Excited about apathy: Red Letter Day (Granada, 1976)

'Red Letter Day: Amazing Stories' (Granada, ITV, 1 February 1976)

‘Red Letter Day: Amazing Stories’ (Granada, ITV, 1 February 1976)

(Review of Red Letter Day: The Complete Series, originally published on Tachyon TV, 2011)

 Thanks to the canonical status of the BBC’s Wednesday Play and Play for Today, people have a selective memory when it comes to the single play. We tend to remember two particular types of drama whenever the form is mentioned as something now gone that British Television used to do; the Ken LoachTony Garnett Cathy Come Home/ Up the Junction mode – filmic, directly socially engaged with a documentary feel – or the Dennis PotterDavid Mercer Brimstone and Treacle/ Let’s Murder Vivaldi model – intensely concentrated and realized in a consciously experimental and stylized form with strong affinities to the stage play.

 This only tells some of the story, as the version of the single play which most viewers experienced most often was in series such as Red Letter Day – on ITV rather than the BBC, 50 minutes long rather than 75, and only infrequently overtly political in content or experimental in form (although Red Letter Day does include examples of both these approaches). This DVD release follows on from Network’s two superb recent collections of 1970s Armchair Theatre plays from Thames, and gives viewers a further chance to see more popular ITV single plays in this mode.

 Made by Granada and transmitted in 1976, Red Letter Day was an anthology series based around the easy-to-follow premise that each play would follow a day of unusual significance and consequence for its protagonists. The series was originated and script edited by Jack Rosenthal, who wrote two of the plays and supported the development of the other five. Rosenthal’s own status as leading television playwright gave him particular sympathy into the idiosyncrasies and concerns of other writers, resulting in a series of consistently high quality and intelligence, marked by the widest range of styles and authorial preoccupations imaginable. Any viewer who especially enjoyed one play in Red Letter Day who tuned in the next week expecting something similar would be likely to be disappointed.

 Until now, Red Letter Day has been best remembered for only one production, Rosenthal’s ‘Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill’, repeated by Channel 4 in the eighties, remade by ITV thirty years later, and already commercially available. Much loved by people who worked in television at the time, Mike Newell’s film shows a day in the life of Joe McGill, an extra given a small but vital line in a television play being shot on location, a chance that he blows after being left waiting, ignored and patronized on set all day. Much of the pathos and conviction of this production come through the casting of a real-life extra, Joe Black, as Mr. McGill. Because the unfamiliarity of the lead really does convey obscurity to the viewer, the inappropriateness of McGill’s fellow feeling towards the experienced TV professionals and the sadness of his failure feel uncomfortably convincing. McGill’s position is shown in parallel to the misfortunes and anomie faced by the (fictional) play’s director, a terrific performance by the youngish Jack Shepherd. The film builds towards a memorable confrontation between these two characters and their viewpoints after McGill’s hapless delivery of his line,:

McGill (exploding): This isn’t real life, lad! It’s pretend! It’s all pretend! You’re pretending! The whole damn-fool film’s pretending!

Director: Real life is how well we pretend, isn’t it, sir? You, me. Everybody in the world.

 It must be said that once you’ve seen a few of Rosenthal’s single plays you tend to know how they’re going to work. You’ll be shown how a certain profession works – a taxi driver learning the knowledge, a football referee, an electoral register – and through the vicissitudes faced by one character a wider view of how the world operates and the value and function of the individual within the system will be presented. The familiarity of this form is unproblematic in a great play like ‘Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill’, but in lesser material such as Rosenthal’s other Red Letter Day, ‘Well Thank You, Tuesday’ his approach can become more cozy than surprising. This drama shows a registry office at work, following the three parties who arrive to register one individual birth, marriage and death through their day. As with a lot of dramas with several interlaced stories, ‘Well Thank You, Thursday’ suffers from some being less interesting than others. If you’re old enough to remember the mid-1970s, subsidiary interest is maintained by the attention to detail paid to the various domestic interiors realized in the Granada studios. Watching this with a colleague, we both found ourselves continually distracted by thoughts like, “My mother used to have a hairdryer like that” or “I’d forgotten that domestic homes used to have those heavy telephones mounted on the wall”

 ‘The Five Pound Orange’ of Donald Churchill’s play isn’t a fruit, but a priceless Victorian stamp, around which the plot revolves. If you’ve seen Churchill’s contemporaneous Armchair Theatre plays on the recent Network collections then you’ll have a strong sense of what you can expect from this author; farcical stories in which quirks of fate throw a nervy and disappointed middle-aged man into the arms of a woman. ‘The Five Pound Orange’ is more in the same vein, but with the major advantage that there was never an actor better at conveying nervous and disappointed middle-age than Peter Barkworth. The material Barkworth has to deal with here is hardly Telford’s Change or Manhunt – and he faces the considerable handicap of wearing a costume that includes a pair of green tartan trousers – but he still manages to derive a lot of poignancy and empathy out of Churchill’s rather chauvinist light comedy, when seen alone stroking a cat and sighing in a darkened room or hiding in a wardrobe while being cuckolded by Bernard Horsfall.

 Willis Hall’s ‘Matchfit’ is the only play in the series to derive from another source, one of Brian Glanville’s football stories for boys that were familiar to schoolchildren between the sixties and the eighties. This literary origin makes this edition feel more like a short story than a play or a film, told retrospectively in voice-over. A tale of a boy placed in a hospital room alongside an archetypally dour Glaswegian football manager, it’s not a play that holds much in the way of surprises, but touchingly realized by Roddy Macmillan as the coach and Steven ‘Tarrant in Blake’s 7 Pacey as the young man.

 Neville Smith’s ‘Bag of Yeast’ is based around a premise that you might expect to be light and comic – a young working-class Liverpudlian decides to become a Catholic priest – but is quite relentlessly glum, showing the consequences of this decision as a sequence of betrayals (of his father’s socialist humanism) and separations (from his family and fiancée). The style of this film is a flat, slow realism, recording key scenes in continuous takes and refusing to cut once confrontations have reached their climax, leaving the viewer watching sights like Alison Steadman (as the rejected fiancée) in tears, or the overturned glasses on an empty pub table after the father has hit his son, for an uncomfortably long time. The lack of any palliative catharsis that this play offers makes it a pretty grueling watch.

 C. P. Taylor’s ‘For Services to Myself’ pivots around a teacher and community activist deciding whether or not to accept an OBE. Like ‘Bag of Yeast’, this film asks to what extent accepting public recognition requires compromising one’s principles, but – while it doesn’t shy away from showing the difficulty of the decision – is less overtly pessimistic. The play has a dual time scheme, showing an unsmiling and uncertain Roger (Alan Dobie) waiting in London hotel rooms and Regent’s Park working out if he should go to the palace to accept the ennoblement, interlayered with earlier scenes of him at work and with his family in the North East. The dilemmas faced by Roger in these scenes – facing the disapproval of his far-left brother, being looked over as head of department in favour of a younger and more conventional teacher, seeing his children struggle to support his granddaughters – make his impassive responses to his familywhen he gets to London more sympathetic, and give the play considerable subtlety and depth. The way that the play signifies the transition between the two streams is striking and effective, freezing the last frame of one scene for a moment before moving on to the next. Although the location filming of ‘For Services to Myself’ locates it directly in the specific world of 1975, this play felt the most contemporary of the series in its concerns to me.

Howard (Rock Follies) Schuman’s wildly non-naturalistic ‘Amazing Stories’ is very much the joker in the Red Letter Day pack, reviewed in The Stage under the memorable headline ‘Sometimes there’s such a thing as television drama that’s too original’. When Schuman’s off-the–wall script arrived at Granada, producer Michael Dunlop wanted to drop the production and had to be compelled by Rosenthal and Head of Drama Peter Eckersley, to continue with the production. The play revolves around two separate red-letter days – in the world of the television studio, friends Stanley and Eddie (Joe Melia and John Normington) attend a science fiction convention to meet their hero author E. B. Fern, while a concurrent black-and-white narrative – a story dreamed up by Stanley – is realized as an Invasion of the Bodysnatchchers-type film within a play, in which fictionalized versions of his family are transformed into carrots. Stanley hopes to escape from his own unsatisfactory family life through gaining the approval of Fern, but the creator of amazing stories has his own real-life troubles to escape from.

  Apart from the cinematic pastiche, ‘Amazing Stories’ is filled with a dizzying amount of spectacular images and incidents. The mundaneness and enervation of Stanley’s domestic life is realized in absurd terms, dad, wife and mum as a gloomy chorus in a grey and threadbare room while he dances around them. This is contrasted with the tremendous visual flair with which the sci-fi convention is realized, a TV studio aesthetic somewhere between pop art and fringe theatre, using a lot of CSO to create an elaborate and fantastical world out of nothing.

 There are an awful lot of extraordinary things to look at in this production; King Kong, wolfhounds, a dematerializing TARDIS… and – most strikingly of all – Rula Lenska in a silver lame bathing suit as Ms. Fandom and Ian McDiarmid as the supercool Blade (“I think you could get very excited about apathy”), whose shades, leathers and bleach-blonde image is a doppelganger for Lou Reed circa Sally Can’t Dance.

Amazing Stories2

 All of this originality and imagination certainly runs the risk of overpowering the viewer, and that it manages not to is a tribute to Joe Melia’s performance as Stanley, which always manages to remain rooted in an emotional reality, whatever bizarre circumstances he finds himself in. Melia was Schuman’s first choice for the role “I couldn’t think of anyone who could do that energy masking deep despair better than Joe”

 Although some are of greater interest than others, every play on Red Letter Day is rewarding to watch and has its moments of emotional engagement for the viewer beyond historical curiosity. ‘Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill’ fully deserves its canonical reputation as a masterpiece, and in their very different ways, both the C. P. Taylor and Howard Schuman plays are extraordinary. One is left wondering what other of these two writers’ plays are still gathering dust in the archives, and if we can ever get to see them again, please. Red Letter Day is a fitting tribute to Jack Rosenthal as both a writer and as an editor who had the confidence to see the potential in other writers’ work, encourage them and to let them follow their own individual instincts, creating a series of tremendous diversity and value.

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Plot inflation in Greater Weatherfield: Coronation Street in the 1990s

Coronation Street #3109 (17 August 1990) Class war reaches Weatherfield as Des and Steph Barnes move into the new home at Number 6.

Coronation Street #3109 (17 August 1990) Class war reaches Weatherfield as Des and Steph Barnes move into the new home at Number 6.

Snooping on Don Brennan from the Back Garden: Watching Coronation Street in the 1990s.

 For much of my twenties in the 1990s and early 2000s, before my eventual career as a Television Studies academic, I worked as a library assistant. Over years of tea breaks in library staff rooms I overheard (and occasionally contributed to) many conversations about soap operas, always Coronation Street (ITV, Granada, 1960-) and EastEnders (BBC1, 1985-). The content of these conversations generally took two forms: judgment over the rightness or wrongness of characters and their actions (“I was really sorry for Gail when Martin had a one night stand with that nurse“), and speculation as to how events would progress (“Who do you think shot Grant Mitchell?”). More general consideration of these soaps as programmes in themselves was infrequent and generally took the form of complaints about how they weren’t what they used to be (“It’s too depressing these days/ there are too many young people/ gangsters in it now”)

 Because of this, one very atypical tea break discussion has always stayed in my mind. Decades later, thanks to the invaluable and exhaustive resource of Corriepedia I can trace the precise episode that we were talking about – #3393, 5 June 1992. The reason why this conversation was so unusual is because we weren’t talking about Rita‘s marriage to Ted Sullivan, or Emily Bishop‘s protracted nervous breakdown, but how the programme was shot and the means by which the director (Alan Marsden, who only ever did two episodes) had conveyed plot information to the audience. A routine scene –  “Don Brennan calls on Julie again who tells him that she’s seeing other men” – had not been shown from inside the living room where it was taking place, but partially observed though a window from Julie’s back garden. What was all that about? We couldn’t understand what it was supposed to signify. Did this mean that somebody else was aware of Don’s actions and was spying on him? Surely not Ivy? If so, then why weren’t we subsequently shown who the watcher in the garden was?

