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Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver

In its early years, drama for television was centrally defined by a range of theatrical relationships. Until well into the 1950s, current and recent stagings as well as the wider theatrical repertoire were the primary sources for television drama, and stage techniques remained the dominant influence on small-screen style and presentation. Fewer such productions were made after the 1960s, although they have continued to have a presence in television’s schedules, and the newer medium has continued to draw in multiple ways on plays written for and staged in theatres. These adaptations have enabled audiences of millions across the generations to access and experience theatre in performance in their homes. This Introduction proposes that the development of a critical focus on stage plays on the small screen is long overdue in both television and theatre studies. This absence was addressed in the University of Westminster research project ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’ (2011–15), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Explorations undertaken within this project, and specifically those prepared for its two conferences, have been developed for the chapters included in this volume. The content and approach of these chapters are summarised in this Introduction. Collectively, the contributions propose that television’s adaptations of stage plays deserve far greater attention and analysis than they have received to date from scholars of either television or the theatre.

in Screen plays
Middleton’s tragedies on television, 1965–2009
Susanne Greenhalgh

The reputation of the Jacobean dramatist Thomas Middleton has undergone an upsurge in recent years, in part thanks to promotion of the author by scholar Gary Taylor as ‘our other Shakespeare’. Middleton’s best-known tragedy, The Changeling (co-written with William Rowley), was adapted by Granada for ITV in 1965, when it was accompanied by a broadcast of Middleton’s other celebrated tragedy, Women Beware Women. Subsequent television adaptations of The Changeling were more predictably made and transmitted by the BBC in 1974 and 1994. However, in 2009 ITV returned to the play with a contemporary adaptation, Compulsion, which offered a version of the play set in multicultural Britain.

The British television production history of The Changeling is thus perhaps the most comprehensive of any early modern tragedy other than those by Shakespeare, and this history provides an invaluable means to compare the televisual treatment of the content and conventions of an early modern tragedy by the BBC and ITV from the mid-1960s to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

This chapter provides detailed analyses of all four versions of The Changeling, together with reference to the 1965 Women Beware Women. Overall, the chapter seeks to examine the ways television has addressed its violent and sexual content in different decades. Further informed by recent feminist scholarship, the chapter seeks to trace the changing attitudes to sexuality, madness and violence encoded by the different productions, during a period of British social history which saw the rise and decline of feminism and significant cultural shifts in accepted codes of sexual behaviour and morality.

in Screen plays
Television adaptations by Peter Cheeseman’s Victoria Theatre company
Lez Cooke

"The Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, under the artistic direction of Peter Cheeseman, was one of the UK’s leading regional theatre companies from the early 1960s to the late 1990s. Committed to theatre in-the-round, dramatising local issues in a series of documentary dramas and adaptations of literary works by local author Arnold Bennett, the Victoria Theatre was firmly anchored in the local communities of the North Staffordshire region of the English Midlands. Between 1967 and 1974, this regional commitment was evident in the production of four plays for television, all by television companies based in the Midlands. This chapter explores these adaptations from short stories by Bennett and from his novel Anna of the Five Towns (ATV, 1971), as well as Fight for Shelton Bar (BBC2, 1974), a half-hour drama made for BBC English Regions Drama’s Second City Firsts series and adapted from a longer stage version of one of the company’s local documentaries about the struggle to prevent the closure of the steelworks in Stoke-on-Trent. The chapter draws on personal interviews with members of the Victoria Theatre to consider aesthetic and practical issues involved in transposing theatre plays produced in-the-round to the television studio for recording on multiple cameras or, in the case of Fight for Shelton Bar, on a single camera using long takes. This analysis is placed in the context of regional drama production in the 1960s and 1970s and of changes in the structure of British television in the 1980s and 1990s which had a profound effect on the production of regional television drama. "

in Screen plays
Verbatim plays on television in the new millennium
Cyrielle Garson

