This month the BFI Southbank has been running a season of Jacobean dramas on television. It’s another output of the Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television project, whose conference I wrote about last year. The project aims to document, revalue and champion the largely lost tradition of theatre plays being presented on TV.
The season has featured Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (Granada 1965), John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (BBC 1972), Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (BBC 1993) and – a little inaccurate in terms of date because it is Elizabethan, but certainly right thematically – Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC 1964). As someone whose theatrical education came as much from the screen as from the stage, and as a great enthusiast for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the season has been huge treat for me. It has brought programmes out of the archives which were unlikely ever to have been taken off the shelves again by a scheduler or DVD producer, and shown that they have more than academic interest and belong in front of audience.
And then we had ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, an adaptation of John Ford’s 1630s play. Originally broadcast by the BBC on 7 May 1980, it had a mixed reception, largely due to its controversial incest theme, and was never broadcast again. It was never issued to the educational market, it was broadcast before copyright exceptions were introduced into UK law allowing educational institutions to record programmes, and it has not – so far as I am aware – featured in any retrospective either of plays on film or of the work of its once renowned director, Roland Joffé. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared after broadcast (a viewing copy is held by the BFI, so it has been available for any scholar keen to seek it out). I wasn’t able to watch it at the time (my parents, perhaps not unreasonably, though title and theme unsuitable for family viewing), so it was only after thirty-three years that I was able to catch up and see it.
It was more than worth the wait. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is an outstanding piece of work. I have seldom seen a more fully realised and effective coming together of theatre, film and television, and of a past age and ours. Hauntingly filmed on location in the Jacobean Chastleton House, but set in the Victorian era, the production simplified and clarified Ford’s feverish original play, modernising the language in places, losing peripheral characters and scenes, and emphasising the ruthless triumph of the propertied class. The villainous Vasques (played with chilling relish by Tim Pigott-Smith) does not get his come-uppance as in the play, but instead gets away with two murders and a blinding.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Cherie Lunghi as Annabella, whose incestuous relationship with her brother Giovanni (played by Kenneth Cranham) is the play’s subject; Alison Fiske deeply poignant as the wretched Hippolyta; and Rodney Bewes as the simple-minded Bergetto, showing that it is perfectly possible to portray the Jacobean idea of a fool and yet get laughs from a present-day audience – a masterly demonstration of comic timing and use of language. But it is the technique that most distinguishes the production. Joffé interiorises the dramas by artful use of camera placements, frequently filming the face of the person being spoken to rather than the person speaking so that one feels the effect of the words all the more, indeed picking up on their double meaning – that for the speaker and that for the listener. He makes the building itself a character, avoiding all temptation to linger over its beauties for their own sake, but instead making its corners, corridors and secret places a logical expression of hidden conversations, overheard confidences and malevolent designs. I was reminded of The Draughtsman’s Contract use of a building for a similar period to frame the drama, but in that film the building’s formal elegance is highlighted, whereas here the building’s floorboards creaked, and there was less emphasis on line, more on uneven reality.
The 16mm photography (by Nat Crosby) was another special feature, and one where the production was probably better served on the big screen than in its original broadcast. There was a rawness to the photography that perfectly suited the passions – suppressed and otherwise – on display, while the tight framing of faces echoed the claustrophobic nature of the house. I didn’t feel that the Victorian setting was particularly convincing (or important), and possibly there was a slight loss of pacing in the final third, but such qualms are minor ones. This is an outstanding work of art, rescued from obscurity, and demanding to be seen again. So how is this to happen?
This is where the problem lies, because the chances of anyone other a few determined souls ever seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore are slim. This is not for a lack of options. As we’re all well aware, the means by which we can access films and TV programmes are huge and various. We have multiple TV channels; we have catch-up TV; we have YouTube; we have DVD and Blu-Ray, with an increasing number of obscure titles released produced cheaply for niche markets; we have Lovefilm, Netflix; if we’re in education we have access to off-air recordings delivered through local arrangements or the Bobnational shared service. We seem to have access to everything.
Yet hundreds of thousands if not millions of films and television programmes remain inaccessible. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is unlikely every to get a TV broadcast again, so a general audience won’t see it and an educational audience won’t be able to record it. A DVD release would be a tough proposition for an obscure play and for a TV production without a strong cult or critical reputation. Grand visions are aired from time to time of extensive access to TV archives through concepts such as the Digital Public Space, but these remains idealistic theories at present, constrained by rights issues, and of not much help to someone who would like to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore now, and not in some glorious future (who knows, maybe thirty-three years away). You can see it at the BFI, through their archive viewings service, if you pay, and one or two scholars probably will do so. For the rest, the film is out of sight, and so out of mind.