 What none of us understood at the time was that the odd way that this scene had been realised was not because of anything to do with the story of Don Brennan’s hoped-for infidelity, but because the visual grammar of how Coronation Street was made was changing before our eyes. Although much of the appeal of, and emotional investment that the dedicated viewer places in, Coronation Street derives from a sense of familiarity and continuity, throughout the 1990s the form, structure and feel of the programme was actually radically, but largely invisibly, changing. What was most significant about the audience being placed in Julie Dewhurst’s garden was that momentarily – through an incidence of badly misjudged direction – the curtain was lifted and viewers such as my colleagues and myself were made aware of the changing ontology of Coronation Street as it occurred.

Changing production and broadcast of Coronation Street in the 1990s.

 Coronation Street underwent two near-concurrent major changes to its production practice towards the end of the 1980s, changes that inexorably altered both the form and dramatic function of the programme. The first change, in 1988, was switching the recording of location sequences from 16mm film to videotaped Outside Broadcast (OB) (Little, 2000: 188). Using more transportable and flexible OB recording technology enabled the programme to use many more exterior scenes than previously, creating a more mobile mise-en-scene more in line with the contemporary continuing series Brookside (Channel 4, Mersey TV, 1982-2003) and The Bill (ITV, Thames, 1984-2010). This increase in location sequences meant that for the first time the world of Coronation Street could regularly, rather than infrequently, go beyond the familiar cobbled street and onto the streets, houses and institutions of the wider world (from hereon referred to as ‘Greater Weatherfield’), with the programme featuring three or four outside locations each week by the 1990s (Hanson & Kingston, 1999: 58).

 The second major change to the programme was a move to production and broadcast of three episodes per week in October 1989, Coronation Street having previously run twice weekly since its launch in 1960. Transmitting an extra edition of its highest-rated programme was a highly popular move within the ITV network, which had long suffered a problem with attracting substantial audiences on Friday nights (Kay, 1991: 24-5). The Street‘s executive producer David Liddiment (1988-92), explained the move to a third episode:

“We had already made the decision to increase the volume of location material and we were looking at a schedule to give us more time on location and the same time in the studio. I didn’t want the process we’d started, of increasing the production values of an episode, to be neutralised by the need to make a third episode. I wanted to make sure we could continue to enhance the production values of the programme and do a third episode. But there was a kind of rhythm about Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the fact that Neighbours and Home and Away were being shown five days a week with healthy audiences was. I felt, indicative of our ability to hold an audience for an extra episode.” (1991: 24)

 What is interesting about Liddiment’s justification is that it links both changes (mode of recording and amount of episodes) together, with increased location scenes constituting an increase in “production values”, an artistic advance that must be safeguarded.

 Preparations for the introduction of a third episode were carefully considered, resulting in extensive changes to several essential aspects of the programme. The composition of the street itself was altered, with the demolition of the Baldwin’s Casuals clothing factory and Community Centre creating space for three new homes (numbers 4, 6 and 8). New houses required new residents, broadening the social mix of the series’ characters, a change that returning producer Mervyn Watson (1982-85, 1989-92) saw as creating fresh dramatic possibilities for the series:

 “The reconstruction of the even-numbers side of the street has opened up a new swathe of stories and characters. It was appropriate that the first occupants of No 6 Coronation Street should be newcomers, the hot-tempered newlyweds Des and Steph Barnes. By mixing old and new, our well established characters have been given new possibilities and a new lease of life.” (in Kay, 1991: 31)

 In order to fill 52 extra episodes per year without increasing the workload of the show’s actors, the number of regular and semi-regular characters increased from around 30 to around 40. In order to incorporate the greater number of characters and locations, the show also became faster-paced, incorporating more (and therefore shorter) scenes per episode.

 At the same time that new outside broadcast technology was introduced, radical alterations were also being made to Granada’s facilities for the interior studio scenes that formed the bulk of Coronation Street‘s settings, with the opening of Stage One, an enormous new studio exclusively for the production of the programme, in 1990 (Hanson & Kingston, 1999: 51). The size of Stage One meant that permanent standing sets could be kept for interiors of all the Street’s houses and businesses for the first time, previously only kept for the main Rovers Return interior in the old studios (Podmore & Reece, 1990: 171). A further change to the making of studio scenes in the 1990s came with the introduction of Avid digital editing technology, greatly increasing opportunities for postproduction (Hanson & Kingston, 1999: 98).

 Like Watson, Liddiment described the combined effect of these changes as creating opportunities to offer viewers a broader, more diverse and exciting dramatic experience than before:

“In the last few years, we’ve transformed the way we make programmes. Until a couple of years ago, each episode would probably have more than four or five different settings – either the shop or café and two or three interiors of houses, plus, at the most, two scenes shot outside on the street set or at a separate location. And each episode would have no more than 14 scenes. A typical episode now has eight or nine different interiors and four outside locations, and anything up to 22 or 23 scenes. We go more on location. We see more of Weatherfield than we used to. We see more of the street. At one time, that wouldn’t have happened because it was a luxury the schedule didn’t allow, but we make TV now with lighter equipment that requires less lighting, so you’ve got more time.” (in Kay, 1991: 26-8)

 A more sceptical reaction to the changed production conditions of the late eighties was revealed in the memoirs of Watson’s predecessor, Bill Podmore (producer 1976-7, 1977-82, 1987-8, executive producer 1982-7). As well as expressing general concern about overkill dissipating viewers’ attachment to the series, Podmore had specific qualms about the increased volume of characters and storylines:

“New houses are to be built along the street and inevitably the cast must grow. It worries me just how many characters the viewers can absorb and care about. The more characters you have, the more each individual is diluted; you can’t feature them all at any one time. I thought we had already achieved the optimum balance, and perhaps even tipped the scales slightly on the down side. When I retired the cast numbered almost thirty and was the largest in the programme’s history. We would be constantly reminded of the dangers of an expanding cast at the writers’ conferences; we had trouble enough creating good story-lines for the characters we had, let alone others we might have like to introduce. The writers often complained we had to many as it was. To add perhaps another ten will mean that some characters – and possibly firm favourites with the viewers – may not be seen for quite long periods while storylines float around the others, Transmitting three days a week doesn’t mean that more story-lines can be crammed into any one episode. They will simply pass through the programme, and be used up, more speedily.” (Podmore & Reece, 1990: 178)

 Although extra characters and storylines were added to fill the 25 minutes additional airtime (and make full use of the dramatic opportunities created by increased availability of location recording) without increasing the workload of performers, there still remained only seven days a week to produce three episodes of Coronation Street in and recording schedules changed accordingly.

 A typical 1980s production week allocated all location filming (mostly of Street exteriors) to Monday mornings, followed by rehearsals for blocking in the afternoon. Tuesday rehearsals concentrated on performance and interpretation, with actors expected to be off script by final rehearsals on Wednesday morning. The full cast attended the Wednesday afternoon technical run, performed in front of the full crew (formed of technical supervisors, camera and sound operators, production assistants, ASMs, wardrobe, make-up and others). Any extra outdoor filming required was completed on Thursday morning, with studio recording starting at 2.30 p.m. and continuing over Friday when it had to be completed by 6.30 p.m. in order to be edited and dubbed over the weekend (Podmore & Reece 1990: 169-73)

 In order to incorporate the extra episode, the 1990 working week was extended by a day, with outside location recording on Sunday, Street exteriors on Monday, rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, technical run on Wednesday afternoon, with studio lighting set up overnight on Wednesday in preparation for two full days of studio recording between 9.00 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday (Kay 1991: 62-3). Although (less) time for rehearsals was still kept, by the end of the decade (after the addition of a fourth Sunday episode in 1996) formal rehearsals had been abandoned, with location recording from Sunday to Monday or Tuesday followed by three days in the studio from Wednesday to Friday, with pre-shooting of complex sequences weeks in advance of their place in the recording rota becoming common practice (Hanson & Kingston 1999: 76-7).

 This article considers the implications of these changes through textual analysis. How was the tenor and tone of the series affected by the new modes and forms of production? And how was the way that Coronation Street functioned (and was understood by viewers) as a drama altered by greater scope of location, more characters, new houses and twice as much airtime?

Comparative analysis of the topography of Coronation Street in January 1979 and January 1991

 The ten episodes of Coronation Street broadcast in January 1979 operate around a limited number of interior studio locations, all permanent standing sets at Granada Studios. Events are shown in five houses (numbers 1,5, 9, 11 and 13) and four businesses (The Rovers Return, Dawson’s Café, Corner Shop and Kabin newsagent) located either on or adjacent to Coronation Street. Only one other interior studio location is shown, Baldwin’s Casuals, a clothing factory run by and employing many of the programme’s regular characters, formed onscreen of two rooms, a sewing room and adjoining Manager’s Office. Across these nine buildings, events are shown in 14 rooms.

 Apart from Coronation Street itself, exterior filming is highly limited, with ‘Greater Weatherfield’ confined to a nightclub doorway on New Year’s Day and the exterior of a block of Council flats Deirdre Langton plans to move into. One episode (#1878) features no filmed inserts whatsoever.

 Only one other interior location is used in that month’s run, an unnamed supermarket in Victoria Street featuring as site for a comic storyline in which Suzie Birchall falsely claims to have won an upmarket job as a perfume demonstrator while actually working as a sausage chef. With this plot only running for two episodes (#1879 and #1880) it could only have been practicable and affordable to film these scenes on location, rather than to construct a supermarket set in Granada’s studios. As realised on screen, the effect of recording these sequences on film serves to separate them from the rest of the programme, giving them a different feel and effect. While the convention of 16mm filmed inserts is easy to adjust to when watching exterior scenes (our perception of lighting and acoustics is very different when we step outdoors in real life), the effect is different for the viewer when filmed footage is used for interior scenes, turning the supermarket into a location, visually comprehended as being an other place, as opposed to another place, with different conditions and expectations to studio interiors.


#1879 (22 January 1979) Suzie Birchall looks for work in a Weatherfield supermarket.

 This sense of apartness work in favour of the supermarket plot within the wider dramatic narrative of that month’s Coronation Street. The viewer’s emotional interest in Suzie Birchall’s downfall is reliant upon the possibility of the character being found out and humiliatingly exposed (as inevitably happens when Suzie is seen by gossip Hilda Ogden). When Suzie Birchall’s job is presented in a different, filmic, visual register to the rest of Coronation Street then the prospect of the familiar Coronation Street world encroaching upon her new existence carries a particular disruptive force for the viewer. The sense of mild disjuncture picked up by the viewer in rare sequences like this supermarket storyline worked largely because of the exceptionalism of such locations in the programme at the time, when the wider world of  ‘Greater Weatherfield’ was rarely visited.

 By the 13 episodes of January 1991 the terrain covered by Coronation Street has greatly expanded, with scenes in eight houses (1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10a, 13 and 15a) and five businesses (The Rovers Return, corner shop, Kabin, Casey’s Garage and Dawson’s – now renamed Jim’s – Cafe) on or adjacent to the Street. Across these 12 buildings, events are shown in 20 rooms.

 The most striking difference between 1979 and 1991 is that flexible location recording now means that much more of the drama occurs away from the street. In addition to many unidentified road and street exteriors, scenes routinely occur in ‘other’ pubs or homes of characters’ girlfriends away from the Street. The relative speed with which location recording could be set up meant that relatively brief scenes requiring outside locations could be shown from multiple perspectives; for example, an argument in a branch of the ‘Wetherfield & General Building Society’ (Episode 3181, 30 January) happening in two rooms of the building. Scenes even happen in Lancashire places identified as beyond Weatherfield (a pub on the A69, a Manchester department store) without being presented as exceptional occurrences.

