1950s 1960s 1970s Actors BBC BBC Television Shakespeare Cedric Messina Directors Festival Play of the Month Producers Shakespeare Television World Theatre Tony Hancock

From Television World Theatre to the BBC Shakespeare: The fluctuating status of the classic play on BBC Television 1957-1985

In a recent lecture, Huw Weldon, managing director of BBC television said: ‘We feel that, like the theatre at large, we should be wanting if we did not ceaselessly recreate the classics – Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw and so on.’ (Dunkley, Chris, ‘Review’, Radio Times, 27 March 1975, p.74)

‘Festival: Murder in the Cathedral’ (BBC Television, 25 March 1964)

This is a brief chronology and history of series that presented theatrical adaptations on BBC television from 1957 to 1985, presenting examples of the institutional discourses that surrounded the making and transmission of these programmes. These arguments recur throughout the time that the BBC produced such series, and form a framework of institutional expectations within which the classic play was commissioned, made and presented.

Television World Theatre (BBC, 1957-8)/ World Theatre (BBC, 1959), Festival (BBC, 1963-4)

The launch of the series Television World Theatre in December 1957 represented a considerable shift in the way that television adaptations of the stage play were both made and promoted. Television World Theatre was the first time that the BBC had produced adaptations of stage plays as parts of a series under an umbrella title with a regular timeslot in the schedule.[1]

Television World Theatre ran for two individual seasons of a limited duration, which were promoted to audiences from the outset as offering a series of special individual events, presenting the best plays from the canon of world drama. Michael Barry, the Head of Television Drama, writing in the Radio Times, acclaimed the series as a project of major cultural significance: “All of the plays are of proved success and importance. They will allow us to consider drama as an international art” (1957, p.3).[2] Viewers could prepare in advance to watch the plays, through sending off for a special brochure providing information about the productions[3] and the details of each play, plus an illustration, were set out in the Radio Times listings within a box, and designed like a theatrical programme.

Television World Theatre offered viewers a repertory of a remarkable catholicity, even when compared with much later series presented to a less general BBC2 audience. Only a minority of the plays would have been especially familiar to a reasonably well-informed theatregoer of the late 1950s (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Galsworthy, Sheridan and Shaw), while some of the productions presented are by very obscure writers such as H.C. Branner and Alfred Henschke. For a series of classic plays, Television World Theatre presented a high percentage of comparatively recent works (Zuckmayer, Fry, Giraudoux, O’Neill, Lorca and Pirandello) and almost entirely unperformed classics such as Buchner’s Danton’s Death and Ibsen’s Brand. The series also attempted the first British television staging of a Greek tragedy (Michael Elliott’s production of Women of Troy) and Chinese Noh drama (The Circle of Chalk). Some of the productions were conceived around the opportunities provided by pre-recording (notably Rudolph Cartier’s extensive use of spectacular filmed footage of armies on the march in Mother Courage and her Children), and allowances were made for individual and idiosyncratic directorial interpretation (most controversially, Michael Elliott’s interpolation of newsreel footage of second world war refugees and atomic bombs into Women of Troy, BBC WAC T5/2,438/1).[4]

Barry’s article (1957) specifically acclaims television as a mass medium with an exciting potential to bring classical drama to an audience of non-theatregoers:

There is one aspect of television about which comment is seldom heard – it has made plays talked about! And by talked about I mean argued over, disagreed with, defended, hated and thought about in sitting-rooms, public bars, railway carriages and bus queues. Such a strength of interest in plays has not existed in this country for generations. What a stimulating state of things this presents. Those of us who worked in the theatre in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties will remember the great deserts of disinterestedness. Only among small groups of enthusiasts did talk about plays or playwrights form a part. And even then it was more likely to be a talk of the latest playwright who had achieved a success in London than about names from the rich mine of dramatic literature of the past. The production of a play by Ibsen or Shakespeare was a rarity, almost a suicidal joke for a theatrical manager seriously balancing his box office receipts against his costs. (p.3)

Barry contrasts this state of affairs with the fact that, since 1936, BBC television had presented ten productions of nine plays by Ibsen, this access to his work meaning that, “today this author has a nation-wide popularity” (ibid). The importance of televising plays by such classical, “distinguished and important” (ibid), authors, lay not in pleasing the largest possible proportion of the audience, but in encouraging an imaginative response:

Does it matter that some [plays] have been disliked by a proportion of the audience, or even that others have been a failure? The main factor is that there has been argument and interest on a wide scale. (ibid)

Such a programme, that allowed for the bewilderment and annoyance of some viewers, and expected some plays to fail, was expecting a great deal of its audience; a flexibility of imaginative response to move from watching Shakespeare to Gogol to Euripides from week to week, and a curiosity about international culture and different historical periods sufficient to attempt to watch unfamiliar forms of drama. The BBC’s Audience Research Reports for the series indicate that such a series encouraged selective viewing, with small audiences tuning in for unfamiliar plays such as Brand and Danton’s Death (both of which were seen by 8% of the population) (BBC WAC R/7/40-1) while comedies like The Government Inspector (featuring comedian Tony Hancock as Hlestakov) and The Captain of Kopenick could attract 25% and 21% respectively (BBC WAC R/7/32), despite their potentially off-putting European origin.

