TV and screen drama


An Afternoon at the Festival

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

An Afternoon at the Festival is an elegantly-structured and reflective meditation on failure.

Leo Brent is an egotistical, successful and middle-aged film-maker. While he is waiting for the four o’clock showing of his new and last film, he spends the morning with a prostitute, Anita: more to find somewhere to sit down than to sleep with her. Back at the house where the film was set, the star — Leo’s ex-wife Dana — is drinking Chablis with his brother, Howard. The play splices these two disconsolate conversations with scenes from Leo’s new film, set in the Victorian era, about the abrasive and eventually violent relationship between a boy and his stepmother. The suggestion, only voiced by Dana, that Leo’s talent is running out sits at the heart of this subtle play.

An Afternoon at the Festival was first presented by Yorkshire Television in 1973.

Antigone (trans. Taylor)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In his Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama, Kenneth McLeish writes: “Antigone is a textbook example of how to develop one short episode from a myth-story to make a full-scale tragedy articulating universal themes and meanings… The fact that her story has had such an effect on world consciousness – she is one of the best loved characters in all Greek myth – is entirely due to the issues which Sophocles draws from the myth, and to his portrayal of Antigone herself, pulled between heroic certainty and all too human frailty.”

The story of one sister’s loyalty to both her brothers, regardless of their acts or opposing political beliefs, Antigone is one of the most consistently popular plays in the history of drama. This translation, by Don Taylor, was commissioned by the BBC, and was first broadcast in autumn, 1986.

The Arcata Promise

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Arcata Promise is a study of the grotesque self-pity of an unstable actor, a merciless account of individual self-delusion and failure.

Once a successful actor, Gunge now lives in a grimy basement, arguing with a disembodied Voice and fantasising about violence. Glimpses of him prowling the stage as Richard II are intercut with memories of his relationship with Laura, a young woman who believed his promise of eternal devotion, but became gradually disillusioned as his alcoholism and hostility emerged. The sudden appearance of Tony, a valet, in Gunge’s squalid residence fractures Gunge’s reality and psyche even further, bringing Mercer’s story of tortured attraction to a destructive conclusion.

The Arcata Promise was first presented by Yorkshire Television in 1974.

The Bankrupt

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

David Mercer’s play is a bleakly comic study of the introspective amnesia of Ellis Cripper, who has emerged from his recent dishonourable bankruptcy into a personal crisis, with no idea of how to construct his life.

He dreams of summoning a series of historical figures, who propose a series of abstract and general answers to his existential crisis, but neither their adages nor the analyses of doctors and psychiatrists are satisfactory. The play flickers between these conjurations, and Ellis’s visit to his father, his sister and her husband, who try to offer their own structures of Ellis’s existence. But Ellis would rather talk to worms, invoke Hamlet, and write down his dreams.

The Bankrupt is a darkly effective play about a man’s struggle for significance. It was first presented by BBC Television on BBC1, in 1972.

Brief Encounter

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Your heart dances. The world seems strange and new. You want to laugh and skip and fall forever… You are in love. You are in love with the wrong person. Laura, the respectable suburban wife, and Alec, the idealistic, married doctor, meet in a station buffet, fall passionately in love but are doomed never to find fulfilment.

David Lean's iconic 1945 movie, Brief Encounter, was written by Noël Coward and was based on one of his one-act plays, Still Life, written a decade earlier. This version for the stage was adapted by Emma Rice, Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre Company, bringing this timeless tale of joy and heartache into the theatre. Also included within the romantic action are nine songs originally written by Coward.

Kneehigh’s production Brief Encounter was first presented by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers and Cineworld at the Cinema Haymarket on 2 February 2008.

Bye Bye Columbus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Peter Barnes mockingly dramatises the distinctly unheroic expedition of Christopher Columbus, which changed the face of the globe, though not entirely in the way he was expecting.

