The ‘Dramatic Spaces’ BFI Season continues with a double-bill of television plays directed by Alan Bridges, Miss Julie and Let’s Murder Vivaldi demonstrating how successfully entrapment and confrontation could be expressed through and within the studio. As well as sharing a director, the plays compliment each other particularly well as dramas about couples’ intense and twisted power dynamics, and their propensity to violently destroy each other verbally and physically. Whilst the phrase ‘sexual politics’ feels incongruous in this context (particularly about Miss Julie, written by August Strindberg in 1888) the intersection of gender, power and social values are central to both, with class conflict especially crucial to Miss Julie. The dangerous and socially-taboo nature of the plays’ subject matter is suggested by the fact that both productions discussed here underwent cuts, about which I will say more below.
A one act naturalistic tragedy considered shocking and revolutionary in its form and content when it debuted for Strindberg’s ‘Scandinavian Experimental Theatre’, Miss Julie is his best-known and most widely performed play. (As I write, I am aware that it is currently on at The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and ran last year at the Royal Exchange Theatre). In the play, a young and carefree aristocrat, Miss Julie, has a flirtatious encounter with her father’s valet, Jean, talking with him in the kitchen while a Midsummer celebration takes place on the grounds of her father’s estate. The couple consummate their affair and subsequently, over a complex, psychologically intense conversation, Jean destroys Miss Julie through a process of insinuation and threat that leads to her suicide. Throughout the play we are aware of a continually shifting power balance, with Miss Julie’s superior class status pitted against Jean’s masculinity and the prevailing social/sexual values of the time. The play has been much discussed in terms of how it encompasses aspects of Strindberg’s own life experiences and philosophy (especially its Nietzschean and anti-feminist elements) and for its preface, described as ‘the most pregnant exposure of the ideas underlying naturalistic drama’ (Tornqvist & Jacobs, 1988: 39) for its ‘Darwinistic formulations’ (41).
Miss Julie has been produced for British television in every decade of the medium except for the earliest and latest (the 1940s and 2000s). First broadcast in the 1950s as an early Armchair Theatre (23/12/56), starring Mai Zetterling and Tyrone Power, the 1965 Theatre 625 production was followed in 1968 by an extracted performance for the arts programme Tempo (24/3/68), a stand-alone production in 1974 starring Helen Mirren and Donal McCann (TX: 21/5/74), a 1980s version for Theatre Night (31/5/87) with Janet McTeer and Patrick Malahide, and one for the 1990s Performance anthology strand (TX: 4/11/95) featuring Geraldine Somerville and Phil Daniels (with Kathy Burke as Christine).
The 1965 version brought together Swedish actress (and Bergman favourite) Gunnel Lindblom (left) and British actor Ian Hendry (below) who alongside a career in television, with roles in both popular series such as The Avengers and Emergency Ward 10 and prestigious single plays, had also successfully crossed over into film (appearing in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Sidney Lumet’s The Hill in the same year as Miss Julie). Both actors turn in superb performances, Lindblom perfectly judging Miss Julie’s transformation from seductive, playful abandon to vulnerability and despair, and Hendry switching between tenderness and callousness, while betraying through small signs, his abiding fear of his master, the Count (whose presence is never seen but always felt) in a manner that makes the contradictions of the character entirely plausible and terrifying. Alan Bridges impartial direction allows the play’s reversals of feeling and evolving character traits to proceed without clear judgement on them, or indication of a wider ethical stance.
In creating a one-act play, with just three characters, entirely located in one simple setting, Strindberg intended Miss Julie to be a cheap and easy production to mount. The Theatre 625 studio production mostly takes advantage of this, remaining faithfully within the kitchen for the majority of the play, and achieving a claustrophobic intensity through close framing of the characters amongst the objects surrounding them. However, there is one distinctive exterior filmed sequence in the play, depicting the grounds of the estate –gardens, paths, walls and doorways, shot in an experimental mode using hand held techniques and jump cuts. From memory (not having seen the play for several months) I think this filmed insert forms a visual accompaniment for Jean’s speech about admiring Miss Julie from afar whilst she was a child (any clarifications or comments from those watching tonight gratefully received).
