The Play’s the Thing

Stuart Ian Burns thinks TV should go to the theatre more often

First published March 2007

On the BBC’s weekly arts strand The Culture Show recently, there was a very good preview of the new theatre production of Pinter’s People, which pulls together all of his collected short work for the first time and features such luminaries as Bill Bailey, Sally Phillips and Kevin Eldon. Coupled with the great number of newspaper interviews and previews about the show, and an appearance by Bailey on Radio 4′s Midweek slot, the production – despite a curmudgeonly two-star review from the Guardian – sounds really exciting.

For a theatre fan like me who lives outside London, this is, as you’d imagine intensely frustrating. Given the amount of hype that’s surrounding the production, you’d think the producers would look for a way for a much wider audience to see the work and make the most of something that is obviously drawing interest.

In other words what I’m proposing is that productions such as this could and should be broadcast on television. As we’ll see this isn’t a bizarre idea.

Historically theatre has always found a place in the schedules, but lately their absence has become noticeable. Writing for the Guardian’s culture blog in relation to the BBC’s recent charter review, John Morrison notes that the perfect way to demonstrate the BBC’s commitment to the arts would be to increase the amount of Shakespeare on the box. I would cast the net wider to theatre in all of its forms.

It simply doesn’t seem fair that classical music fans get a month of Mozart and the BBC Proms every year, devotees of classic literature are able to watch countless book adaptations (should they want them or not) and even opera and ballet followers can see whole productions on a regular basis (and not just clustered around holiday seasons or bank holidays). Us theatre-lovers can see little or none of the drama they admire on screen – even on BBC4, the last bastion of the minority audience.

Obviously works for the stage ultimately work best in their natural home, but it seems strange that these art forms can make the jump into another medium so regularly and coherently now, when theatre – which has traditionally been viewed as aesthetically closer to television – has slowly become squeezed out. Indeed, when television began all drama mainly consisted of re-broadcasting existing stage plays by transforming the original into a piece of TV drama.

The earliest scheduled example was L Allen Harker and FR Pryor’s Marigold in 1936, when selected scenes from a contemporary West End production were broadcast from the studio in the mid-afternoon to what would have been a massive audience at the time of about 300 viewers.

This selected scenes approach became common, and could be seen in the series Theatre Parade, broadcast over the following two years in which moments from current stage productions were recreated, variety style, at Alexandra Palace. Slowly, whole productions were put before the cameras, with the first full broadcast of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night happening in mid-1937. This was followed later in the year by George Bernard Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Husband, which had the blessing of the writer himself, who visited both the rehearsals and the set.

In Autumn 1938, another method of broadcasting theatre was introduced – JB Priestley’s When We are Married, which was running to packed houses at St Martin’s Theatre in London, became the first full length play broadcast live “from the stage”.

In these early days, productions were not viewed by a large television audience, allaying fears within theatre circles that television versions might hurt box office numbers. But what’s really interesting is that, as the number of viewers increased with the resumption of broadcasts after World War II and the new prevalence of regional transmitters, the nature of the plays shown changed. The very day that broadcasts resumed, George Bernard Shaw’s The Dark Lady Sonnets premiered on screen skipping the theatre altogether.

It’s at this point the strong ties between theatre and television really began to slip as drama began to be written to take full advantage of the medium. By the 1950s, such renowned slots as Armchair Theatre and, later, Play for Today and The Wednesday Play combined with one-off presentations, such as a version of George Orwell’s 1984 written by Nigel Kneale. That isn’t to imply television turned its back on theatre. Contemporary playwrights such as Pinter and Samuel Beckett would take advantage of the new medium and shift between the two, providing material for both, and sometimes work premiering on television would later be shifted to theatre and vice-versa.

But its classical theatre that, as the decades passed, would begin to recede. Only the BBC’s Play of the Month slot – which ran between 1965 and 1983 – presenting any kind of commitment for showing challenging theatrical works from the past. Gloriously, though, this would be on every fourth Sunday each month and carry everything from Chekhov to Aeschylus, and particularly Shakespeare. Could you imagine something like that happening now, even on BBC4?