A consistent pattern of hostility emerges amongst the responses of the smaller audiences that saw the more tragic and obscure plays. This hostility continually manifests itself in complaints about the plays’ tendency towards morbidity and depression (for example, BBC WAC VR/58/17 The Cherry Orchard, BBC WAC VR/58/ 32 Women of Troy, BBC WAC VR/59/ 273 Danton’s Death, BBC WAC VR/59/310, Blood Wedding). The foreign origin of such bleak plays was seen by these viewers as contributing to their unsuitability for adaptation, being temperamentally inappropriate for British viewers: “a Slavonic moroseness foreign to our temperament… might be appreciated by Russians, but not by ourselves” (BBC WAC VR/58/32 The Cherry Orchard), “the ideas and feelings were quite foreign to our way of life” (BBC WAC VR/59/310 Blood Wedding).[5] Another aspect of this antipathy is a sense that the audience’s wish to be entertained was being overridden by the tastes of a highbrow minority of programme-makers: “a nerve-wracking trial inflicted upon them [viewers] by the BBC”, “a play that only the ‘highbrow’ minority could digest” (BBC WAC VR/58/32 Women of Troy), “A typical specimen of BBC morbidity. Very Third Programme” (BBC WAC VR/59/310 Blood Wedding). Audiences felt especially affronted by scenes of violence and suffering being shown in their living rooms (BBC WAC VR/59/273 Danton’s Death), with the report for Women of Troy describing responses of discomfort, distaste and deep disgust.

The prevalence of such plays in the series appears to have provoked a cumulative sense of hostility towards the idea of a series of international classics, noted in the report for The Master Builder (BBC WAC VR/58/111) as “a sense of resentment – which has of late become increasingly evident – towards the whole idea of Television World Theatre and the policy of treating viewers to a season of what they undoubtedly regard as ‘the heavier type of play’”. Barry’s vision of a series that would present audiences with some plays that they would dislike and some of which would fail, cannot have been to present a series that would provoke an antipathy towards the idea of international theatre, and alienation from the BBC’s conception of suitable drama for them, amongst millions of those viewers. Against this group, each report also details a minority (though often a small one) who do manage to extract some aesthetic value from each play. Amongst these viewers are those who struggle to follow plays, but eventually find them to be rewarding:

Although the effort to keep pace with such a saga of misery and woe (that called forth the observation ‘I think Euripides laid it on pretty thick’) had been by no means without pain, yet parts of the drama had a grandeur that certainly helped to make its subject tolerable and, at some points in the play, really gripping. (VR/58/32 Women of Troy)

I don’t like haphazard mixing of modern language, poetry reading and symbolic scenery, but despite all these objections, I was thoroughly glad I didn’t miss the programme’ (Life Assurance Underwriter) (VR/59/310 Blood Wedding).

Publicity material for the Tony Hancock Government Inspector shows a very different approach to the promotion of theatrical adaptations than that shown in Barry’s Radio Times article. The BBC Press release for the production promises that Hancock would appear “in the same sort of situations” as in his comedy show, the star performer quoted as asserting “that Nikolai Gogol, one of the great Russian dramatists of the nineteenth century who died in 1852, might well have written scripts for Hancock’s Half Hour along with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson” (Undated press release, BBC WAC T5/2,096/1).[6] In this press release, the emphasis is not placed upon the classical theatrical status of the play, but on the play’s affinities to contemporary television drama. By emphasising the similarities of comic situation between Gogol’s play and Hancock’s Half Hour, the promotional material works to attract the attention of viewers of the performer’s sitcom through promising the expectation that similar pleasures can be found in both the Russian stage play and the English television programme. This strategy for attracting viewers was clearly effective: The Government Inspector attracted ratings of 9.5 million (Caughie, 2000a, p.34)[7] against two of ITV’s most popular programmes; Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Armchair Theatre (BBC WAC VR/58/80).[8] The press release also cites Barry’s approval of the casting: “The play is high comedy and Tony Hancock is a thumping good actor” (BBC WAC T5/2,096/1). Audience reaction to the play was mediated through an understanding of the generic hybridity of the production. Viewers are reported as responding as much to the casting of Hancock in an unfamiliar role as they were to the play itself. The audience’s response to Gogol in the report was cooler than their enthusiasm about Hancock, with half of the audience complaining of the play’s slow pace and far-fetched premise, although the other half of the viewers are said to have accepted the form and premise of the play and found value and resonance in Gogol’s story (BBC WAC VR/58/80).

BBC senior management noted the extensive and positive reaction to The Government Inspector with approval, a memo from Cecil McGivern, the Deputy Director of Television Broadcasting (23 January 1958) reading:

Yesterday morning’s press was first class. It really was a joyous idea to cast Tony Hancock in this play and I wish the Drama Department could achieve this kind of interest more often in its casting. Whose idea was it? (BBC WAC T5/2,096/1)

McGivern’s memo indicates a possible route that the adaptation might take in future (through the casting of popular television performers) that could receive particular support from senior BBC management.