 A major change in the topography of the series is found in the types of workplaces regularly featured. Much of the action is now located in Bettabuys Supermarket, a business which employs (at both junior managerial and more menial levels) several of the Street’s residents, as well as introducing a raft of new semi-regular characters, most notoriously manager Reg Holdsworth, who tends to dominate many viewers’ early ‘90s memories of Coronation Street. Unlike the studio-based Baldwin’s Casuals, Bettabuys was shot on location in a real supermarket, creating a very different sense of workplace to those previously shown in Coronation Street. Where events in Baldwin’s Casuals were confined to the factory floor and manager’s office, action in Bettabuys over the month extends over seven locations; shop floor, manager’s office, canteen, corridors, loading bay, storeroom and ladies’ lavatories.

 This range of spaces increases dramatic possibilities for workplace scenes, creating many more opportunities for characters to be seen by, react to, and gossip about, each other. Every room carries different specific social rituals and expectations, that can be observed or disrupted by the people in it; it is taboo for workers to make scenes in front of customers on the shop floor, the canteen between shifts is a better place and time to discuss personal matters, the lavatory is the safest place to retreat to when upset but is also a location where an enemy or boss may overhear you, and so forth. New opportunities created by OB recording for regular settings like Bettabuys maintained the sense of familiarity that viewers had previously found in locations such as Baldwin’s Casuals, but now placed them in the type of verisimiliar ‘outside world’ location previously only seen infrequently and fleetingly in the Street, as in the Suzie Birchall supermarket story of 1979.

Episode 2956 (27 July 1989)

 An early example of the opportunities that OB location recording created for Coronation Street to tell familiar stories in unfamiliar ways can be found in this episode, written by Paul Abbott. The philandering Mike Baldwin plot is a very typical one (“Mike admits to Alma that he took Dawn out. Alma tells him she loves him but he tells her he’s not after love”), but the scene is located in a beer garden (The Crooked Billet) in a previously-unseen canal-side district of ‘Greater Weatherfield’. The scene is shown through a simple camera set up, with an establishing shot of the leafy sunny pub followed by alternating close-ups of Mike and Alma.


 The unfamiliarity and attractiveness of the location raises the dramatic stakes of the scene. Because Mike has taken Alma to a higher class of venue the insensitivity of his actions are made to seem more jarring, and accentuate Alma’s display of disappointment and hurt. What is striking about how this section functions within the dramatic context of the episode’s narrative is that it is an unexceptional, rather brief, dialogue scene of only 80 seconds. Such a scene could not have been attempted under the recording conditions of 1979, where the difficulty and expense of recording in outside locations meant that those few settings that were used had to be dramatically imperative to the story told, as in the supermarket plot. In preceding years, such a scene would of necessity have to be set in a permanent location such as the Rovers or the cafe.

 The quick and economic nature of OB recording can also be seen in this episode in a short 40-second sequence in which Alma’s friend Audrey consoles her on a walk in an unnamed park.


 The open location, away from home and workplace interiors, allows characters to be reflective about their situation, while also creating a specific sensation of summertime for the viewer, the means to evoke a sense of the passing seasons being something largely missing previously in Coronation Street.

Multi-camera, single camera and editing.

 Although there was no one identifiable moment of change in studio recording practice equivalent to the switch to OB exteriors in 1988, incremental changes in the style and form of studio interiors created by changes to camera and editing technology continually occurred during the 1990s. Although studio interiors were recorded on three cameras throughout the 1990s, the introduction of Avid editing technology enabled much easier, and more frequent, post-production of these scenes (Hanson and Kingston, 1999: 100-1). At the same time, changes in camera technology allowed for more sophisticated focusing and higher definition images to be used than before. Here I compare an instance when the tried-and-trusted multi-camera technique inhibited a scene from being fully dramatically realized, with an early use of higher-definition single camera recording in Coronation Street.

Episode 3920 (11 October 1995)

 During the three-episode period of the 1990s, the pattern of shooting Coronation Street’s studio interiors required recording up to thirty scenes with three cameras in a day and a half, the director having marked around 400 separate shots on the camera script to be followed during recording, with familiar recognized patterns of camera movement and mixing often regularly used (Kay, 1991: 63). Ostensibly, this episode’s final section should have been ideally suited for recording under such well-established conditions. The scene, an important part of the plot that leads to the exit of one of the programme’s longest running and best-loved figures, Bet Gilroy (nee Lynch) shows a climatic argument and irrevocable falling-out between old friends, material seemingly meat and drink to Coronation Street. Bet has been presented with the opportunity to buy the property and licence of the Rovers Return, which she has previously managed as landlady. Lacking sufficient solo funds for the venture, she believes that her old friend Rita Sullivan will offer finance for the pair to go into managerial partnership together.

 The confrontation, shot on two cameras, in the Kabin newsagent revolves around a very simple rise-and-fall reversal of Bet’s expectations. Rita and Mavis Wilton are working behind the counter when Bet arrives brandishing a bottle of champagne, having secured a reduced price for the pub from the brewery. When Rita tells Bet that she won’t go through with the venture a furious row ensues, with Bet leaving the shop.

 This story is presented in very simple visual terms with, once their conversation has started, action confined to a sequence of alternating close-ups of Bet and Rita, book-ended by before-and-after mid-shots of Bet entering the Kabin doorway in triumph and departing in high dudgeon. This clarity of presentation accentuates the combative rhythms of the argument, allowing the viewer to observe the ‘hit’ of reaction to every truth-telling insult (“It was Len’s cash what got you started! But for him, you’d be a clapped-out chorus girl!” “Better than a clapped out barmaid!”) and experience the considerable pleasure of watching the teeth-bearing, gimlet-eyed, fury of two elaborately-coiffured and made-up women in their fifties and sixties in close-up detail.

vlcsnap-2013-03-25-11h44m03s231vlcsnap-2013-03-25-11h44m39s49vlcsnap-2013-03-25-11h50m20s151vlcsnap-2013-03-25-12h02m13s106vlcsnap-2013-03-25-12h03m07s156 Unfortunately, this two camera switching also serves to limit the scene from achieving its full dramatic potential. The third woman present during the confrontation, Mavis, ends up being neglected by the camera, leaving her contributions to the scene marginal and incoherent, a blurry and muffled presence in the corner of the frame, briefly hinted at in a momentary sideways glance from Julie Goodyear. Mavis’ contribution to the scene is hard to discern when first watched, and it is only once seen several times (a luxury unavailable to the original viewer) that one can establish precisely what happens to her: she becomes discomfited by the scene, mumbles a suggestion that Bet and Rita might have their discussion somewhere else and, despite being on duty in the shop, walks out in embarrassment. This strand of the story is overlooked in the presentation of the scene, with Mavis seen only as a fluttering hand behind Rita and as the back of a head that momentarily passes in front of Bet.


 It is instructive to imagine how this scene might be viewed if performed on a theatrical stage, where an audience would be just as aware of the presence of Mavis as of Bet and Rita, and potentially in sympathy with her: not knowing how to respond when other people are arguing can be as dramatically interesting a situation as an argument itself. Although the possibilities offered by greater use of single-camera technology and the ability to edit in separately-recorded shots would not necessarily alleviate the dramatic faults of this scene (and editing-in separately recorded shots might run the risk of diluting the rhythm of the argument), it would mean that the problem of Mavis’ invisibility during the scene might at least have been more systematically considered before transmission.

Episode 3416 (29 July 1992)

 In contrast, this episode (directed by Brian Mills) provides an extremely early example of single camera recording and extensive postproduction for studio scenes in Coronation Street. This stylistic experimentation appears to have been born of necessity, with one comic storyline (Rovers landlord Alec Gilroy’s purchase of a rare Mexican mouse-eating spider, which then escapes during a kitchen inspection from an environmental health officer) impossible to record under conventional conditions, with the spider’s performance having to be shot in separate cutaways.


 The directorial style necessitated by the nature of the kitchen scenes, which present details and features of the room in close up detail and precise definition, carries over onto other interiors throughout the episode, in which the misfortunes of Ivy Brennan form a tragic counterbalance to the comic story of the spider. Having had his foot amputated after crashing his taxi (in a suicide attempt after Julie broke off their affair), Don is discharged from hospital, but refuses to return to Ivy. Ivy’s vigil of waiting is presented through concentration upon objects in the foreground (a vase of fresh flowers, a silent telephone and a bottle of sherry) while Ivy’s own movements and conversations with her daughter-in-law, Gail, occur in blurred focus in the background of the frame. The striking effect of this unconventional filming demands the viewer’s full attention and, unlike the misdirected “snooping on Don Brennan from the back garden” instance, serves an intentional storytelling purpose. Concentrating upon the objects handled, rather than the woman handling them, encourages empathy with Ivy’s agitation and disconnected state of mind, and is the closest that Coronation Street comes to a point of view shot in this period.


 Where this new technique perhaps proves counterproductive is in its jarring ontological unfamiliarity. Were such visual devices used in a one-off ITV drama in 1992 their principle effect upon the viewer would be to offer narrative clarity, but, because they were used in Coronation Street in 1992, a programme that had accrued a familiar visual style through 32 years of studio practice, the direction draws attention to itself as much as to the story, the unfamiliar style distracting the viewer’s attention away from Ivy’s plight as much as it does to illuminate it. 

  The scene’s style can be described as directorially prescriptive, putting little trust in viewers’ imaginative ability to appreciate nuances of character revealed through the detail of actors’ performances, a traditional Coronation Street strength. When seen from a present-day perspective, the episode (which experiments with sound as well as vision, continuing the soundtrack of one scene over the visuals of the next) appears out-of-time, placing the world of 1992 into the television style of about ten years later.

Plot inflation.

 The 1990s broadcasting environment in which Coronation Street operated was a more crowded and competitive field than that of previous decades. As well as the efforts of rival serials Eastenders, Brookside and Emmerdale (Emmerdale Farm until 1989, ITV, Yorkshire Television 1972-, since 1988 broadcast nationwide in an evening slot and continuously throughout the year), television ratings had been falling since the mass availability of the video recorder in the 1980s, and were further challenged by the introduction of U.K. satellite and cable broadcasting in 1989. With soap operas attracting a regular audience to their host channels, all four serials increased output in the 1980s and 1990s, Emmerdale being the last to introduce a third episode in 1997. The increased amount of airtime needing to be filled, combined with the pressure to keep series discussed  in the press, has lead to the growth period of soap operas during the 1990s being characterized as a time of greatly increased sensationalism in storylines. Jimmy McGovern (who had written one episode of Coronation Street in 1990), identified and mistrusted this trend:

Inflation has set in. The Street used to be immune to it but even there writers are losing faith in actors, and the actors are losing faith in the characters. So people have to place great faith in the stories. But that’s when inflation sets in because one story has to top another. (In Jeffries: 2000, 170-1)

 To suggest that Coronation Street had somehow avoided sensational storylines before the late 1980s would be a misrepresentation. The recurrent need, faced by all continuous series, to write actors out necessitates the regular recurrence of partners walking out of relationships and sudden deaths and, although the Street didn’t suffer its first murder until the shooting of Ernest Bishop in 1978, its unfortunate residents had already experienced many shocking demises; crushed by van, suicide, or electrocution by faulty hairdryer. Nor had it avoided spectacular disasters, enduring a train crash in 1967 and a lorry crash in 1979. The particular change to Coronation Street in the 1990s lay in the form that such occurrences took, as well as the frequency with which they happened. Previous shocking events, such as Minnie Caldwell being held at gunpoint (1970), or Deidre Langton being sexually assaulted (1977), had always occurred in the familiar location of Coronation Street itself, with the sense of community that viewers derived from the setting helping to make such exceptional storylines disruptive and memorable, encouraging empathetic feeling for regular characters who had become victims.

 An early example of how the presentation of potentially sensational violent events in Coronation Street was changing is the end (a week after the wedding) of Mike Baldwin’s second marriage (#3251, 12 July 1991). When Jackie, a wealthy widow, discovers the full extent that Mike has attempted to defraud her through matrimony, she threatens him with a loaded shotgun when he arrives home. Although this violent scene would be always freighted with the problem of basic implausibility wherever it was set, the unfamiliar ‘Greater Weatherfield’ location of Elmsgate Gardens handicaps its ontologically integration into the imaginative world of Coronation Street. The location (a real house, not a studio set) has only been previously seen in a handful of episodes and carries few emotional associations for the viewer, so such a violent event carries less in the way of disruptive force for the viewer than it otherwise could: people might do such things all the time in Elmsgate Gardens, for all that the regular viewer knows. When such sensational events happen away from the understood community of Coronation Street, audiences can view them as separate from other incidents in the programme, and they come to carry less of an emotive pull.