Columbus’s famous venture begins with a desperate struggle for funding, as well as an attempt to convince his backers that the /world was a lot smaller than everyone else thought. Eventually the Spanish King and Queen concede to his terms, which demanded extravagant personal rewards for services of dubious integrity. When he finally claims the Americas for the Spanish Empire, he isn’t entirely sure which country they are, but that doesn’t stop him finding ways to make money out of the people he found there.

Bye Bye Columbus is a wry and mocking portrait of a man who sailed halfway across the world for a hint of gold. The play was broadcast by BBC Television in 1992.

The Cellar and the Almond Tree

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Cellar and the Almond Tree is the second part of a trilogy, sometimes called the Kelvin trilogy, with On the Eve of Publication and Emma’s Time. The play is similarly composed of juxtaposed cuts between past and present, fantasy and flashbacks, this time belonging to the Countess Isabel von Reger, and Volubin (who was known to Robert Kelvin in the first play as Sladek).

Beneath the web of conversation and memory are the harsh and troubling realities of conflict and upheaval in central Europe, as the cellar and the almond tree come to represent the constraints of totalitarian regimes and a disappearing aristocratic way of life. Exploring form with the same fluidity as On the Eve of Publication before it, The Cellar and the Almond Tree is a powerful exploration of socialism and memory.

The Cellar and the Almond Tree was first broadcast in 1970 by BBC Television.

Emma's Time

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Emma’s Time is the third part of a trilogy, sometimes called the Kelvin trilogy, with On the Eve of Publication and The Cellar and the Almond Tree. In Emma’s Time the fluid cuts between past and present, fantasy and flashbacks show Emma searching for the meaning of her relationship with Robert Kelvin, the socialist writer whose death was the subject of On the Eve of Publication.

Her attempts to come to terms with his psychological and political legacies are followed by a television documentary maker. She visits his mother, his dying brother in Paris, and meets Sladek, otherwise known as Volubin, tracing the international political events which were the landscape of Robert’s life, in a concluding play of great scope and power.

Emma’s Time was first broadcast in 1970 by BBC Television.

video An Englishman Abroad (BBC film adaptation)

BBC Video
Type: Video

Alan Bennett's award-winning film drama based on a meeting between Australian actress, Coral Browne and British spy, Guy Burgess. Alan Bates stars in a story based on a true incident which took place in Moscow in 1958. British spy, Guy Burgess encounters actress Coral Browne (who plays herself) on tour from the 'old country'. Invited to lunch at Burgess's shabby apartment, he presents her with a strange request. Both Browne and Bates were winners of BAFTA awards for acting for their roles in this production.


Guy Burgess: Alan Bates; Herself: Coral Browne; Claudius: Charles Gray; Rosencrantz: Harold Innocent; Guildenstern: Vernon Dobtcheff; General: Czeslaw Grocholski; Boy: Matthew Sim; Hamlet: Mark Wing-Davey; Hotel Receptionist: Faina Zinova; Toby: Douglas Reith; Giles: Peter Chelsom; Tessa: Judy Gridley; Scarf Man: Bibs Ekkel; Tolya: Alexei Jawdokimov; Mrs Burgess: Molly Veness; Tailor: Denys Hawthorne; Shoe Shop Assistant: Roger Hammond; George: Charles Lamb; Pyjama Shop Manager: Trevor Baxter; Writer: Alan Bennett; Director: John Schlesinger; Producer: Innes Lloyd.

Distributed under licence from Educational Publishers LLP

Find Me

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Through a story of a poet and a novelist, Mercer studies the position of the political writer in post-war Europe.

Marek, the celebrated Polish novelist, turns up outside Olivia’s house. Olivia the poet, whose older husband was killed in the Second World War in the company of Marek, is writing an article about her guest, trying to pin down the politics and psychology buried beneath his constant drinking and womanizing. Their relationship is strained and sad, and swiftly intercut with footage of WWII air strikes, Olivia with her husband, and her husband’s meeting with Marek. Mercer creates through the interaction of Olivia and Marek a bleak portrait of profound historical consciousness.

Find Me was first presented by BBC Television in December 1974.

