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1970s, BBC, Billy Smart, Don Taylor, Edwardian Drama, Harley Granville Barker, Play of the Month, Waste

Two Edwardian dramas 2: ‘Play of the Month: Waste’ (BBC1, 4 December 1977)

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Don Taylor‘s production of Harley Granville Barker’s 1907[1] play Waste approaches space and performance through different directorial techniques to Rudolph Cartier, further demonstrating the variety of visual methods which ‘Edwardian’ dramas could be realized in the television studio.

The commissioning of this demanding play, and the employment of Taylor, who had long been exiled from the BBC Drama Department (Taylor, 1990), was a product of the brief tenure of David Jones as producer of Play of The Month (BBC1, 1965-83). Jones had been recruited from the theatre, as Artistic Director of the Royal Court (1975-7), rather than from within the BBC, and was encouraged to treat the BBC1 classic play adaptation as a site for experimentation, in both repertory and directorial approach (Sutton, 1982).

Taylor was a strong advocate of the studio television play as a unique art form, with strong affinities to the stage play in its conditions of performance:

 First of all, let me define what I mean by the television play. It is a single drama, recorded in a television studio more or less continuously, certainly in whole scene takes, and, in its purest form, without any use of location filming. Most studio plays between the sixties and mid-eighties did use film sequences, as links and atmospheric sections, which tended to get longer and longer. Mine got shorter, until I did without them. Then, I felt, I was beginning to explore what the medium could do. True television drama has a quite different aesthetic from film-making. It tolerates, in fact it relishes imaginative, argumentative and even poetic writing in a way the film camera does not. It is at its best in long, developing scenes, where the actors can work without interference from the director’s camera, using their own timing rather than his. It is a writers’ and actors’ medium which puts its premium on content; dramatic thinking and emotion that is earned, passion that comes from deep wells of feeling plumed by good words, not manufactured for melodramatic effect. It has its own visual style, more restricted than cinema, and at its best quite unlike it. When director, lighting designer and designers work in harmony, its pictures glow with the colours of Titian and Veronese, which, because of their electronic origin, are quite unlike the colours the film camera produces. (Taylor, 1998, p.38)

Granville Barker’s play presented Taylor with a near-ideal source with which to test these aspirations. The play is set over four long acts, in which actors are required to perform in a variety of styles; the polite and nuanced conversation of large groupings in semi-formal situations such as the living room of a country house weekend party after dinner, or a clandestine meeting of politicians; detailed political discussion about disestablishment of the Church of England; emotional encounters such as seductions and arguments; culminating in Hamlet-like metaphysical speeches that question the value of existence. Barker’s writing is at all times highly subtle and allusive, and in the political discussions extremely technical, making the viewers’ understanding of Waste more dependent upon the content of words than any other Edwardian British dramatist of this period.[2] All these different registers of speech occur in continuous time for the duration of each act, and moving between these various styles presented a challenge for the director in terms of camera movement, the selection of shots, and pacing.

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Taylor guides the viewer’s understanding of the play through a series of concentrated close ups and long takes, an effect commended by Dennis Potter in a Sunday Times review:

Don Taylor, the director, did not try to liven up this now septuagenarian piece by mounting his cameras on a carousel or making his large and accomplished cast swivel their heads like wooden spinning tops. He used, instead, steady close-ups, long takes and a quietly concentrated rhythm which allowed the weight to fall on the words rather than ears or nostrils. The opening of Waste works well enough when you are trapped in the stalls, but is an instant switch-off on television. A woman is playing an over-elaborate dirge on the piano in an over-furnished room filled with over-dressed ladies. Too much! But Taylor began with the ringed hands on the ivories, and very slowly pulled back and back to let us take in the room and its inhabitants in a manner long sanctified on TV as the cliché device for revealing, say, a naked prostitute spread eagled on the nylon carpet with a knife stuck deep in her pectoral muscles. (Potter 1977)

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Potter’s analysis both supports Taylor’s justification of the television studio as a unique space suitable for the creation of a drama of concentration, emotion and good words, but also undermines it by connecting this directorial technique to more populist and melodramatic forms of television. Potter’s argument suggests that the serious single play still functioned as television for the viewer through adopting the same techniques as the detective serial. As with Hargreaves’ (2009) viewers of The Forsyte Saga, the audience of Waste could respond to the programme through the codes of contemporary television drama, even though they understood it as belonging to a separate category.