Episode 4179 (18 April 1997)

 By 1997, spectacular and shocking events had become almost commonplace in the now four-times weekly Coronation Street, realised on such a grand scale as to make makes the gun-toting Jackie Baldwin sequence of six years earlier appear brief and underplayed in comparison. Advances in PSC (Portable Single Camera) technology and a more flexible recording schedule allowing greater leeway for storylines to be shot out of sequence made it more possible to mount ambitious scenes on a scale rarely previously attempted.

 The events of this hour-long special (double-length editions were an innovation first introduced in 1995), present a good example of this in practice. The episode concentrates upon the actions of a crazed Don Brennan, who has contrived a vendetta against Mike Baldwin and recently set fire to his factory. He picks Alma (now Mike’s third wife) up in his (unlicensed) taxi one night, drives past her requested stop, locks her in, and refuses to let her leave. At a deserted quayside, Alma tries to call for help on the taxi radio, which Don then rips out and destroys. After Don hits her Alma breaks free, but Don chases her in the car and forces her back into the cab. He drives the taxi straight into the River Irwell at the Quays, with them both inside it.

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 This vivid storyline comprised the most elaborate and technically demanding sequence yet attempted in Coronation Street, requiring five separate 12-hour night shoots involving trained stunt people and underwater filming, a process compared by Coronation Street’s producer to making a James Bond film (Hanson and Kingston, 1999: 94-5). The use of PSC editing does give the story a cinematic feel, facilitating extreme close-ups of Brennan’s eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror, quick editing of spectacular dangerous driving, shots rotating around the ragged couple on the deserted quayside, POV shots of the driver stalking his quarry, and so forth.

 The same token that makes this storyline spectacular also makes its integration into the world of Coronation Street problematic. The Don and Alma plot forms 15 separate sections within the episode, some of these very brief. Each time that the action returns from the frightening wastelands of Greater Weatherfield back to the Street, the viewer is forced to readjust to a different, ontologically familiar, world. Although this juxtaposition of Rovers Return and terrifying Quayside ordeal is freighted with dramatic ironies it tends to dominate the overall narrative of the episode and means that more subdued plots, such as the recently widowed Mavis’ grief, are given less room to establish themselves than might otherwise be the case. While it was impressive that Coronation Street was capable of achieving a convincing thriller kidnap plot in 1997, similar plots could be seen in other drama programmes at the time, and such stories prevented Coronation Street from creating distinctive drama unique to itself.

 The place of this story within the wider narrative of 1997 Coronation Street also demonstrates the questionable sustainability of a series in thrall to plot inflation. Kidnapping Alma (following on from setting fire to Baldwin’s factory) wasn’t the climax of Don’s irrational behaviour, which eventually arrived six months later when, having been interrupted while attempting to club Mike to death, Don died, while attempting to run Mike over, in an explosive car crash (#4278, 8 October 1997). Spectacularly violent events risk becoming less of a talking point once they become regular occurrences.


 This article has demonstrated that two concurrent changes that Coronation Street underwent at the end of the 1980s (greater and more extensive location recording and the introduction of a third episode) radically affected the form that the programme took, and how viewers understood it.

The greater amount of airtime to fill encouraged the creation of more sensational and protracted storylines. In the 1990s, the world of Coronation Street expanded beyond the immediate confines of the Street into ‘Greater Weatherfield’, a place that bore more visual similarities to the wider world, but which undermined the emotional and imaginative ties that viewers had formed with the familiar Street itself.

POSTSCRIPT (2 October 2013).

 Some enjoyably trenchant comments about plot inflation from Christine Geraghty are included in an article about the crisis in British soap operas by Stuart Jeffries in today’s Guardian:

Of course, soaps have hardly been popular because they have their finger on the pulse of the nation. In their heyday, they were immersive experiences that took their own sweet time developing stories and characters, and thereby made themselves convincing and seductive to mass audiences. “People witter on about The Wire and Mad Men,” says soap opera specialist Professor Christine Geraghty of the University of Glasgow. “It drives me mad. British soaps were doing those complicated multi-layered narratives long before HBO was invented. Soaps used to have the confidence to let very little happen sometimes.”

Soaps, then, were like Greek drama. What was important was not splashy plot twists – be it car crash, baby swap, lesbian snog or corpse under the patio – but how characters processed such incidents through the medium of gossip. “They don’t have the confidence to do that now,” says Geraghty. “There’s a relentless intensity of plotting that makes soaps often seem daft.” Why are they doing that? “Because the big stories capture the intermittent viewer, often at the expense of the regular viewer. The logic is that the more stories you have and the bigger they are, the better you compete with other formats. But that relentlessness eats up people and stories in an effort to counteract what’s going on elsewhere in TV. The risk is they look soulless and cynical. It’s also a vexed question as to whether those big stories help ratings in the long run.”


Hanson, David and Kingston, Jo. Coronation St.: Access All Areas. London: Andre Deutsch, 1999.

Jeffries, Stuart. Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy: Growing Up in Front of the Telly. London: Flamingo, 2000.

Kay, Graeme. Life in the Street: Coronation Street Past and Present. London: Boxtree, 1991.

Kibble-White, Jack. ‘Everyday Folk and Inflation’, ( http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/?page_id=276 ), 2000.

Little, Daran. 40 Years of Coronation Street. London: Andre Deutsch, 2000.

Podmore, Bill and Reece, Peter. Coronation Street: The Inside Story. London: Macdonald, 1990.

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Spaces of Television panel and keynote at the ‘Doctor Who: Walking in Eternity’ Conference University of Hertfordshire, 3-5 September 2013

'Doctor Who: Warrior's Gate: Episode 3' (BBC1, 17 January 1981)

‘Doctor Who: Warrior’s Gate: Episode 3’ (BBC1, 17 January 1981)

 A keynote address and three papers of ‘Spaces of Television’ research are to be presented at the ‘Doctor Who: Walking in Eternity‘ conference held at the University of Hertfordshire between the 3rd and 5th of September.

 Project co-investigator Professor James Chapman of the University of Leicester, delivers the opening keynote address of the conference, which will mark the publication of a revised edition of his book Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who – A Cultural History.

 On the same day, we also present a panel entitled “Fantastical Spaces of Television”:

Jonathan Bignell (Department of Film, Theatre & Television, Reading) Mise en scène in Doctor Who: The TARDIS as Space, Place and Setting

Victoria Byard (Department of the History of Art & Film, Leicester) Only Bodies and Languages: reading, writing and feeling spaces in Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy

Billy Smart (Department of Film, Theatre & Television, Reading) Warrior’s Gate, Jean Cocteau and the realm of videographic fantasy

 Booking details for the conference can be found here.


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Spaces of Television panel and presentations at the ‘Television for Women’ conference at Warwick, 15-17 May.

'Rock Follies of '77: The Empire' (ITV, Thames, 11 May 1977)

‘Rock Follies of ’77: The Empire’ (ITV, Thames, 11 May 1977)

Four ‘Spaces of Television’ papers are to be given at the ‘Television for Women’ Conference at the University of Warwick on May the 15-17.

We are presenting a panel entitled “1970s studio drama and the woman viewer”:

Leah Panos (Department of Film, Theatre & Television, Reading) ‘Rock Follies: feminism, performance and the television studio’

Billy Smart (Department of Film, Theatre & Television, Reading) ‘Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road: representing lesbianism in the 1970s’

Victoria Byard (Department of the History of Art & Film, Leicester) ‘Upstairs, downstairs? The spaces of gender and genre in The Clifton House Mystery and The Georgian House

A fourth ‘Spaces of Television’ paper will form part of a panel entitled ‘Crime drama for women’

Ben Lamb (Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Glamorgan)  ‘C.A.T.S. Eyes: a feminist action series for women?’

Booking details for the conference can be found here



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Spaces of Television papers at ‘Cops on the Box: Crime Drama on UK TV Screens’ Conference at University of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Friday March 15 2013


‘Hunters Walk: Local Knowledge’ (ITV, ATV, 11 June 1973)

Three papers of ‘Spaces of Television’ research are to be presented at the ‘Cops on the Box: Crime Drama on UK TV Screens’ conference at the University of Glamorgan ATRiuM in Cardiff on Friday 15 March 2013.

As part of a ‘Detection’ panel, Professor Stephen Lacey of Glamorgan presents “Take a look at the lawman: Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes – the case of Gene Hunt”, while the historical ‘Impact of Past Police Series’ panel includes presentations from the University of Reading’s Professor Jonathan Bignell on “Cars, Places and Spaces in British Police Drama” and Doctor Billy Smart on “Hunters Walk: Representing rape in the studio police drama”

Booking details and more information about the event can be found here


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Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama: Samuel Beckett’s Plays on BBC TV

Samuel Beckett is probably best known as a theatre dramatist, but there is a long history of BBC TV presenting dramas that he wrote for specifically for the medium, and also television adaptations of his theatre work (Bignell 2009). In its 2012 season of screenings titled ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama’, the British Film Institute screened a selection that comprised Beckett’s original television play Eh Joe (BBC 1966), and an episode of the arts series The Lively Arts (BBC 1977) that includes three of his dramas.  These are visually distinctive plays, worthy of the term ‘experimental’, and the story of how they were made and received reveals fascinating relationships between Beckett, the BBC and different groups of viewers.

The commissioning and screening of Beckett’s plays by BBC demonstrates a linkage between British television and an experimental Modernist aesthetic that Beckett’s name already represented in the later decades of the twentieth century. The formal experimentation, theatrical background and complexity of Beckett’s TV plays supported the Public Service claims of the BBC to present the best of contemporary arts practice despite, but also because of, the distance between some of that practice and the mainstream forms of television drama. The Modernist experimentation in Beckett’s plays on television can be seen in their pared-down verbal and spatial textures, and their concentration on geometrical forms and static or very slow physical action.

The opening of Eh Joe

In Eh Joe, there is only one set, and the play opens with a wide shot of a space representing a room with an oddly-proportioned door and window, and a narrow bed. Joe (Jack McGowran) moves around the set, drawing curtains and seemingly shutting himself in.  Joe never speaks in the 20-minute drama, but the audience hears a female voice (Sian Phillips) questioning him and berating him for his involvement in the death of a woman, probably his lover. The camera

The camera moves towards Joe

moves in stages towards Joe, ending on an extreme close-up of his face, with no cuts between shots.  The effect is to emphasise Joe’s reactions to the voice, which might be the voice of his conscience, and the play achieves a great intensity by means of its concentration on the single actor.

The recognition Beckett gained after the theatrical success of Waiting for Godot(first staged in the UK in 1955) and

Joe in a final close-up

numerous BBC radio productions of his work that Martin Esslin oversaw as Head of Radio Drama, meant that Beckett was perceived by television producers as part of a cultural elite.  Esslin himself both commissioned Beckett’s media work and also published academic writing that emphasised its aesthetic significance.  When Eh Joe was first screened, the Radio Times billing (30th June 1966) noted that ‘Eh Joe? [sic] was written specifically for television by Samuel Beckett, the Irishman long resident in France whose plays – Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape – have formed an important part of the post-war theatre revolution’. In the early 1960s, BBC produced many dramas exploring television form and drawing on European arts culture.  For example, a TV version of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape was screened in 1963 in the BBC’s Festival anthology series, in which an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses and plays by Jean Cocteau and T.S. Eliot were broadcast. But Beckett’s plays mainly featured in arts series, and it was in BBC2’s Lively Arts that ‘Shades’ was screened in 1977. The programme included three plays by Beckett; Not I was a version of a theatre play first staged in London in 1973. Ghost Trio was written specially for television, as was … but the clouds ….