The twentieth century has produced three ‘indirect’, i.e. recorded and/or transmitted types of drama: radio, film and television. Of these, television is coming to have the greatest impact almost everywhere. Not only are sets increasingly available, reaching near-saturation in countries like Britain and the United States; the intensity of their use leaves the other media behind. If the average viewer in Britain will watch the box for some five hours and the average American viewer for over six hours a day, it is safe to say that he or she will be seeing a great deal of drama in that time.

Television drama is intimately linked with both theatre and cinema; all three, after all, are visual media. The umbilical connection with the stage was more evident in the early days. The first drama ever presented on television was Pirandello’s one-act play, The Man with a Flower in his Mouth, broadcast experimentally by the BBC as early as 1930. Between the start of regular transmissions in 1936 and their suspension because of the war in 1939, the BBC televised a total of 326 plays; only 14 were written especially for the new medium. In the early postwar period, when television plays went out live, they were necessarily continuous – in other words, very much like theatrical performances. It is true that the action was covered by several cameras from different angles. But there was little of the flexibility and mobility of film production. Only a limited number of sets could be accommodated in the studio, and there were time constraints on costume and make-up changes for the cast. Cables inhibited camera movement beyond certain limits. Film, if used at all, appeared only by way of inserts for outdoor scenes. The introduction of videotape in the late 1950s changed all that. Plays could now be recorded in segments and edited, somewhat in the manner of film. Moreover, from the 1960s onwards writers and producers increasingly wished to break out of the confines of the studio. Plays would be shot on location, often with a single camera – first on film and later, when electronic cameras become more and more portable, on videotape. The development of sophisticated video effects in the 1970s and 1980s helped to push the television play closer and closer to a cinematic mode. By the end of the century television drama had become very flexible; it could lean towards either theatre or cinema in method and style. The question is, has it achieved a language of its own, distinct from that of its sister arts?

Some doubt whether there is such a thing as television drama at all. They would claim that it is film or theatre transmitted electronically rather than an aesthetic category in its own right. But that is to overstate the case. True, the television play shares a good deal with film, its closest relation – a narrative conveyed by means of images which are passed through a lens, accompanied by sounds which are passed through a microphone. Nevertheless, the two media differ fundamentally in their mode of reception. The key to the nature of television drama lies in its viewing conditions. Cinema-going involves choice and effort; switching on a TV set is little more than a reflex. The cinema shows a limited programme; television drama is embedded in a continuous flow of heterogeneous material. Indeed, the television viewer may not catch the start of a play; he or she may abandon it before the end. The cinema screen is large and placed above; the domestic screen is small and placed at, or below, the viewer’s eye level. The dark auditorium focuses attention on the screen action; domestic lighting may bleach the television image, faulty set adjustment may degrade it, while family turmoil, the phone or the dog may interfere with concentration. This suggests that television viewing is less engrossing than a visit to the cinema. Linguistic usage bears this out: film watchers are called spectators, television watchers viewers. But domestic play-watching is not just an inferior sort of dramatic experience; it is an experience different in kind, with its own advantages. The appeal is to the individual or the small group rather than to a mass audience. What television drama loses in intensity it gains – among other things – in extension. Vast audiences share the same experience though physically separated from each other. When the last of the 251 episodes of M*A*S*H* went out in the United States in 1983, it was seen by the staggering number of 125 million viewers. The social bonding implied by such figures is reinforced by constant repetition. The impact of television drama is not so much that of the individual play as of a routine of viewing, almost a way of life.

