Armchair Theatre Barry Hanson BBC BBC drama BBC Pebble Mill Directors Experimental drama Obituary Philip Saville Play For Today Second City Firsts

Philip Saville (1930-2016)*

Philip Saville

Philip Saville’s remarkable career as an actor, director, writer and producer in film and television spanned 60 years, his first credits as an actor dating from 1948, while his last credit as a director was 2009. He made his first appearances on stage and screen while studying at RADA and University College London, after which he went to America where he studied Elizabethan verse at Columbia University for a short period before working in American television alongside directors such as Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. He returned to England just as ITV was starting up and applied for a job with Associated Rediffusion, for whom he directed his first film, Curtains for Harry (20 October 1955), a comedy-drama written in collaboration with his wife, Jane Arden, and Richard Lester. Saville also collaborated with Lester on The Dick Lester Show (23 December 1955) and directed four more plays for Associated Rediffusion before joining ABC Television, where his first production, Black Limelight (30 September 1956), was the first of 47 Armchair Theatre and Armchair Mystery Theatre plays he directed from 1956-64, with his adaptation of Strindberg’s The Creditors (10 October 1972) being his final contribution to the Armchair Theatre series.

Only 14 of Saville’s Armchair Theatre plays have survived but they include Harold Pinter’s A Night Out (24 April 1960) and Robert Muller’s Afternoon of a Nymph (30 September 1962), two innovative productions which established Saville’s reputation as a creative television director. This reputation was enhanced when Saville followed producer Sydney Newman to the BBC, where his first production was The Madhouse on Castle Street (13 January 1963), a now legendary ‘lost’ play featuring Bob Dylan in a leading role. The following year Saville’s Hamlet at Elsinore (19 April 1964) was one of the first television dramas to be recorded entirely on location (at Kronborg Castle in Denmark) using electronic cameras. It was a huge production, lasting nearly three hours, and earned Saville the director’s award from the Guild of Producers and Directors (the forerunner of BAFTA).

Later the same year Saville directed one of the first plays to be transmitted in The Wednesday Play series (although it was originally intended for Festival), In Camera (4 November 1964), adapted by Saville from Sartre’s Huis Clos and featuring Harold Pinter and Jane Arden. The play incorporated experimental techniques which Saville explored further in subsequent productions at the BBC, including The Logic Game (9 January 1965), The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (28 February 1965), Exit 19 (8 August 1966) and The Machine Stops (6 October 1966), the latter made for the science fiction series, Out of the Unknown. Saville also began directing feature-films in the mid-late 1960s with an adaptation of the West End musical, Stop the World I Want to Get Off (1966), Oedipus the King (1968), featuring Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, and the comedy, The Best House in London (1969).

Saville’s prolific output and penchant for experimentation continued in the 1970s with The Rainbirds (11 February 1971), one of eight BBC Play for Todays he directed from 1970-75, another being Philip Martin’s multicultural Gangsters (9 January 1975), filmed entirely on location in Birmingham. The diversity of Saville’s output in the 1970s is evident in the half-hour plays he directed for Thirty Minute Theatre and Second City Firsts, one of which, Jack Shepherd’s The Actual Woman (11 March 1974), was one of the first dramas to be shot on location using a lightweight video camera, while Rotten (13 May 1978) was another exercise in the use of experimental video techniques, as was the two and a half-hour Count Dracula (22 December 1977). There were plays for Anglia TV and Thames TV, episodes for BBC series such as Churchill’s People (1975), Private Affairs (1975) and The Velvet Glove (1977), a Play of the Month: Noel Coward’s Design for Living (6 May 1979) and another feature film, Secrets (1971).

While the quantity of work Philip Saville directed in the 1980s may have been less this was arguably his mature period, with an adaptation of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (23 March 1980), another exercise in experimental video: The Journal of Bridget Hitler (6 February 1981) and two BAFTA-winning series, Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) and Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986). As the single play transformed into the TV movie Saville directed Julie Welch’s Those Glory, Glory Days (17 November 1983) for Channel Four’s 1st Love series, Snoo Wilson’s Shadey (1985) for Film on Four (28 April 1988), the award-winning Mandela (1987), featuring Danny Glover as Nelson Mandela, and The Fruit Machine (1988).

