Studio trickery: Censored Scenes From King Kong (BBC, 1973) & Play For Today: The After Dinner Joke (BBC, 14/02/78)

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This double-bill, the fourth screening in our ‘Dramatic Spaces’ season at the BFI, features two remarkable BBC television plays that take advantage of electronic ‘studio-trickery’: Howard Schuman’s never-transmitted Censored Scenes From King Kong (1973) and Caryl Churchill’s 1978 Play For Today, The After-Dinner Joke. Both used Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), an analogue form of blue or green-screen compositing, to create stylised backdrops for their action which function in different ways.

We are delighted to be showing Censored Scenes From King Kong, which, since it was pulled from the BBC schedules (more on this below), has only ever been seen by audiences in a side room of the 1977 Edinburgh Festival, and at a 1981 NFT Schuman retrospective. Moreover we believe this is the most ‘complete’ form in which it has yet appeared, a version which includes the full musical number ‘Bear Market Blues’ previously cut from the original for scheduling reasons, making it doubly galling that even the cut version was then never shown.

In the play, Stephen, a young investigative journalist recently awakened from a two-year coma (he thinks he’s been away in Japan), goes in search of a rumored missing scene from the classic 1933 movie, King Kong, in which the gorilla has sex with Fay Wray. By the end of the play it is clear that Stephen’s journey is a figment of his imagination, a paranoid delusion, and his ideas about the sinister involvement of their friend, Benchgelter (the leader of their social group, now self-reinvented as a business-man) are dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory, a further product of his disordered mind.

Describing it as a mixture of ‘comedy, satire, songs [and] melodrama[…] shot and acted in a highly stylized way’, Schuman maintains it ‘could only have been a video piece’, and claims it ‘blew a few people’s minds (minds were still being blown in 1973)’ (‘Video-Mad: An American Writer in British Television’ in Frank Pike (ed.), Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television, 1982, London: Faber, p. 84).

The play’s distinctively ‘Schumanesque’ qualities include its use of music  (cabaret-style numbers are performed and in several ways it anticipates Schuman’s 1976 musical serial, Rock Follies), a preoccupation with characters’ uses of popular culture (see my 2013 Journal of Screenwriting article ‘Chaos, Culture and Fantasy’ for more on this topic), and a camp/ironic mode of address. It also features a cast of emergent Schuman favourites: Beth Porter (Deborah) was one of the leads in his first television play, Vérité, (Thames, Armchair Theatre, 1973) later playing the title role in Anxious Anne (LWT, She, 1976) and vivacious band manager, Kitty Schreiber, in Rock Follies of ’77; Derek Fowlds (who plays Vogel, Sagar and Chiarugi) had been in Schuman’s Captain Video’s Story (Thames, Armchair 30, 1973); Julie Covington (Iris) went on to star in both series of Rock Follies as the feisty Dee, and Michael Angelis (Benchgelter) played Stavros Kuklas in the first series. Censored Scenes’ director, Brian Farnham, also subsequently directed several Rock Follies episodes.

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‘Real’ studio sets are used to depict the play’s two main settings – a warehouse where Stephen and his group of Bohemian friends live, and ‘The System’ nightclub where Benchgelter manages Deborah’s and Iris’s cabaret act, The Duck Sisters (pronounced ‘Duke’ Sisters). Schuman has recalled how the approach to the sets was dictated by the production’s very low budget, and how the distinctive warehouse set was devised within Television Centre’s Studio 1:

‘The idea of the warehouse was another instance of limitation being turned into a strength. I knew we had very little money to make this production and asked Brian [Farnham, the director] and Mike Porter (our designer) whether we could create a huge warehouse space out of the giant BBC studio itself. They jumped at the idea (literally as I remember – we were all pretty tanked in the steamy atmosphere of the BBC Club). Mike built a small glass model, Citizen Kane style to suggest a roof (shot on another camera and superimposed), hung a few sheets and lit them from behind to create windows… and we had an enormous warehouse to play around with. Brian had the main characters enter at one point through the great dock doors of the studio, which was a breathtaking entrance. Mike Porter created the nightclub out of air and props…’

(‘Video-Mad’, 1982, p. 83-4)

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Within this unusual set up, the characters ‘camp’ in tents within the warehouse – a visual pun on the play’s discourse on ‘camp’, and the overall space is more suggestive of fringe theatre than television drama. This reflected the low budget, quick turnaround, experimental ethos of the BBC Eleventh Hour anthology series for which it was made, in which contemporary writers’ scripts, conceived with minimal scenery requirements to cut down production time, were to be realised quickly for a late-night slot.

