Call the Midwife (BBC One, 2012-present) is the best drama series of the decade: one of contemporary television’s toughest, most consistently socially-concerned programmes. It is often misunderstood: despite a few perceptive pieces such as Emily Nussbaum’s description of the devastating fifth series as ‘sneaky radicalism’ in the New Yorker, many critics have passed over it as twee or nostalgic or have omitted it from drama-of-the-year polls. These critical tendencies say less about the programme than about perceptions of the timeslot: Sunday night, 8.00pm, on BBC One. Therefore, my post, the first of an occasional series on one of my favourite dramas, looks at the current status of the series, taking as a starting point critical responses to its Sunday night slot.
The makers of Call the Midwife themselves had reservations when the BBC proposed that slot. In 2012, Heidi Thomas, the creator of the series (developed for Neal Street Productions from the books by Jennifer Worth), recalled that: Read more... (3338 words, 1 image)
DAVID ROLINSON AND SIMON COWARD
Half-Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke
How and why is George’s Room in colour? Anyone coming to George’s Room knowing the rest of director Alan Clarke’s plays for Rediffusion’s Half-Hour Story strand thanks to the BFI’s Alan Clarke at the BBC set might wonder why this is the only one in colour and why it looks so different from the others. In comparison with the inventive compositions, fast cutting (vision mixing) and ambitious camerawork of plays like Stella, George’s Room seems highly conventional in its largely static compositions and its alternation between mid-shots, close-ups and wide two-shots: a reviewer at the time said that the play ‘has almost no movement’ and ‘could easily pass as a radio play’, watching characters ‘speaking or samlistening’. In the circumstances this is perhaps unsurprising. Clarke directed this colour version at Wembley Studios, using the same electronic multi-camera set-up as his black and white Half-Hour Story plays. However, George’s Room adapted this set-up in order to use ‘E-cam’, a system designed to make filmed drama in television studios. There were similar attempts to combine television and film technology elsewhere in the television and cinema industries – as we shall see – but Rediffusion were pioneering the integration of film and the electronic multi-camera studio. George’s Room was the main pilot experiment to test ‘E-cam’, which makes it a fascinating moment in British television drama, a stepping stone to possible futures in the use of colour and the convergence between television and cinema. This essay is the most detailed exploration of George’s Room to date. This might not be surprising, given that those studying Clarke could only access an incomplete version, until, as the BFI’s Sam Dunn explained, ‘the missing half […] was discovered hiding in the deep recesses of the National Archive’. This essay provides information on different stages – from commissioning to overseas sales – but its main focus is on the play as an experiment in colour and electronic film. Read more... (7793 words, 10 images)
It occurred to me recently that with the obvious exception of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde was surely British television’s most performed stage playwright. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most-produced of his works has been his “trivial comedy for serious people”, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). British television has staged this nine times (including heavily condensed versions) over the years, across three channels, in addition to mounting significant extracts at least three times. It is therefore surprising that, although the play has often been welcomed as a favourite, it has also been described as a play that is not “apt for television”. In this essay’s brief survey of versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, we will see why this claim was made and also get a sense of the shifting status of stage plays on television.
BBC television turned to Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest early in its existence. It appeared in November 1937, mounted in common with standard practices in television drama at the time: broadcast as a live performance with a ‘repeat’ in the form of a second live performance four days later. Royston Morley was the producer but would also have directed under this job title. The Observer’s review suggests the play translated well into the still infant medium: “To compress The Importance of Being Earnest into forty-five minutes is something of a feat, but it was done, and television adds yet another to its growing list of worth-while dramatic presentations. Oscar Wilde’s sparkling comedy lost a little by cutting, but nothing through the new medium of production.” Read more... (2655 words, 5 images)
Half Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke
The BFI’s superb new Alan Clarke box sets contain many treats – they at last make most of the director’s surviving BBC work available to everyone and do so with such loving remastering and restoration that even those of us who have seen these pieces many times have never seen or heard them like this – but I’m particularly pleased with the bonus DVD on the main blu ray set Dissent and Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC. This collects several of Clarke’s early plays for the ITV strand Half Hour Story (1967-68), including pieces that were thought lost from the archive. I say more about Half Hour Story in my new essays for the blu ray booklet, and more about this and Clarke’s other early ITV work in my book Alan Clarke (2005); however, this website essay revisits Stella (1968), one of my favourite Half Hour Story plays, to study it in more detail. Clarke is rightly being celebrated by film critics for his filmed drama, but we should not forget that he was also a master of the electronic multi-camera studio. This results in such impressive studio experiments as Danton’s Death (1978), Psy-Warriors (1981) and Baal (1982), but there are signs of his qualities in Stella and the other plays that he made at Wembley Studios in his early days at Rediffusion. Read more... (3890 words, 13 images)
Back in 2013, I did a small piece of research on visual style in Coronation Street. This was for a couple of different reasons. For a few years, I had been using Christine Geraghty’s very helpful distinction between the ‘realist’ tendencies of British soap operas in their earlier days and the shift towards melodrama that has occurred more recently, and I wanted to investigate whether this evolution might affect things like scene duration, shot scale, and so on. I have also been interested for a long time in David Bordwell’s work on visual style, particularly visual style in Hollywood cinema. Bordwell’s article ‘Intensified Continuity’ in Film Quarterly argues, convincingly, that there have been four major, interlocking changes in the visual style of contemporary American film as compared with what we might call ‘the classic era’: ‘More rapid editing’, ‘Bipolar extremes of lens lengths’, ‘More close framing in dialogue scenes’, and ‘A free-ranging camera’. I wondered if I might find similar changes at work if I compared old and new episodes of soap opera (and I decided to focus my attention on the first and third of the features Bordwell mentions). Read more... (3059 words, 24 images)