Beyond the stage

Abigail's Party
Abigail’s Party

Last Friday I went to the Theatre Plays on British Television conference at the University of Westminster. It was somewhat thinly attended, which is a great shame, since every paper was good (and left you wanting to know more) and the theme is an intriguing one.

For the first four or five decades of its development, television was in awe of the theatre. Its dramatic inspiration was the theatre; it yearned to broadcast great stage works, and the highlights of many a television year were classy stage productions transferred to the screen. Many of TV’s pioneers, especially at the BBC, looked up to the arts that were cherished by their class, and looked down on their audience, which they seemed to feel needed an education in the finer things. Even as television became more self-confident in the 1960s a series noted for its televisual imagination could still be called Play for Today, and noteworthy theatre and opera production would appear in broadcasters’ annual reports as the highlights of their year – not so much for the audiences they might have attracted but simply for exuding class. Television was the inferior medium.

Those days are gone now. It may have been the mixed virtues of the BBC Television Shakespeare series of 1978-1985 that finally killed off the urge to to bring classic plays to the screen. Now producers of drama on TV seldom dream of the stage – instead they prefer to think of their works as films, and only very infrequently do we see a stage production brought to the (relatively) small screen. With the great success of initiatives such as Digital Theatre and National Theatre Live, streaming live theatre to cinema screens, the concept of theatre plays on television looks like a failed experiment, a quaint part of television’s uncertain and sometimes elitist beginnings.

National Theatre Live
National Theatre Live

Or maybe there is something else to all this, something which came across to me hearing the various papers at the conference. Those I heard were Lisa Bolding’s archaeological reconstruction of a lost 1938 BBC production of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi from TV’s earliest days, where it was a triumph when shot transitions were brought down to two seconds; Russell Jackson on an American TV programme that documented Peter Hall’s 1959 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Daniel Rosenthal on the intense competition between the BBC and pay-TV company British Home Entertainment for the rights to broadcast plays from the National Theatre in the 1960s; Lez Cooke on regional TV versions of Peter Cheeseman’s Victoria Theatre Company’s stage productions in Stoke-on-Trent; John Wyver’s fascinating account of Granada TV setting up its own theatre company in 1969, the Stables Theatre Company, to produce both stage and TV works (not too successfully); Ben Lamb on the popular 1973 TV production of The Roses of Eyam, whose studio settings convinced some viewers that it was filmed on location; Ruth Adams on how the public understood the satire behind Abigail’s Party rather better than some critics; Amanda Wrigley on the bold production of theatre classics for the Open University’s A307 drama course; and Cyrille Garson on a new form of theatre on TV, the verbatim plays such as Black Watch and Justifying War which recreate transcripts from inquiries and the like.

The evidence of such histories does not point to an odd sideline of TV’s past, a product of a condescending culture, but rather of the multi-platform necessity of any work of the imagination. Back in 1994 I wrote in a book on Shakespeare on film and television, “Shakespeare’s plays were written for more than the stage”. I didn’t back-up this with much of an argument, but what I was trying to say was that any work of art, if it has any life in it at all, must extend itself beyond the original form decided for it by the artist. A novel, play, artwork, film, programme or whatever does not stand alone – it needs must be borrowed, adapted, appropriated, re-interpreted, misinterpreted, copied, plagiarised, emulated, imitated, re-presented, re-imagined.

These are works of imagination, which then find form through their presentation before an audience, and can then find an extended life beyond that original form. So it is that authors find their stories or characters appropriated by the culture, and eventually (copyright notwithstanding) lose control of them. Romeo and Juliet is a play that was written for the stage, but it is also every stage, screen or radio broadcast taken from that play, every plot borrowing, every homage, every parody, every re-use of the characters in art, advertisements, comedy sketches and beyond. It lives because it has not remained on the page.

So it was that television, like film before it, showed how works conceived for the stage not only could, but had to be adapted to these new media. A play that could not reach new audiences through the TV set was that much less of a play. There is the commercial imperative as well – novelists and playwrights must always have one eye to the screenwriters, and few writers these days can produce a work in one form without imagining (or calculating for) its transference to another, and another. And then there is the technological imperative, because in our multi-platform, triple-play world the work must automatically lend itself to multiple forms of distribution. When books have become interactive, plays are shown in cinemas, and television programmes appear on our mobile phones, to consider one medium only is not just blinkered – it’s increasingly becoming impossible.

So the urge for theatre to become television is an important stage in the history of both media, and points to the polymorphous world of the arts that the digital environment now provides. What started as a herculean struggles with primitive technology televising The Duchess of Malfi in 1938 has now led us to a project such as the BBC/Arts Council’s The Space, where productions live and recorded can be picked up on computer, tablet, smartphone or connected TV. Indeed these works were written for more than the stage, and we have the technology to prove it.

The conference was organised by Screen Plays, a three-year academic project led by producer/academic John Wyver of the Illuminations company (producers of some of the most notable examples of theatres play on TV in recent years, including Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar) with researcher Amanda Wrigley. I am honoured to serve on its advisory board.


  • The Screen Plays project site explains the rationale behind the project and has many in-depth posts on aspects of theatre plays on British television
  • There is a fuller conference report (including papers at the end of the day that I missed) from project leader John Wyver


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