Although initially I regarded it as a rather unnecessary and inelegant departure from the studio, upon reflection I think this brief foray outside does add something to the production. With its surrealistic and dream-like qualities (via its mobility and montage only achievable through film), and its noticeable departure from the more literal, theatrically naturalist style of the rest of the production in the studio, the insert seems to allude to the significance of memory and the unconscious, (perhaps illustrating Strindberg’s interest in the psyche) while also evoking the characters’ nostalgia for past, more innocent, states of being. Coming after Alf Sjoberg’s more expansive 1951 film version (which shared the Cannes Grand Prix that year) which was filmed across many different locations with more than a third of it ‘devoted to flashbacks, visualizing past events [and] no less than twenty minutes … devoted to Julie’s childhood experiences’ (Tornquvist & Jacobs 1988: 206), it is possible that Alan Bridges would have liked to make further use of expansive exterior space across which to explore the characters’ back stories. As a rough, vérité -style stream of exterior images, the sequence also seems to speak of its particular moment in British television, reminding us that this production was transmitted in the same year as Loach’s famous docu-drama Up The Junction (Wednesday Play, TX: 3/11/65) through which techniques of the French New Wave in film were brought onto British TV screens.
While the production could not have hoped to repeat the shocking impact of the play in Strindberg’s day (one contemporary Swedish critic calling it ‘a filthy bundle of rags that one hardly even wishes to pick up with tongs’)(Tornqvist & Jacobs 1998: 23), even by 1965 it may still have been considered sufficiently potent to warrant a cut. In the middle of the play, while Jean and Julie have sex off-screen, a rowdy bunch of drunk servants enters the kitchen and indulges in riotous behaviour, charging around and knocking things over, but a sudden edit means that the scene ends abruptly, and recontinues after Jean and Julie have returned. A memo held in the BBC Written Archive Centre from the play’s producer, Cedric Messina, states “AB (Alan Bridges) has just telephoned to inform me that Miss Julie will probably only run at 68’ and not the specified time of 75’” but the reason for this seven minute reduction is not given. Thus we can only speculate as to whether it was a matter of scheduling expediency, Bridges’ own artistic judgement or censorship for reasons of public taste (or a combination of all three), and we can only imagine how the missing scene progresses. A later television play directed by Bridges, the 1972 BBC Play of the Month, King Oedipus (which I was fortunate to see during the BFI season of Greek tragedies for television curated by the Screen Plays project) contains what Amanda Wrigley describes as a ‘Bacchic 1970s disco frenzy’ in which ‘workers and soldiers dance their cares away, gradually removing items of clothing until some are naked save for their pants and couples move from dancing to embrace as the scene moves to form an almost orgy,’ leading me to wonder how risqué the missing Miss Julie party scene might have been.
BBC documentation shows, without doubt, that the plot and language of David Mercer’s Let’s Murder Vivaldi caused concern within the corporation. The play tells a simple story of two couples in failing relationships: co-habiting twenty-somethings Ben (David Sumner) and Julie (Glenda Jackson), and jaded middle-aged spouses Monica (Gwen Watford) and Gerald (Denholm Elliott), a civil servant who works with Julie.
In the opening scene, the neurotically jealous Ben slashes Julie on the cheek with a knife when she threatens to leave him. Gerald takes Julie away for a weekend (with Monica’s full consent, as she wants a divorce) but after growing ill at ease and irritated with each other, they return home without consummating their affair. Gerald stabs Monica with a breadknife when she taunts him about his failure and boasts about her own affairs, and Julie falls back into her violent relationship with Ben after confessing to him. Like Miss Julie, Let’s Murder Vivaldi works through the powerful nuances and latent violence contained in the dialogue between each pairing, but unlike Strindberg’s play, it is a razor-sharp, darkly funny satire.
