This post examines Edwardian drama for television through looking at three versions of plays by John Galsworthy made by the BBC in the 1970s.
I want to consider two things in particular; how the specific form of Galsworthy’s drama might have been particularly well suited for television; and suggest what value viewers derived from these productions – not just the aesthetic pleasures of watching period drama, but also what emotional meaning and moral values that they might have found in the plays.
I decided to look at Galsworthy in particular, because his theatrical career was a product of the unique circumstances of the Edwardian London theatre. Galsworthy only started writing drama in his late thirties (after several published novels and fitful careers in law and trade), enticed by the possibilities of working at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square in association with Shaw and Granville Barker (who directed his first four plays), with the intention of creating a modern form of drama, relevant to present social concerns.
Galsworthy is also a crucial figure in the development of British television drama as author of the source novels for The Forsyte Saga, the phenomenally successful 1967 BBC serial, a programme that had tremendous influence upon the setting and form of many subsequent dramas, and the catalyst for a flood of Edwardian series, serials and plays in the 1970s.
But of particular interest to me is the production of three Galsworthy dramas for the BBC1 series Play of the Month in the mid-1970s; The Skin Game (1974) directed by William Slater, Strife directed by James Cellan Jones (1975), and Loyalties directed by Rudolph Cartier (1976). While The Forsyte Saga is remembered as a landmark in the history of British television drama, productions of Galsworthy’s stage plays are wholly forgotten. But the transmission of three plays within two years indicates a feeling that these dramas were considered to be especially suitable for television adaptation. A possible reason, if perhaps unconscious, for this spate of productions might have been that their concerns of ownership and class loyalties seemed particularly topical, or a sense that Galsworthy’s moral reasoning might touch a particular need on the part of the audience.
Galsworthy is rare amongst British dramatists in that he published a rationale for his form of drama in an essay, ‘Some Platitudes Concerning Drama’ (1909), very helpfully for scholars a hundred years later. In this piece, he defends his works as operating under a pretext of total naturalism, plausibility of action, and authorial objectivity. Within this form, a drama must contain a clear meaning, and a sense of moral purpose:
A drama must be shaped so has to have a spire of meaning. Every grouping of life and character has its inherent moral: and the business of the dramatist is so to pose that group as to bring that moral to the light of day. (Galsworthy 1927: 195)
The moral that these plays examined was not to be “the triumph at all costs of a supposed immediate ethical good over a supposed immediate ethical evil” (ibid), as this distorted and schematic presentation of morality had infected theatre to such a point where plays became caricatures. A new theatre would offer more measured and convincing investigation of morality, creating a more deeply satisfying and instructive drama.
Galsworthy aspired to create “good dialogue”, mistrusting the contrived, or “smart”:
The art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art, denying itself all license, grudging every sentence devoted to the mere machinery of the play, suppressing all jokes and epigrams severed from character, relying for fun and pathos on the fun and tears of life. (ibid: 201)
This Spartan ethic would seem to contradict some of the ostensible pleasures that television audiences derived from Edwardian plays, with wit and elegance being virtues perhaps more likely to arise in contrived dramas than in totally naturalistic plays.
Christopher Innes defines the strength of Galsworthy’s plays as “embodying the value of compromise”, setting up a “gripping dialectic based on the premise that opposites are dialectical” (2002: 66-7). The conditions of television studio drama, allowing directors to cut within space while maintaining continuity of performance, meant that this dialectical approach to drama might be realised in various ways, especially through the use of space. Each of the three Play of the Month productions depicts dialectical contrasts in a different style, as I shall demonstrate.
All three of Galsworthy’s plays produced for Play of the Month have a clear dialectical and binary structure, where a spire of meaning is illustrated through conflict between two equally matched opposing parties, leading towards a tragic conclusion where more is shown to have been lost than gained for all protagonists. Strife is concerned with a long-running strike at the Trenartha Tin Plate Works, a dispute prolonged by the intransigence of John Anthony, the Works Chairman, and Roberts, the strikers’ leader. The play concludes with the death of Roberts’ starving wife and the deposition of both men by their former followers.