Television drama can more easily be a writer’s medium than the cinema, where front office, directors and stars exert their own pressures. British television in particular has accorded a high status to playwrights. Authors like David Mercer, Alun Owen, Harold Pinter, Trevor Griffiths, Alan Plater, Peter Nichols, Fay Weldon, Jack Rosenthal, David Hare, Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale have been featured in pretransmission publicity and their scripts are frequently published in book form. The writer’s status is closely (though not, of course, exclusively) linked with the single, i.e. the non-serialized, play. In the early days of television this tended to be the staple dramatic product, apart from the adaptation of stage plays. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, NBC’s Philco Play house and CBS’s Studio One provided outlets for single plays, often by previously unknown authors, in the United States. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a similar platform was offered in Britain by ABC’s Armchair Theatre and the BBC’s Wednesday Play (renamed Play for Today in 1970). This supremacy was to be of short duration. The serial (i.e. the multiepisode drama) and the series (i.e. self-contained episodes involving the same group of characters) were preferred by network executives and producers. These were easier to schedule than single plays, they were more cost-effective and, above all, they consolidated viewer loyalty. In a sense, a serial is only an extension of the single play. It is generally written by one author rather than a committee. At the ‘literary’ end of the spectrum there is the dramatization of novels, a genre particularly characteristic of British television which has run adaptations of works by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Henry James, Bennett, George Moore, Sartre, Hugo, Flaubert, Dumas fils and many other novelists. So original a playwright as Dennis Potter has done adaptations like Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978) and Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (BBC, 1985). Ken Taylor’s 14-episode version of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, entitled The Jewel in the Crown (Granada, 1984), handled a tetralogy of some complexity with great skill. But the serial is often an original story rather than an adaptation. Analogous to the nineteenth-century serial novel, it has a more direct ancestor in film serials like the French Fantômas and the American Perils of Pauline which thrilled audiences in the early days of the cinema. The serial offers certain advantages over the single play. It enables the playwright to develop stories in depth, with ample room for characterization. At the receiving end, the sense of time passing between episodes becomes part of the viewing experience. Latin America is particularlyaddicted to serials; there they are known as telenovelas. The chief provider is Brazil’s giant multimedia network Globo, which has been active since 1965. At first Telenovelas were a fantasy vehicle for the socially deprived, with their dreams of luxury living and rags-to-riches stories. But they developed into a narrative form with high production values, some literary ambitions and a great appeal to all strata of society. The length of the Brazilian telenovela is often prodigious, running perhaps to as many as 200 episodes. Viewing figures of up to 50 million are not exceptional.

A universally popular subgenre of the serial is the sci-fi adventure. The BBC’s Doctor Who is perhaps the most famous example. First launched in 1963, it has generated a huge following, with fan clubs, a Doctor Who Monthly and scholarly publications. A major branch of the serial is the soap opera, so called after a kind of radio drama. Soap opera is typically sited within a group – family, workplace or district. The British variety has a strongly regional character – from the doyen of its kind, Granada’s Coronation Street situated in working-class Lancashire, to Central TV’s Crossroads set in a Midlands hotel, Yorkshire TV’s Emmerdale Farm (later simply Emmerdale), Merseyside Television’s Brookside (which is actually shot in a Liverpool suburb), and the BBC’s London-based East Enders. But soap operas need not always hold up the mirror to working or lower-middle-class nature. The American soaps Dallas (CBS/Lorimar) and Dynasty (ABC) filled the world’s screens with their tales of super-affluent oil tycoons. France’s Châteauvallon followed the intrigues of the rich and powerful. Unmistakably an element of wish fulfilment was being pandered to – envy seasoned with curiosity and disapproval. Viewer identification with soaps runs high. The characters are believed by many viewers to be as real as themselves, and unpopular storyline changes raise storms of protest. Soap operas are open-ended. (Coronation Street, initially scheduled for a mere 13 weeks, just went on of its own accord.) Having no firm end in view they can be adjusted. Thus, some Brazilian telenovelas of the soapier kind have been reshaped in mid-course to accommodate audience research findings. There is an assembly-line element to such authorship. Teams of writers work simultaneously on different narrative strands; relays relieve each other from time to time. On Coronation Street an archivist keeps tracks of the characters’ biographies for the guidance of writers new to the serial. Typical of soap operas are the weaving together of several plotlines running side by side; a mixture of moods (the banal alternating with the sensational, the comical with the pathetic); and cliff-hanger endings designed to keep the viewer hooked. Plot development is leisurely since viewers may well miss some episodes.

