in Television, 9,3 Autumn
Sontag, Susan (1992), ‘Film and Theatre’ in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (Oxford University Press).