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Taylor’s use of the studio in the opening scene goes beyond Granville Barker’s stage directions, using close-up to show characters’ reactions not indicated by the dialogue, tiny facial gestures of amusement or distaste. This reliance upon the close-up is combined with long takes at crucial points in the drama. Trebell’s (Paul Daneman) fateful clinch with Mrs. O’Connell (Hannah Gordon) in Act One is held in a continuous shot for over three minutes, creating an uncomfortable sensation of intimacy for the viewer at the close proximity of the performers’ faces, and a sense of disruption once the characters are disturbed and have to separate. This effect of closeness is continued through similar direction of the pair’s second meeting in Act Two, when Trebell holds O’Connell’s wrist and feels her pulse. Critics noted that Taylor’s direction imbued the two scenes with a sense of passion and deep feeling understated in Granville Barker’s dialogue. Michael Ratcliffe in the Times (December 5 1977) observed that the direction accentuated the “disconcerting” and “genuinely sexy dialogue” in these scenes, creating a drama that was “powerful, embarrassing, sexy”, while Potter admired that the acting and direction of these “discreetly indiscreet scenes (…) somehow managed to suggest that rhetoric and eroticism can be made bed-fellows for long enough to matter” (1977).

This use of close-ups, not always of the character speaking, to find the emotional significance and resonance of complex dialogue, is also illustrated by the discussion between Trebell and his sister in Act Four, where, with Trebell’s political career over, the sister tries to persuade him of the value of a new, private, life. This scene is shown entirely in close-up, the focus continually slightly changing between brother and sister, until Miss Trebell’s speech of hope, when the camera is entirely held upon her, emphasising the vulnerability of her aspirations. Then, crucially, when her brother responds dismissively, the camera does not turn to show him, but remains on his sister’s face, concentrating the viewer’s empathy on the hurt feelings of a character who is not given that much to say in the play, giving the scene an emotional charge that might be overlooked in a two-shot, or in a theatrical production.

As well as using his camera style to articulate the emotional significance of dialogue to both characters in duologues, Taylor’s distinctive approach help to illuminate the nuances of scenes shared between large groups of characters. Act Three of the play, where the Prime Minister attempts to negotiate a deal between Trebell and other politicians in Downing Street, mirrors the house party of Act One. Here, characters do not reveal their feelings towards each other by looking into each others’ faces, but their private facial responses are witnessed by the camera, making the viewer privy to a greater understanding of events than the protagonists themselves as in ‘Magic Casements’. Taylor achieves viewer understanding of the power implications of this complex scene through varying the movement of characters, with Andre Morell’s Prime Minister highly mobile and followed by the camera,[3] while the intractable O’Connell (Liam O’Callaghan) remains still and is therefore shown in a series of statically framed shots, presented as an obstacle for the other politicians to negotiate. As an elder figure who softly wields great power, Morell’s performance in this scene presents an illustration of Caughie’s (2000) ‘aesthetic of detail’ in action, conveying his superiority and mastery of the situation through physical gesture and tone of voice. The pleasure that the audience takes in performance here is more complex than that which Caughie describes in watching Peggy Ashcroft in The Jewel in the Crown (Granada/ ITV 1984): not only is the viewer watching Andre Morell perform a role, but the actor is also conveying that the character of the Prime Minister, when he attempts to negotiate between fellow politicians, is also performing a role as benefactor to each other individual in the room, making each person believe that their own particular interests are his paramount concern.