In institutional publicity, the BBC acclaimed Television World Theatre as a success, Hugh Carlton Greene (the Director of Television Administration) citing the series as a particular achievement of the BBC in his address to the European Academy of Radio and Television on 12 March 1958.[9] Despite this public support for the project, there is evidence to suggest that the series may have been considered something of a burden to the Corporation. In an evaluation of the solitary season of Festival (BBC Television, 1963-4), the producer Peter Luke attempted to defend his series by comparing it with Television World Theatre;

Some of the ideas mooted for Drama in 1965 seem to be putting the clock back approximately six years. It will surely be remembered that Television World Theatre had to be taken off in 1958 because of its total lack of success (memo from Peter Luke to HDP Tel, entitled ‘PLAYS’, 22 September 1964, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1)

Although this use of the words ‘total lack of success’ is clearly in part a rhetorical exaggeration for the purpose of Luke to present the anthology series that he produced in a better light, no series like Television World Theatre was attempted subsequently. The combination of a regular and prominent place in the schedules, extensive publicity making substantial claims for the featured plays, and a highly catholic and international repertory was never attempted again with the same boldness.

I have outlined the findings of the BBC’s audience research for Television World Theatre in such detail, because the arguments that surrounded the first anthology series continued with further series that followed, and can be formulated into a series of questions that form the framework of expectation with which the institution of the BBC approached adaptation of the classic play;

  • How populist should theatrical adaptations be?
  • How unfamiliar should the chosen plays be to their audience?
  • Is it worth producing a play that is likely to alienate the majority of the audience?
  • Should an anthology series have an overarching rationale?
  • Should a play be reinterpreted for television, or should it be a faithful recreation of the theatrical experience?

These questions reoccur in discussion of all subsequent adaptation series. The two short-lived series that followed in the wake of Television World Theatre show polarised reactions to the potential lessons learned from that programme. Twentieth Century Theatre (BBC Television, 1960), transmitted every Sunday night for six months, presented a mixed repertory, mostly formed of popular West End successes of the previous forty years unsuitable for Television World Theatre canonisation such as Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith, Young Woodley by John Van Druten, or Aren’t We All? by Frederick Lonsdale. Amongst this selection were very occasional productions in the World Television Theatre tradition, such as Bulgakov’s The White Guard and The Insect Play by Josef and Karel Capek. Festival (BBC Television, 1963-4), the provenance of one single producer (Peter Luke), took a different approach, presenting a challenging repertory of plays by Aristophanes, Ionesco, Beckett, Pirandello and Sartre to a 9.15pm Friday night BBC audience.

Peter Luke saw the role of Festival as being to present the audience with “plays of substance” (Memo from Luke, 10 March 1965, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1). The terms used in publicity for the series indicate different expectations for the series than those used by Michael Barry to promote Television World Theatre five years earlier:

Festival will be a programme of drama for people ‘in the know’. It will be for people who are curious and interested in the arts, in history, in our cultural evolution. There will be plays from the Greek Classics and our modern Theatre of the Absurd. Plays by new young writers of ‘kitchen sink drama’ will also be included. No play, however will be chosen unless it has a particular meaning for us today. All the possibilities of presenting drama on television have never been fully explored… Festival intends to explore them. We want to entertain the intelligent viewer; we want to have an element of surprise in the choice of material and the way it is presented. Festival is going to be adult entertainment. (Undated press release, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1)

Here the emphasis is upon the knowledge and intelligence that the viewer is expected to bring to the programme to extract value from it. The choice of plays for Festival does not carry the same promise of classic or international status as the repertory for Television World Theatre, but contemporary relevance and a greater formal consideration of the possibilities of adaptation across media. The right of productions to fail and disappoint is again set out in determined terms:

There will be times when a Festival production will charm you, and perhaps there will be times when you’ll be provoked, or angry. Festival was not conceived for the apathetic viewer. We want our viewers to challenge and be challenged by our productions. (Undated press release, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1)[10]

This statement of intent makes rigorous demands upon the audience, who might find the prospect of being challenged, or provoked to anger, unappealing. Luke saw the potential audience for Festival as being a minority one with a background of prior cultural and historical interest. This minority formed a part of a wider audience for the arts in post-war Britain:

On the other hand, so many letters reached me during the season from both known and unknown sources that I was left in no doubt as to the popularity of the series among what might be described as a large minority – a minority that is swelling in number every year. This is the sort of audience that will sit up all night to get tickets for Covent Garden, that invades and fills the vast Albert Hall for the Proms, that queues the length of Milbank for a new exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and one which keeps a throbbing life pulsating at the National Film Theatre, The Arts, The Royal Court and hundreds of other cinemas and theatres all over the country which are not owned by the big business combines (memo from Luke, 1 September 1964, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1)

Audience reaction for Festival indicates that it was a programme that could achieve high ratings, but one that could inspire little in the way of committed viewing from a dedicated audience week by week, with both the percentage of the United Kingdom public tuning in (between 19% and 4%) and Audience Reaction Indices (ranging from 78% for The Life of Galileo to 23% for Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, 20 November 1963, a record low) fluctuating dramatically. This indicates that audiences were either unaware of Festival as a project, or found the idea of a series “for people in the know” off-putting, selecting only plays that they might expect to enjoy.