The Skin Game shows a feud between two families, the established aristocratic Hillcrists and nouveau-riche industrialists the Hornblowers, over Hornblower’s plan to buy houses on the Hillcrist estate in order to build factories. To gain leverage over Horblower, the Hillcrists blackmail him by threatening to expose his daughter-in-law’s unfortunate past as a professional co-respondent, a chain of events that leads to Chloe Hornblower’s attempted suicide and the ruination of her marriage.
Loyalties tells the story of an accusation of theft made by a Jewish outsider, de Levis, at a country house weekend against a former officer, Dancy, culminating in Dancy’s exposure and suicide.
In all three plays, Galsworthy carefully rations meetings between antagonists, making their confrontations more dramatic and exciting for audiences. I’m going to present one clip of these moments of confrontation from each play, and discuss the different directorial choices taken for each scene, in order to demonstrate the range of styles that could be achieved in multi-camera studio television drama.
James Cellan Jones’ production of Strife emphasises dialectical oppositions through camera technique, achieving its effect through the arrangements of shots within a space. The tragic dynamic of this play is focused on the intransigence of the Chairman and the miners’ leader. Cellan Jones stresses the separateness and isolation of these figures within the group through his use of the studio space and his choice of shots taken from the multiple studio cameras.
This approach is particularly pronounced in the play’s first scene, an elaborate naturalistic realisation of a board meeting, a scene with an innate dramatic structure and pace marked through the formal rituals of such assemblies; the reading of minutes, the invitation of speakers to address the board, etc. Cellan Jones uses the time taken by the reading of the minutes to establish the size of the room, the different men seated around the four sides of the table, and their responses, running opening credits over the scene.
Having established the conventions and expectations of the meeting, he then uses shots that set John Anthony, at the head of the table, apart from the rest of the group. The Chairman is introduced to the viewer at the climax of a panning shot which tracks along the faces around the table, indicating both his importance and the dependence of others upon him.
From this point onwards in the scene, John Anthony is framed in shots that cut away from the rest of the room, in poses that emphasise his stillness,
– contrasted with the other, more fidgety or emphatic, members of the board.
When John Anthony speaks, listeners’ reactions to his words are shown in two- or three- shots, creating an impression of the chairman’s dislocation from the board.
This impression is increased once John Anthony rises from his chair to stand apart from the table; an action Cellan Jones devotes an entire shot to, with the listeners sat at the table shown behind John Anthony’s back, as the Chairman faces the camera.
These directorial decisions leave the viewer with two contrasting impressions of John Anthony; of his power and self assurance, demonstrated through his stillness and ability to hold the board’s attention; but also his potential isolation against the collective, who are presented as more emotive and flexible characters.
This pattern of showing John Anthony as apart is only broken when his daughter enters the room, and the Chairman is presented to the viewer through her point of view, as a complete figure seen from a distance, making him appear more vulnerable.
Like Anthony, Roberts’ body language also sets him apart from his colleagues, with Colin Blakely standing still and erect, while his comrades move around him. Cellan Jones emphasizes the equal power and stature of the two leaders by showing their discussions in a series of close-ups of still, impassive faces. Although the two men stand at opposite ends of the boardroom, the effect of this cutting into space compresses the size of the room, to make it feel as though they are staring each other in the face.
Unlike Cellan Jones’ treatment of Strife, William Slater’s directorial technique in The Skin Game rarely cuts into the space of the studio, instead creating a sense of fluidity through allowing cameras to follow the movement of characters within spaces, via shots of a comparatively long duration.
SILENT CLIP (camera movement around Hillchrist home)
The lengthy first and final scenes are located in one very large room in the Hillcrist house.
Slater’s presentation of the space, through one camera in mobile shots of long duration, encourages the viewer to gain a sense of the full extent of the room at a leisurely pace. As more of the area is presented to the viewer as characters move to different parts of the room, the viewer is given time and space to pick out specific details of decor and furnishings in the wider frame, creating a detailed and full impression of the world which the characters inhabit. Viewer empathy and understanding of these characters is encouraged by the fluid camera movement, which emphasises how the protagonists present themselves through posture and movement. For example, the initial exchange between Hillcrist and his daughter, Amy, contrasts the patriarchal figure of the head of the household stuck behind his desk with the mobile, walking, presence of the lively young woman. By showing this dialogue with one camera, following the movement of Amy around the fixed point of her father, Slater establishes a strong visual impression of how Amy perceives herself and her father sees her, as a figure of youth, attractiveness, vivacity and spontaneity, as well as providing the viewer with the necessary time and space to be able to appreciate her costume. None of this emphasis works against Galsworthy’s dialogue, but establishes a strong visual sense of how the father and daughter relate to one another.