CSO is used during just four scenes: Stephen’s hallucinatory spiritual encounter with a Buddhist monk at the beginning of the play;

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 …and three subsequent scenes of Stephen on his search for the lost footage: at the office of film professor S.L. Vogel (below left), a private museum of film memorabilia ‘Kongomania’ (below right) and the hotel room of Vincenzo Chiarugi, King Kong’s Assistant Special Effects man.

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With the revelation of Stephen’s madness, it becomes clear that the artifice of the multi-media collages used in those scenes, and the intermittent ‘street’ scenes of Stephen standing against blank white backdrops signify the illusory nature of his quest.

Although CSO was adopted for budgetary reasons, pictorial captions being far cheaper to produce than full sets, the technique proved to be highly appropriate stylistically, as well as practically. Apart from designating those scenes as Stephen’s interior fantasy, the pop art aesthetic of the CSO captions supports other key themes. Much of the play concerns Stephen’s difficulties, after awaking from his coma, in coming to terms with the end of the 1960s and the harsher, more cynical cultural mood of the 1970s. The predominantly monochrome, collaged aesthetic of the captions, combining photographs, illustrations and splashes of paint is reminiscent of the 60s pop art works of British artist Richard Hamilton and the American painter Robert Rauschenberg and, as an evocation of Stephen’s mind, suggest that he is stuck in that decade.

vlcsnap-2014-02-14-12h49m14s154The captions’ pop-art aesthetic also suggestively echoes the play’s interest in the capitalist commodification of culture – a fundamental impetus for, and concern of that art movement. This is explored in the play through Stephen’s friends, Deborah and Iris who, having idealistically pursued their own creative and intellectual projects in the 1960s have now ‘sold out’ to more lucrative cultural careers. Schuman explained his inspiration:  ‘I imagined all these friends, who had been classically the sixties kind of people I knew:  a feminist novelist, a Marxist-Leninist academic, and a guy who was the engine of the friends. But now, when I wrote it in ’73, my whole generation has moved into the media or real estate or somewhere else’. (Author interview with Schuman, 12 November 2010.) Stephen is bewildered by his friends’ newly invented camp personae, their 1940s costumes and fake American accents, which represent a cynical rejection of their previous sincere, politically informed endeavours.

However, although ‘camp’ is problematised as a reaction to 60s failures, there is still a sense that Schuman enjoys its affect and veneer as a strategy of ironic disavowal, and its appropriation of past cultural elements. Indeed, the same can be said for the pop-art collages which function also as cinephile pastiche, incorporating images of iconic actors and actresses, and iconographic artefacts in a tribute to the Classical Hollywood era: The walls of Vogel’s office are covered with photographs of stars, including Dietrich, Garbo and Gable, and, with its bi-plane hanging from the ceiling, giant dinosaur, and large Kong image, Kongomania evokes a by-gone age of cinematic adventure. The scenes are, I think, more successful as stylised paintings than any attempt to realise them as ‘real’ spaces could have been: their very creation, foregrounded in their appearance and texture through their obvious brushstrokes and collaged elements, can itself be read as an act of film fandom and homage, expressing both Stephen’s motivations (as Kong fan) and Schuman’s sensibility, as a writer interested in cultural nostalgia and cinema (who went on to present Moving Pictures from 1991-96 on BBC2).

Unfortunately Censored Scenes was never televised, its unfortunate fate an indication, perhaps, of how Schuman’s offbeat sensibility did not always sit easily within the landscape of British television drama. When the Eleventh Hour strand of single plays was scrapped due to the 10:30pm closedown imposed on television broadcasting during the fuel crisis of 1974, Schuman’s was the only one of three productions that was never given another slot in the schedules (one of those rescheduled, Howard Brenton’s The Saliva Milkshake, is being shown on 24 February as part of our season). Schuman (‘Video-Mad’, 1982, p.85) claims this was because the BBC Head of Plays at the time, Christopher Morahan ‘disliked it intensely (“Camp rubbish like The Rocky Horror Show”)’. But while, in the ensuing press debate, Morahan publicly admitted his ‘lack of admiration’ for the play, arguing that it ‘lacked energy and was specialist in appeal’ (the former claim seems especially unfounded for a play with such verve and imagination), he denies having blocked the play, only accepting that ‘faced with the Controller’s wishes not to broadcast I did not press the merits of the play with any commitment’ (‘Letter to the Editor: How Censored Scenes From King Kong was thwarted at the eleventh hour’, The Guardian, 12 September 1977, p.10.) It seems, then, that it was the BBC’s (and especially Morahan’s) distaste for its aesthetic that prevented it from being aired. The whole affair seems to confirm Schuman’s status as ‘the joker of the pack’ of television playwrights, and suggests how far his brand of non-naturalist drama tested the parameters of what was expected of drama.