Institutional support for the stage adaptation within the BBC changed with the appointment of Sydney Newman as the Head of Drama in 1962 and with the creation of BBC2 in 1964. Newman saw conventional stage adaptations in the Twentieth Century Theatre mode as conservative and unexciting drama programming:

Drama was way, way down the list – a backwater – occasionally good stuff but largely dramatisations and old-fashioned stuff; stage plays, dramatisations from novels, children’s classics… very honourable but ho hum. Many of the directors were stylistically old-fashioned – some had actually directed TV in the pre-war days! (Newman, cited in Collins and Levy, 1986, p.12)

Newman’s own priorities were for a relevant television drama, relevance conceived in terms of immediacy to the concerns of contemporary viewers:

In an odd way, I am not fundamentally interested in the art of television. I am not fundamentally interested in camera work: nor indeed in the spoken word… I do like art that has something to say and art that is of use… I think great art has to stem from, and its essence must come out of, the period in which it is created. (Newman, cited in Purser, 1962, p.35)

The production of drama at the BBC during Newman’s tenure is therefore marked by a greater awareness of potential audience popularity (and unpopularity) than previously. Sydney Newman did appear to give some support to the work of producers like Peter Luke in a memo that states the need for the Drama Group to “provide a wide variety of drama programmes ranging from the excellence and the challenging of Friday night’s Festival through to the broadest mass appeal programme like Compact.”[11] A “lopsided” approach, that leant too much towards the provision of high-ratings “easy to take-type dramatic material”, would “risk losing the very influential but minority audience who have a fine taste in drama and who shun the trivial”. Even with a pressing shortage of studio space, Newman did not consider that the BBC could afford to overlook this minority (memo from Newman, 24 July 1963, BBC WAC T5/2,079/1).

The great sea change in the broadcasting of stage adaptations at the BBC during the Newman period occurs with the launch of BBC2 in 1964. For the next three years, adaptations disappear from the BBC1 schedule, appearing on BBC2 (a channel with an initially small potential audience, as a new set needed to be bought to be a able to view it) in two series, the short-lived Thursday Theatre (1964-5) presenting “Plays by well-known authors which have enjoyed West End success” (BBC Annual Report 1964-65, p.25), while Theatre 625 (1964-8) was, despite its title, not devoted to stage adaptations, but was the channel’s anthology series for single dramas, the 25 theatrical adaptations that it did produce over its run continuing in the Festival mode, with versions of Camus, Goethe, Strindberg and similarly demanding works. With the swift demise of Thursday Theatre, this means that for the duration of Newman’s tenure the BBC continued to produce versions of the more experimental parts of the theatrical repertory, but provided no outlet for more mainstream or middlebrow productions, and that the chance to see adaptations was denied to the majority of the audience who were unable to watch BBC2. Single plays on BBC1 were represented by two anthology series, The Wednesday Play (1964-70), dedicated to screening plays about contemporary life, was seen by Newman as fulfilling a particular personal ambition for BBC Drama, continuing his work at ITV in instigating Armchair Theatre, and Play of the Month (1965-83) which, under a loose remit, presented material unsuitable for The Wednesday Play, promoted by the BBC as a “new series of large scale popular productions, big in cast, big in production values and big in theme” (Press Release, 15 September 1965, BBC WAC T16/149/4).


Play of the Month (BBC1, 1965-79)

Let us therefore switch back to BBC1 and hail the return of Play of the Month (Sunday 8.50) which fulfils much the same function for television drama as the Theatre Royal, Haymarket fulfils for the West-End – that of providing an elegant home for tried-and-tested classics unlikely to upset Aunt Edna and familiar enough to breed content all round. (Morley, Sheridan, ‘Preview’, Radio Times, 18 September 1976, p.21)

After the first two series of Play of the Month, and with Sydney Newman’s departure from the BBC and replacement as Head of Drama by Shaun Sutton in 1967, a decision was made to change the series to one that concentrated upon stage adaptations. A memo from Michael Peacock, the Controller of BBC1 to Gerald Savory, the Head of the Drama Group, outlines the thinking behind this change of policy. The loose remit of the original series failed to attract regular audiences who were unsure what to expect; “I believe that the series has been too eclectic and has drawn its plays from too many sources” (23/11/1966 BBC WAC T5/1,794/1). Peacock suggests that the series might be profitably used as a regular location for classic plays:

I am moving towards the view that as long as we have The Wednesday Play offering original television plays dealing with contemporary themes, Play of the Month should present plays written originally for the theatre and which have been recognised as classics – as part of our cultural heritage. This would mean Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, etc. and also Miller, Anouilh, Osborne, etc. Summing up, I would rather we concentrated on television productions of classic plays, even if this means we never get an audience of more than, say six million, than go on placing the will-o-the wisp of a twelve million audience for a £10,000 play. (23/11/1966 BBC WAC T5/1,794/1)

This pitching of Play of the Month displays a slightly different approach to the production of classics than Michael Barry’s intentions for Television World Theatre. The repertory advocated is positioned as a separate entity to the contemporary drama of The Wednesday Play, a complementary or alternative strand, trading upon its cultural heritage. Crucially, the adaptation is now acknowledged as being a genre that can only attract minority interest, rather than one that competes on the same terms as other original television drama (although a minority of six million is a much larger group than the coterie audience that Peter Luke wanted to attract to Festival). Gerald Savory’s response to Peacock’s proposals was enthusiastic, considering the project through his own experience as a television and stage playwright, and keen for the plays to function in their own right as original adaptations for the screen:

[The plays should run to] strictly a 90 minute slot. (My experience of adapting approximately fifty plays for television has taught me that there is scarcely a normal stage play that is not improved by some judicious editing.) The plays themselves will be properly adapted for TV and sufficiently extended in setting to remove any feeling of staginess about the production. (7/12/1966 BBC WAC T5/1,794/1)

Savory notes two potential strength of the anthology series proposed; the chance for productions to coincide with school exam set texts, and the opportunities for the more classical repertory, with its range of established great roles, to appeal to star actors, especially as the monthly format allowed the BBC to juggle the production dates in order to attract star performers. Excited by the prospect, Savory sets out an imagined ideal season of Play of the Month;

I would like to see a typical season read something like this:-

OCTOBER (1) Henry VIII: Shakespeare – Colin Blakely, John Geilgud, Peggy Ashcroft

NOVEMBER (2) Girls in Uniform – Virginia McKenna, Edith Evans

DECEMBER (3) Harvey (Christmas Show) – Harry Worth

JANUARY (4) Cyrano De Bergerac – Peter O’Toole

FEBRUARY (5) The Moon & Sixpence – Stanley Baker

MARCH (6) Henry IV (Pirandello Centenary) – Alec Guinness

APRIL (7) The Late Christopher Bean – Emlyn Williams, Thora Hird

MAY (8) Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare (C. S. E. schedule)

JUNE (9) Arms and the Man: Shaw (G. C. E & C. S. E.)

(7/12/1966 BBC WAC T5/1,794/1)[12]

The producer of the new series was to be Cedric Messina, the single dominant figure in the history of the classical theatrical adaptation at BBC Television during the duopoly period. As producer of Thursday Theatre (1964-5), Theatre 625 (working as co-producer) (1964-8), Play of the Month (1967-77) and Stage 2 (1971-3), and as instigator and producer of the first two seasons of the BBC Television Shakespeare (1978-80), in addition to producing many adaptations that were not transmitted as part of anthology series and working regularly as a director, Messina was responsible for the majority of adaptations produced by the BBC between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. As a result of the length of his career and the hundreds of plays that he was responsible for, Messina’s approach to theatrical adaptation has perhaps become the one that people instinctively recollect as the general standard of how plays were made during this period, and it is therefore worth outlining what was specific and individual about Cedric Messina’s understanding of his position.

Although he had few opportunities to present adaptations on BBC1, Messina had already positioned himself as the pre-eminent producer in this field during the Newman period, claiming to have gained Newman’s respect for his work;

I used to fight like hell with Sydney, because in a dotty sort of way he realised that what I was doing had to be done, but he didn’t really like it. Though eventually he came round when he realised we weren’t just treating the productions as stage plays (Messina, cited in Nicholson, 1970, p.53)

Messina saw his role at the BBC as being one of a public servant, responsible for the spending of a large budget of license fee money (over £2,500,000 per annum by 1970) for his productions (ibid, p.52). This outlay of resources, combined with the employment of star actors, placed Messina in a position that bore some affinities with the impresarios of the commercial theatre; choosing a repertory of plays, finding suitable directors and having a hand in casting, while trying to attract a wide public to his productions. Messina did not see his approach to casting as creating star vehicles, but in “casting as high as possible as long as the actor is right for the part” in the pursuit of creating “thumping good established plays with super casts” (ibid, p.53). An advantage that the BBC television production schedule held over theatrical production was that in-demand actors needed only to be employed for the comparatively short period required for rehearsal and recording, so that with dates planned long in advance, performers such as John Gielgud or Maggie Smith could appear in Play of the Month productions. This extensive preparation allowed for very specific casting in plays that Messina considered could only be carried by distinguished performers, an example being the appearance of American film star Anthony Perkins in The Male Animal (BBC1, 13 October 1968), an unfamiliar Broadway comedy by James Thurber (ibid).

Messina did not see himself as being a man of the theatre or a drama expert, his South African background shaping his attitudes through “being brought up in a country which had very little cultural life. There was no theatre of any consequence and certainly very little music” (ibid). This meant that his decisions to produce classical plays tended not to be tempered by familiarity with a tradition of having seen many stage productions: “This is one of the curious things about some of the plays I do – I’ve never seen them: I go entirely on my own conception of them when I read them” (ibid). Messina saw this unfamiliarity as an advantage, giving him an undiluted enthusiasm for the idea of producing classic plays for television. It could be argued that this unfamiliarity with a tradition of performance placed him much closer to the television viewer, who was unlikely to have seen most of the plays presented in the theatre. This uncomplicated approach to production was viewed with approval by the directors that Messina commissioned, with Basil Coleman observing that while directors with a more artistic background:

clutter ourselves up with fears and doubts (…) Cedric never wonders whether or not it would be a good idea to put on a certain play. He just says “I want to do this play” and that’s that (Coleman, cited in Nicholson, 1970, p.53).

