Stages and the small screen
Theatre plays as television drama since 1930
in Screen plays
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As an introductory overview of the history of stage plays on British television, this chapter locates a wide range of individual broadcasts from 1936 to 2020 within institutional and broader cultural histories. After a brief consideration of these broadcasts as screen adaptations, the chapter first traces the ways in which television presented productions created for the stage prior to any encounter with cameras—as outside broadcasts (OBs) or studio re-workings; it then parallels this with a chronicle of television’s own productions of plays written for the stage. Both strands of the history discuss the extensive output of stage plays from the BBC Television service before the Second World War, including the first broadcasts from theatres in London’s West End. Post-war BBC productions, including those from BBC2 after 1964, are contrasted with the presentations of stage plays by the new ITV companies from 1955 onwards. The decline in stage plays on mainstream television from the late 1960s onwards is outlined, together with their brief revival as theatre recordings in the first years of Channel 4. The chapter also recognises the almost complete absence of stage plays on television in the 1990s and early 2000s, reviewing possible reasons for this, before recognising the modest revival of theatre on television that followed the success of ‘event cinema’ screenings by NT Live and other initiatives in the 2010s. The chapter’s focus throughout is on the reasons why television has sought to adapt and produce both kinds of screen plays, and it concludes with a brief consideration of the value of performance recordings for BBC Television, especially during the pandemic lockdown from March 2020.

Screen plays

Theatre plays on British television

Editors: Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver

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