The technique of presenting characters through fluid camera movement also serves to emphasise the binary nature of Galsworthy’s dramaturgy, but achieves this through body language and the grouping of characters, rather than through the sequencing of shots. Butlers are shown to be stiffer and quieter in movement than their masters, and the Hillcrists’ poor tenants, the Jackmans, are presented as bowed and hunched figures in groupings, ill-at-ease in Hillcrist’s home, despite his hospitality. A technical disadvantage of this emphasis, on long shot lengths from cameras that follow the movements of performers around the set, is that the single camera is therefore called upon to operate tricky technical manoeuvres, made evident in small wobbles and moments when performers are slightly out of focus when the camera switches between the foreground and background of the scene. Because it is always clear what the viewer is being encouraged to look at, and what is going on within the frame, these moments pass almost subliminally and do not detract from the viewer’s concentration, unlike some studio productions which could leave an impression of technical ineptitude and insufficient preparation.
When Slater varies this technique, it serves the clear purpose of directing the viewer’s visual attention to a change of mood or a dramatically significant point. This is particularly demonstrated in his presentation of Hornblower, the nouveau riche entrepreneur who buys out the Hillcrists’ property. Here is how he first appears in the play, arriving at the Hillchrist home.
Hornblower is presented to the audience through a visual grammar of disruption, introduced into scenes by changing from one camera to another, and shot from the point of view of other characters when he enters a room, giving a strong impression of a man who intrudes into, and imposes himself upon, other people’s lives.
We get a sense of this power by the camera movement that follows Hornblower as he strides into the room and then shares his point-of-view of his antagonists, enhancing the impression given by Galsworthy’s specification that Hornblower must stand while Hillchrist remains seated.
The Times‘ critic Leonard Buckley acknowledged this variation of technique, noting with approval that although The Skin Game had worked as “a conventionally theatrical production”, Slater had used “the resources of television only to give us effective close-ups and groups” (1974: 11).
Rudolph Cartier’s production of Loyalties interprets the play’s binary oppositions through the camera encouraging and emphasising intensity of performance, and a concentration upon the territorial significance of the space of rooms for protagonists. The choice of shots shows how each character feels differently about the room and the other characters within it.
Cartier’s spatial sense enhances the viewer’s appreciation of the plot in a play with strong affinities to period crime drama. When a detective arrives at Meldon Court to investigate the reported theft, Cartier cuts within space and uses close-ups to clarify the mechanics of the plot with a degree of directorial control that could not be achieved so blatantly on stage.
Where crucial mechanical details of the theft plot can be signposted, Cartier ensures that they will be clearly shown, for example, an unexplained close-up of a wet handkerchief is presented several minutes before the prop’s significance is explained, placing the viewer in the position of detective trying to evaluate evidence.
This simplicity of plotting discourages ambiguous reading for the viewer, unlike most productions of Play of the Month classics, where character and action tends to include unexplained or obscure elements.
Cartier builds tension, and emphasises the difference between opposed characters, by avoiding two-shots in confrontations until deep into a scene, seen here in a scene where, De Levis having accused Dancy of theft in their London club, both gentlemen are called into the committee room to account for themselves:
The tension in this brief scene revolves around the withheld confrontation between the two men – two opposing forces in confrontation, but not seen together. This tension is present in Galsworthy’s script by the way that the men address the committee rather than each other, but Cartier realises this through either showing the two men together in the frame, but refusing to look at each other –
So, how did 1970s to audiences react to Galsworthy’s dramas? Thanks to the assiduous work of the BBC’s Audience Research Department, we have reports that document responses to all three plays, as we do for many thousands of programmes of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Reports for Victorian and Edwardian period dramas repeatedly praise particular qualities that viewers found in these productions: as well as the pleasures of authentic, attractive sets, costumes and locations and the chance to watch favoured actors audiences enjoyed these dramas’ preoccupation with manners, primacy of articulate verbal communication, and felt a continuity of class between the characters onscreen and themselves.
