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1960s, An Ideal Husband, BBC, Billy Smart, Cedric Messina, Edwardian Drama, Oscar Wilde, Play of the Month, Rudolph Cartier

Two Edwardian dramas 1: ‘Play of the Month: An Ideal Husband’ (BBC1, 11 May 1969)

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Edwardian drama on television

Between 1967 and 1985 (the period when the BBC regularly transmitted adaptations of classic theatrical plays in mainstream slots) 120 television adaptations of stage plays were transmitted by the BBC as either Plays of the Month, other similar series,[1] or as one-off productions broadcast in the Play of the Month slot.

Of these 120 plays, the largest group (31) was of British and Irish plays written by playwrights who started their professional careers in between the 1880s and the First World War, a period to which I refer in the chapter as ‘Edwardian’.

In terms of theatrical history, this period can be said to start with the ‘cup and saucer’ dramas of Arthur Wing Pinero such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) and conclude with the Manchester school of realistic dramas such as Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (1912) and Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice (1916). In between these two periods lies the work of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker and John Galsworthy. Although each of these dramatists has a different approach and style, general trends can be discerned in the works of these playwrights; thematically, a greater engagement with political concerns than preceding generations of dramatists, in particular with issues of ownership, class and the role of women in society; and dramatically, an interest in creating a more realistic form of drama than Victorian theatre, informed by contemporary developments in European naturalist theatre. Shaw, Granville Barker and Galsworthy, perhaps the three major dramatists of the Edwardian period, also worked together in the Court Theatre in seasons between 1904 and 1910, Granville Barker directing and acting in the work of all three men.

Of the 31 plays from the ‘Edwardian’ writers produced by the BBC, 13 were by Shaw, three by Pinero, three by Wilde, and three by Galsworthy, with two plays apiece from J. M. Barrie, Granville Barker and D. H. Lawrence, as well as single productions of Brandon Thomas, J. M. Synge and Somerset Maugham. Of these 31 productions, only five are not set during the broad historical period when they were written, four of these anomalous plays being by Shaw (including two productions of Saint Joan in 1969 and 1979), the other being Barrie’s sentimental early 19th century comedy The Little Minister. Across this body of 26 plays set in the Edwardian period, general trends of presentation, in the form of styles of acting, design and direction, can be discerned.

Two other relevant periods of theatrical history, sharing many of the aesthetic characteristics of ‘Edwardian’ costume drama, were also well represented in the Play of the Month canon. 16 plays were produced by the European naturalist writers of the late 19th century, including eight by Chekhov and six by Ibsen, which share many of the same political and theatrical concerns of the British and Irish playwrights of the period, and are examined separately in Chapter Two. In addition, 23 plays were produced by British and Irish dramatists of the generation who immediately followed the ‘Edwardian’ playwrights between the First and Second World wars, including six productions of J. B. Priestley, five of Terrance Rattigan and four of Noel Coward. Although the thematic concerns and dramatic style of some of these dramatists could, in some ways, be said to be a reaction against the previous generation, in the terms of television costume drama, these plays shared many of the pleasures of ‘Edwardian’ adaptations for the viewer, in presenting a specific evocation of a past era within the living memory of parents or grandparents, realised through details of design, costume and language. Many of the arguments around the ‘Edwardian’ plays can also apply to these adaptations.

 

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The appeal of nostalgia in Edwardian drama

Commentary on the preponderance of ‘Edwardian’ television drama in the 1970s often attributes its appeal to the satisfaction of a sense of nostalgia, sometimes articulated as the wish to belong to a family. Philip Purser writes about The Forsyte Saga (BBC2 1967) in an appraisal that could apply equally well to Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT/ ITV 1971-75):

For the British audience a hidden significance was its function as a kind of communal family history, replete with lots of births, deaths and juicy scandals but also a nostalgia for what were imagined to be better days. (Purser, in Halliwell and Purser 1987: 287)