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The After-Dinner Joke was commissioned by Margaret Matheson, who, seeking ‘plays about public rather than domestic subjects’ for the Play For Today series, approached Caryl Churchill with the idea of writing about charities (Caryl Churchill, 1995, ‘Introduction’, The After-Dinner Joke and Three More Sleepless Nights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 5.). In Churchill’s brilliant satire, which remains as fresh and relevant as ever, a young company employee at ‘Price’s Bedding’, Miss Selby (Paula Wilcox), concerned about inequality, decides to work in the charity sector, and, through her numerous encounters and exploits, Churchill explores the politics of giving. Across dozens of short skits involving 50 separate characters including Tea managing director, Baby, Record breakers, Arab gardener, Popstar, Guerilla, and Villain to name but a few (with all but four of the parts so small they could, by Churchill’s suggestion be ‘doubled, trebled, quadrupled’ (ibid, p. 9)), the motivations for and effects of charity are humorously demonstrated from many different angles. After experiences including involvement in formulating a charity ad-campaign (her initial idea of showing a dead child rejected as ‘people don’t like to be made miserable) and assisting in a third world hurricane relief effort which opens her eyes to the role of western forces in the region, Miss Selby ultimately discovers that it is impossible to separate politics from charity.

CSO provided an efficient solution for generating the numerous different settings across this epic play’s 65 scenes, avoiding the cost of building numerous sets. However, the technique also complimented the ‘fast-moving style of sketches and cartoons’ which Churchill decided to employ (emulating Monty Python’s Flying Circus) a structure which was ‘good for dealing with ideas as well as incidents and for leaping from place to place, and gave the whole thing an energy and lightness that made it easier to take on the seriousness of the subject’ (Churchill, ibid. p. 5.)

Reviewing the play for The Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith (15 Feb, 1978) described it as ‘a sort of Alice in Charity Land’, and appreciated its ‘electronic whizzery, which she felt ‘gave it a particularly bright and paint-box look like a living strip cartoon or a Pollock’s Toy Theatre’.

However, according to a BBC Audience Research Report (BBC WAC: VR/78/83), the audience’s reaction was more hostile, the majority finding the play ‘puzzling’ and ‘neither amusing nor believable’, although ‘Some did think it a good idea on an unusual theme’.

While audiences appreciated the acting, praising Paula Wilcox in particular, they seem to have been ill-disposed towards its non-naturalistic CSO aesthetic:

 ‘A number thought the electronic backgrounds intrusive and distracting, and the colours so bright that at times they interfered with the outlines of the performers. Others, however, considered the production good (‘like the idea of the background being cartoon’) and yet others thought, as they did of the play itself, that the idea had been good but its execution less so.’

Of the two extremes on TV admired by Churchill: ‘extreme naturalism and extreme non-naturalism – (Loach, Joffe; Monty Python)’, the public’s preference for the former was borne out by Roland Joffe’s filmed, social realist play The Spongers, (written by Jim Allen and produced by Tony Garnett) receiving the highest Audience Reaction Index (76) of that Play for Today season, compared to The After-Dinner Joke’s low 36.

Despite resistance to stylization at the time, however, I think today’s contemporary audiences more accustomed to visual experimentation in our digital culture (via music video, gaming, and special effects) will find the aesthetics both charming, and highly suitable. Through CSO, the hard truths of Churchill’s play are communicated in a more palatable form that avoids tub-thumping and, in my opinion, sharpens the satire, the images’ vivid, optimistic brightness complimenting the witty script, whilst remaining in ironic contradiction with the grim reality of the subject.

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1 Response to Studio trickery: Censored Scenes From King Kong (BBC, 1973) & Play For Today: The After Dinner Joke (BBC, 14/02/78)

  1. Paul says:

    Chromakey was also used in Schumann’s 1976 play, Amazing Stories, made for the Granada anthology, Red Letter Day (available on DVD). Taking a more Brechtian approach, it’s technically effective in the use of back projection but remains a stew of sci-fi, pantomime, Dario Fo and all points in between. Nevertheless it was a brave try for primetime ITV (something unthinkable now, BBC included).

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