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The television plays

This study analyses Samuel Beckett's television plays in relation to the history and theory of television, arguing that they are in dialogue with innovative television traditions connected to Modernism in television, film, radio, theatre, literature and the visual arts. Using original research from BBC archives and manuscript sources, it provides new perspectives on the relationships between Beckett's television dramas and the wider television culture of Britain and Europe. The book also compares and contrasts the plays for television with Beckett's Film and broadcasts of his theatre work including the Beckett on Film season. Chapters deal with the production process of the plays, the broadcasting contexts in which they were screened, institutions and authorship, the plays' relationships with comparable programmes and films, and reaction to Beckett's screen work by audiences and critics.

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
Realism, recognition and representation
Jonathan Bignell

The hybrid television form of docudrama, blending documentary and drama conventions and modes of address, poses interesting methodological problems for an analysis of performance. This chapter provides examples of docudramas of post-1990 period. It discusses some of the distinctions between kinds of docudrama performance, the implications of their links with related television forms and how docudrama performance exploits the capacities of television as a medium. Performance styles are different in two examples of docudrama, where in one-off television films already known public personalities are represented by actors. The mode of Thatcher: The Final Days and Diana: Her True Story has much in common with melodrama. The melodrama in television is marked by its focus on women characters, on the emotional and the psychological, and on moments of dramatic intensity. The performance style in both Diana and Thatcher derived from the melodramatic mode, as opposed to more naturalistic, understated performance modes.

in Genre and performance
Open Access (free)
Beckett and television technologies
Jonathan Bignell

This chapter analyses the aesthetics of Beckett’s dramas for TV, in relation to theorisations of the significance of texture in television and film, and histories of television production and reception technologies. It compares Walter Asmus’s 1986 television version of Was Wo [What Where] with his 2013 reworking of the same drama for the screen. The earlier version was broadcast in 625-line video, limiting contrasts between light and dark, whereas the 2013 What Where is in HD digital format, enhancing image clarity but stretching the limits of TV technology for the representation of black. These technical and aesthetic comparisons are placed in the context of Beckett’s earlier screen dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, which also exploited and challenged the video and film technologies used to produce them. By focusing on black, the chapter explores the significance of unlit space and texture in Beckett’s screen work. It argues that Beckett’s TV work uses the apparent nullity of black to draw attention to the representational capabilities of the TV screen, and links visual style to the materiality of television technologies.

in Beckett and media
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Sounds and images in The Twilight Zone, ‘The Invaders’
Jonathan Bignell

This chapter analyses the unusual and expressive uses of both visual style and sound in an episode of the science fiction series The Twilight Zone, ‘The Invaders’ (1961). The episode has no dialogue, though it has some framing narration spoken direct to camera, and it has little music. Nevertheless, this chapter makes the case that the consequent rebalancing of the usual expressive means available to television is both innovative and compelling. The absence of sound becomes an occasion to think more precisely about what sound does, and by removing some of the usual functions of sound the episode allows us to question the customary hierarchy in which sound is a support for the image. Shifts in the viewer’s knowledge of the fictional world depend on how image and sound manipulate our relationship with the female protagonist of ‘The Invaders’ in both conventional and unconventional ways. Sounds produced by her vocally, by her body movement and as a result of actions she initiates, as well as sounds coming from alien invaders and their technologies, carry an extraordinary weight because of the lack of other kinds of audio information. Lack of the speech which would usually convey information, emotion and tone encourages the viewer to attend to images more intensely than usual, reading details of setting, costume, posture and facial expression for example, to make sense of the action.

in Sound / image
Beckett on Film
Jonathan Bignell

The Beckett on Film project (2000) adapted all nineteen of Beckett’s theatre works, creating screen versions that were shown at film festivals, as television broadcasts, sold as a DVD box set and distributed via online video streaming. This chapter argues that these evolutions of the project are more significant than simply repackaging the content produced in one medium for distribution in another. Rather, they work with and reflect on the borders between mediums, and the ways that creative works fit into new medial environments. Beckett on Film can be seen not as a fixed text (or collection of texts), but as a mobile and mutable work that changes in relation to medium and audience, with different spatial and temporal specificities across the history of these adaptation processes. The chapter traces the British and Irish stories of how the Blue Angel production company, the Irish broadcaster RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) and the British Channel 4 television channel framed Beckett on Film in its various manifestations. The chapter addresses the project’s genesis, production, scheduling for cinema and its television screenings to specialist, general and then educational audiences. It also considers how the project’s adaptation into the ‘new’ media of DVD and online video framed the series as a cultural asset and a prestige collectable, aligning it with discourses of taste and connoisseurship. The chapter makes the case for Beckett on Film’s resilience and its fit with an emergent culture of media convergence in which medial boundaries are being renegotiated.

in Beckett’s afterlives
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Television, style and substance in The Time Tunnel
Jonathan Bignell

This chapter argues that the US science fiction adventure series The Time Tunnel (1966–7) is about television: about the capabilities of the medium, the experience of watching it and the technological apparatus that television comprises. Visually, the series often adopts a grandiose, excessive visual style, especially in the opening episode focused on here. Key images are characterised by a sense of scale and visual spectacle, and the format seems calculated to advertise the attractions of colour television and the episodic adventure narratives that television offered in the US in the mid-1960s. The opening episode introduces the viewer to a massive underground base hidden beneath an American desert, in which an extraordinarily costly government project is being secretly carried out. At the heart of this technological facility, a physical apparatus, the massive Time Tunnel itself, acts as a portal for the protagonists to move to any moment in the past or the future, though without control over their destination. This premise is a self-reflexive representation of what television can do, transporting its viewer to real or simulated places and times beyond his or her experience, and engaging the viewer in thrilling narratives of exploration and peril. The style of the series, I suggest, articulates the substance of what television might be.

in Substance / style
Open Access (free)
Beckett’s television plays and the idea of broadcasting
Jonathan Bignell

In the context of a tradition of critical discussion that characterises Samuel Beckett's plays for television as attempts to engage with nothingness, absence and death, this chapter argues that the television plays are critical explorations of the problematics of presence and absence inherent in the conceptions and histories of broadcasting. Television as a medium and a physical apparatus sets up spatial and temporal relationships between programmes and their viewers, relationships with which Beckett's television plays are in dialogue. The conceptions of medium and audience that Beckett's television plays suggest can be understood in terms of the contrasting implications of broadcasting as dissemination. Broadcasting is dissemination in good faith, despite its haunting by the prospect that some of what is broadcast will turn out to be a dead letter sent into the void.

in Beckett and nothing
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Jonathan Bignell

This introductory chapter discusses Samuel Beckett and his works that were adapted for British television and radio. It considers the question of whether Beckett's television plays are single ‘literary’ dramas or part of a larger series. It also identifies some critical traditions in Television Studies. The final section of the chapter presents an overview of the following chapters.

in Beckett on screen
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Jonathan Bignell

This chapter discusses the importance of the technologies that were used in making the five dramas Beckett wrote for British television. It studies television adaptations of Beckett's theatre plays, which were recorded in a television studio. It examines the work done on the aesthetics of television and also notes how changes on production technologies affected Beckett's work and other productions. This chapter also discusses the aesthetic significance of studio production and the plays' uses of film recording technology in the television studio.

in Beckett on screen