The trend towards TV films continued into the 1990s with Michael Eaton’s Fellow Traveller (BBC2, 10 February 1991), Angels (Granada, 2 June 1992), Wall of Silence (BBC1, 17 October 1993), Deacon Brodie (BBC1, 8 March 1997) and a feature film of Julian Barnes’ novel, Metroland (1997), in addition to the two-parters, The Cloning of Joanna May (Granada, 1992) and Little White Lies (BBC1, 1998) and a five-part adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Buccaneers (BBC1, 1995).

If Saville’s output tailed off in his sixth decade as a director there were still six episodes for the first series of Uncle Silas (Yorkshire, 2001) and three feature films, including the two-hour Gospel of John (2003) and the three-hour Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale (2003), plus a documentary about Harold Pinter, Pinter’s Progress (2009), who Saville had first directed nearly 50 years before, in A Night Out.

In December 2016 Philip Saville was awarded an Honorary Degree by Royal Holloway, University of London in recognition of his unique contribution to British television drama. He died on 22 December 2016.

The following interview (edited from a much longer transcript) was recorded at Philip Saville’s home in London on 11 June 2004 when I was researching regional British television drama and wanted to ask him about his work for BBC English Regions Drama in Birmingham in the 1970s and early 1980s. Our conversation ranged far beyond his work for Birmingham however, embracing his early work on Armchair Theatre as well as some of his other pioneering experiments in television drama.

Lez Cooke

LC:  I wanted to ask you about the work you did at Pebble Mill in the 1970s because I’ve been doing some research on BBC English Regions Drama, David Rose’s department.

PS:  Yes, I remember a couple of things I did.

LC:  I think the first one was a half-hour drama called The Actual Woman [BBC2, 11 March 1974]

PS:  I remember something else called Mrs. Poole’s Preserves [BBC2, 22 October 1973], with Elizabeth Spriggs, and I remember Rotten [BBC2, 13 May 1978], a very odd ball experience.

LC:  With The Actual Woman I believe you were experimenting with a new lightweight outside broadcast video unit.

PS:  Oh I know what it is… it was amazing. Tom Bell was in it and Annabel Leventon, there were three parts. It was a play written by Jack Shepherd, the actor/writer, and it was all set on a day out and we shot it in the hills [outside] of Birmingham. We had one day I think to shoot it and we had every part of the weather syndrome that it was possible to have which changed like every 10-15 minutes, from hot to cold, to raining, to snow, to sleet to wind.

LC:  Was it all shot on location?

PS:  It was all shot on location and it was the first time, I believe, [to] use a single video camera and quite experimental considering what it was.

LC:  Had Birmingham just acquired this new video camera unit?

PS:  Yes and I remember I did it with an extraordinary producer, who became quite a great friend, Barry Hanson, and we later on did Mrs. Poole’s Preserves and then we did Gangsters [BBC1, 9 January 1975] of course. But I’m trying to think what the story was about. It was about two brothers, I think, and there was a woman … I can see it visually because I remember how unbelievably cold it was. I’ll tell you about one incident: I was down to do a close up of Annabel Leventon and I kept on saying to her, because we were in a little truck with a little tiny monitor, and I was speaking through to the first assistant and I said ‘Can you ask Annabel to give a little more expression in her face, it seems to be rather still’ and he gave her the message and she said ‘I’ll try.’ Anyway it got steadily worse and worse and then I said ‘What’s the matter?’ She said ‘It’s freezing cold here Philip.’ She can’t move the muscles in her face, literally, so then we had the idea of thawing her out, getting in the van. We all crouched up together in the van, literally, body warmth, and then we thought, well it’s going to be a close-up so let’s kind of build a bit of foliage behind or something like that and we can do it in the back of the truck. We didn’t have any art director or anything like that, we did it all ourselves. There was one shot where she was blue. Anyway [these are] the struggles of early pioneering television!

LC:  Most of those half-hour Second City Firsts, that was the series, were done in the studio but yours was obviously an exception and there were a few which were done on film, there was one written by Neville Smith called Match of the Day

PS:  Oh yes, I remember that.

LC:  … which he was in and one of Alan Bleasdale’s early half-hour ones was done on film as well [Early to Bed, BBC2, 20 March 1975], but most of them were done in the studio so it sounded like The Actual Woman was a bit of an experiment…

PS:  It totally was, yes.

LC:  … on location.

PS:  It was a wonderful experience.

