Spaces of Television researchers Leah Panos and Billy Smart today had the happy experience of coming across a 1973 BBC programme long believed to be lost, including a film directed by Ken Loach (featuring an early performance by Ben Kingsley). This happened when we were conducting research for the forthcoming ‘Spaces of Television’ book at the BFI, looking through uncatalogued tapes for Full House, a live Saturday night BBC2 arts programme broadcast between 1972 and 1973. Loach’s film, Misfortune, is an adaptation of two comparatively early short stories by Anton Chekhov (‘The Huntsman’, 1885, and ‘A Misfortune’, 1886), originally shown as a part of Full House on 13 January 1973 and – despite a copy taken from the episode actually being available for the public to view at the BFI Mediatheque since 2011 – had been mistakenly listed as missing until today!
Full House was an unusual programme without any obvious parallel in contemporary television. Broadcast live from Television Centre (and occasionally other parts of the country) for two to three hours on Saturday nights, presented by actor Joe Melia, the programme made great virtue of the potential of live television as a medium for transmitting artistic performances as they happened and relaying spontaneous discussion as to their significance. For example, the typically eclectic episode that featured ‘Misfortune’ also included – all occurring live in the studio – sketches from comedian John Bird, discussion and debate with cartoonists Jak and Gerald Scarfe with the audience drawing their own cartoons during the show, a performance by the 7:84 Theatre Company of John McGrath’s play Plugged into History, Australian pianist Roger Woodman playing Chopin, an exhibition of Polish tapestries, and folk music from Steeleye Span.
Full House also represented film and literature – two artforms unsuitable for live studio performance – through commissioning filmmakers to produce short films of classic short stories by Chekhov and James Joyce. Five of these films (produced by Melvyn Bragg and Gavin Millar) were shown during editions of Full House; Chekhov’s Zinotchka (dir. Christopher Miles), Misfortune (Ken Loach) and On the High Road (Karel Reisz) and Joyce’s Two Gallants (Gavin Millar) and Sisters (Stephen Frears). A further two films in the series were transmitted as standalone dramas one year later in 1974 under the series title 2nd House; Chekhov’s An Artist’s Story (Ben Rea) and Joyce’s Clay (Jonathan Miller). Six of the seven productions are known to exist in the archives, but Misfortune was listed as missing in all catalogues.
The unusual production and transmission circumstances of the seven films led to their being little-known and neglected over the subsequent 40 years. Because they were not transmitted individually as single plays, but formed half-hour component parts of a much-longer programme, the films never attracted much attention at the time, were easily omitted from catalogues and filmographies (IMDB doesn’t list Karel Reisz’s film at all) and tend to be obscure even to experts in the directors concerned. And because the films were only occasional and exceptional, rather than regular and representative, features of Full House they appear to have been forgotten by the (small) original audience of their host programme.
Although the most recent catalogue listed the episode as wiped, we had a hunch that it the programme might still exist as a part of a bundle of studio tapes for the original live programme. Because of the long, live, nature of Full House as a programme different parts of each edition were recorded onto different tapes at the time of broadcast, and there was no guarantee that a copy of each part would have been kept. So even when we found two tapes promisingly labeled ‘3 January 1973’ amongst the haul of material that we requested, we couldn’t be certain what they included. Thankfully, these tapes did include almost all of the show, with only the last few minutes (probably just the end credits) unaccounted for.
We are pleased to be able to tell you that, although a miniature, Misfortune is a major work that we found quite moving at times. In terms of Loach’s developing career as director, the obvious point of comparison is with Days of Hope (BBC1, 1976) the epic social history series of four films written by Jim Allen and produced by Tony Garnett. Like that series, Misfortune reconstructs the genre of the costume drama through presenting past events through the unfamiliar form of downbeat filmic naturalism. The film presents images of real beauty – sickle-wielding peasants reaping the fields, folk musicians playing, huntsmen walking through woods, steam trains arriving, social gatherings in fine houses – and through specificity of place shows these appealing images happening in working locations, in which people experience frustration and disappointment.
This naturalist approach is particularly suitable for adapting Chekhov, the master of showing seemingly inconsequential moments of social intercourse – slights, weariness, small tantrums – and weaving these details into overwhelming group portraits of an entire social group operating at a specific points in time. Loach presents the two unsettling stories – the huntsman rejecting his estranged wife, and Sofya, the young wife of a civil servant (Lucy Fleming) deeply alarmed by her feelings for another man, Ilyin (Ben Kingsley) and failing to successfully confide her fears to her husband Andrei (Peter Eyre) – through a quiet, observational style.
The film is mostly formed of sequences of everyday events occurring, with Sofya’s life continuing to be formed of encounters with servants, her son, meals, and evenings of cards and pianoforte, but these familiar events are shown to be subtly affected by mood through a patient rhythm and withdrawn tone that encourages unforced performances. This downbeat and reflective tone is continued in scenes that might be more ostensibly dramatic, such as Andrei’s declaration of love to Sofya, a moment that is skewed for both parties by the presence of a bored soldier on the edge of the scene, just about within earshot. The sensation of great clarity of feeling and understanding, creating a sense of true insight into emotions and motivations that are muddy and confused to the characters feeling them, is one very particular to the reader of Chekhov’s stories, and it is a great tribute to Loach’s thoughtful direction that the viewer of Misfortune experiences the same understanding.