The Importance of Being Earnest on television

OLIVER WAKE

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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.1 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.”2

John Osborne

OLIVER WAKE

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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

Peter Luke

OLIVER WAKE

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.

Cedric Messina

OLIVER WAKE

Cedric Messina must be one of British television’s most prolific producers and directors of dramatic programmes, with at least 250 drama and opera productions to his name. He worked extensively in television for 25 years, always for the BBC as he was committed to the principle of public service broadcasting.

He was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Sicilian and Welsh immigrant parents on 14 December 1920. He was brought up and educated in Johannesburg while his father worked in the copper mines of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Messina joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1930s, initially working as a radio announcer and later as a producer. His broadcasting career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with both the British and American armies.

After the war, the SABC posted Messina to Durban to set up a drama unit, where he was responsible for producing a play each week and became the broadcaster’s head of drama. From around 1947 he spent a period on attachment with BBC radio in London, where he worked as both an announcer and producer before returning to South Africa. He had been promised a permanent position with BBC radio which he later returned to claim in 1958. As a BBC radio producer he produced a variety of programming, from popular series such as Mrs Dale’s Diary to adaptations of numerous classical stage plays.1