My particular concern is Shakespeare, especially since, if television can’t treat one of the inventors of the English language with respect, what hope do the likes of Camus and Strindberg have? The last most visible act of Bard worship happened between 1978 and 1985, when, despite having covered much of his works in the preceding decades, the BBC set about recording every play in what was then considered the canon. A co-production with America’s Time Life and – oddly enough – an oil company and two banks, it was seen as a landmark, producing excellent versions of plays that could be enjoyed for years to come. However, not all of the productions were critically well received and were often stricken by silly costume syndrome (see the As You Like It for Helen Mirren in a big creme triangular hat so distracting it nullifies her performance). Most, though, do stand the test of time, and this series does include the only filmed record of lesser-known productions such as All’s Well that Ends Well.

Concurrently, ITV was also producing plays, and even featured Lawrence Olivier’s final appearance in Shakespeare as King Lear in 1983 but dropped out of the “race” in 1988 with Ken Branagh’s adaptation of Twelfth Night – the last time the channel presented Shakespeare with the original text outside of a South Bank Show. The BBC continued with four productions during the Performance slot, which included National Theatre productions of Richard II and King Lear, a version of the whole of Henry IV compressed into a single three-hour drama and an Orwell-influenced Measure for Measure. The latter was part of a two-month celebration called “Bard on the Box”, which included documentaries, repeats of earlier productions, and screenings of what seemed like every film ever made based on Shakespeare’s writing.

This is when I became really interested in his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Compare all that with today, when the appearance of a new Shakespeare on television using the original text has seemingly become an annual occurrence, with only two live broadcasts from the Globe Theatre for Richard II and Measure for Measure and a Christmas outing on Channel 4 for a rare studio-bound Twelfth Night gracing our screens in the past three years.

Otherwise, in terms of anything that isn’t a documentary – such as Michael York’s excellent In Search of Shakespeare – it’s a repeat showing of the Animated Series on children’s television, or modern day adaptations such as Andrew Davies’ Othello in 2001 and the recent Shakespeare ReTold series, which placed four plays within a contemporary setting – mostly making nonsense of the stories.

It seems unbelievable that just at a time when the government are committing themselves to keeping Shakespeare on the curriculum, television companies aren’t still presenting quality productions on screen. Instead, the BBC often points to its radio output – broadcasting both classic and new plays meant for the theatre, often in its Drama on Radio 3 slot on a Sunday night – whenever it’s criticized for not supporting theatre.

Alas, almost all of the plays featured have been written directly for the medium, with their classic serials being adaptations of prose works. The most likely appearance of classic theatre is the Bard again. During the Shakespeare Re-Told series, a number of works were run on Radio 3 and BBC7. As a supplement, it’s a perfectly fine idea, but as the substitute it’s essentially become, it does the business of theatre a disservice.

The problem with theatrical plays on the radio is they’re even further from the real experience and not simply because – well obviously – you can’t see the actors. While there is an intimacy between the performer and listener that would not be possible in a visual setting, I’ve yet to hear something adapted in this style that works to the benefit of the original play. Indeed, sometimes it can make a nonsense of what the writer was trying to accomplish.

In 2004, much was made of a broadcast on Radio3 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. What’s often forgotten about Godot is that it’s a very visual play – mixed in with the textual games are many vaudeville influences with some sequences being very suggestive of Laurel and Hardy’s repartee. The presentation made good use of stereo to capture the sound of the two protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, shifting about the area under the tree. But the director also employed a narrator, literally reading the stage directions out to explain the action that would have been occurring had the play appeared before an audience. There were movements that really could only really amuse visually. Literally, in this format, half the play was missing.

It would be easy to suggest the reason television has turned its back on theatre is because of the massive transformation of drama production into something more akin to cinema, with much shorter scenes, shot rates and higher quality production values. Except that in the world of soap operas, sitcoms and continuing dramas, not that much has altered. They’re still produced in the style of renowned plays of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I think it’s actually a perception issue. I think that since “the theatre” denotes “culture” and “quality”, the expectation is that it needs the same budget as so-called “quality” drama, but that the anticipated audience can’t justify the expense.

In fact, recently there have been some excellent theatre adaptations, such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen with Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea, produced on a small budget. The trouble is, it was made for BBC4, a channel whose controller Janice Hadlow admitted recently, “We have to plead limited resources for homegrown drama – of course, we’d like to do more.” Essentially theatre, like so much else, has been shunted to a channel that can’t really afford to do it justice on the budget it has available.

