With his 1956 play Look Back in Anger, John Osborne (1929-1994) famously kick-started the theatrical trend for “Angry Young Men” and drama which explored the grimmer side of contemporary life, putting society’s discontents centre-stage. Amongst a body of further stage plays, Osborne also produced a clutch of screenplays for cinema and, more pertinently for us, television.
Television had played a modest part in the success of Look Back in Anger. The play was at break-even point when an extract was broadcast from the Royal Court theatre by the BBC close to the end of its run.1 Following this exposure, the rest of the run sold out and the play was transferred to the Lyric theatre to meet excess demand.2 Six weeks after the excerpt was televised, the full play was broadcast by Granada, directed by its theatre director Tony Richardson. Writing in The Manchester Guardian, Bernard Levin found that the play made “tremendous television.”3 Look Back in Anger was produced for television in Britain again twice, by the BBC in 1976, to mark the play’s twentieth anniversary, and as an ITV/Channel 4 co-production of Judi Dench’s stage version in 1989.4 Extracts were also performed in two episodes of The Present Stage, ABC’s 1966 series exploring modern drama.5
Osborne’s next theatre play was The Entertainer, staged in 1957. It was produced for television by the BBC in 1993, though, without consultation with Osborne, all the music hall songs at the heart of the play were stripped out.6 Osborne’s 1961 play Luther was produced by the BBC as the first instalment of their lavish Play of the Month (1965-83) series and again (this time as a co-production with a German company) in a shorter version just three years later.7 The Hotel in Amsterdam, first staged in 1968, made it to television on ITV in 1971, with a new production seen on BBC4 in 2004.8 Television adaptations such as these – and those made or broadcast in other countries – did not add to Osborne’s oeuvre as a playwright but, arguably more importantly, made his most famous works accessible to millions of viewers who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel to the few theatres (mainly in London) where they were performed, and kept his name in the public eye.
Despite Osborne dismissing television dramatists as “the pavement artists of drama”,9 his first original television play, A Subject of Scandal and Concern, appeared in 1960.10 It dramatised the case of George Holyoake, a socialist lecturer who, in 1842, became the last man to be imprisoned for blasphemy. The play was produced by the BBC after being offered to a number of ITV companies, who insisted on cuts and revisions. Even so, Osborne’s narrator, who was written as a costumed figure addressing the audience from within the dramatised scenes, was replaced by television interviewer John Freeman narrating straight to camera from behind a desk in an anonymous studio environment. Osborne’s intention was a distancing effect akin to that of Brecht, but periodically removing the audience from the conventional, naturalistic drama scenes into a blank studio may have been a distance too far.11 It came across as “not so much a play as an illustrated lecture”, as critic John Russell Taylor wrote.12 The Observer’s Maurice Richardson called it “an exceptionally good play”, but other reviews were less kind.13
Osborne made his belated return to television a decade later with The Right Prospectus (1970).14 It was a satirical piece in which a wealthy couple, the Newbolds, disguise themselves as schoolboys to infiltrate a public school. Osborne reported that the idea came to him in a dream, as he said many ideas did, and was partly inspired by people’s common nostalgia for their schooldays.15 Producer Irene Shubik felt that the play had “a sense of regret for certain passing values, a wistful middle-aged look back at youthful experience, and it had many satirical observations to make on the school system and the way people choose schools for their children from ‘the right prospectus'”.16 Once production on the play was underway, Osborne disassociated himself from it and even at one point offered to buy the script back from the BBC. However, he later voiced his appreciation of the production, writing that he had been “struck by the care and attention that had gone into it”.17
The critical reaction was mixed. “It started with a splendid basic idea … after that it went absolutely nowhere and had absolutely nothing to say at considerable length”, said Plays and Players.18 The Stage and Television Today found it “slightly baffling”, suggesting it was only a partial success due to Osborne’s lack of experience in television.19 The Daily Telegraph found it “not merely the most distinguished original television play of the year, but one which will linger uneasily in my mind for years ahead”.20 George Melly’s insightful Observer review is worth quoting at length:
As a dream the play worked, but as you’d expect Osborne didn’t let it rest there. Into this base he poured all his customary vices and virtues: his equivocal feelings about class, England, and sex; his marvellous rhetoric; his inability to prune… The high-spot in my view – one of those speeches which have the stamp of a major writer – was the lecture on the meaning of the House delivered by the cruel and beautiful head-boy to his subservient middle-aged fag. The balance between cynicism and conviction in this speech, its sexual Puritanism expressed in language of coarse frankness, said a great deal about the exercise of power in our time.
