This post suggests how changing approaches to making television drama have emphasised different aspects of John Osborne’s dramaturgy, and the particular strengths of multi-camera, ‘as live’ studio production in establishing and evoking a play’s inner meaning.
It looks at two productions of one rarely performed play, The Hotel in Amsterdam, from 1971 and 2004.
Although John Osborne was universally recognised as a major dramatist of the second half of the twentieth century, his plays were only sporadically produced for British television:
Full Length Osborne Adaptations for UK TV
1956 Play of the Week: Look Back in Anger (Granada/ ITV)
1965 Play of the Month: Luther (BBC1)
1971 Sunday Night Theatre: The Hotel in Amsterdam (ATV/ ITV)
1976 Play of the Month: Look Back in Anger (BBC1)
1989 Look Back in Anger (Thames/ ITV)
1993 Performance: The Entertainer (BBC2)
2004 The Hotel in Amsterdam (BBC4)
I would attribute the main reason for this as a simple commercial one – his major plays were active commercial properties, regularly being revived (as well as four plays made into films) during Osborne’s lifetime. In addition, of his major works only Look Back in Anger would seem to be unproblematic for TV adaptation, being written in a naturalist-melodramatic register – the others working through less overtly realist storytelling.
Although not especially well remembered, The Hotel in Amsterdam was one of Osborne’s more commercially successful plays. First performed at The Royal Court in July 1968, the production twice transferred to the West End, running until the spring of 1969. This commercial success was perhaps largely due to the casting of Paul Scofield as the lead, the screenwriter Laurie.
The play concerns a group of six friends, comprised of three couples, who work in the British film industry. The friends owe their livelihoods to the dominant personality of the producer KL. The play follows them over the course of a weekend in which they have bunked off from their ties, and escaped to a luxurious hotel in Amsterdam without telling KL. It has an unusual structure that can seem inconsequential, described by Benedict Nightingale (1968) as “a sort of tone-poem, reflecting mood and atmosphere”. The friends drink more and more and reflect upon their lot and the hold that the absent KL has upon them, until two devastating things happen in the last ten minutes of the play – Laurie declares his love to his best friend’s wife, then news reaches the group that KL has committed suicide.
For an appreciative viewer – I should declare here that its one of my favourite plays – the effect of this structure is very exciting, the end giving the preceding play a retrospective richness and consequence, with all that has previously occurred leading subliminally towards those two moments, both emotionally and in terms of seemingly trifling incidents. The odd combination of emotional honesty (friends testing just how horrible they can be to each other through jokes and allusion) and freewheeling imaginative arias is distinctive, peculiar to Osborne, and reminiscent simultaneously of both Chekhov and Coward.
The 1971 ATV version of the play was something of a prestige production and came about at the suggestion of Scofield, who wanted a record of his performance, with ATV happy to oblige the Oscar-winning actor. Although a high-status production, it was unlikely to attract much in the way of audiences, hence its rather out-of-the-way late night Sunday scheduling (seen by an audience of 4.85 million). The play was affected by industrial action by being recorded in black-and-white during the three month ITV “colour strike”, slightly muting the impression of the suite’s luxuriance and cool, the lesser status of black and white television perhaps one contributing factor towards its subsequent obscurity.
The adaptation was marked by its continuity with the stage production, retaining two thirds of the original cast, and revised for television by Osborne, skilfully cut down to a 75 minute duration that seems to omit very little, apart from some ribald references to lubricants and sanitary towels that Scofield had found distasteful to perform in the theatrical run. The one major new addition to the cast, Jill Bennett, might well have been first choice for the original production, had she not been performing in another Osborne play at the time (Time Present, also for the Royal Court). She was also Osborne’s wife, the main hook for TV Times coverage of the play.
Most importantly, the production retained the original stage director, Anthony Page, who had directed Wednesday Plays and Plays of the Month for television. Page’s dual understanding of both the play and TV production are seen in his production’s concentration on closeness and intimacy, an approach endorsed by ATV’s Head of Drama, Cecil Clarke: “It has to reach a more intimate level. The camera comes in close to the actors so that you can see their faces clearly and read their thoughts. In that way this is a perfect television piece. The stage play took place in one room and so does ours.” (Kennaugh and Power: 1971)
Page reconstructs the play for the possibilities of close-up, multi-camera television through careful patterning of camera shots, with different rhythms and configurations of space recurring to signify emotions and moods to the viewer. The friends’ arrival and talk when they enter the hotel suite is shown in long shot via one single camera, establishing the full extent of the room through depth of field. Camera movement is limited to a slow pan first to the left and then the right, that presents the possibilities of the space, with actors walking towards and away from the foreground, rather than the camera picking them out. This frontal technique harks back to the earliest television drama, but the effect carries a dramatic purpose, establishing the hotel itself as a character that guests must adjust and acclimatise themselves to.