In the same interview, Coleman also comments on the sense of support that Messina’s regular directors received from him, of being “backed right up to the hilt. There’s no trouble he won’t go to (…) He knows immediately if things are going a bit tricky and a lunch or a drink might help smooth things over” (ibid, p.52). Although this approach to production, and the tendency for the same directors and performers to frequently return to do Play of the Month productions, might be seen as autocratic, Messina insisted that he did not wish to impose an overall style on the productions, and also, on occasion, would employ directors to create idiosyncratic interpretations, such as Alan Clarke (The Love Girl and the Innocent, 16 September 1973) and Jonathan Miller (King Lear, 23 March 1975). Messina himself singled out Alan Bridges for particular praise, despite considering his production of The Wild Duck “a most eccentric production” with “the oddest interpretation” (cited in Drabble, 1975, p.17).

The thirteenth series (1977-8) of Play of the Month represented a watershed in the history of the theatrical adaptation on BBC Television, and was a conscious attempt to shake up the form on the part of BBC drama management (Sutton 1982, Cellan Jones 2006). This was the first series since 1967 not to have been produced by Cedric Messina, and with the arrival of a new producer (David Jones) recruited from the theatre (he had been Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre) rather than from television, the repertory of plays chosen for Play of the Month became much more eclectic, and the directorial styles in which they were made became more unconventional and unlike other forms of television drama. The range of plays presented including two recent plays (Flint by David Mercer and The Sea by Edward Bond) that contained material likely to alienate a general audience, a rarely-seen nineteenth century German modernist play (Danton’s Death) and a British Edwardian play (Waste) of particular density and complexity. David Jones also employed a different set of directors than had regularly contributed to Play of the Month previously (such as Alan Clarke, Jane Howell and Don Taylor), each with original and highly distinctive approaches to their material.

This season represents a sea-change in the expectations of BBC management for the purpose of the classic stage adaptation, now abandoning Messina’s populist rationale and shifting to present unfamiliar plays that appeared to alienate the majority of their audience. Audience research suggests that this uncompromising approach to adaptation only attracted very small audiences to the plays, who were then highly hostile towards the productions; Danton’s Death attracted an audience of 2.8% against BBC2’s 18.1% and ITV’s 23.2%, who only awarded the production a low Reaction Index of 50% (BBC WAC VR/78/209), The Sea being broadcast to an audience of 3.1% against BBC2’s 8.4% and ITV’s 30.2% and was only awarded a Reaction Index of 32% (BBC WAC VR/78/116). This unpopularity was combined with a sense that the new productions were unsuitable for Sunday night BBC1 broadcast, with viewers recording misgivings on grounds of taste and decency, complaining of vulgar language in Danton’s Death, cruelty in The Sea, and that the scheduling of Flint was tantamount to blasphemy, a viewpoint expressed in a series of letters in the Radio Times:

After the inspiration of Songs of Praise and the innocent amusement provided by All Creatures Great and Small my Sunday evening was entirely spoiled by David Mercer’s Play of the Month – Flint (15 January, BBC1). At the end of this filthy blasphemous black farce, I felt sullied and profoundly sad that the BBC could allow insults against God to be uttered. Henry B Savill, Eastbourne. Sussex.

I was offended at this awful exhibition of bad manners so soon after Songs of Praise. Bawdry and honest rudery are, and always have been a part of things, but snide efforts like Flint we can well do without. J.H. Eisenegger, London N12 (‘Letters: Disgusting ‘Flint’ – and an unsuitable treat for Sunday?’, Radio Times, 4 February 1978, p.63)

The BBC Television Shakespeare (BBC2 1978-85), Festival (BBC1 1980), Play of the Month (BBC1 1982-3)

In the altogether appropriate setting of the Garrick Club in London, the BBC yesterday launched its six-year, £ seven million project to screen all the dramatic works of Shakespeare. Mr. Alistair Milne, managing director of BBC Television, promised that they would be done “straight”. He told a reception for actors, press, producers and directors: “You will not see Pericles on ice, or punk rockers in Julius Caesar”. It was a monumental undertaking, he said. Some people had thought the idea of producing all 37 plays grandiose and foolish, “but the commitment we made was an appropriate one for the BBC to undertake, and only the BBC could do it.” (Anon, ‘All Shakespeare on BBC2’, The Times, 2 November, 1978, p.6)

Messina had left Play of the Month to produce an ambitious new series on BBC2, The BBC Television Shakespeare, to create definitive television versions of all 37 Shakespeare plays.[13] Part of the BBC’s thinking in commissioning this project was financial; the Corporation was the only broadcasting company in the world with both the resources and the theatrical culture to be able to produce such a series, and Shakespeare’s heritage and educational status, combined with new home video technology, meant that such a series could be a sound commercial proposition, with a potential international afterlife decades beyond the original transmission of programmes. These possibilities meant that the series could be financed as an American co-production, co-funded by Morgan bank, Exxon, Time/Life and WNET (Willis, 1991).

Discourse surrounding this series shows the opposite set of expectations on the part of management and producer to that of Play of the Month under David Jones, articulated by Messina as a wish to create a definitive set of ‘straightforward’ Shakespeare productions (Willis, 1991, Wiggins, 2005). This aesthetic approach can be seen as a continuation of Messina’s Play of the Month ethos, seen through his appointment of his regular repertory of directors to oversee the individual plays.