Inevitably, comparisons were made with Lindsay Anderson’s recent film if…, also set in a public school and containing fantasy elements. Melly came down firmly in Osborne’s favour, finding The Right Prospectus “a more profound, less self-indulgent and finally an infinitely more satisfying exploration of the areas they examine in common.”21
September 1974 saw two brand new Osborne dramas on ITV. Although now sounding somewhat trite and trivial, Osborne’s half-hour Ms, or Jill and Jack was a critical success.22 The premise was that of a simple reversal of early-1970s gender roles: Jill is the high powered executive who belongs to an exclusive club in which old ladies lounge in leather armchairs, whilst Jack is the young actor she takes to dinner, intending seduction after the chauffeur-driven journey to her bachelor pad. Jill Bennett, then Osborne’s wife, played her namesake. “Its beauty lay in the masterly detail in the writing and acting, which commented wittily on the minutiae of a thousand television plays where Jack makes the running”, wrote Tom Stoppard in The Observer.23 The Guardian’s Peter Fiddick was equally impressed, calling it “a delight … a perfect use of the half-hour, a simple idea, carried off with concentrated craft and wit.”24 Michael Ratcliffe in The Times wrote that “this little play was one of the coolest things [Osborne] has done, ironic and sexy, with its proportions and weight judged to perfection.”25
The month’s second Osborne offering was more serious in tone. The Gift of Friendship was about man of letters Jocelyn Broome, who invites fellow writer and old school friend Bill Wakely to dinner to make him his literary executor in preparation for his death.26 When this occurs, Wakely learns from Broome’s diaries that he has detested him all his life. It is a characteristically bitter story for Osborne, whose own hate-filled diaries emerged only some years after his death. The Times found it “a genuine dramatic reckoning between two sharply defined characters”, and noted that one of the women of the play was “one of the most unredeemedly hateful characters Mr Osborne has ever devised”, which was quite an achievement for a man often accused of misogyny.27 Two months after its transmission, Osborne submitted an extract from the play to the New Statesman’s competition to impersonate an Osborne play, but his entry wasn’t selected.28
Almost a Vision, seen on ITV in September 1976, was another short piece showcasing the talents of Jill Bennett, whom Osborne was soon to divorce.29 It was essentially a duologue with a couple talking in a bedroom at what one critic described as ‘smart orgy’.30 “Osborne has a very acute ear for the rhythms of everyday speech, and the often inconsequential remarks, pauses and occasional more profound remarks were a joy to listen to”, wrote The Stage and Television Today.31
The same month the BBC televised Osborne’s stage adaptation, written a few years earlier, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.32 As well as emphasising the story’s homosexual overtones, Osborne’s script condenses the beginning and end of the novel, but omits the middle – its “heart” according to Martin Amis’s Spectator review – which depicts Gray’s corruption. Amis pithily noted that “If Wilde had thought the idea dramatic, he would doubtless have been the first to write a play about it.”33
You’re Not Watching Me, Mummy was a short play about the hollowness of an actor’s existence, living for applause.34 It had been written a few years earlier, around the time Osborne was separating from Jill Bennett, on whom the central character is clearly based. Osborne’s biographer John Heilpern noted that Anna Massey as the actress gave “a perfect impersonation” of Bennett.35 The play was not a success, according to The Times, which wrote that “boring the audience is no way to dramatise boredom, and crude, carelessly constructed dialogue is not the way to present an existence devoid of dignity.”36 The Stage and Television Today felt that Osborne’s “vitriolic vignette, etched in acid … did not amount to very much.”37 Try a Little Tenderness, about a selection of obnoxious country villagers sabotaging an unwelcome music festival, was written for television at the same time but left unproduced.
Taking its title from Hamlet, Very Like a Whale was commissioned by London Weekend Television in 1971 but failed to reach production due to changes in the company’s drama department. It eventually surfaced in 1980, thanks to ATV, with some updating of the script by director Alan Bridges.38 The story concerned a business tycoon who becomes isolated and estranged from family and friends as he accumulates wealth and honours. It’s not hard to see parallels with the life of Osborne himself, whose story was much the same but against a theatrical background. The Guardian’s Nancy Banks-Smith was impressed by Osborne’s staccato dialogue: “It is the crazing of the speech patterns, the guttering note of a breakdown or break-up and beautifully done.” But ultimately she found it “very long and deeply depressing”.39 The Stage and Television Today felt that “the characters and situations of Osborne’s play created phoney drama from phoney guilt”. 40
In 1972 Osborne had written a new stage version of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Reduced to 90 minutes, it was televised in 1981.41 “The Osborne version, chopped in half from the original for ITV, has turned Ibsen’s tragedy into a study in cynicism”, noted the Sunday Times.42 The following year, Osborne spent three months as a television critic for the Mail on Sunday, though he seems to have had little interest in the role, calling it a “light-hearted profitable exercise”.43
Subtitled “the true story of G. F. Handel … occasionally”, God Rot Tunbridge Wells! was a biographical drama commissioned by Channel 4 to mark 1985’s tercentenary of the composer’s birth.44 The subtitle alludes to the fact that what little is known about Handel’s life is embellished with dramatic licence in Osborne’s script, and a plethora of anachronisms in Tony Palmer’s production. The title was Handel’s exclamation upon attending a performance of his Messiah given by the Tunbridge Wells Ladies’ Music Circle which was apparently so awful he afterwards fell ill and died. It was therefore a double irony that the day after the play’s transmission, Osborne himself was taken ill and, having fallen into a coma, was rushed to hospital – in Tunbridge Wells. Unlike Handel, he recovered but his diabetes, which caused the episode, would kill him almost a decade later.
