Theatre on the box

Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard (1962)
Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard (1962)

Judi Dench played Barbara in Major Barbara (1962) with Edward Woodward who played Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard (1971) with Jenny Agutter who played in Hedvig Ekdal in The Wild Duck (1971) with Denholm Elliott who played Alan Quine in Donkey’s Years (1980) with Penelope Keith who played Amanda Prynne in Private Lives (1976) with Alec McCowen who played Brandon in Rope (1957) with Dennis Price who played Ship’s Master in The Tempest (1939) with Peggy Ashcroft who played Mme Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard (1962) with Judi Dench…

Such is the fun that you can have with Screen Plays: The Theatre Plays on British Television Database. Produced by the University of Westminster’s research project Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television, and hosted by the BUFVC, this terrific database documents British television productions of plays that were originally written for the theatre. It is a soft launch, chiefly covering the period 1936 to 1965, which happens to represent two-thirds of of the plays in the complete database – though there are some titles from later years in this first release, as can be judged from the above. The full database will be released in summer 2016.

Nowadays theatre on television is a recherché treat, generally reserved for the occasional outing on BBC Four. In the first three to four decades of British television, theatre was a mainstay of broadcast output. In part this was due to a BBC that believed that theatre was elevating, something to be transmitted to the masses because it was good for them. Television was a looking glass through which to discover the better arts.

These days television wants to be television – when it’s not trying to be film, or YouTube that is. It no longer preaches down to us in the way that it used to do (it preaches in other ways, of course). There is something quaint about an age of television when its proudest moments were those derived from the stage (ideally as closely as possible), when even dramas written for television could appear under a series title such as Play for Today.

Screen Plays record for The Cherry Orchard (1962)
Screen Plays record for The Cherry Orchard (1962)

But something has also been lost – a kind of television that was more diverse, more experimental, one with greater faith in the literary and dramatic tradition, one which hoped for more from its audiences. Stage drama itself hasn’t suffered. Television may have largely abandoned it, but the live streaming of theatre productions into cinemas has opened up new markets and served audience with an exciting hybrid form. There are so many opportunities by which we can now go and see the play, whether in the theatre, in a cinema, via apps or the venerable medium of DVD. But television is the poorer, because it is just that little less imaginative than it could be.

The Screen Plays database demonstrates by the sheer number of productions on offer, which such stellar casts and such creative names behind the camera. Theatre, it is clear, played a vital part in how the art of television developed. Each record in the database gives the full cast and crew credit, broadcast details, and information on print and audiovisual sources (though much early television has been lost, theatre productions probably had a higher survival rate than most, because of their prestige value). It is handsomely hyperlinked, so you can trace not only the careers of actors, writers and directors, but trace theatre companies, television companies, subject tags, and series. You can sort results in various ways, and by simply searching for everything and then sorting the results by oldest first, you can see a chronological listing of the first plays shown on British television – starting, of course, with that most peculiar of firsts, Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, shown in 1930.

It’s not all grand theatre, please note. Although Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Aeschylus and Ibsen are there, Screen Plays also gives us those Brian Rix farces filmed from the Whitehall Theatre that I can remember watching (with some bemusement) in the early 70s, Ben Travers and Alan Ayckbourn. Musicals and opera have been excluded, however – that’s another project for another day.

It has been scrupulously researched, and is going to become a trusted resource for current researchers and, quite certainly, for those new to this field who will stumble upon an exciting terra incognita and discover brave new worlds. It will be lapped up by anyone studying theatre history, but equally it should be noticed by anyone studying television, past or present. It demands that you think anew about the nature of the medium.

A remarkable brief survival of a 1930s BBC TV drama – an 8mm mute fragment of Once in a Lifetime by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, originally broadcast 6 December 1937 but here shown as restaged 26 December 1938, held by the Alexandra Palace Television Society

There are things that you miss. There are all the other television programmes that were broadcast around these plays, which would add context and illumination. The publication of the BBC’s Genome database from Radio Times data) make such programmes more readily discoverable, and maybe there’s some crowdsouring project that could be done to link up the Screen Plays records with their Genome equivalents (the specific programmes, and other programmes available that same day). It would also be good to see some statistics – handy stuff for we publicising bloggers – such as which playwrights have been adapted the most, which years featured the most plays, which actors appeared the most, and so on.

However, it is a work-in-progress, and additions, corrections and suggestions for improvement are welcome by the the research term (the Principal Investigator on the project was John Wyver and the Research Fellow was Amanda Wrigley). It is crying out to be built upon further – images, playable programmes, scripts – and a good start has been made by making it part of the platform of databases hosted by the BUFVC, which exists to encourage the use of moving images in learning, teaching and research. But first it has to get used. So, off you go. Go explore.


  • The Screen Plays database is at
  • Background information on the research project is at It’s a wonderfully rich source on British television history in itself, with many detailed posts on the production of individual programmes, with much newly-uncovered or just not available anywhere else
  • I’ve written two previous posts on the Screen Plays project (on whose advisory board I served): Beyond the Stage and A Right of Access


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