The opening of Ghost Trio

Initially the space in Ghost Trio looks like the pared-down room of Eh Joe, containing a door, window, bed and a single performer (Ronald Pickup) sitting hunched on a stool, holding a cassette player. A female voice (Sian Phillips) describes the setting, instructing the viewer to look at still images representing the rectangular objects within it. She appears to preside over the space, and announces the movements that the male figure will make (walking

The voice presents a sample of floor

to the door, the window) and that he will hear ‘her’, a woman who we assume he is waiting for.  The woman does not arrive, and instead the man returns to his stool and hears music on his cassette player, Beethoven’s piano trio op. 70 no. 1 which has been called ‘The Ghost’ because of the second, slow movement’s eerie arpeggios. The action is divided into three similar sequences, in which the camera moves into the space and closes up on the man’s bowed head, raised for the last time towards the camera in the final shot. As in Eh Joe, camera

The male figure at the end of Ghost Trio

movement is slow and repetitious, takes are long and there are few cuts. A male performer and a female voice disconnect sound from vision, and the schematic setting questions any temptation to understand the action as ‘realistic’. Instead the play seems to be about loss, memory, expectation and resignation.

The third drama in ‘Shades’ develops similar ideas, beginning with a shot of a hunched male figure against a featureless black background. A male voice slowly speaks of times when, at night, having returned home from tramping the roads, he thought of a woman.  Reconstructing these occasions slightly differently each time, the camera cuts from the hunched figure to a lighted circle of space into which a man walks, stops, then walks away again. The absent woman is represented by a shadowy female figure, inaudibly mouthing a few lines from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Tower’ that include the words ‘but the clouds’. The separation of sound and image occurs again in this play, together with the attempt to evoke the past, though the absent loved-one is associated with poetry rather than music. But the activity of remembering and awaiting her ‘ghostly’ appearance continues Beckett’s concern with how both language and vision summon up, yet draw attention to the absence of, something or someone that cannot be recaptured.

The mouth speaking in Not I

An interest in vision, language and identity are also important to Not I. There is only one shot; the camera stays in close-up on a mouth speaking for the whole of the play’s 15 minute duration. The character is a woman (Billie Whitelaw) who speaks very rapidly about how, at the age of around 70, she becomes suddenly able to speak. Disconnected, repeated phrases tell fragments of her story, but whenever she is about to refer to herself as ‘I’ she stops and switches to the third person, ‘she’. She seems unable to take on the subjectivity that language would define for her. As the play progresses the mouth’s shape, movement and materiality (the detail of lips, teeth, saliva) become mesmerising, both intensely physical but also abstract and disassociated from the rest of the body.

The Lively Arts ‘Shades’ was planned as a tribute for Beckett’s 70th birthday in 1976 (BBC W AC T51/350), but problems deciding what to include delayed it and gave time for Beckett to write Ghost Trio and … but the clouds … specially for the programme. The Lively Artsusually featured interviews with writers, artists and other cultural figures, but Beckett refused to be interviewed and instead introductory material and a discussion between Martin Esslin and the presenter Melvyn Bragg was shot.

Martin Esslin introduces Beckett’s plays in Shades

The links between Beckett and a tradition of experimental literature, theatre and art were explored in the discussion, and were signalled visually by shots of paintings by Henri Hayden, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon, and sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Beckett’s television plays draw on aesthetic forms and production practices that associate them with early television drama and with theatre.  Until the late 1950s, British television drama was shot in relatively long takes, and many of the dramas were excerpts from, or adaptations of, theatre performances. The dramas were live, because of the impossibility of prerecording.  But as Jason Jacobs (1998) has shown, there were strategies to create visual dynamism, by changing the composition of a shot, changing the relationship between the performer and the set by physically moving the camera closer to, or further from, the action.  Pace and dynamism were created by camera movement rather than by editing. Beckett self-consciously uses this technique in his screenplays, by closing-in in slow and deliberate steps in Eh Joe, for example, or by moving the camera across the acting area in Ghost Trio.  However, the length of shots in Beckett’s dramas is still much greater than the average for British television drama after the Second World War, and the camera movement is much slower.  The dramas concern only one visible performer at a time, so the dynamic movement made possible by panning between speakers, or by changing the framing to include or exclude one performer from a group, is unavailable. Beckett’s television dramas, whether written specifically for TV or adapted for television production, alluded to a superseded aesthetic and refused many of its visual possibilities.

The commissioning of original dramas by Beckett as a writer associated with theatre, and also the presentations of his theatre plays on television, advertised the theatre medium as an important cultural institution. The Radio Times (30th June 1966) billing for Eh Joe, for example, noted connections between the performers in the play and both television and theatre productions: ‘The distinguished Irish actor Jack McGowran has for long been a close personal friend of the author, and he has become (with Patrick Magee) one of the principal interpreters of his work.  He is also one of drama’s most skilled pantomimists, as evidenced by his recent television performance as the jockey turned Trappist monk in Silent Song.  Sian Phillips, the voice of Joe’s past, has been seen recently in the West End theatre in The Night of the Iguana and Man and Superman.’

But the cultural power of Beckett, his BBC collaborators and the distinguished performers in the plays was at odds with the audience reception of the television plays.

The BBC Audience Research Report on Eh Joe (BBC WAC T5/1296/1) shows that 3% of the viewers in the BBC’s audience sample watched the play, and the Reaction Index for the programme (a measure of appreciation) was the low figure of 49. Several viewers liked the use of monologue over silent images, and one viewer wrote ‘obviously television could be the medium for this sort of thing, and it is a good experiment’.  But many viewers thought the play was very depressing.  A third of the sample said it was dull and dreary, with no visual appeal.

Clearly, Beckett’s cultural prestige was sufficient to overcome such negative factors.  In fact, it was the recognition of Beckett’s significance among the powerful but tiny audience of cultural commentators and opinion-formers that legitimated the BBC’s continued investment in Beckett’s work. Press reactions to ‘Shades’ exemplify this.  Sean Day Lewis reviewed it for the Daily Telegraph (16th April 1977), and wrote: ‘Casual viewers who stray into The Lively Arts […] tonight are likely to think that something has gone seriously wrong with their sets. […] The shades are all grey, Beckett does not believe in colour television, it seems, just in case too much information is let loose.  And then the grey is made as misty as possible so that the characters are dimly perceived.  This Tristram Powell production is not to be missed by those of us who are Beckett admirers, but it is uncompromising and may not make converts.’

In Britain there has always been a tension between television’s Public Service responsibility to raise the cultural standards of audiences, and the requirement to entertain. Broadcasts of Beckett’s television work show that the BBC could ignore negative audience responses and small numbers of viewers and present ‘the best’ of arts culture as defined by BBC personnel and an informed reviewing culture in the press. The casting of high-profile theatre actors in Beckett’s television work, and the images of art-works by Bacon and Giacometti in ‘Shades’, for example, link Beckett’s plays to a valued European (and not just British) arts culture.

Posted by Prof. Jonathan Bignell

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Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama: David Bowie in Baal (BBC, 1982)

Alan Clarke’s television production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal (BBC1, 2 March 1982) is being screened as part of the ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama’ season at BFI Southbank on Friday 30 November. Booking details can be found here. Billy Smart, author of ‘Brechtian Television: Theatricality and Adaptation of the Stage Play’, considers the unique style and qualities of this production:

The play

Baal was Brecht’s earliest play, written in 1918 as a student diatribe against Hanns Johst’s expressionist piece The Lonely One. Satirising Johst’s tale of an unacknowledged artist who redeems his dissolute lifestyle and dies at peace with the world, Brecht created in Baal a monster of sensuality and self-gratification, a ribald, drunken strolling player named after a bestial pagan deity. Despite his repulsive appearance and egocentric amorality Baal is irresistible to women, which makes him envied, admired and despised by men. He seduces every girl who comes his way before abandoning them to pregnancy or suicide, and finally murders his best friend, goes on the run and dies alone in a woodcutter’s cottage.

 (Pegg, 2002, pp. 461-2)

The 1982 production

Because it was made in 1981, the technical opportunities and mode of production available for Baal’s director, Alan Clarke, were more flexible than those used by previous directors of Brecht’s plays for the BBC, Rudolph Cartier (World Theatre: Mother Courage and her Children, 1959) and Charles Jarrott (Festival: The Life of Galileo, 1964). Clarke had the opportunity to re-edit the piece extensively in post-production, as had become customary in the production of studio television drama (Jacobs, 2000, p. 24), an innovation that might encourage the creation of the “Brechtian television” that had been called for by John McGrath, Ken Loach and others in the 1960s. Clarke’s production achieves its Brechtian distancing effect through montage and editing in places, but is also committed to the perceived virtues of ‘as live’ recording, featuring long scenes of continuous performance unfolding. However these long scenes are shot in a completely different way to Charles Jarrott’s intimate directorial style in Galileo, and show how the ‘as live’ studio mode of production could be used to create a mood of objectivity and detachment on the part of the viewer, instead of being used to create empathy.

The role of Baal required a charismatic performer who could sing, and who was prepared to play an unattractive character. Clarke’s initial preference for the role was Steven Berkoff, but he was persuaded out of the choice because Berkoff would present too unambiguous a sense of social origin for Baal (Kelly, 1998, p. 138). Instead, David Bowie was chosen, whose singing, background in mime[1] and ability to adopt the role of outlandish and outsider characters made him well qualified to fulfil these criteria. Having a major international star in the production undoubtedly changed the circumstances of its marketing and reception, the play being billed as David Bowie in ‘Baal’. This promotion of star over play[2] led to questioning of the BBC’s values in several quarters (Sunday Times review 7 March 1982, quoted in Pegg, 2002 p.463, Gardner and Wyver, 1983, p. 126). Bowie also capitalised on the production by releasing an EP of re-recordings of the five songs featured[3]

The inclusion of David Bowie altered perceptions of the play, and probably helped to militate against it being seen as a mainstream television production. Although David Bowie was a hugely famous performer by 1981, he was still largely perceived as a cult figure, rather than as a popular entertainer[4] or as a conventional actor, his two major roles previously having been as an extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth (dir. Nick Roeg, 1975) and as the deformed Elephant Man on Broadway (1980). This meant that unlike Mother Courage (with Flora Robson) or Galileo (Leo McKern), Baal was a production whose casting worked differently for two different sets of viewers; a pop audience, and a general one.

Bowie’s participation in the production was due as much to the status of Alan Clarke as to that of the play, Bowie having seen Clarke’s 1979 film version of Scum and responded with enthusiasm (Fenwick, 1982, p. 7). Clarke occupied a difficult position within the hierarchy of the BBC by 1981, as being one of the most prestigious and talented directors working for the Corporation, but also one of the most contentious, this difficult relationship between director and institution having reached a critical point with the decision of Alistair Milne, the BBC’s director General, not to screen Clarke’s original television film of Scum in 1977, ostensibly on the grounds of excessive violence and presenting an exaggerated picture of the failings of the borstal system (Kelly, 1998, 103-5). After this incident, Clarke’s work for television became more uncompromising and nihilistic, culminating in the exceptionally violent and bleak television films of Elephant (BBC2, 1988) and The Firm (BBC2, 1989)

Clarke’s production can be seen as the second part of a pair of complementary works, following on from his 1978 Play Of The Month BBC1 production of Georg Buchner’s 1835 early modernist play Danton’s Death. Both plays share a similarity of style and theme; written by very young authors, they present a bitter view of human existence as being a struggle to preserve the life force, in Buchner in the dialectic of revolutionary principle that results in Robespierre staying alive at the expense of Danton, and in Brecht, through Baal’s amoral use of others for his own gratification, particularly women. The depiction of this struggle can give both plays a harsh, cold, feel for the viewer, and the two plays are possibly the most scabrous, bleak and cruel theatrical adaptations ever transmitted on BBC1[5].