The 1975 audience of Strife found it easy to follow Galsworthy’s spire of meaning. Many viewers responded positively to the play’s sense of clarity and purpose:
A ‘well-constructed’ and wonderfully observed’ play (‘as are all Galsworthy’s’), with a ‘strong characterisation’, ‘gripping plot’, human interest and some relevance to present problems, it was well worth reviving. (BBC WAC VR/75/307)
Viewers also reported approvingly of their impression of the equal stubbornness of Anthony and Roberts, as realized through Clifford Evans and Colin Blakely’s performances, supporting Galsworthy’s binary structure. In accordance with Galsworthy’s dramaturgical principles, these viewers derived a moral purpose from the play:
Bitter industrial conflict between labour and management had proved ‘powerful stuff and still relevant’: it might help people to see, for instance, ‘the danger of their actions’ (BBC WAC VR/75/307)
Viewers found that their response to Strife was affected by the play’s contemporary relevance to the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. For the positive camp, this meant that although “this was a play for its own time, it still had something to say today”, while for those who had not enjoyed the production;
The reminder of present-day industrial strife made the play less appealing, even decidedly depressing, they were tired of ‘incessant wrangling’ between workers and employers and wanted ‘something more cheering in evening plays’. (BBC WAC VR/75/307)
What unites both viewpoints is an expectation that the production of classic plays such as Strife on BBC1 should evoke the sense of a different time, with this distance from the present creating either a stimulating or a cheering effect. Such direct relevance to contemporary politics was not an expected aspect of the Play of the Month adaptation, and, when considered in tandem with a dowdy industrial setting, accounts for the more qualified enthusiasm that Strife attracted than the two other plays.
In contrast, the integrated and attractive design scheme of The Skin Game was responded to with enthusiasm by both critics and audience, The Times suggesting that a play set in 1920 allowed “the BBC, with Michael Young designing and John Bloomfield dressing Cedric Messina’s production, to be at its Great Gatsby best”, going on to praise the production’s make-up, especially in painting Judy Geeson’s Chloe in “suggestively encarmined lips” (Buckley, 1976), while Audience Research expressed approval at how the production caught the manner of the 1920s, with “a very authentic sense of period, it was said, the sets and costumes being particularly commended.” (BBC WAC VR/74/112)
Viewers and critics alike derived further appreciation from the play’s sense of characterisation and balance between the two opposing forces, audience research reporting that both sides “were so well stated that, as the play progressed, several viewers found it increasingly difficult to be sure where their sympathies lay”, an ambiguity that made The Skin Game feel “surprisingly up to date” (BBC WAC VR/74/112).
Loyalties was an anomalously successful Play of the Month presentation. The BBC Audience Research Report (BBC WAC VR/76/115) records exceptionally high viewing figures of 17.5%, and appreciative Reaction Index of 72. This strong approval was due to three factors; firstly, the strength of the narrative:
Loyalties proved to be a popular choice for Play of the Month, many of the sample welcoming ‘a good old-fashioned play’, ‘a real classic’. It was a pleasure to see ‘such professionalism in the writing and construction’: ‘a change from today’s plays’, and a significant group were apparently happy with a story that had a clearly developing plot-line: ‘You can’t beat a drama with a beginning, a middle and an end, which current ones tend not to have’ (BBC WAC VR/76/115)
Secondly, this clarity of storytelling supported a theme that was itself obvious and of interest to viewers:
Also, the problems caused by conflicting notions of correct behaviours proved an interesting and not-so-unusual subject. For others, the contrast between then and now ‘added another absorbing dimension’. ‘It was interesting to see how people’s attitudes had changed towards the gravity of dishonourable conduct’. In addition, the relationships within the play were very well drawn: ‘an acutely observed interplay of characters and motivations’; presenting ‘sympathetically a very real dilemma’ (BBC WAC VR/76/115)
The sense of moral approval expressed here is not concerned with questions of taste and decency as recognised through the absence of distasteful or troubling features, but through affirmative engagement with the moral dilemmas presented within the play itself. The historical setting of this drama did not detract from such moral questions for the majority of viewers, but seeing matters of honour investigated through the context of Galsworthy’s world of fifty years earlier, a time with different codes of behaviour and registers of speech, added an element of pleasure and fascination for the audience.