Granville Barker’s dialogue is more problematic for the listener than that of other Edwardian British dramatists. Dramatic events such as Trebell’s suicide are shown to be the result of multiple causes, usually referred to only obliquely. This level of psychological complexity required a degree of subtlety and delicacy of acting that predated the adoption of Stanislavskian technique in the United Kingdom, and the quest to attain this level of performance frustrated Barker as both dramatist and director;

I never have – I cannot – write an unactable play… but there is no English company of actors so trained to interpret thought and less crude emotions, nor, as a consequence, any select audience interested in watching and listening to such things (Granville Barker, 1923 letter to William Archer, in Salmon, 1986: 96)

Through Taylor having opportunities historically denied to Granville Barker (to employ actors with experience of working in Stanislavskian productions of Chekhov et al, or the ability to highlight small nuances of thought and emotion to the viewer through his camera technique), he was in some ways better able to realise the conditions of the theatre that Barker wanted to create, through television production seventy years after Waste was written.In terms of audience reception, however, Granville Barker remained a minority taste. The ratio of BBC1 to ITV viewers for Waste was one of the lowest of the run for Play of The Month, the play attracting an audience of 5.7% against a rival 50.7% for The Silver Jubilee Royal Gala, an exceptional programme in the schedules, with BBC2 programmes seen by 1.2% of the audience. This small audience offered cautious enthusiasm, finding it to be “interesting” and “very moving in parts”, but also “old-fashioned, disappointing, too wordy or merely boring” (BBC WAC R9/77/150).[4] Where the majority of viewers were satisfied was with the period authenticity of the production, in which the “costumes and settings were felt to be delightful” (BBC WAC R9/77/150).

This muted response suggests that Granville Barker’s dramaturgy remained overly demanding for television viewers, even if as imaginatively and sensitively handled as by Taylor. Compounding this difficulty was Granville Barker’s particularly opaque plotting, wit and characterisation, attributes which audiences had come to expect to be commendably intelligible in Edwardian plays, as regularly articulated in BBC audience research for other productions. Having their unconscious expectations confounded alienated viewers who generally enjoyed Edwardian dramas, although Waste contained some consolation in its attainment of visual pleasure, especially in the country house Act One. The reaction to Waste, illustrating how an adaptation could fulfil part of an audience’s framework of expectations while failing other parts, complicates our understanding of the form of the generic period adaptation. The setting and costumes confirmed an expectation of visual pleasure in period detail, but the play’s dense content failed to provide a clear narrative that viewers could derive pleasure from following, as they had experienced with productions such as An Ideal Husband (BBC1, 11 May 1969) or Pygmalion (BBC1, 16 December 1973).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Caughie, John. ‘What do Actors do when they Act?’, British Television Drama: Past, Present & Future, Bignell, Lacey & MacMurraugh-Kavanagh (eds), Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000, pp.162-74.

Granville Barker, Harley, Plays: One, London: Methuen, 1993.

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.

Jacobs, Jason, The Intimate Screen. Oxford: Oxford, 2000.

Potter, Dennis, ‘A real shaker of a play’, Sunday Times, 11 December 1977.

Ratcliffe, Michael, ‘Waste’, The Times, 5 December 1977, p.9.

Salmon, Eric (ed.), Granville Barker and his Correspondents, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986.

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

Taylor, Don, Days of Vision, London: Methuen, 1990.

Taylor, Don, ‘Pure Imagination, Poetry’s Lyricism, Titian’s Colours: Whatever Happened to the Single Play on British TV?’, New Statesman, 6 March 1998, pp.38-9.

[1] Because the Lord Chamberlain banned it, the play was not first performed publicly until 1925.

[2] Shaw’s language is dense with argument, but not as emotionally opaque as Barker’s, while Wilde’s jokes and paradoxes do not impinge greatly upon the clarity of his plots.

[3] Andre Morrell had extensive television experience, working with Cartier on both Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC, 1954) and Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958-9). Jacobs (2000) describes this actor’s performance in Nineteen Eighty Four as particularly aware of the possibilities of television as a medium uniquely capable of conveying a sense of intimacy and closeness. This camera-awareness is also apparent in the nuances of his performance as the Prime Minister in Waste.

[4] The next time that Play of the Month attempted a Granville Barker play in 1979, The Voysey Inheritance, it received a more enthusiastic response, gathering a RI of 76 (BBC WAC VR/79/66), as compared to Waste’s 65. Possible reasons for this more favourable response might be the more easily intelligible plot resulting in a less intense style of direction and performance, and Voysey’s greater opportunities for spectacle and visual pleasure over Waste.

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