An unexpected close-up of the waiter breaks the sequence. The directorial decision to first draw particular attention to the figure of an outsider places the viewer in the same position as the English guests, who are snapped out of their reverie (we have transgressed by running away from KL) into the immediate practical concerns of managing their stay.
After the waiter has left the room, a camera rhythm is established around the three-piece suite of three separate mid-shots of pairs of characters. Once Laurie turns the conversation to KL and their bunk the rhythm is disrupted, the thought triggering a sequence of close-ups of each face, every expression conveying a variant of anxiety and guilt, a pattern repeated several times by Page in subsequent passages when KL is mentioned.
Progression of the play’s mood is determined by drink, with each scene drunker than those preceding, reflected in Page’s decisions, such as starting the soused Act II with a skippy camera rhythm of brief shots as the merry party interrupt each others speech and hoot with laughter (laughter that is for the most part heard but not shown, an unsettling effect). Points when Laurie toasts the group punctuate the play, moments of stillness marked by an ambitious overhead shot that shows all six friends around the three-piece suite.
Scofield’s performance as Laurie is not what might be expected from reading the play’s text, especially in his vocal tones; while the character’s words are acerbic, he sounds soft, resigned, crumpled. When he gets into flow in monologues, he is usually shown in close up. Scofield’s unfixed eye-line is crucial during these moments, blank and looking into a void, even when the rest of the face is animated and amusing. One line of Laurie’s semi-acknowledges this blank expression by drawing the viewer’s attention to his vision: “Do you ever have a little lace curtain in front of your eyes? Like little spermy tadpoles paddling across your eyeballs? No? Do you think its drink or eyesight?” (Osborne 1968: 102)
This close-up scrutiny of Scofield’s performance reaches its apogee during Laurie’s declaration of love to Annie, delivered as a succession of slowly drawn-out thoughts where each word sinks the conversation further.
LAURIE: Why? Because… to me… you have always been the most dashing… romantic… friendly… playful… loving… impetuous… larky… fearful… detached… constant… woman I have ever met… and I love you… I don’t know how else one says it… one shouldn’t… and I’ve always thought you felt… perhaps… the same about me. (Osborne 1968: 139-40)
This uncomfortable sequence is shown entirely through close-ups rather than in two-shot, initially on Laurie and then sometimes on Annie’s responses to particular words. When Laurie runs through the list of adjectives, we see him think about and choose each word before saying it. He is frightened by eye contact with Annie, barely making it, and when does he eventually do so, the moment is quick and shy, swiftly retreating back into the self. Laurie’s speech is clearly unrehearsed and not the action of a seducer.
Acting decisions made by Scofield in this scene, magnified and held up to intense scrutiny by Page’s close-up camera, endorse Osborne’s own later understanding of how his dialogue worked. The playwright instructed actors: “Let the text surprise you, as if it took you off-balance, and lift you up even further into the battle of defeat and confusion. Take the words out of the air.” (1993: xii)
The effect of the 1971 version is to offer the viewer a kind of distillation of Osborne’s dramaturgy, where the intimate television screen can serve as a better medium for understanding subtle theatrical plays than on stage, as noted by Stanley Reynolds in Plays and Players:
What made The Hotel in Amsterdam real television was quite simply the concentration of the camera in close-up on the human face. (…) On stage, I rather suspect, the easy-going viewer might not understand. (…) But the television camera continues staring at the faces. There are no big gaps of open floor space to the left and right to distract. Unlike the cinema screen the human face is not over-large. The television camera is the microscope. We are peering into a tiny world and it is all the better for being tiny. We peer and we study. (…) one can well imagine people collecting their hats and coats in a theatre and wondering, Now what was all that about? But at home, on television, at 11.45 on a Sunday night with the battles of Monday morning a whole night’s sleep away, the meaning was clear. (1971: 60)
The 2004 version was made in an almost unrecognisable broadcasting environment from that of 33 years earlier, in terms of both production and transmission. The BBC’s digital service (launched in 2002) included BBC4, a channel devoted to programming historically found on BBC2; arts, culture and documentaries. The Hotel in Amsterdam is part of a wave of adaptations of current theatrical productions from the first two years of the channel. However, the system of in-house production in BBC studios by which such productions would once have been made had died out in the 1990s, resulting in a diverse range of approaches (and competencies) towards televising theatrical material from the various producers of the early BBC4 plays. The programme was transmitted to little fanfare, with Radio Times promotion limited to the qualified recommendation, “Osborne’s clever but unnatural dialogue won’t be to everyone’s taste, but BBC4 deserves praise for trying something different.” (3 June 2004: 90)
The Hotel in Amsterdam had been performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2003 (its first major revival, directed by Robin Lefevre) and the BBC4 version is a straight transfer of that production to the studio, with an unaltered text in a co-production between the Donmar and the BBC. Julian Jarrold, who had been directing for TV since 1989, handled direction for television. Jarrold’s CV included a lot of exacting TV projects, such as stories for Cracker, Silent Witness and Touching Evil, but postdates the era of multi-camera studio production, and he had no previous experience in directing single plays of theatrical provenance or style.