This nostalgia is also presented as operating on a national, politicised level as a yearning for a time of greater certainty in the role and purpose of British life. This reminiscence situates the Edwardian era in contrast to the situation of Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s; loss of imperial power and global predominance in trade, recession, industrial unrest, decreasing sense of deference, the Northern Irish troubles, and so on (McArthur 1980, Freedman 1991). Giddings and Selby (2001) make this elegiac case through citation from a wide range of sources,[2] tracing a common mood found across much early twentieth-century British culture:

A particularly ideological version of the immediate pre-1914 war Edwardian period seemed a great comfort – its flavour founded in the indulgent sorrow of the Georgian poets, the meandering pastoralism of Vaughn Williams, Frederick Delius and their imitators, and that Edwardian melancholy which suggests that amid the glory is the passing of an age. (28)

Such a reading, which offers a generalised assertion as to the emotional effect of a range of programmes, is potentially problematic when presented without reference to the unambiguous concerns that occupy the viewers’ conscious engagement with drama, such as following the plot and empathizing with the characters. A difficulty with ideological reading of television Edwardian drama is that it concentrates upon inherent political readings of the television text, at the expense of analysis as to how the programme was experienced as television by viewers. This chapter attempts to redress this balance by concentrating upon methodologies which consider the audience reception of programmes (Hargreaves, 2009) and which attempt specifically feminised readings of how character concerns were dramatically realised, through camera technique and use of the television studio space (Wheatley, 2005).

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An Ideal Husband (BBC1, 1969, dir. Rudolph Cartier)

Rudolph Cartier’s Play of the Month version of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895) shares the same aesthetic of visual pleasure realised through detail as Cedric Messina’s Pygmalion (BBC1 16 December 1973), as well as many common features of setting and dressing; ballrooms, studies, morning rooms, elegant dresses and eveningwear. However, Cartier’s directorial technique demonstrates a greater awareness of the possibilities of studio technique to comment upon the action of a play, and is an exemplary production in its use of finely realised period detail to achieve dramatic effects, as an interpretation that works on deeper levels than surface aesthetic visual pleasure. Cartier’s directorial approach is manifested through a great degree of forethought given to the implications of space and the positioning of performers, making An Ideal Husband a visually sophisticated work of television drama. Of particular note is Cartier’s varied use of space and colour, demonstrating the different implications for the play’s protagonists of the power dynamic in each scene, used by Cartier to accentuate Wilde’s theme of the contrasting moralities of public and private life.

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Cartier and his designers subtly expand the strong spatial sense created by the play’s four act naturalist form’ in their visualisation of an 1895 Grosvenor Square mansion. The first act of the stage play occurs during a ball in the “brilliantly lighted” (Wilde 1993) octagon room of the Chilterns’ home. While Messina’s realisation of a ballroom emphasises the grand scale of the event but adds little to the viewer’s dramatic understanding of themes and dialectics within Pygmalion, Cartier’s version of a ball uses the space to illustrate implicit themes within Wilde’s play. Centrally placed in the room is a large staircase, at the foot of which Lady Chiltern (Dianh Sheridan) greets each invitee. As the guests for the ball enter, they ascend the staircase, and towards the end of the act they descend from it. The visual symbolism of The Chilterns’ position in society is deft. Cartier’s tracking camera movements allows the staircase to be ascended by the viewer, as many pairs of elegantly dressed guests pass an impassive footman.

Cartier divides the single octagon room setting of Act One into different spaces. The action of the ball does not just occur on the hallway in front of the staircase, but early exchanges in this scene are set in a room shown to be the one at the top of the stairs. This continues the mood established by Cartier through the initial, long and winding, tracking shot along the staircase, providing the viewer with a sense of privileged access to an exclusive event. As characters enter the play a toastmaster announces their names, a useful device for a television viewer who cannot keep track of the company by having all of them in sight at all times as a theatrical audience would.

A greater deviation from the play’s original stage conception is created by dividing out sections of Act One into two new rooms unspecified in Wilde’s text. The two most dramatically heightened points of Act One occur in corners of the octagon room; Mrs. Cheverly’s (Margaret Leighton) threatened exposure of Sir Robert (Keith Michell), and Sir Robert’s lying to Lady Chiltern about his past once the guests have left the party. Cartier moves the first of these exchanges into a living room adjacent to the octagon room, a private, rather than public, space.