Messina ended up being sacked from the project after the first twelve plays, with many of his productions failing to impress critics,[14] and his unadventurous approach was institutionally unpopular within BBC drama (Sutton, 1982, Willis, 1991, Cellan Jones, 2006, Lawson, 2008):

Cedric Messina was to be the producer; this filled me with foreboding. When I asked him what his policy was to be, he said, ‘I’m an instinctive person and I shall follow my instinct.’ My heart sank. (Cellan Jones, 2006, p.68)

The enforced departure of Messina as producer after the second series of The BBC Television Shakespeare, and his replacement by Jonathan Miller, a theatre and opera director and documentary-maker, changed the ethos of the series, opening up the possibility of more experimental and conceptual adaptations.[15] Much of the lacklustre quality perceived in Messina’s productions had been due to a sense that the plays were being made within a naturalistic and generic house style, reaching its nadir with the completed but untransmitted production of Much Ado About Nothing (Willis, 1991, pp.15-6, Lawson, 2008). This period of stage adaptation in the late 1970s and 1980s is when institutional questions as to the purpose of the genre and its potential popularity become most polarised, well-illustrated through the opposing visions of Messina and Miller.

In 1979, shortly after the establishment of the BBC Television Shakespeare, Play of the Month ceased regular transmission, with resources for theatre adaptations becoming increasingly diverted to the costly BBC2 series. At occasional intervals during this period, plays produced by Louis Marks appeared on BBC1 in the Play of the Month mode, five of these transmitted in 1980 under the revived banner of Festival, a series title that did not imply the regular, monthly, broadcast of plays. The final two series of Play of the Month appeared three years after Series 14 in 1982 and 1983, again produced by Louis Marks, with shorter runs than previous series, of just four, then three, plays. Michael Grade, the Controller of BBC1, officially cancelled Play of the Month as a series in 1985, failing to guarantee spaces on the channel for a backlog of six untransmitted productions made over the previous two years.[16] The decision to abandon production of classical plays on BBC1 contributed to a wider discussion as to the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, and as to what quality television might mean, at the time (Dunkley, 1985, Hewson, 1985). The director Kenneth Ives’ contribution typifies the tenor of this debate:

I think that this whole thing is indicative of the headlong rush of the BBC down to the standards of the pop of American television. Any night, if one looks at the television now, what’s worth watching is on Channel 4, not the BBC. (…) If you are chasing ratings then authors like Strindberg, Sartre and Shakespeare aren’t going to give you as much as Esther Rantzen and Terry Wogan. While they are estimable programmes in their own right, I think there should be a cultural balance. (cited in Hewson, 1985, p.8)

To date, no productions of Strindberg, Sartre or Shakespeare have been transmitted on BBC1 since 1985,[17] making this date a suitable cut-off point for a study of the classic play within the mainstream of BBC television.

[1] Although Sunday Night Theatre (BBC 1950-9) might appear to also answer to these criteria, it was a programme that was not exclusively devoted to showing theatrical plays, offering a repertory from a variety of sources; thrillers, farces, light comedies and straight plays, that could be either original television plays or taken from the stage, with occasional productions of theatre classics. Sunday Night Theatre was also not a series as such, with individual seasons in which the repertory could be planned in advance and balanced, but a continuous outlet for plays which ran for all twelve months of the year. In contrast, the umbrella title World Television Theatre emphasised the repertory nature of the series, presenting audiences with work that they could expect to have a theatrical (and international) origin.

[2] By the second series, the emphasis upon the canonical status of the plays presented was more muted: “(World Theatre) is designed primarily to catch the flavour of international playwriting rather than to represent a selection of the greatest plays of all time.” (Anon, ‘Television presents ‘Julius Caesar’, Radio Times, 2 May 1959, p.9)

[3] “(T)here is also available a brochure, illustrated by Felix Topolski, discussing each of the plays in turn. This can be obtained by sending a crossed 1s. postal order to BBC Publications.” (Barry, 1957, p.3)

[4] In an interesting example of how advance publicity for an adaptation could prove counterproductive, an article in the Sunday Express (12 January 1958), in which Michael Elliott explained his contemporary interpretation of Women of Troy and the reasons for his reviving the play, made some viewers antagonistic towards the production in advance of seeing it. Many of the “unusually large number” of over thirty people who called the BBC Duty Office to complain about the broadcast mentioned the article (memo form Etain Boffey, Liaison Duty Clerk to H.D.Tel and Michael Elliott, 14 January 1958. BBC WAC T5/2,438/1).

[5] It is noticeable that plays of British and Irish origin do not inspire the same degree of antagonism on the part of audiences, even when they are considered disappointing (Shaw’s Heartbreak House or Christopher Fry’s The Dark is Light Enough). When classical British and Irish plays were presented, the response was generally enthusiastic; Henry V, Julius Caesar, Volpone and School for Scandal receiving Audience Reaction Indices of 62, 76, 69 and 69%.