The series can afford to work a good deal faster. Though it, too, had a forerunner in the cinema (Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Ellery Queen, etc.) it is an essentially televisual format. It tends to raise few social questions; characters are fixed and rarely learn from experience. Series easily fall into genre patterns. The Hollywood inspiration of many American series is self-evident; indeed, many are made in Hollywood. There are Westerns; medical shows (tales of individual doctors or of hospitals); and polices series (crime being viewed from the angle of law enforcement rather than the criminal’s point of view, as in traditional cinema). Comparable genre concepts are at work in other countries too. A popular subgenre of the series is the situation comedy. Its basic pattern is that of a group of characters engaged in permanent conflict, their never-resolved problems giving scope for a maximum-number of permutations. Sitcoms tend to be sited in more specialized environments than soap operas; much of the writer’s ingenuity lies in finding a new milieu to explore. Let us take three British examples. Porridge (BBC) was a prison story of wily lags; Rising Damp (Yorkshire TV) chronicled the lives of tenants in a run-down apartment building; Yes Minister and its sequel Yes Prime Minister (BBC) poked fun at goings-on in the corridors of power.

Series and serials have practically driven the single play off American television screens, but for the odd prestige production like Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time (CBS, 1980). In Britain, any threat to the single play used to stir up heated polemics in its defence. But to see it – rightly – as the cutting edge for innovation in writing and production is not to deny the potential merits of the serial and the series. One must, however, bear in mind the shift in institutional power the dominance of the latter brings about – a transfer of responsibility from individual author to script editor and producer.

Another frequent cause of controversy is the documentary drama. This broad title covers a wide range of plays, all in some ways linked to ‘reality’. Stylistic devices typifying the genre – talking heads, jump cuts, unsteady camerawork – are designed to give an unmediated, as it were authentic, impression of actuality. The argument against documentary drama is that it might confuse viewers as to what precisely is demanded of them: are they to enjoy it as fiction or credit it as literal fact? Critics maintain that it may so merge with the flow of factual reportage as to become indistinguishable from it. Actually there are many ways of signalling the real status of the programme. More confusion is caused by soap operas. The attacks on documentary drama are often disingenuous, aimed at socially critical but never at safely conservative programmes.

Television has long since overtaken the cinema, at any rate in the TV-saturated developed world, as a mirror of individual conduct. Jeremiahs claim that it does not merely reflect these patterns but influences them as well – usually for the worse. Such arguments draw more on gut feelings than hard sociological evidence. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss out of hand the notion that a daily demonstration of how to conduct oneself will leave its mark. Television drama also reflects (and perhaps influences) the broader implicit values of society. Different parts of the world follow different guidelines in their programming policies. While developing countries tend to be frankly interventionist, the pressures and constraints on television drama in the liberal capitalist West are not so apparent. ‘Free world’ value systems are, however, built into seemingly neutral offerings, including cop shows and soap operas. Problems are always seen in the light of personal malfunction; wider social perspectives are shunned. The very insertion of commercials into plays, regardless of the content of the latter, carries a ‘free enterprise’ and consumerist message. Only rarely does ideology rear its head openly, as in the case of ABC’s Cold War serial Amerika (1987).

The influence of television drama is not confined to the home market. A number of countries, like the United States, Britain, France and Brazil, export a great many programmes. The domination of the television screens of quite a few countries by American plays and films is a continuation of Hollywood’s traditional supremacy in world cinema. The strong pressure exerted by these products, particularly in Latin America, can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, whether intended as such or not. Subtle denationalization of culture can take other forms too. The growing demand for glossy TV superproductions may lead to a pooling of resources by two or more countries; such coproductions often result in compromise. Non-American production companies frequently have the American market in mind when devising their drama serials. These are in danger of being mid-Atlantic rather than a true expression of native culture.

The rise of television drama has been meteoric. More drama is currently being ‘consumed’ than ever before in history. True, there are dangers in the massive substitution of fictional life for real experience, in ideological manipulation dressed up as entertainment. But there are strong positive values on the other side of the ledger. People’s mental horizons have been extended beyond the limits of their personal experience. Imaginations have been stretched in a way that only drama can accomplish.