Verbatim theatre, a type of drama based on actual words spoken by real people, has enjoyed a remarkable and unexpected renaissance in Britain since the mid-1990s. This chapter argues that the television presentation of verbatim theatre plays raises important questions about aesthetic experimentation and political significance in contemporary culture. Drawing on Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, the chapter also charts the complex ways in which both the political and aesthetic contours of verbatim theatre are reconfigured in the translation of the plays from stage to television. Through a comparative analysis of the Tricycle Theatre’s Justifying War (2004) and Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (2007), this study explores whether the move away from theatre implies a change of function and therefore a change of identity for verbatim theatre. Dividing the discussion of the plays into two main sections—the first concerning ‘immediacy’ and ‘hypermediacy’ and the second their political dimension—the chapter posits that the new context of mediation redefines the audience’s engagement with verbatim theatre.

The second section also interrogates whether the identified shift that verbatim theatre undergoes in the translation to television inevitably involves a process of depoliticisation, thus endeavouring to articulate the friction between verbatim theatre’s political purposes and the reverberation of television as a journalistic medium. The conclusion reached is that verbatim plays serve an oppositional politics, the voice of which is amplified by television. The chapter thus not only documents the significance of verbatim plays on television in the first decade of the twenty-first century but also contributes to a broader scholarly discussion about verbatim theatre as cultural intervention within a contested and contradictory field of engagement.

in Screen plays
The Harold Pinter season on Theatre 625 (BBC2, 1967)
Amanda Wrigley and Billy Smart

Theatre 625 (1964–8) was BBC2’s most prestigious drama strand in its early years from its launch in 1964, presenting often experimental and innovative television productions of plays in short thematic seasons.

In February 1967, Theatre 625 transmitted three plays by Harold Pinter in consecutive weeks. Produced by Michael Bakewell, the season consisted of A Slight Ache, Pinter’s first play written for radio, broadcast by the BBC in 1959; A Night Out which, although it had premiered on BBC Radio in March 1960, had originally been developed as a television play (and in April 1960 an ABC for ITV production of it reached 6.4m households); and The Basement, initially an unproduced screen play, received its first production in this season as an original work for television.

Employing textual analysis and drawing on archival documentation, this chapter discusses how this Theatre 625 season sought to engage with the legacy to this point of Pinter on radio and television (the main channels that Pinter had become a well-known name amongst non-theatre-going households), whilst at the same time producing new work that was distinctive and, in some ways (e.g. design, editing), engaged in a sophisticated way with Pinter’s dramatic range and now-established reputation.

in Screen plays
Jonathan Bignell

As a living writer, Samuel Beckett’s personal connections with performers, directors and theatre venues could be harnessed by production staff keen to present his work on television. For Beckett’s collaborators, adapting his plays offered other opportunities: small casts, single settings and suitability for shooting in the controlled environment of the television studio. Public service imperatives to disseminate his work underpinned repeated adaptations of Beckett’s plays throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, often drawing on broadcasters’ links with theatre venues, productions and personnel. But television adaptations of Beckett’s theatre work received poor ratings and audience feedback; they looked old-fashioned because they were recorded in a studio, and their long takes with few cuts could make the plays seem ‘theatrical’ rather than ‘televisual’.

In Britain, adaptations of Krapp’s Last Tape appeared in both the BBC’s Festival and Thirty Minute Theatre series, but it was mainly arts programmes like Arena on BBC2 that transmitted original and co-produced or imported productions of Beckett’s plays. This chapter discusses a range of different kinds of Beckett adaptation and places three adaptations of Krapp’s Last Tape within that broader context. The three productions use different strategies to direct viewers’ attention to bravura performances in relatively fully realised sets, and a comparison of the versions offers ways to address questions about what television adaptations of theatre aimed to achieve and the opportunities and constraints with which they negotiated.

in Screen plays
Abstract only
Theatre plays on British television
Editors: Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver

In this edited collection, scholars use a variety of methodologies to explore the history of stage plays produced for British television between 1936 and the present. The volume opens with a substantial historical outline of the how plays originally written for the theatre were presented by BBC Television and the ITV companies as well as by independent producers and cultural organisations. Subsequent chapters analyse television adaptations of existing stage productions, including a 1937 presentation of a J. B. Priestley play by producer Basil Dean; work by companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stoke-on-Trent’s Victoria Theatre and the Radical Alliance of Poets and Players; the verbatim dramas from the Tricycle Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland; and Mike Leigh’s comedy Abigail’s Party, originally staged for Hampstead Theatre and translated to the Play for Today strand in 1977. Broadcast television’s original productions of classic and contemporary drama are also considered in depth, with studies of television productions of plays by Jacobean dramatists John Webster and Thomas Middleton, and by Henrik Ibsen and Samuel Beckett. In addition, the volume offers a consideration of the contribution to television drama of the influential producer Cedric Messina who, between 1967 and 1977, oversaw BBC Television’s Play of the Month strand before initiating The BBC Television Shakespeare (1978–85); the engagement with television adaptations by modern editors of Shakespeare’s plays; and Granada Television’s eccentric experiment in 1969–70 of running The Stables Theatre Company as a producer for both stage and screen. Collectively, these chapters open up new areas of research for all those engaged in theatre, media and adaptation studies.

Theatre plays as television drama since 1930
John Wyver

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.

in Screen plays
Stephen Lacey

Theatre director turned television producer Simon Curtis, when in charge of BBC’s Performance strand of stage/screen adaptations, argued that he subscribed to the widely held view that television drama is generally disposed towards Naturalism. This set of qualities is seen as the ‘default position’ of much television drama and largely understood in terms of verisimilitude in design, use of space and acting. It is opposed, implicitly if not explicitly, to scenic stylisation and experimentation, now much more familiar in the theatre, which was thought to be a dead end for studio drama. This version of Naturalism-as-scenic-literalism is not entirely inaccurate, but it sells Naturalism short, as does the impulsive rejection of stylisation and the theatrical.

This chapter subjects naturalism, and Naturalism, to critical scrutiny, to rescue it from the limitations of habit and to consider how it might help in the analysis of selected productions of one of the most adapted of nineteenth-century dramatists, Henrik Ibsen. Reciprocally, such an analysis might also show the potential of television drama to negotiate a complex understanding of Naturalism as a historical phenomenon, rather than a contemporary habit. This chapter is particularly concerned with the use of space, with the reconfiguring of historical stage conventions for the television studio and in the nature of actors’ performances. The examples chosen here are: Ghosts (dir. Elijah Moshinsky, BBC, 1987), A Doll’s House (dir. David Thacker, BBC, 1992) and Hedda Gabler (dir. Deborah Warner, BBC, 1993).

in Screen plays
Basil Dean and the 1938 BBC outside broadcast of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married
Victoria Lowe

BBC Television aired its first live outside broadcast of a full-length play from a West End theatre in 1938: this pioneering event was the production of J. B. Priestley’s comedy When We Are Married, produced by Basil Dean for the theatre and transmitted direct from London’s St Martin’s Theatre. This chapter explores the significance of this first live outside broadcast of a full-length play, initially by locating it within a historical frame that encompasses Dean’s work between theatre and film in the 1930s. 

An outline of the creative conditions in which the broadcast took place is contextualised with reference to broader discussions around relationships between the arts in the immediate pre-war period. This discussion draws upon archival resources that point to Dean’s ideas about the relationship between stage and screen and the practical steps taken to manifest these ideas. It examines the circumstances surrounding the theatre production and then considers its adaptation for live broadcast and the technology used to achieve this. 

The discussion also looks at some of the publicity for the broadcast, including a television programme made a week before the broadcast (neither this nor the outside broadcast itself was recorded), and the press reaction to it, going on to expand the frame to investigate some of the broader dialogue taking place at this time as to how relations could be developed between theatre and television. 

in Screen plays