Clarke’s production of Danton’s Death accentuates this mood by using the studio of Television Centre One in a way unlike almost any other drama, using design, groupings and camera technique to emphasise its artifice and great scale. The production was shot on long lenses, in a way common in film but rarely used in television, breaking away from the familiar visual grammar of “zoom lenses and it’s all close-ups, mid-shots, one-shots” (Stuart Walker, the production’s designer, in Kelly (ed.), 1998, p. 110). With the use of narrow lenses, the cameras were never closer to the actors than fifteen yards away, changing the nature of performance, and the extent to which it was mediated by the director, with actors less aware of which camera they were performing to, and crew on the studio floor uncertain as to what Clarke was shooting unless they were looking at monitors (Kelly, 1998, p.110). The play’s producer, David Jones, described the effect of this process as achieving “a cool, detached feel” (Kelly, 1998, p. 110)

This sense of detachment was augmented by the production’s design, which attempted to give definition to the large-scale scenes enacted by the use of bright chiaroscuro lighting, concentrating on whites, greys and blacks, with very little primary colour (often used for tricolour flags), which created a sense of defined and shaded outlines for both performers and sets that recreated the effect of eighteenth century engravings (Kelly, 1998, p. 110). For his production of Baal, Clarke continued to use the methods of direction and design that he had innovated in Danton’s Death.

Play of the Month: Danton’s Death (BBC, 1978)

The source play Baal has as much dissimilarity of form and structure with Mother Courage and Galileo as it shares with them, especially in the 1918 first draft version (unpublished in English translation[6]) that Clarke chose to use. The play contains a multiplicity of scenes of varying length (unlike the 12 scenes of Mother Courage or the 15 of Galileo). The nineteen year old Brecht created a world which is more defined by a sense of non-realism than his later works, where, although scenes may be parodic or melodramatic in register, they are based around realistic situations of human power relationships (for example, Mother Courage’s bartering or the aged Galileo’s feigning of senility may require levels of theatricality that would be improbable if applied in real life, but the intention of Mother Courage and Galileo in acting in such a manner is established to the audience as being real).

The story of Baal operates on a much more mythic level than those of Mother Courage and Galileo. While their journeys are defined by the need for money, patronage or safety, Baal’s actions are defined by a more abstract life-spirit. Speirs (1987, p. 18) suggests that the play should be seen as a realisation of the struggle between Eros (life) and Thanatos (death) through the actions and figure of Baal. Baal is much closer to the bardic tradition of epic theatre than Brecht’s later plays in realising this struggle through poetic language that contains a complex series of codes dramatised through imagery, not incident; Baal continually talks of either trees (functioning as symbols of life), rivers (which function as symbols of life’s transience and the force of death) and, especially, the sky (the changing colours of which indicate the ever-changing fortunes and circumstances of life) (Speirs, 1987, p.18, Pegg, 2002, p. 462).

To realise this poetic sense of life-essence, Baal is a play which is realised through an expressionist realisation of the stage, which is intended to function not as a realistic representation of the world, but as a spiritual or intellectual space, reflecting Baal’s own thoughts and reflections. The play’s rapid sequence of short scenes required a sparse and flexible stage layout, realised in its 1923 Leipzig premiere through the use of a cyclorama (curved backdrop), a design used again by Brecht for Mother Courage. Where the two plays differ is that Mother Courage is a play entirely set in exteriors (battlefields and camps), while Baal is largely set in interiors (dining rooms, attics and inns), leading towards scenes of Baal’s flight and death in the forest. While a theatrical audience are aware of the representative space of the stage, a television audience are more familiar with naturalistic staging, from the great majority of television drama.

Clarke staged the play by using very large, representative sets shot through narrow lenses for the interior scenes, with entirely non-representative tunnels of gauze for the countryside (Kelly, 1998, p. 138). The juxtaposition between these two settings is less jarring than might be expected, due to the blurred sense of reality in the interior scenes. Speirs suggests that a Baal’s essence is communicated through the imagaristic language of Baal “making the surface of social relationships transparent, revealing the mythical conflict underlying it” (1987, p.18). Clarke’s use of the television studio, and design aesthetic, accentuates this sense of non-realism. The large sets are detailed, highlighting shade and shadow, and convincing, but are also disconcertingly expansive. Baal’s attic is first shown to the viewer[7] in an extensive wide shot that shows it to be on the scale of a warehouse, rather than a garret.

While this view allows the viewer to take in the scale of detail of such a large space, it also serves to alienate them from the human situation of the characters, dwarfed by their surroundings. Clarke’s long lens shooting of interiors also works to highlight the story’s mythic properties in the first scene, where Baal disrupts a bourgeois party held in his honour by a rich patron, Mech, by seducing his wife. The scale of the dining room allows the viewer to observe the full figurative movements of both Baal and Emilie, and to give the figure of Emilie a great symbolic weight in the composition of the entire scene, by making her pale dress the only point of light in a dingy room.

The lighting is also made deliberately artificial and theatrical at points in the production, noticeably when  a curtain is opened and the studio lights bounce up, quite deliberately, a second later, or when Baal switches the stage lights off to sing.

The distancing effect of the near-continual use of long shot is well illustrated by the climax of the scene[8] backstage at ‘The Night Cloud’, the club where Baal has scandalised and excited his audience by performing a salacious song[9] on stage with his lover Sophie. The chaotic and confused reaction to this performance is shown through the room becoming crowded with various nightclub figures (dwarfs, showgirls, drinkers, the club owner, a drug addict) each responding volubly to the event in a series of monologues that express their own concerns. Clarke’s decision to show this scene in long shot discourages the viewer from forming any understanding of the individual motivations of these characters, but to follow the chain of events in the room instead.[10]

The structure of Baal operates around a more confused chronology than that of Mother Courage or Galileo. Whilst the scenes of Baal’s life are presented chronologically they are broken and framed by the narration of Baal himself, each scene being heralded by a chorus of ‘Baal’s Hymn’, in which Baal refers to himself in the third person, singing in the past tense about the events which the viewer is about to see. This device confuses notions of past and present and their understanding of Baal as a character for the viewer, emphasising both the intensity of his experiences that are enacted, and his detachment from them as a poet. Each scene is also given a title through a caption (such as “Baal abandons the mother of his unborn child”).

Advances in studio technology meant that Clarke had opportunities to realise this narrative that would not have been available before the introduction of sophisticated post-production. Few of the songs in Rudolph Cartier’s 1959 production of Mother Courage are used because they would have to be separately recorded and orchestrated in a sound studio and then mimed in an ‘as live’ production, an effect liable to be unconvincing (the two songs which are used being shot in filmed inserts, where shots could be pieced together in the cutting studio). Clarke could record all of the verses of ‘Baal’s Hymn’ in one session, and then interpolate them into the recording of the play. These scenes were recorded of David Bowie against a red background, addressing the viewer directly by looking into camera (the only times that Baal does this in the production), accompanying himself on banjo[11]. Whenever the song is sung, the screen is split into two halves, the other half displaying a picture of the sky or a forest, sometimes overlaid with a caption.

The split screen effect becomes more prevalent in the later, exterior scenes of the play. With the studio representing a forest through tunnels of gauze, a sense of location is provided only through the dialogue in the live action half on the right of the screen and the symbol on the left. The effect is not dissimilar to the picture behind a newsreader during a bulletin, acting as an aide-memoir to the viewer of where the action is taking place, but the repetition of the same unremarkable pictures means that the poetic imagery in the dialogue has to do most of the work in engaging the viewer’s imaginative powers. A similar effect is achieved during the only other song of the five in the production to be sung by Bowie separately to camera, rather than performed as part of the diegetic action of a scene, ‘The Drowned Girl’, where the right hand side of the screen is filled with a freeze-frame of the face of Johanna (Tracy Childs) underwater.

The boldest use of postproduction technology occurs in the scenes in the forest, where Baal’s dialogues with his friend Ekhart (Jonathan Kent) are conducted entirely on the march, with the two men performing their dialogue while “repeatedly walking towards the camera, cutting back to the start of an identical shot each time they reach it” (Pegg, 2002, p. 463).

The effect of this is to concentrate the viewer’s understanding of space and time, making how and where the dialogue is supposed to follow uncertain, and to accentuate the physicality of the act of marching and how the two men respond to each other. This is a form of montage, but one specific to the conditions of a television studio draped with gauze. In a filmic location treatment of the same idea, the background and lighting would be liable to have changed from shot to shot, giving an idea of the men’s progress through the forest space.

Clarke’s production had the misfortune to be scheduled against another high-profile stage adaptation on ITV, John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (Thames, 1982), starring Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates. The aesthetic of this production[12] is almost a parallel opposite of Baal, being shot on location on film, telling a linear story through the familiar convention of voice-over, and being reliant upon the star personae and charm of the leads to create a sense of empathy on the part of the viewer.  Critics made unfavourable comparisons between the two productions, most emphatically Hilary Kingsley in the Daily Mirror:

It seems daft to say we had a contest between Lord Olivier, our greatest living actor, and David Bowie, professional weirdo, rock idol and actor on TV last night. (…) Baal was a total flop. I cannot believe even the most besotted of David Bowie’s fans could have tolerated more than a few moments of it. The hero, a tramp-poet haunting German society in 1912, was rotten in every sense – a drunk, a slob, a know-all, a seducer, a murderer, who apparently decomposed before our eyes. That the BBC could spend a small fortune on this repulsive and rightly ignored tableau is a cause for top level concern

(Kingsley, Daily Mirror, 3 March 1982, quoted in Pegg, 2002, p. 463)

Clarke’s use of the studio and casting had proved effective in creating an alienating and objective understanding of Baal on the part of the viewer, though this uncompromising, highly stylised reading also resulted in a sense of hostility and bafflement towards the play on the part of some viewers and critics.


Bowie, David, Baal’s Hymn (EP), RCA (RCA BOW 11), 1982.

Brecht, Bertolt, Plays I, London: Methuen, 1970.

Brunsdon, Charlotte, ‘Problems with Quality’, Screen, 31/1, 1990, pp 67-90.

Fenwick, Henry, ‘The man who fell for Brecht’, Radio Times, 27 February 1982, pp 6-7.

Gardner, C. & Wyver, John, ‘The Single Play: An Afterword’, Screen, 24/4-5, 1983, pp. 125-30.

Kelly, Richard (ed.), Alan Clarke, London: Faber, 1998.

Pegg, Nicholas, The Complete David Bowie, London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2002

Speirs, Ronald, Bertolt Brecht, London: Macmillan, 1987.

[1] He had recently completed a six month Broadway run of The Elephant Man. Clarke’s preference for long shots and crowded groupings suited a performer with a background in physical theatre.

[2] See, for example, the Radio Times publicity for the play, with Bowie on the cover and accompanying feature ‘The man who fell for Brecht’ (Fenwick, 1982) concentrating on Bowie’s domestic life.

[3] The unmelodic nature of the music meant that this was only a minor hit, reaching number 29 in the singles chart.

[4] This perception changes in 1983, with Bowie’s album Let’s Dance and its attendant singles, which were not associated with the creation of an outlandish persona as previous stages of Bowie’s career had been, and which formed the most commercially successful period of his pop career, attracting a wider audience than previously. Also in 1983, the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983) presented Bowie for the first time in a leading role in a comparatively conventional film.

[5] See BBC WAC R9/152 (VR/78/209) for viewers’ complaints about the coarse and depressing nature of Danton’s Death.

[6] Because of this, where I have referred to scenes, they are taken from Peter Tegel’s translation of the 1922 production (in Brecht, 1970)

[7] In Scene 4(i) of the 1922 version (Brecht, 1970, p. 17)

[8] Scene 7 in the 1922 version (Brecht, 1970, pp 27-9)

[9] Called ‘The Dirty Song’ on the Baal’s Hymn EP (Bowie, 1982)

[10] For an example of adverse viewer reaction to this technique, Joan Bakewell’s review of Danton’s Death in the Times (24 April 1978) suggests that having to watch multiple groupings in shadowy lighting is confusing and hard to follow.

[11] The onscreen music for ‘Baal’s Hymn’ is extremely rudimentary, as Bowie could not play the instrument (Kelly, 1998, p. 138)

[12] A Voyage Round My Father fulfils all of Charlotte Brunsdon’s (1990) signifiers of quality; a literary source, “the best of British acting”, money spent and a clear sense of Englishness that could be exported. Baal fulfils only some of these criteria, and less overtly.