[6] Hancock’s Half Hour (BBC Television, 1956-60), retitled Hancock (BBC Television, 1961). Derived from the radio series Hancock’s Half Hour (BBC Radio Home Service, 1954-9).

[7] Caughie neglects to mention the presence of Tony Hancock in his citation of the high ratings for The Government Inspector, perhaps giving a misleading impression of the innate attraction of nineteenth century Russian comedy to a 1958 television audience.

[8] Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ATV for ITV, 1955-65, 1973-74), Armchair Theatre (ABC/Thames for ITV, 1956-74).

[9] ‘Cost to BBC of Competitive Television’, The Times, 13 March 1958, which headlines the particular section of the article under the unequivocal subheading ‘World Theatre Success’.

[10] This intention to create challenging, agitational, forms of drama relates to the recommendations of the 1962 Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting.

[11] Compact (BBC Television/ BBC1, 1962-5), an early soap opera set in the world of fashion publishing.

[12] Although the casting did not match most of Savory’s ideas, many of these plays were produced by Play of the Month; Girls in Uniform, The Moon and Sixpence, Romeo and Juliet and Cyrano de Bergerac being the first four newly commissioned productions of the 1967/ 68 series, followed by plays by Emlyn Williams and Shaw. A second report by Savory in 1970 acclaims the series as having succeeded, and increases the budget allocation and the number of slots available (up from nine per annum to twelve, the additional three to be transmitted on BBC2 under the title of Stage 2), with the intention of attempting more two-hour productions from “the classics alone – Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc” (2/4/1970, BBC WAC T5/1,794/1)

[13] The BBC had attempted Shakespeare series in the past: An Age of Kings (BBC Television, 1960) had presented the eight play history cycle as an ongoing 15 part serial to great acclaim, inspiring the less successful nine part serialisation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra under the title of The Spread of the Eagle (BBC Television, 1963) (Willis, 1991). A further production, The Wars of The Roses (BBC1, 1965) adapted Peter Hall’s RSC productions of the Henry VI/ Richard III quartet into a three part serial.

[14] Audiences, however, received the first two series of The BBC Television Shakespeare very positively. The average RI index for the first two series of the programme was 76, the highest individual figure 80 for Henry VIII and the lowest, 68 for The Tempest (BBC WAC VR/80/242).

[15] Miller was succeeded in turn by Shaun Sutton as producer for the final two series of The BBC Television Shakespeare.

[16] Three of these six productions, Time and the Conways, A Month in the Country and Vicious Circle did end up being transmitted on BBC1 in April 1985. The other three were eventually transmitted on BBC2, Antigone appearing as late as September 1986.

[17] In the instances of Sophocles and Strindberg, no BBC Television productions have been made at all since 1987.


Anon, ‘All Shakespeare on BBC2’, The Times, 2 November 1978, p.6.

Barry, Michael, ‘Television World Theatre’, Radio Times, 27 December 1957, p.3.

Caughie, John, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism & British Culture. Oxford: Oxford, 2000a.

Cellan Jones, James, Forsyte and Hindsight, Dudley: Kaleidoscope, 2006.

Collins, Tim and Levy, Gary, ‘The Sydney Newman Interview’, DWBulletin, 41/42, 1986, pp.10-5, 26-30.

Dunkley, Christopher, ‘Review’, Radio Times, 27 March 1975, p.74.

Dunkley, Christopher, Television today and tomorrow: Wall-to-wall Dallas?, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Hewson, David, ‘Plays are the thing in this BBC drama’, The Times, 23 March 1985, p.8.

Lawson, Mark, Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 8 April 2008.

Nicholson, Geoffrey, ‘If Cedric Messina has got excited about something then most probably the director will want to direct it and the actors will jump at the parts… …and the chances are you’ll love the play’, Radio Times, 15 January 1970, pp.52-5.

Purser, Philip, ‘Heads of Drama’, Contrast, 2/1, 1962, p.35.

Sutton, Shaun, The Largest Theatre In The World, London: BBC 1982.

Wiggins, Martin, The Shakespeare Collection: Viewing Notes, BBC DVD, 2005.

Willis, Susan, The BBC Shakespeare Plays. London: Chapel Hill, 1991.

5 replies on “From Television World Theatre to the BBC Shakespeare: The fluctuating status of the classic play on BBC Television 1957-1985”

Fantastic piece, but I think you’re wrong to refer to Sunday Night Theatre as a named drama strand running 1950-9. This is more of a convenient label first used for the practice of showing a play on Sundays by Kaleidoscope, I think. It does appear in the RT but only from some point in 1956. I’m not aware whether these productions were ever branded in this way on screen or in internal BBC doumentation but the – admitedly limited – evidence I’ve seen (and mostly from the first half of that decade) makes me suspect not. How much any of this matters, I don’t know but I’d suggest this plays ‘strand’ was a much looser and less unified run of dramas than the practice of ascribing a ‘series’ title to it might lead people to expect.

I saw so many, if not all of these. They were a highlight of my teenage/early twenties. I remember most of them vividly – Brand, Ghosts, Mother Courage, Blood Wedding, Government Inspector, Strange Interlude, Danton’s Death, The Bald Prima Donna, Mourning becomes Electra, Macbeth etc etc etc. If only the BBC did thus now !!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s