In addition to the story and theme, viewers responded with pleasure to the programme’s production values, including those who were unconvinced by the plot or subject:
A strong current of approval ran through the sample for the accuracy of the period atmosphere: ‘the production captured the ‘twenties atmosphere very well’, and this appeared to be an important factor in the sample’s evident enjoyment. The costumes and sets (particularly in the Club) were felt to be ‘just right’ (BBC WAC VR/76/115)
Critical response reflected similarly contradictory reactions of nostalgic pleasure and moral and narrative engagement towards the production, the Times describing a “dated” play that:
concerns itself with the caste system that still exists in our society but its house party and clubland setting belongs to a bygone age (…) [the production] seemed uncertain at first whether to search out the continuing topicalities or settle for a period piece. (Buckley, 1976:6)
Buckley derived pleasure from the codified period performances of genteel flappers and stuffy clubmen, before discerning a dramatic purpose lying behind the stylised manner of acting:
Edward Fox, clipped of voice and poker faced as the doomed Captain would have made the conventional ramrod look like a wilting lily. Yet the woodenness had method. These puppet characters jerked us unerringly into grasping the strings to which they were attached – the codes that govern our lives. Restraint was the keynote of the acting. (ibid)
The great success of this production indicates that the perceived narrative values of Galsworthy’s dramaturgy (striking binary oppositions, clear meaning) could translate especially well when adapted for television. An interesting aspect of this is that part of the pleasure reported by viewers (unlike that of costume adaptations taken from novels) lay in the theatrical origin of the play, and overrode what might have been considered dramatic failings; “However, the fact that one could see far ahead what was going to happen did not lessen enjoyment for a great many ‘it was so well-written as to make the predictability acceptable’” (BBC WAC VR/76/115). Cartier’s production demonstrated that an intimate directorial style could accentuate Edwardian theatrical narrative when audiences felt comfortable that they could understand what was going on.
Galsworthy’s binary conflicts between parallel forces are realised through directorial technique in all three Play of the Month adaptations, although each director presented this opposition through different means. Cartier established space as being the territory of each character, and then suggested how that space could be violated through switching shots to other characters. Cellan Jones cut into space and showed characters holding their own location within the space of the room. Slater used deeper and longer shots that showed how characters moved within the more expansive space of the room as a whole. In all three plays, representation of the room is paramount to viewers’ understanding of the drama, but the significance of this space is indicated through different means.
Audience application of these plays went beyond the pleasure of experiencing a palliative sense of nostalgia as realised through the representation of a world of good manners, elegant dress and intelligible stories, although all of these values are easily found in reception of Edwardian plays. This sense of the costume drama as a site for the realisation of moral values is also to be found in viewers’ approval of the actions and dilemmas dramatised within Galsworthy’s plays themselves. These plays display little of the attributes of wit, paradox and romance generally understood to act as signifiers of quality, and yet audiences still derived value and meaning through them, accentuated, rather than determined, by their location within a period setting. This sense of moral value was realised in Galsworthy’s plays through a perceived clarity of storytelling, enacted through placing characters with apparent motivations in dramatic situations and dilemmas. These elements of narrative had strong parallels with the plotting of contemporaneous television drama, and through sensitive direction this theatrical material could function as exciting television for viewers.
Buckley, Leonard, ‘The Skin Game’, Times, 20 May 1974, p.11.
Buckley, Leonard, ‘Loyalties’, Times, 1 Mar 1976, p.6.
Galsworthy, John, ‘Some platitudes concerning drama’, in The Works of John Galsworthy Volume XVII: a Commentary and Other Essays, London: William Heinemann, 1927, pp.195-209.
Galsworthy, John, Five Plays, London: Methuen, 1984.
Innes, Christopher, Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
(Text of a keynote paper given by Billy Smart at ‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’, BFI Southbank, 23 May 2014)