That said, I’ve never been entirely happy with productions adapted into television drama. Watching comedy in particular can be a flat experience, and the performances – which are often more expressive because they were originated on stage – sometimes look ludicrous in close-up. An exception would be the docu-theatre productions such as BBC4′s broadcast of the Tricycle Theatre’s Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Enquiry, which was based on transcripts of the enquiry and had a much subtler emotional landscape than most. My preference is for recordings of theatre productions in-situ, which take into account the obvious issue of suspension of disbelief and – in the best recordings I’ve seen – make the audience as much as part of the entity as the play itself.

There was an electric moment in BBC4′s transmission of The Day in The Death of Joe Egg where Victoria Hamilton dropped out of character momentarily because Eddie Izzard was off improvising again and she wanted to good-naturedly complain about what she’d been putting up with for weeks. This is the kind of impromptu moment that would not have occurred in a studio-bound reproduction, and the audience’s reaction – no doubt replicated at home – brought the viewer not only into the world of the play, but the theatre space as well.

The really exciting discovery I made last year is that many theatre companies are sitting on a back catalogue of material that could be made available, providing rights issues and agreements with performers and directors are made. I was fortunate enough to visit the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden before it closed due to a funding crisis. Throughout the exhibition there were screens containing extracts from a staggering number of really important productions.

A scene from John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger featuring David Tennant and Kelly Reilly was on a loop and it seems a shame that what looked like a kinetic performance from Tennant is stored but can’t be seen. It slowly became apparent that many theatrical productions are being recorded for posterity and educational use through the National Video Archive of Performance Recordings. Only students of theatre can view these presentations and only in person under their screening conditions.

Envisage the potential of that production being broadcast on national television just as it might have been in the ’60s. I would imagine there will a number of viewers who haven’t stepped into a theatre in years, and certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to see a groundbreaking example of 50s “angry young man” drama, who would tune in on the strength of appearances from Tennant and Reilly. A proportion of that audience who are intrigued enough by the experience might then seek out similar productions locally or at the very least lose some of the fear that they might have of stepping into an auditorium.

Unlike opera or ballet which are perennial fixtures on network television but still classed as minority pursuits, theatre has these in-built points of accessibility and they should be taken advantage of to help promote and reinvigorate the one art form that is forever under the radar in comparison to music, film and books. Outside London, you simply can never detect a buzz around some new production unless it’s one of the aforesaid comedy adaptations or musicals. If more people are interested in theatre and attending in greater numbers, the buzz will increase exponentially and – assuming this fantasy can become reality – this could be reflected back into audience figures, as theatre on television once again fulfills the potential it certainly has.

But, say other doubters, if these kinds of broadcasts become commonplace, ticket sales at the actual theatres will drop because punters could argue there’s no point paying for something you can get for free. The trouble with that opinion is theatre, by its nature, is ephemeral. Particularly in the West End, certain actors will only appear in some plays for a limited time. Like music, the theatre audience witness a production because they want to see how it’s done by that particular company as much as enjoy the narrative itself. No two interpretations are the same. Unless you were at the Theatre Royal in Bath between Monday 14 February and Saturday 19 February 2005, you won’t ever be able to see that version of Look Back in Anger again.

It seems strange that production companies, predominantly in the West End, aren’t following the lead of film companies and taking advantage of secondary revenue streams, selling the rights for a show to television and DVD release, particularly when there is an A-list celebrity appearing in the production. Profits – once residuals have been paid – could be ploughed back into the company and their favoured theatre, meaning they’re not as “in trouble” as so many of these establishments (not naming any names) seem to be. An excellent example for this model is Jerry Springer: The Opera, which, after a successful – if controversial – broadcast on BBC2, became a best selling DVD.

People will still attend the theatre in the same way they go to concerts and the cinema for the experience of being there. Television broadcasts and DVD releases would simply provide a way of reminding themselves of the moment, and allow others, like me, to catch up on what they’ve missed.

It would be good for the audience, because they would be given another dish on the menu of drama and comedy. And by extension, it would also be good for the television companies, particularly the BBC, who could be seen as enriching and highlighting the country’s cultural heritage in a much more substantive way than a phone-in poll.

As the shape of things stand at the moment, there are still glimmers of hope. In the week I write this, More4 are broadcasting an all-star studio-based production of Harold Pinter’s final play, Celebration. It’s another one-off but it does suggest television companies haven’t completely turned their back on broadcasting theatre. I just wish they would do it more often.