The opening of Jarrold’s production could hardly be more different from the 1971 version, enabled by the ease with which 21st century television can be assembled in postproduction:
(Clip: Start of the play)
We have seen 23 shots in 75 seconds, where Anthony Page used just the one. This presents the scene from a multiplicity of perspectives, showing us the room from all four angles, and various configurations of the seven inhabitants in scales from wide shot to close-up.
This direction functions as a statement about what the production is going to be as much as it does a means of conveying story and character: pacey and fast moving, not all ‘stagey’. There are perhaps some disadvantages to this approach for the viewer. The scene is hard to follow – What’s going on? Who are these people? The rhythm is choppy and disjointed – when dialogue has been reassembled from many different fragments it doesn’t seem to flow naturally, particularly as the acoustic conditions of some takes are audibly divergent. Without an establishing shot, we don’t get a particular sense of the space of the room and how one might place oneself in it, although, in an attempt to make it seem unlike a theatrical set, we do see all four walls.
Without the steadying element of a fixed viewpoint or slowly developing rhythm of shots, I would suggest that this approach discourages the viewer from forming attachment or empathy with characters. Without this wider perspective, required to get to know what’s going on or where we are, the scene doesn’t strike me as especially true to the experience of six people entering a hotel suite for the first time and orientating themselves to the space.
It would be difficult to sustain this pace over the play’s 105 minute duration, and as the film starts to follow the lines of the Donmar production, it does settle down somewhat. A potential advantage of single camera production is that it does mean that shots can be more carefully composed and knitted in to the action, seen in the way that Jarrold’s version highlights consumption of drinks, underpinning the play’s structure of feeling.
Another directorial decision given free reign by the possibilities of single camera is the prominence given to Annie’s responses to Laurie, through cutaways and elegantly composed reaction shots of Olivia Williams when he speaks.
It would be an unobservant viewer of this production who didn’t register the mutual feeling between the two friends. There are advantages and disadvantages to this directorially prescriptive approach – it makes the story clearer, but perhaps takes away something of the viewer’s own ability to register subtleties.
I wouldn’t wish to sound unduly dismissive of the 2004 production. I am very glad that it was made, and it does hold a certain power, particularly in Tom Hollander’s disturbing performance as Laurie, in some ways modelled on Osborne’s own voice and appearance, and positioned almost comatose within the room with an ever-increasing stillness and danger as the play progresses.
But, unlike Page’s version, most of its values derive from its status as a record of the theatrical performance, rather than as a television programme in its own right. The constraints and possibilities of multi camera production allowed for greater consideration of use of rhythm and shot selection to convey nuance in unflinching detail and concentration. Denied the ability to assemble a play in postproduction editing, 1970s television could create a sense of immediacy and intimacy that admirably served plays like The Hotel in Amsterdam.
Kennaugh, Alan and Power, Eithne, ‘A natural for television’, TV Times, 13 March 1971, p.15.
Nightingale, Benedict, ‘Creative Process?, Plays and Players, September 1968, pp. 14-15.
Osborne, John, Time Present and Hotel in Amsterdam, London: Faber, 1968.
Osborne, John, Look Back in Anger and other plays, London, Faber & Faber, 1993.
Reynolds, Stanley, ‘TV Drama’, Plays and Players, May 1971, pp. 60-1.
(Text of a presentation given at University of Westminster ‘Theatre and Television: Adaptation, Production, Performance’ Conference, Alexander Palace, Friday 20 February 2015.)