God Rot Tunbridge Wells! was not well received by the critics. The Guardian’s Tom Sutcliffe noted that it “may be apocryphal Handel, but is absolutely authentic Osborne.” He went on to savage the whole endeavour in terms Osborne himself would have been proud of: “Palmer’s Handel film is a vile travesty, patronising Handel’s period with comic Chaplinesque riots, and at 140 minutes a lengthy reminder only of Osborne’s maudlin egotism… The predominant flavour of Palmer and Osborne’s marathon is false, cheap and irrelevant.”45 Osborne admitted that it was “a ‘flawed work'” but suggested cynically that the play had been “a bit over-energetic and robust for some maidenly tastes”.46 Despite this reaction, the drama was entered into 1985’s international Film and Television Festival of New York and won a silver medal.
Osborne also tackled a rather more personal non-fiction subject in 1985. Titled A Better Class of Person, with the subtitle “an extract of autobiography for Television”, Osborne’s lengthy autobiographical play had a complicated lineage.47 It was based on an earlier, unmade stage script he had written about his childhood years prior to writing the first volume of his autobiography, which took the same name, covered many of the same events and was published four years before the television version was seen.48 The play gives some insight into the playwright’s bitterness, dramatising the slow death of his beloved father when Osborne was ten years old, and the apparently uncaring reaction of his detested, and caricatured, mother.
The New Statesman found the drama “one of the most complex, acute and moving things that he has written. With marvellous precision, it delineates those shifting emotional allegiances which are the condition of childhood”.49 Less impressed, the Sunday Times wrote that the play “went wrong because everyone who appeared was increasingly more frightful” and it “just did not work as drama. There was no structure. The unremitting bitterness deepened and it all went nowhere.”50 Osborne worked on a second autobiographical film script in the 1980s but it was never completed.51
It was ten years before Osborne would attempt a further return to the small screen. In a similar vein to God Rot Tunbridge Wells!, and also celebrating a composer’s tercentenary, was England, My England, a biography of Henry Purcell seen on Channel 4 in 1995.52 Osborne had barely started the script when he died on Christmas Eve 1994. It was completed by Osborne’s screenwriter friend Charles Wood and credited to them both. Despite the drama’s mixed authorship, one newspaper’s summary suggests Osborne’s voice was easily discernible, noting that it “Contains little about Purcell’s life, since almost nothing is known, and plenty about Osborne’s prejudices, about which a great deal is known.”53
As well as being a writer, Osborne was an experienced actor and took roles of various sizes throughout his career, including in television and film. Perhaps his most ambitious and interesting role came in 1968 when he played Werner von Rager in the BBC’s production of David Mercer’s The Parachute.54 Werner is an angry young German growing up in a decadent aristocratic family as Germany moves towards Nazism. He joins the Luftwaffe in an attempt to prove himself, only to be crippled while testing a new parachute. It was a complex drama and a complex role which the still-young Osborne pulled off with aplomb. “John Osborne’s Werner, watchful, reticent and doomed, seemed to be exactly right”, wrote Michael Billington in The Times.55
The above record of Osborne’s television drama may read like a chronicle of frustration in light of the often dismissive reactions of the critics. However, this view is not entirely fair. Even if the individual plays were not always successful, Osborne’s body of television work had an important role in his career. The televising of an extract from Look Back in Anger in 1956 cemented the play’s success and, by extension, that of Osborne himself and the theatrical revolution that he precipitated. Whether by screening his original television drama or adaptations of his stage plays, television vastly expanded the audience for his work, ensuring Osborne’s name and his bitter form of drama were known to millions who may never have stepped into a theatre or read a play review.
Originally posted: 30 October 2013.
This is a revised version of an article originally published in This Way Up issue 25 in 2009.