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This changes the tenor of the televised scene from the theatrical one in several ways; by ushering Mrs. Cheverly into a private room the audience is led to understand that Sir Robert appreciates that he is in some difficulty; the use of a different space leads the audience more quickly into a different mood; and there is an irony in Sir Robert’s public life being threatened in a more private domain than the octagon room where he has been seen, and been seen to be in control, up until this point. While Messina’s addition of new rooms into Shaw’s play chiefly works to display a multiplicity of period settings, the splitting of locations in An Ideal Husband works to separate the comedic and melodramatic aspects of Wilde’s dramaturgy. This division of a scene into private spaces supports interpretations of the studio drama as a specific location for realising drama within the confines of the individual room (Williams 1973, 1989 Wheatley 2005). Although a ballroom is clearly a confined space, its scale and public nature means that it cannot function as an actively shaping environment for scenes as a smaller room can. People’s reactions towards each other are different in rooms that they could leave without difficulty.

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The second new setting of Act One is an anteroom of Lady Chiltern’s bedroom for the exchange where Sir Robert lies to her. On stage, this scene would be performed between a couple still in their formal dress for the ball, whereas Cartier sets it at a later stage in the evening, with Lady Chiltern undressing for bed. By relocating the exchange Cartier presents the audience with a more intimate and close viewing of the Chiltern’s married life than is shown anywhere in Wilde’s text, emphasising the disruption that Mrs Cheverly’s appearance will cause them. The amended location of this section subtly changes the narrative shape of the play. In theatrical production the Act One curtain falls upon a scene of servants clearing up the ballroom and snuffing out the chandelier after Lady Chiltern has left the room, leaving her husband sitting in the increasing darkness. Cartier retains this bathetic image, mirroring the initial tracking shot of the ballroom’s staircase, but removes the element of Sir Robert transposing the exchange between the Chilterns to after they have both vacated the octagon room. This necessitates the creation of a new curtain image for the climax of Act One, which now occurs in the anteroom to the bedroom. This is a more melodramatic image than Wilde created, of the couple embracing with a dramatic close-up of Lord Chiltern’s troubled face that privileges the viewers’ greater knowledge of his actions than that held by his wife. As in Helen Wheatley’s reading of Upstairs, Downstairs (2005), this use of the conditions of studio drama provides the viewer with a greater insight into characters’ feelings than the characters are afforded into each others’, and presents the room as an eloquent and expressive space that deepens the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ sense of their place within the world.

 

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The viewer is afforded greater insight into Lord Chiltern’s problems than Lady Chiltern.

Different schemes of camera movement are deployed for the play’s various settings. For Act One’s public ballroom scenes, long following shots are used, weaving between guests and showing characters interacting with each other in mid- or long-shot. This provides the scene with a definite rhythm, as a dance of social interaction that allows the viewer’s attention to flit from one guest to the next. Only twice is this rhythm disrupted, when characters speak disparagingly or fearfully of Mrs Cheverly, and she is shown in very quick cutaway to another part of the octagon room, showing how the speaker seeks her out. Throughout these scenes, characters other than those immediately speaking are in shot, often not merely extras but important characters in the plot. This depiction conveys both a lack of privacy and the interconnectedness of the play’s two strands of public and private. The shift in the play’s grammar of movement, between the fluid camera movement of the ballroom and the exchange, shown in close-ups and swift cuts, between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheverly, is noticeable.

Although viewers’ television sets would not have been able to see the play in colour (“Cartier’s beautifully composed pictures looked charming even in black and white” noted an anonymous Daily Mail critic (12 May 1969), An Ideal Husband deploys a unified colour scheme with a sense of detail and boldness rarely subsequently attempted in television drama. Each separate space has a décor of a specific colour, which signifies a particular emotional state and the differing degree to which action occurs in public or private. For the octagon room and staircase of the ballroom, the colour scheme is white and yellow: the characters are lit up and on display and unable to hide their reactions towards each other. For the two locations invented for the television production, the private drawing room where Mrs. Cheverly blackmails Sir Robert and the anteroom to Lady Chiltern’s bedroom where her husband lies to her about his past, the colour scheme is pink and mauve; cosier, but more intimate than the illuminated public space, making the revelations and deceptions carry more disruptive force than in the semi-public space where the scenes are set in theatrical performance. For the morning room setting of Acts Two and Four, the colour scheme is a pale blue, signifying the emotional coolness and restrained discussion of a room reserved for entertaining visitors. For Lord Goring’s (Jeremy Brett) library in Act Three, the décor is dark brown and grey, appropriate for the harsh actions of the play’s most intensively plotted scene, with its sudden reversals of fortune and discovered concealments.

