Writer: Gwyneth Hughes; Based on (book): Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty; Producer: Amanda Jenks; Director:Julian Jarrold
There is a compelling moment in Strindberg’s The Father when a doctor is recalling a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and being dismayed by Mrs Alving’s vilification of her late husband. ‘I thought to myself,’ says the Doctor, ‘What a damned shame the fellow’s dead and can’t defend himself!’
I felt a bit like that whilst watching the BBC/HBO production The Girl, Julian Jarrold’s film about the deteriorating relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his new discovery Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Dramatic characterisation comes perilously close to character assassination. Jarrold’s previous TV piece, the award-winning Appropriate Adult, was also rooted in reality and had certainly confirmed his aptitude for exploring the dark side of human personality; and The Girl is a powerful and progressively harrowing film about sexual harassment, psychological cruelty, and the abuse of power. I think the two leading performances are superb. Toby Jones’s mimicry of Hitchcock is masterly, but he also probes to the melancholy behind the façade; and Sienna Miller likewise conveys a tough and courageous resilience beneath the actress’s surface elegance. At the outset, however, the film claims to be based on extensive research (though there is no mention of Tony Lee Moral’s richly detailed book on the making of Marnie ) and thus is purporting to be an accurate account of events. On the level of veracity rather than drama, the film becomes more problematic. Read more... (4047 words, 14 images)
Television career overview
This piece was revised and updated in 2014 and 2015.
Ian Curteis is an fascinating figure in the world of British television drama. He achieved great success in the 1970s as a writer of plays exploring real events and historical figures but thereafter found his work sometimes frustrated, with cancelled projects and related controversies. Accounts differ as to whether these frustrations were the result of political censorship or the more mundane reasons common in broadcasting. This essay presents an overview of Curteis’s television career, incorporating material from a variety of contrasting sources, including Curteis himself, which illustrates why his work is so interesting and, sometimes, divisive. Read more... (4778 words, 7 images)
Tony Parker’s (25 June 1923-3 October 1996) work for Play for Today fulfils two of its central aims: to reflect contemporary society (as its title implied) and to give a hearing to otherwise neglected voices. Working in a similar manner to Jeremy Sandford, but developing his techniques even further, Parker’s dramas employed journalistic research and meticulous observation to give a voice to society’s most marginalised figures. Although the writer of a handful of superb plays, Parker was primarily a hugely respected oral historian (his ears were once described as a ‘national treasure’). His published studies and television drama were underpinned by a selfless desire to act as a witness, and to resist imposing editorial devices or contrived narratives, as he sought to ‘record without comment or judgement’ the stories he was told. Though his work was wide-ranging – he moved between unmarried mothers in No Man’s Land (1972) and lighthouse keepers in Lighthouse (1975) – he was most associated with studies of convicted criminals, both in and out of prison. Anthony Storr described him in 1970 as ‘Britain’s most expert interviewer, mouthpiece of the inarticulate and counsel for the defence of those whom society has shunned and abandoned’. Read more... (2348 words, 1 image)
Alan Clarke was neglected for a long time by television scholars and, because all but three of his approximately sixteen screen credits between 1967 and 1989 were for television, film scholars. This has changed in recent years: see Richard Kelly’s 1998 book of interviews and my book from 2005, the first (and, I hope, not last) critical study of Clarke’s work. Best of all, in May 2016, the vast majority of Clarke’s surviving work will be made available – much of it for the first time and some of it after previously being thought lost – in the BFI DVD and blu ray releases Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC. Now everyone can find out what people have been so excited about. However, Clarke was first and foremost a television director, and as wonderful as it is that film fans are discovering Clarke, his work must be seen in the context of British television drama rather than as an aberration from it. Discussions of Clarke understandably prioritise his mid-to-late 1980s work, but this particular biography is designed to accompany the essays on this site about the dozen productions he made for Play for Today, which form around one-fifth of his total output. Read more... (3153 words, 5 images)
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2013.
Although rarely discussed now, Michael Barry (1910-1988) had an important role in the development of British television drama. As a producer before and immediately after the Second World War and subsequently as the BBC’s first Head of Television Drama, he helped shape the new medium in its formative years.
After an unsuccessful school career, Barry initially studied agriculture, spending time on farms and 18 months at the Hertfordshire Agricultural Institute before deciding he wanted to work in theatre. He turned to acting and studied for a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before going into repertory theatre for an “exciting” year in Northampton, then moving on to Birmingham and London. With gaps in acting roles Barry also took work in other capacities in the theatre, building scenery, designing and stage managing. At the age of 23 he was appointed the director of the Hull Repertory Theatre where he spent a “superb” year before taking charge of the Croydon Repertory Theatre, where he remained for two-and-a-half years. After this he felt “a little stale, a little tired, perhaps time for a change” and, at the suggestion of a friend, applied for the post of studio manager with the new BBC television service but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Barry then applied to be a television producer and was taken on, arriving at the BBC’s modest Alexandra Palace studios in North London in early 1938. Read more... (6107 words, 3 images)