We need to establish a principle of every film and every television programme being available. We have this for books, so it is perfectly possible to have it for other media. The question is defining what being available means. For books, we have a library network underpinned by the inter-library loan system. In principle, any book held in the UK is available to anyone in the UK. There are multiple copies of individual titles, and these are held in libraries. If you can’t find a copy in your local library, you can order it from another, and it will be delivered to you. Some books are rare and precious, and in those cases you need to visit specialist libraries rather than have the volume come to you, but these are mostly the concern of the specialist, and reprints are often available through the book publishing industry in any case. There is a highly active second-hand book trade online, with used copies of a title listed alongside the new on sites like Amazon. If you want to read something, generally you can, easily and cheaply so.
If you want to see something, things are arranged differently. There is no network of moving image collections in the same way that we have libraries, and no system of interlibrary loan for moving image content; there are far fewer film archives than libraries around, and most films and programmes are held in the archives of commercial entities, whose concern is to issue saleable product, not to offer a public service. We have television itself, but what it is able to show from its archives is relatively narrow, and strongly determined by audience figures (real or anticipated) and the drive always to broadcast what is new. Audience taste for obscurities from the archives is not high in any case (partly through that audience not knowing about such obscurities in the first place), and so we end up with the moving image culture that we have – and a masterpiece like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore remains on the shelves, effectively unseen.
What can we do? Many in my field of work have been worrying over this for years now, without coming up with credible solutions so far. I don’t have such a solution myself, but I do think we should start out with a few principles.
- 1. There should be a right of access to any moving image artefact held in the UK, comparable in its effects to the inter-library loan system that exists for books.
- 2. There should be a register of all moving image artefacts produced in, held and as far as possible viewable in the UK, making it a comprehensive record of what should be available to anyone in the UK under the right of access set out above.
- 3. There should be a publicly-funded television channel, with online extension, dedicated to re-showing archive programmes, not for their nostalgia value but for their public and cultural value.
- 4. Access to television programmes recorded off-air by educational institutions under copyright exception enshrined in the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act should be extended by widening the interpretation of what an educational institution is.
- 5. Access to films and television programmes described on a comprehensive UK register should be extended through the public library sector, by delivering DVD-Rs or protected, time-limited online access to all moving image artefacts held digitally by a confederation of public and private sector institutions that collectively represent the national digital moving image collection.
Some of this is not so fanciful. A general register of UK film is listed as an aim of the British Film Institute in its recent Film Forever policy plan (an earlier initiative, the Search Your Film Archives database, sadly is suffering from neglect). On the television channel idea, the BBC Trust in February 2011 agreed a change to the service licence of BBC4 (along with Radios 3 and 4) to allow it in principle to become a long-term repository for archive TV, as opposed to the one-week-only access offered by iPlayer (the Trust’s report heading refers only to radio, but BBC Four is covered in the text itself). Third party rights still need to be cleared for such in perpetuity access (a major problem behind simply opening up the archives to one and all), but the principle has been established. Channel 4’s 4oD to a degree already operates as such an online channel, of course. The extension of what an educational institution is has been mooted in possible changes to UK copyright law that the government has said that it wishes to see, among a range of recommendations aimed at improving protected access to sound and moving images for study, though such changes are currently being hotly debated. And the last point is technically feasible, and a logical corollary to the second principle.
The most important principle is the first. There should be a right. What exactly it is a right to can only then be determined by a definitive record (principle 2), with modes of access then determined by principles 3-5. But it is establishing the right that will open up the rest. Immediate access to all film and television on your TV set, PC or tablet isn’t going to happen, and it isn’t reasonable that it should happen, anymore than you can expect to find every book every printed in your local library. For some things you have to work a little harder, and travel a little further. But you will be travelling with purpose.
Meanwhile, the moving image access we enjoy is determined predominantly by modes of entertainment, and that has diminished its public value and constrained its reasonable access. Which is a pity, to say the least.
- John Wyver writes in detail about ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and its production history on the Screen Plays blog
- The BFI’s Film Forever plan, covering the period 2012-2017, includes the recommendation for a general register (p. 29)
- The UK government’s response to recent consultations on copyright exceptions and clarifying copyright law, following the Hargreaves Review of intellectual property, entitled Modernising Copyright, was issued at the end of 2012