The play was rehearsed and recorded between the 2nd and 4th February 1968 but, as early as 10th October, BBC Head of Plays, Gerald Savory, clearly worried by the play’s content, (described in the ‘Drama Early Warning Synopsis’ which every production was required to release), sent a memo to Wednesday Play Producer Graeme McDonald drawing his attention to ‘the very specific instructions issued by H.D.G. Tel (Head of Drama Group, Television) in his memo of 7 Oct 1966; subject – Violence, Sexual Relations and Blasphemy in Drama’ and querying the unexpectedness of the violence in the play. On 29 November Graeme McDonald replied:
‘I can see no way round this problem. I have talked to David Mercer and his point is that the violence should emerge out of nowhere, and that any form of premeditation by setting up a non-everyday weapon, would entirely alter the purpose of the scenes he has written. To him, it must be the result of an impulse – the bread-knife is to hand.’
While McDonald apparently had his way by and large (the breadknife remained the weapon), the records show that the words ‘cobblers’, ‘menopause’, ‘Jesus Wept’ and ‘twat’ were taken out of the play.
Critics mostly appreciated the play’s finely crafted dark humour and Alan Bridge’s cool, distanced direction. The Financial Times television critic, T.C. Worsley, wrote: ‘This is an artificial comedy written with an ironic elegance line by line […] Shapeliness and wit […] can be used, as they are here, for sharpening the knife of the theme’ (1970: 71). The Times’ Henry Raynor agreed, describing the play as ‘a beautifully designed, highly efficient machine. It’s dialgogue, deliberately and unnaturalistically literary, has a sometimes dazzling brilliance, using wit to analyse, not to amuse’ (8 April 1968).
A BBC Audience Research Report shows that the general public was less impressed, with the play scoring a ‘Reaction Index’ of 44 (the average for The Wednesday Play being 51). While ‘about one in three said they enjoyed the admittedly cynical, but witty and amusing, commentary on personal relationships’, a ‘substantial number’ disliked the ‘”artificiality” and lack of true feeling’ which they found ‘distasteful’, and felt ‘the behaviour of all four “protagonists” did not stem from their characters, but seemed contrived purely for sensation’.
In an important journal article, MacMurraugh-Kavanagh and Lacey use Let’s Murder Vivaldi as a case study that demonstrates qualities that could only be achieved by studio drama, and not by exterior location filmed productions, such as Loach’s Up the Junction. They describe the play as ‘a radical reclaiming of television drama as a site of structured dialogue, inner exploration, psychological encounter, and close-knit social situation (1999: 71). Like the critics, they celebrate how the play foregrounds its own construction, through its scripted words and consciously ‘theatrical’ frontal shots of rooms.
Indeed, the clinical, composed near-symmetrical mise-en-scene in shots of Gerald and Monica in their home works in tandem with the language, the artificial treatment spatially echoing the barbed formality of the characters’ choreographed exchanges.
Alan Bridges’ coolly controlled framing of the characters in their spaces eloquently conveys their distance from each other. Characters are frequently positioned at the edges of rooms with a conspicuous gulf between them – suggesting their emotional distance, or, when alone, emphasizing their alienation, as during Gerald’s and Julie’s awkward liaison in a hotel room.
The edges of rooms are often visible, further representing characters’ entrapment by delineating on screen the parameters of the spaces. The simple, yet bold, formal approach exacerbates the play’s ironies and uses the studio’s ‘compromise’ with naturalism to maximum effect.
Alan Bridges’ directorial style was recently described to me by an admiring fellow veteran television director as, ‘interesting, incredibly polished visually, but rather cold’. Although I have only limited knowledge of Bridges’ work, these qualities seem to be evident in both plays discussed here, and his ‘cold’ treatment brings out important aspects of both dramas: Miss Julie’s dialectical, naturalist ambivalence and Let’s Murder Vivaldi’s ironic humour. I was sorry to learn of Bridges’ death in December 2013 and agree with Peter Bradshaw, who recently suggested he deserves to be rediscovered.
MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, Madeleine, and Lacey, Stephen, 1999, ‘Who Framed Theatre? The “Moment of Change” in British TV Drama’, New Theatre Quarterly, 15:1.
Tornqvist, Egil, and Jacobs, Barry, 1988, Strindberg’s Miss Julie: A Play and its Transpositions, Norvik Press: Norwich.
Worsley, T.C., 1970, Television: The Ephemeral Art , London: Alan Ross.