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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
John Wyver

In late 1968, Granada Television hired a group of actors—including the young Maureen Lipman, Richard Wilson and John Shrapnel—and converted a former railway building in Manchester into a fringe theatre. The intention was that The Stables Theatre Company would mount a programme of plays, a selection of which would be recorded in the television studio for broadcast, and for the next two years the ITV contractor supported The Stables as it mounted for local audiences an extensive and well-reviewed programme of plays and revues and recorded a number of these productions in the television studio. Apart from a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, all of these were new plays, the majority of which were commissioned by The Stables. After two years, however, Granada recognised that the venture could not be profitable and cut off its financial support. The Stables mounted a public appeal to continue without the broadcaster’s backing, but by the end of March 1971, the unique experiment was over.

On no other occasion in British television history has a broadcaster owned and operated a theatre company. Drawing on an interview with the artistic director of The Stables, Gordon McDougall, press coverage of the relationship between The Stables and Granada, other documentation including company reports and private memos and viewings of three of the television productions preserved in the ITV archive, this chapter explores the aesthetic aspirations of The Stables project and the reasons for its failure. The chapter considers the fit between McDougall’s original idea and the interests of Granada Television and the company’s founder, Sidney Bernstein, who had expressed a wish to set up a theatre as a testing ground for new playwrights and plays.

The legacy of The Stables includes support at an early stage in their careers for a number of prominent playwrights, including Arthur Hopcraft, Trevor Griffiths and Peter Ransley. But the problems posed by endeavouring to align the interests and concerns of a small theatre company shaped by a strong artistic vision with the industrial processes of commercial television production, combined with the financial loss incurred by Granada, meant that no comparable experiment was tried elsewhere.

in Screen plays
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Theatre plays on British television
Editors: and

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.

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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