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The Cherry Orchard (BBC, 1981)

Although only a handful of stage adaptations for British television were ever made on location on outside broadcast (OB), the technologies and working practices could also be used inside, as well as away from, the studio. This unusual method of production was utilized in a BBC version of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard  broadcast on 12 October 1981. Although the production is anomalous, it is worth considering in depth, as it shows a radically different approach to the television adaptation, especially in relation to the potential of the studio as a space for performance and representation, and how the genre might have developed differently in the 1980s.

The play came to be shot in such unorthodox circumstances due to the determination of Richard Eyre, a staff producer (and occasional director) for the BBC’s Play For Today (BBC1, 1970-84), to mount the play. Eyre did not have a background in television, but as a theatre director, most recently as Artistic Director of the Nottingham Playhouse, where his productions of new plays by Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare had attracted much attention and comment. As these writers all had concurrent careers as television and stage playwrights, Eyre was considered to be suitably qualified to produce the BBC’s most high-profile series of original television plays, despite the move across media[1]. As part of his first season at Play For Today, Eyre directed an adaptation of Griffiths’ 1975 stage play Comedians (25 October 1979) one of the directorial successes of his period at Nottingham Playhouse.

Keen to continue this collaboration between director and writer, Eyre and Griffiths looked to produce an adaptation of their 1977 Nottingham Chekhov adaptation, which only ran for four weeks, for the wider television audience. Because of the play’s non-contemporary origin, it lay beyond the remit of Play For Today, and slots could not be found for recording at the BBC, the established Play of the Month (BBC1, 1965-83) and the BBC Television Shakespeare (BBC2, 1978-85) series taking precedence. A year later, the play was recorded under a slot booked for Play For Today (although not transmitted under that title), with the concomitant smaller budget and time available for a contemporary single play (Poole and Wyver, 1984, pp. 155-6). Consequently, the play was shot with two cameras on OB equipment. This different approach gives The Cherry Orchard a very different feel to any other adaptation, a flexibility of camera movement that creates more tightly arranged, and more choreographed, scenes than were made with mixing between multiple cameras.

Eyre was pleased with the different working practices created by the OB conditions, chiming with experience and thoughts about television narrative through shooting Play For Today productions on film, and a scepticism about conventional videotaped studio drama, with its lack of opportunity for precise cutting (Poole and Wyver, 1984, p156). The more limited camera resources would mean that The Cherry Orchard would have to be meticulously planned out in advance. Poole and Wyver explain the process;

Restricted studio time would still remain a central problem but with full rehearsal and detailed preparation, the project did seem feasible. With the committed co-operation of [senior cameraman] Geoff Feld and lighting designer Howard King, the technique was made to work. Each shot was framed and lit individually, mostly using just a single camera, and these brief sequences were then edited together in the post-production process.

 (Poole and Wyver, 1984, p.157)

This description gives a slightly misleading impression of how the narrative of The Cherry Orchard is arranged. Instead of a mosaic of brief fragments, most shots are actually very long and uninterrupted, with occasional cutaways of close-ups of faces in reaction or speaking. These lengthy shots are unlike previous studio productions in part because the lightness and mobility of the OB equipment allowed for cameras to operate within a four walled set, as in the first act where the camera moves into the house through the door and then follows events by crossing into the main room. This sense of the interiors of the house as being an actual lived space is augmented by the different texture of the OB videotape stock, which has a softer grain than conventional studio videotape, feeling more like 16 millimeter film, and therefore bearing close affinities to the viewer’s expectations of filmed drama. Although the sense of vividness and contrast of familiar VT[2] is then sacrificed, the lighting in The Cherry Orchard is softer than in other adaptations, the use of white light streaming in through windows in acts one and four, and candlelight in act three, creating a sense of reality and actuality of location for the viewer, a useful emphasis in a play about the sale of a property[3].

Eyre saw his production as a recovery of the television adaptation from years of accreted standard practice, this recovery being a direct parallel with Griffiths’ recovery of Chekhov’s text, both reinventions challenging established notions of how adaptation could be achieved. Griffiths saw The Cherry Orchard as conventionally realized, as a play that could only be read through by the viewer to a series of meanings and intentions counter to the plays accrued cultural status as a study of whimsy, poignancy, eccentricity and theatricality, to reveal a concrete study in materialism, class, property and the means of production (Griffiths, 1989, p.2)[4], this reading supported by Raymond Williams’ analysis of conventional staging of Chekhov being seen by audiences as supporting a view of “how life is” naturalist presentation of reality creating an ideological structure of feeling (Williams, 1973, p.109);

 I did Cherry Orchard because I felt that its meanings had been seriously betrayed, almost consciously betrayed, over forty or fifty years of theatre practice in this country.

(Griffiths, speaking in Gilbert, 1981)

With this intention, Griffiths reworked the play in two ways. The first way was through a reduction of exposition, informed by seventy-three subsequent years of cinematic storytelling after Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, allowing characters to explain their feelings though fractured half-expressed thoughts rather than in formal sentences (Allen, 1993, p. 161), an approach that is supported in the television version by Eyre’s ability to use cinematic close-ups of characters in reflection, allowing the viewer a sense of insight into the characters’ interior lives.

Harriet Walter as Varya in Act Four of The Cherry Orchard (1981)

The second reworking was in adjusting the hierarchical structure of the play’s casting, Eyre emphasizing in rehearsal that The Cherry Orchard depicted the spectrum of society in twelve characters of equal importance (Allen 1993, p. 156, Poole and Wyver, 1984, p.155). This intention can perhaps be made clearer in a television staging of a play than in a theatrical one due to the director’s control over the selection of shots that the viewer sees. Eyre’s Cherry Orchard is a production that emphasizes the collective to a degree that is unusual, an effect achieved through long takes of long shots of multiple characters entering and exiting rooms and interacting. Within this structure that emphasizes the company in most shots, the filmic editing into the action of infrequent close-ups then bears much more weight, and appears to carry more directorial intention, than in a conventional camera rhythm of establishing shots, two shots, reaction shots, etc. The two characters whom this technique most accentuates in Eyre’s production are Lopakhin the buyer of the estate, and Trofimov, the marginalized student with radical sympathies, both of whom are essential to a materialist interpretation of the play. The close ups of both character’s reactions, especially to Madame Ranevsky, allows the viewer to develop understanding into these character’s situations and their feelings towards others, and militates against the tradition of cruder portrayals of them as, respectively brutish interloper and student layabout.

This emphasis upon the collective affects the way that actors’ performances are read by the viewer of The Cherry Orchard, and the long continuous takes mean that more subtle nuances and gestures of individual performers can be submerged in this production. Actors were unfamiliar with Eyre’s methods, and felt that details of performances were lost with the absence of conventional multi-camera studio close-ups. In the scene in act one where Madame Ravansky receives and tears up a letter from a lover in Paris, Judi Dench added the detail of her gathering up the scraps of paper and putting them in her handbag to keep, an incident which is undetectable to all but the most attentive viewer of this production (Amory, 1981, p.25). Griffith’s intention for the adaptation was to avoid the potential for “operatic” characterization, as realized in long solo performances of angry or longing speeches that direct the viewer’s attention towards the performance at the expense of the society, a tendency that is further discouraged by Eyre’s camera technique, but this approach also makes the depiction of very subtle, close up, acting quite difficult to achieve at times.

The 1981 production of The Cherry Orchard has a specific place in the canon of the stage adaptation, not just because of its anomalous production practices. Through using the play to explore a particular materialist thesis it demonstrated how the adaptation could be used to a specific aim while remaining faithful to the source text[5]. Aesthetically, through its more solid sense of location, muted colour and lighting and precise directorial arrangement of shots, Eyre’s Cherry Orchard feels less rooted to its time than most other stage adaptations of the period, while still being made in the television studio. The use of lightweight cameras and cinematic editing gives the production strong affinities with contemporary television drama production, showing how the genre of stage adaptation might be developed in the present day.


Allen, David, ‘’The Cherry Orchard’: a new English version by Trevor Griffiths’, in Chekhov on the British Stage (ed. Miles, Patrick), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 156-168.

Amory, Mark, ‘The Axeman Cometh’, Radio Times, 10-16 October 1981, pp. 23-5.

Chekhov, Anton, The Cherry Orchard (trans. Griffiths, Trevor), London: Faber & Faber, 1989.

Elsom, John (ed), Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?. London: Routledge, 1989.

Gilbert, W. Stephen, ‘Closed Circuits’ in The Guardian, 17 October 1981.

Griffiths, Trevor, ‘Preface’, in The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov, Anton, trans. Griffiths, Trevor), London, Faber & Faber, 1989, pp. 1-3.

Poole, Mike & Wyver, John, Powerplays: Trevor Griffiths in Television, London: BFI, 1984.

Sutton, Shaun, The Largest Theatre In The World, London: BBC 1982.

Williams, Raymond, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, London: Pelican, 1973.

Willis, Susan. The BBC Shakespeare Plays. London: Chapel Hill, 1991.

Wyver, John, ‘How “the Best Play of the Twentieth Century” Took To The Air’, City Limits, 9-15 October 1981, pp. 50-3.

[1] This move between theatre and television production can also be seen in David Jones’ move from the artistic directorship of the Royal Court Theatre to BBC producer of Play of The Month in 1977.

[2] See Don Taylor, ‘Pure Imagination, Poetry’s Lyricism, Titian’s Colours: Whatever Happened to the Single Play on British TV?’, New Statesman, 6 March 1998, pp.38-9. for a defence of the unique aesthetic qualities of videotape.

[3] This softness of definition also assists the realization of the exterior act two of Eyre’s production, shown here in a hazy, impressionistic wash of sandy earth colour merging into the blue of the horizon, avoiding the habitual problem of the sharp definition of the studio camera and very specific design appearing very artificial to the viewer (for example, in Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea, BBC2, 5 March 1974)

[4] The codification of this materialist reading in part due to Chekhov’s working under conditions of theatrical censorship (Allen 1993, p.158)

[5] Griffiths justified the prevalent practice of adaptation in television drama with reference to Brecht’s career being based around the reinvention of existing stories, every reinterpretation creating a different ideological result unique to its adaptor (Gilbert,1981).

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BFI Southbank Season – ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama’

‘The Wednesday Play: Drums Along the Avon’ (BBC1, 1967)

During November and December BFI Southbank will present Beyond the Fourth Wall, a season of television plays that experimented with new forms and styles to create truly exciting and original TV dramas. Highlights include the BBC adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (BBC, 1982) starring David Bowie and directed by Alan Clarke, The Old Crowd (Six Plays by Alan Bennett), directed by Lindsay Anderson, (LWT, 1979) and a trio of plays by Samuel Beckett – Ghostrio, But the Clouds and Not I (BBC 1967). Another highlight of the season will be a panel discussion Experimental Drama Then & Now, with directors Philip Saville and Piers Haggard, producer Ken Trodd and TV historian Lez Cooke. This season will give audiences an opportunity to see a set of extremely rare dramas which push the boundaries of television drama, many of which have not been seen on our TV screens since they originally aired. ‘Spaces of Television’ will mark this important season by posting new essays on this blog about the Samuel Beckett plays by Professor Jonathan Bignell and Baal by Doctor Billy Smart.

From soap operas to the latest period blockbuster, audiences’ experience of television drama is based on an assumption that what they are watching is real. The camera occupies an unseen ‘fourth wall’. Beyond the Fourth Wall explores those television plays that rejected the usual constraints of pure naturalism to try something completely new. Attempts to push at the boundaries of television drama go back to 1958, with the creation within the BBC of the Langham Group, an experimental drama unit charged with producing plays in an innovative style.

The one surviving example of the Langham Group’s work, The Torrents of Spring (BBC, 1959, Dir Anthony Pelissier) will screen. Revolving around a theatrical manager who procures men for his singing-star wife, this play fuses popular music with fluid camera movements and choreographed crowd shots to really push the boundaries of TV production. It is also a rare opportunity to see Harry H Corbett relishing a role outside of Steptoe & Son. Torrents of Spring was an adaptation of a novel by Ivan Turgenev, which reinforced a tradition of European ‘high art’ that was central to the Group’s work. However, scriptwriter Troy Kennedy Martin condemned the Group for its lofty aspirations.  For him, and a new generation of producers and directors such as John McGrath, Tony Garnett, Ken Loach, Alan Clarke and Ken Trodd, what mattered was a direct, popular connection with a working-class audience.

