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)
Twenty-six episodes. Writers: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall, Douglas Livingstone, Jack Trevor Story; Producer: Verity Lambert; Directors: Moira Armstrong, Alan Gibson, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Mike Newell, Herbert Wise
Budgie, the story of small time Soho criminal Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, was produced by London Weekend Television and ran over two series, each of thirteen episodes, between 1971 and 1972. Both series explored the liminal world of pornography, police corruption, criminal scams, violence and petty crime, and Budgie’s place within it. While Budgie has come to be affectionately remembered as a cockney comedy-drama with a charming, irrepressible lead character set in 1970s Soho, and as a series which launched an ‘entire fashion craze’, and is indeed all of these things, it would do the series a huge disservice to ignore its other dimensions, in particular those concerned with gender and masculinity identity.
As social, economic and cultural changes of the 1970s impacted upon gender relations, a significant number of programmes were able to explore multiple and competing constructions of masculinity. Issues around gender and masculine anxieties featured across a variety of television genres: routinely in sitcoms such as Rising Damp and Man about the House; as small parts of wider discourses in dramas like The Knowledge and Comedians; and in both the documentary The Family and the science fiction series Survivors. With Budgie, however, it is the detailed examination of a particular masculinity at a particular time which is central to the narrative as it is played out in the trajectory of Budgie’s decline and fall. Read more... (3022 words, 14 images)
This article presents some thoughts on special live episodes of soaps since 2010, in particular the editions of EastEnders and Coronation Street broadcast in February and September 2015 respectively. It identifies some of the ways in which the two series addressed liveness both textually and paratextually, as in their cross-platform interest in interactivity. Engaging with British television drama’s residual qualities of liveness, immediacy and intimacy, these episodes pose questions for our understanding of soap storytelling, in particular its handling of time. The following thoughts are unpolished reflections, taken from before and after a module screening, but form hopefully useful notes for others to develop, for instance in conjunction with this site’s other pieces on live drama across the decades and a forthcoming piece that will discuss soap time in more detail.
Introduction: Live! Read more... (4397 words, 14 images)