In the United States: Starting in the 1940s, drama has been the most watched form of American television. Half-hour situation comedies with continuing characters usually head the weekly rating charts, but for quantity and variety, drama comes first and is packaged in six sizes.

(1) Thirty-minute filmed programmes, both anthologies such as The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and series such as General Electric Theater or Four Star Playhouse.

(2) Hour-long filmed programmes with continuing characters such as The Fugitive, The Defenders and Bonanza and, subsequently, Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. The one-hour dramatic anthology, once the most popular form, has virtually vanished. In the early days Studio One, Kraft Television Theater and Armstrong Circle Theater were among those providing original exciting dramas live or taped. In a longer format (average playing time about 75 minutes), Playhouse 90 was original American television drama at its best.

(3) The special programme, 90 minutes to three hours, allowed subjects to be treated in greater depth. Sometimes originals, often adaptations of plays and, more recently, ‘docudrama’, such shows have been the highlights of every season. In the live and tape days the Hallmark Hall of Fame, Dupont Show of the Week and Producers’ Showcase provided the greatest performances. The shows were rehearsed like plays, shot with electronic cameras and, with the arrival of tape, electronically edited. Today such shows are no longer produced, but the motion picture made expressly for television has taken their place. These two-hour or longer films are written, directed and produced by our leading artists and often tackle subjects that would be avoided in the risky feature film market.

(4) The long form, a filmed programme that plays over several evenings and allows epic subjects to be treated in depth. Roots, Winds of War, Blind Ambition and Shogun are examples. Although requiring an investment by the audience of eight to 30 hours, these shows have proven to be both very popular and very costly.

(5) The daytime ‘soap operas’, seen five days a week by millions of addicts, present usually lurid domestic crises with surprisingly high standards of performance and technical quality. Once live, these are now all taped.

(6) Most motion pictures made for theatrical distribution end up on television, the new ones on paycable, the oldies everywhere, with 15–30 choices every night. A majority of set owners have recorders to tape them for later viewing or storage. As these dramas were not created for the tube, no further comment will be made, except to note the problem of such films being interrupted by commercials, recut for length, slowed or speeded electronically, colourized and, in the case of widescreen pictures, scanned.

The content of all these programmes through the years has ranged from brilliant originality to the most cliché-riddled trash. Presumably the producers, writers, and directors would prefer to do good work, but time restriction, excessive interference from the networks and the pressure from sponsors to reach the largest audience make this difficult, if not impossible. When dramatic programmes were live, the original impetus came from a producer, usually a single individual such as Martin Manulis or Worthington Miner. Writers were given no limits, other than a code of standards and practices. These were usually personal stories with limited production but great integrity, such as Marty or Twelve Angry Men. The directors were in control of performances and camera work, and with no time for ‘second guessing’, a singleness of viewpoint provided the setting for actors and actresses to give first night once-only performances. These live days are still thought of as the ‘golden age’ of American television drama.

When live first turned to tape, the same conditions existed because mechanical editing was primitive and even dangerous. But with sophisticated editing the cooks increased from two or three to dozens and the broth lost its unique highly personal flavour. Recently public television has found drama to be too expensive, but at one time Play of the Week (live), Hollywood Television Theater and Visions (taped) provided stunning theatrical productions. Today only one programme, American Playhouse, airs a mixture of original films and some seen earlier on cable. Quantities of British televison drama can be seen on public stations and Arts and Entertainment cable, due to the high quality and low cost. Most films made for television are commissioned by a network and sold to many sponsors, whose commercials interrupt the programmes about every 12 minutes. Occasionally a major sponsor such as Hallmark, General Electric or Xerox can afford to pay the entire cost of making a two-hour film. It is amazing how much good filmed drama exists despite the cost and the network interference with casting and content. HBO and other cable companies have also tried with occasional success to produce important drama, and it is to be hoped that they will be the source of more in the future.

from George Brandt, George Schaefer, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).