With its heavy use of montage and its tale of the creation of a Kafka-esque state in which reality and politics collide, James MacTaggart’s play Three Ring Circus (BBC, 1961) was a pivotal moment in television history that first put into practice many of the non-naturalistic techniques subsequently taken up by others. The plays that followed would exploit advances in television technology, such as split screens and Colour Separation Overlay. The latter of these techniques is when live action is electronically superimposed against any background and is evident in MacTaggart’s Alice through the Looking Glass (BBC, 1973) and McGrath’s The Adventures of Frank (BBC, 1980).

Another way in which writers and directors subverted television norms was through work that explored psychology and the subconscious. Dennis Potters’ dominance in this particular form has made it necessary to exclude him from the season to make way for others we less frequently see. Examples include David Halliwell’s Triple Exposure (BBC, 1972), which repeats the same scene from three characters’ points of view, Bennett’s The Old Crowd (LWT, 1979) which pays homage to absurdist writers and Clive Exton’s The Rainbirds (BBC, 1971) in which the viewer enters the dreams of a man in a coma. To experience these extremes of British television drama is as surprising as it is rewarding – and a timely reminder of what the risk-taking single television drama can achieve.

Marcus Prince, BFI TV Programmer

Screenings taking part in the season:

The Old Crowd (Six Plays by Alan Bennett)

LWT 1979. Dir Lindsay Anderson. With Jill Bennett, Isabel Dean, John Moffatt. 61min

Produced by Stephen Frears, this is a brilliant and, typical for Bennett, slightly tongue-in cheek synthesis of experimental forms, referencing Pinter, Genet, Pirandello and more. A middle class dinner party ensues; as each set of guests arrives, Bennett dissects the fears and prejudices of those gathered, in the presence of two servants who are not quite what they seem. Subverting naturalistic conventions, the camera takes in the TV studio and watching crew who become like voyeurs at the party. Truly experimental television – all the better for Bennett’s superb control and sense of irony.

+ Triple Exposure (Play for Today)

BBC 1972. Dir Alan Cooke. With Alec McCowen, Sheila Allen, Tom Chadbon. 65min

Exploiting the then recent ease with which videotape could be edited, writer David Halliwell shows us the same scenes from three different characters’ points of view: a burglar (Chadbon), the master of the house (McCowen) and his wife (Allen). In telling this simple and funny tale of how a burglar is adopted by a middle-class couple from their separate perspectives, Halliwell provides a fascinating insight into their innermost thoughts and the misunderstandings between them that borders on farce.

Mon 22 Oct 18:00 NFT2


Three Ring Circus

BBC 1961. Dir James MacTaggart. With Andrew Cruikshank, John Breslin, Hilary Paterson. 60min

When a man walks into a police station with no memory of who he is, he becomes entangled in the affairs of a strange Kafka-esque state. Assuming the identity of high-profile figures who have disappeared, he tries to rediscover himself. The concerns of the Cold War loom large over Jack Gerson’s play while MacTaggart’s expressionistic direction create an atmosphere of political menace and paranoia. A pivotal play in television history that first put in to practice many of the non-naturalistic techniques that were to be taken up by others.

+ Panel & Q&A: Experimental Drama Then & Now 45min

Taking Three Ring Circus as the play that kick-started the non-naturalistic play, our panel will discuss the whole experimental movement, its main exponents and its legacy today. The discussion will be illustrated with clips. Panelists to include directors Philip Saville and Piers Haggard, producer Ken Trodd and TV historian Lez Cooke.

Mon 29 Oct 18:00 NFT3


The Torrents of Spring

BBC 1959. Dir Anthony Pelissier. With Sandra Dorne, Harry H Corbett, Charles Houston, Penelope Horner. 60min

A product of the Langham group (tasked with producing experimental drama), this was adapted from a Turgenev novel. Revolving around a theatrical manager who procures men for his singing-star wife, the play fuses popular music with fluid camera movements and choreographed crowd shots to push the boundaries of TV production for 1959. The extreme naturalism of the script and fine performances suggest a debt of influence to the (then pioneering) output of Royal Court Theatre, with plays such as John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. A rare opportunity to see Harry H Corbett relishing a role outside of Steptoe & Son.

+ Dr Korczak and the Children (Studio 4)

BBC 1962. Dir Rudolph Cartier. With Joseph Furst, Anton Diffring. 60min

This deeply affecting true story relates the dilemma of Dr Korczak, charged by the Nazis with leading the children from his Polish orphanage to the gas chambers – but should he tell them the truth? Owing much to Pirandello’s’ Six Characters in Search of an Author, the play starts with the actors complaining about the bare studio; only then do they gradually ‘become’ the characters. Stripped of artifice, this production pays homage to the power of performance and exploits the expressive potential of the TV close-up.

Introduction by Professor John Hill, Royal Holloway, University of London

Thu 25 Oct 20:30 NFT3


Prisoner and Escort (Armchair Theatre)

ABC 1964. Dir Philip Saville. With Alfred Lynch, Norman Rossington, Tim Preece, June Barry. 56min

Designed by Voytek, this was a real attempt to make the TV studio an expressionist extension of the action. A naturalistic train carriage is replaced by a series of sliding screens owing much to the work of avant-garde theatre directors Piscator, Meyerhold and Brecht. A soldier is held prisoner on the way to his trial, but what was his crime? Into this explosive atmosphere steps a young women fleeing from her past and trying to start a new life. A razor-sharp script by Charles Wood combines with powerful performances under the visionary direction of Philip Saville.

+ Play for Today Presents The Largest Theatre in the World: The Rainbirds

BBC 1971. Dir Philip Saville. With Madge Ryan, James Cossins, Andrew Grant. 65min

Written by Clive Exton and produced by Irene Shubik, this play was entered into the ‘The Largest Theatre in the World’ strand – a Europe-wide initiative to produce the same plays in each European country in their own language. Telling the story of John Rainbird, a young man who tries to commit suicide and ends up in a coma, Exton and director Saville create audacious and vivid fantasy dream sequences which relate to John’s past memories and ambiguous feelings towards his parents.

Thu 1 Nov 18:10 NFT2


Alice Through the Looking Glass

BBC 1973. Dir James MacTaggart. With Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, Judy Parfitt, Freddie Jones, Stephen Moore. 65min

Two plays directed by the high priest of non-naturalism. MacTaggart was quick to realise the potential in the new Colour Separation Overlay technique that allowed actors to be electronically superimposed on any background. Physical scenery could be dispensed with and whole visual worlds conjured up. In this production (the BBC’s official entry to the prestigious Prix Italia competition), MacTaggart pushes the new technology to evoke Lewis Caroll’s psychologically complex dream world. The beautiful visual style is complemented by performances that create a memorable array of eccentrics.

+ Drums Along the Avon (The Wednesday Play)

BBC 1967. Dir James MacTaggart. With Leonard Rossiter, Valerie Newman, Rafi q Anwar, Amita Mall, Salmaan Peer. 73min

Produced by Tony Garnett and described as ‘a fable’ by writer Charles Wood, this is an audacious riff on race, immigration and prejudice. Employing a variety of Brechtian techniques, from actors addressing camera to a complex use of montage and music, the play testifies to MacTaggart’s brilliance as a director. As the councillor who ‘goes native’, Leonard Rossiter is funny and entertaining, displaying his usual flashes of comic genius.

Sat 17 Nov 15:00 NFT2


The Adventures of Frank (Play for Today)

Part 1 – Everybody’s Fiddling Something + Part 2 – Seeds of Ice

BBC 1980. Dir John McGrath. With Mick Ford, Jim Broadbent, Jane Wood, Alan Ford, Jennifer Hilary, Gayle Runciman. Part 1: 65min and Part 2: 78min

Harking back to Ken Loach’s groundbreaking Diary of a Young Man, this play also uses the ‘fable’ of a young man from the North (Ford) who comes to London to seek his fortune. Exploiting the newly developed Quantel system that could shift and move the television picture in to any shape and size, McGarth creates a series of split screens, reminding the viewer that they are watching an artificially constructed play. Music and drama combine to carry the action forward and underscore the play’s political messages. Produced by Richard Eyre this is a brave and refreshing antidote to the extreme naturalism of the social realists. Drawing on his experiences in the theatre, McGrath never forgets the power of humour in this tale, which charts its hero’s fall from naive innocence to (with devastating contemporary resonance) corruption in the world of high finance.

Thu 22 Nov 17:45 NFT2


The Classic Play: Baal

BBC 1982. Dir Alan Clarke. With David Bowie, Zoe Wanamaker, Jonathan Kent, Polly James. 62min

David Bowie stars as the anti-hero Baal in this fine production, adapted from Brecht’s play by John Willet and Alan Clarke. Bowie is convincing as the womanising poet and delivers the show’s songs with the required blend of deep conviction and ambiguity as we chart Baal’s demise from arrogance and swagger to a murderer who dies alone. Clarke keeps the television camera well back to create wide, beautifully lit tableaux and uses split screens to find a televisual expression of Brecht’s trademark ‘alienation’ technique.

+ The Lively Arts: Shades – Three Plays by Samuel Beckett

Ghostrio + But the Clouds: BBC 1977. Dir Donald McWhinnie. With Ronald Pickup, Billie Whitelaw, Rupert Horder.

+ Not I: BBC 1967. Dir Anthony Page. With Billie Whitelaw. 60min

This trio of plays (introduced by Melvyn Bragg) was a Beckett world premiere at the time. The first two were specifically written for television; Not I was a Royal Court theatre production. Between the films, Martin Esslin provides his views on the significance of Beckett’s work. Across all these productions, television permits Beckett total control over every detail of lighting, movement and rhythm. Plus Eh Joe (BBC 1966. Dir Alan Gibson. With Jack MacGowan, Sian Philips. 12min).

Fri 30 Nov 18:00 NFT3

Booking details for the season can be found here:

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Call for Papers: ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ University of Reading: Wednesday 18 – Friday 20 September 2013

The Minghella Building, University of Reading, the space of our next television conference.

 The culminating conference arising from the AHRC-funded ‘Spaces of Television’ project will be held at the University of Reading from Wednesday 18th to Friday 20th September, 2013. Proposals are invited for papers and/or panels on the theme of ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’. The project focuses on television fiction produced in the UK from 1955-94, and analyses how the material spaces of production (in TV studios and on location) conditioned the aesthetic forms of programmes. Its primary interest is how fictional spaces represented on the screen across a range of drama during this period negotiated the opportunities and constraints of studio and exterior space, film and video technologies, and live-ness and recording.

 While we particularly welcome papers that specifically address British drama during this period, we will also consider comparative perspectives concerning dramas from other television industries, import/export, transnational exchange, co-productions and spatially-themed studies of earlier or later dramas.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • The institutional and aesthetic relationships between the spaces of television production (studio, location) and dramas’ social, political and cultural meanings.
  • Histories and historiographies of television drama, particularly relating to production strategies and institutional contexts.
  • The social and cultural meanings of the spaces depicted in television drama: e.g. heritage spaces, the urban and the rural, regional, national and foreign spaces, fantasy spaces.
  • Case studies of television dramatists, actors, directors, producers, designers, or other production staff and their contributions to the construction of mise-en-scene and issues of space.
  • The relationship between television dramatic space and performance, and the social and cultural meanings of performance in different spatial and aesthetic contexts.
  • Analysis of the dramatic conventions of television genres and their realisation through the use of space and mise-en-scene.
  • The spatial significance of particular production techniques and/or special effects in television drama.

Proposals for 20 minute papers in the form of a 250 word abstract (or outline of a three person panel) should be submitted to Dr Billy Smart (w.r.smart@rdg.ac.uk) by Friday 25 January 2013.

We welcome proposals from both established scholars and early career researchers including postgraduate students.

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