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)
Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff
When people talk about live television drama, and in particular the disasters that can befall live productions, actors forgetting their lines and technical faults loom large. Sometimes mention will be made of the incident in which a leading actor died during a performance. It sounds like it could be a black joke or an industry myth, but it’s true. It’s a morbid story but a fascinating one.
The production in question was Underground, transmitted on Sunday 30 November 1958 as part of ITV company ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology. It was directed by William (known as Ted) Kotcheff, one of ABC’s regular directors, then aged only 27, and produced by Sydney Newman, who had recently been given responsibility for all the company’s drama. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s novel Few Were Left, which had been published in 1955. No recording of the play exists, so this account is based on various interviews and media reports about the play. There are several accounts of what happened which, though largely consistent on the main events, differ notably on the smaller details. In this essay I’ll try to separate the reality from the myth and distortion as far as is possible at this remove from the event itself. Read more... (4226 words, 1 image)
Peter Luke was a writer, story editor and producer on several of British television’s most influential drama anthology series, working at both ITV and the BBC, during a period of particular creative development for the medium. His television work was, however, only one part of a varied life.
Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke was born on 12 August 1919, the son of British diplomatic Sir Harry Luke. The Luke family was originally of Hungarian descent (the name Lukach being Anglicised to Luke) and Luke’s upbringing was cosmopolitan. In his younger years he accompanied his parents on his father’s postings around the world, during which he learned about language, culture, art and literature, before returning to England to be enrolled at Eton. On completing his schooling with the minimum of academic rigour, Luke decided he wanted to become a painter and went to art school in London and then studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. He enlisted in the British army shortly after the Second World War began, leading him to Egypt and combat on the first day of the second battle of El Alamein, in which he was wounded. After recovering he was deployed in the European theatre of war, serving in Italy, France and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy following D-Day. He ended the war a Major, acting Lieutenant-Colonel. Read more... (3363 words, 1 image)
Philip Saville is a director whose work on Play for Today cannot be easily categorised. The variety of his eight contributions is testament to the scope of both strand and director. Saville was an iconoclastic, innovative director, whose credits include many pioneering productions and notable television firsts.
Saville had a lengthy background in drama before moving into television directing. He had previously acted in theatre, film and television, and directed for the stage, on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in Britain, he joined ITV company Associated-Rediffusion in 1955, for whom he directed drama and contributed to Richard Lester comedy programmes. He continued to take occasional acting roles in film and television throughout this time, not stopping until the early 1960s. In 1956 he joined the drama department at ABC, another ITV company. He would ultimately direct more than forty plays for the company’s prestigious Armchair Theatre strand.
Although its innovation is largely credited to Sydney Newman, even before his arrival in 1958 those behind Armchair Theatre were attempting to breathe fresh life into television drama, creating a dynamic production style. Saville’s contemporary Ted Kotcheff recalled that from ‘the time that we came and started at Armchair Theatre, Philip Saville and myself and other directors wanted really to push against the limitations of the media, the way it was presently conceived’. Read more... (3471 words, 1 image)