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Throughout the play, the colours used are of much bolder and more striking hues than the watercolour shades of comparable 1980s BBC productions of Wilde (Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1985, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1988, both for Theatre Night, BBC2). This does not have same garish, saturated, effect as the ‘Gainsborough Colour’ of the 1949 film version, but reminds the viewer of the sumptuousness and luxury of the world that Robert Chiltern’s deception has allowed him to purchase, with its exquisite furnishings and clothes. This sense of visual panache seemed apparent even to monochrome viewers such as the anonymous Daily Telegraph reviewer who suggested, “This was a smoothly polished production, to which colour could have added an extra vividness” (12 May 1969).

The production shows an unusual approach to textual fidelity in being remarkably rigorous for three quarters of the play, when few lines are added and almost none removed, and then cavalier with the final act. The initial deviation from the script is the transposition of the first page of dialogue from Act Three to the start of the play, acting as a pre-credits sequence. Lord Goring’s exchanges with his butler Phipps are not integral to the plot, but as amusing epigrams and paradoxes constitute what is archetypically understood by an audience to be Wildean dialogue, and therefore immediately affirm the viewer’s framework of expectations. The relocation of this material also places Lord Goring at the centre of the audience’s attention from the play’s outset, and avoids the possible confusion of teasing out the relationships and identities of all of the guests in Wilde’s beginning of Act One. The pre-credits sequence is also the production’s only use of direct address to the audience, with the camera in the same position as the mirror into which the dandy Lord Goring looks at himself.

The revised Act Four is heavily cut, lasting under ten minutes in this version. All of Chiltern’s objections to Goring marrying his sister are cut, as is the offer of a place in the cabinet for Chiltern after his wife accepts his decision to retire from public life. None of these aspects are integral to the plot of the play, which reaches its dramatic climax with the reversals of Act Three, but are the point where Wilde complicates the play’s philosophy, a change of emphasis particularly shown in the play’s amended curtain line. In the original text Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern briefly discuss the nature of love and duty once Lord Goring and Mabel have left the room, then kiss. In the Play of the Month version, a butler appears to announce that “Luncheon is on the table, milady!” and the reconciled and newly engaged couples leave the room together arm in arm, creating an impression of resolution and harmony similar to that found at the end of a Shakespeare comedy.

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A happy ending: “Luncheon is on the table, milady!”

The effect of this alteration on the complexity of Wilde’s play would be akin to a production of A Doll’s House that concluded with the relief of the threat of exposure to Torvald and cut the subsequent dialectical discussion between husband and wife about the nature of marriage. Rosemary Hill, the Play of the Month script editor, justified the decision in response to a letter in the Radio Times:

It is unfortunate that the play had to be cut, but the exigencies of television demanded it, even though, as Miss Lunn says, the later part of the play is both interesting and dramatic. (13 August 1970: 46)

Viewer reaction to An Ideal Husband was highly positive, attracting a RI score of 75, and a competitive audience share of 16.3%, as opposed to ITV’s 27.6%, while BBC2 programmes were seen by 1.3% (BBC WAC T5/853/1). This audience approval is articulated through a series of recurring terms that suggest an air of refinement and pleasure; elegance, grace, wit, sophistication. The charm found by viewers in the play lay partly in its contrast to contemporary television drama. Although the plot “may have seemed a trifle melodramatic, its ‘gracious subtleties’ and ‘sparkling epigrammatic wit’, many seemed to find, had made a pleasing change from the strident tones of more contemporary plays” (BBC WAC T5/853/1). A contemporary Guardian review suggests that the melodrama of Wilde’s plot bore strong similarities to the modern television drama of 1969:

It was perhaps not much of an intellectual choice for Play of the Month, but it was not much more melodramatic than a lot of highly regarded modern television. One could compare it to, say, The Troubleshooters or The Power Game, two highly melodramatic series which are always curiously being praised for their realism. (Reynolds 1969)[3]

This response seems to indicate a double strength, in both the choice of Wilde’s play and in Cartier’s interpretation of it, each evoking a world of charm and elegance as distinct from present-day television drama, but adapting the workings of the play to function in the same dramatic way as contemporary stories told on television, continuing a model of adaptation going back to the Tony Hancock Government Inspector (Television World Theatre BBC Television 9 February 1958). As with the audience responses to The Forsyte Saga detailed by Hargreaves (2009), viewers liked to think that their enjoyment of costume drama derived from its dissimilarity to contemporary television drama, while arguably unconsciously responding to it as present-day television.

Although the editing of Act Four simplifies Wilde’s play, Rosemary Hill’s response shows critical thinking in how to make it effective as a television drama, with Wilde’s strong plot and light, witty, tone being features that were highly valued by audiences, attributes which would become globally associated with ‘quality’ British, costume drama. An Ideal Husband, the earliest BBC stage adaptation made in colour, was an exceptionally successful export production,[4] and cited as one of the “most outstanding” productions of the year in the BBC Annual Report for 1969/70 (p.23). This combination of commercial success, critical and audience appreciation set down a benchmark for ‘Edwardian’ productions in Play of the Month; colourful, rich in period detail, and with a light and fanciful tone that allowed for charismatic performances. However, this particular combination of perceived qualities is probably unique to Wilde and (some of) Shaw’s plays in the canon of Edwardian drama. When other Edwardian dramatists’ plays were presented, the audience’s framework of expectations created by these canonical plays tempered their responses, affected by the perceived absence of epigrammatic or paradoxical wit, clear plotting, elegant settings, and so forth, as I discuss in relation to audience reception of plays by Galsworthy and Granville Barker. What was less immediately apparent to viewers than the pleasures they discerned in the detail and tone of An Ideal Husband was the extent to which Cartier’s direction emphasised the drama and contrast within Wilde’s play and made it a fast-moving, televisual plot, with a degree of subtlety and integrated thinking that was not as apparent in some other Play of the Month productions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Freedman, Carl, ‘From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “A Room with a View”, Cultural Critique, 17, 1990-1, pp.79-106.

Giddings, Robert and Selby, Keith, The Classic Serial on Television and Radio: Baingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Halliwell, Leslie and Purser, Philip, Halliwell’s Television Companion, London: Palladin, 1987.

Hargreaves, Tracy, ‘”There’s No Place Like Home”: History and Tradition in The Forsyte Saga and the BBC, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 6/1, 2009, pp.21- 40.

McArthur, Colin, Television and History, London: BFI, 1980.

Reynolds, Stanley, ‘An Ideal Husband, Sinister Street’, Guardian, 12 May 1969.

Wheatley, Helen, ‘Rooms within Rooms: Upstairs Downstairs & the Studio Costume Drama of the 1970s’, in Johnson, Catherine, and Turnock, Rob (eds.) ITV Cultures, Maidenhead: Open University, 2005, pp.143-158.

Wilde, Oscar, The Complete Plays, London: Methuen, 1993.

 

[1] Stage 2, BBC2, 1971-3, Festival, BBC1, 1980

[2] For example, David Cecil’s 1973 testimonial of Salisbury’s achievements as Prime Minister; “he had been Prime Minister at the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, which celebrated the highest point of dominion and glory ever celebrated by the English” (cited in Giddings and Selby, p.28).

[3] The Troubleshooters (BBC1, 1965-72), The Power Game (ATV 1965-9)

[4] A file of music copyright application and clearing forms (BBC WAC R126/293/1) shows that An Ideal Husband was exported to; Australia, Holland, New Zealand, Sweden (1970), Israel, Singapore, USA (1971), Greece, Hungary, Malaysia, Malta (1972), Jordan (1973), Kenya, Norway, Saudi Arabia and Yugoslavia (1974).

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