LC:  And I think probably one of the first television dramas which was actually done using this lightweight equipment.

PS:  Yes.

LC:  I was going to ask you about that in relation to Hamlet at Elsinore [BBC, 19 April 1964] which was obviously a completely different project but was also done using an outside broadcast unit.

PS:  Oh yes, in Hamlet at Elsinore I remember getting a call from Sydney Newman, who was then the new Head of Drama at the BBC, saying [impersonating Sydney Newman] ‘Philip what are you doing this weekend?’ I said ‘Well nothing specific but I think we’ve got a theatre date…’  He said ‘Well I want you to go to Copenhagen and give me [a] tactical thing to do Hamlet on location there, the Danish radio people are very keen to bring us in.’ This was for the quattro-centenary of Shakespeare’s birth, 1964, and I said ‘Oh wow, are you serious?’

So I went there and met all the marvellous people there and I saw Kronborg Castle, this huge, vast place spreading from here to another 200 metres beyond that building and 400 metres this way and I thought ‘Oh this is a challenge’, and all the rooms, and I looked through the script and every single scene in the script, in the play, was completely feasible as a royal domestic drama. The only scene that wasn’t was the speech by the Queen about the chestnut, under the willow tree, which obviously was written for Stratford, and I later found out that Shakespeare and the theatre there, in England, sent for the ground plan, if there were any, of Kronborg Castle and that’s how I managed to make the thing work, because everything worked, every scene worked.

Anyway, then we talked about the cameras and I said ‘I’ll need at least ten cameras.’ He said ‘Ten cameras!’ ‘And I’ll need them in two units and while I’m shooting on one unit the other unit will be wrapping up and moving to the next part of the play.’ Because we’re talking about big distances, I mean it was like a wrap and a cup of tea or coffee and then an hour, an hour and a half, to move to the next and set up, cabling up, you know, and this was all in mobile vans. So later on they were so excited about it they gave me twelve cameras, two six-camera units, and I remember nothing had been done like this before.

Also it was at the time, because it was just the new days of two-inch videotape, when you could only record for three times the length of the play, or the project, and I remember saying ‘Now Sydney, this is ridiculous, you know how long the play is don’t you Sydney?’ [Impersonating Sydney Newman] ‘Well, Philip … I know it’s a long play.’ ‘It’s over three hours Sydney.’ ‘Well you gotta cut it a bit.’ I said ‘They want the full works.’ ‘Well you can cut it a bit…’ I said ‘Well I will trim it a bit, of course, but it’s still going to be over three hours. Now you’re good at maths Sydney’ I said, how long is that to shoot?’ ‘Well it’s around nine and half hours, ten hours maybe if you’re lucky.’ I said ‘Right, ten hours? To cover a place that is practically a mile square?’ All the places are huge, it’s bigger than Buckingham Palace. So he said ‘Well, what, you mean you can’t do it Philip?  And I said ‘Yes, can do, but we have to have what is called discontinuous recording.’ ‘Oh my God Philip, I mean that’s big stuff, that’s politics.’ I said ‘Well, get in there, get into the Board of Directors and get them down to Equity, British Equity, because, believe me, I’m telling you that’s going to be the way of the future.’

So they were negotiating and finally they actually got the new regulations for actors to do discontinuous recording and Equity paid appropriately and the areas of over-time were revamped and everything else. So then Sydney suddenly said to me ‘Well Philip, you got four days.’ I said ‘Sydney, four days to do a three hours twenty-minute production like that, all on location and everything else, Sydney it’s out of the question.’ ‘Well Philip you gotta do it, otherwise, you know, I’m gonna have to pull you out of it.’ I said ‘OK, you pull me out of it. I challenge you to find anybody else that could do it.’ So he said ‘Well, four days Philip, that or nothing.’ So meanwhile I was saying to all my wonderful crew and the Danes ‘Look we have eight days to do this, it will be tough to do it in eight days but we’ll do it.’ The Danes, you know, they work fantastically. I said: ‘I’ll need two days filming because it’s antique, the place, they won’t allow heavy duty…’ and these cameras, you know, weren’t lightweight cameras, they were all these big buggers, on Vintens and big tripods, so if you had beautiful marble floors, forget it, cables this thick!

LC:  Sounds like a huge production.

PS:  Anyway to cut a long story short, finally Sydney said ‘We’ve agreed to five days Philip and that’s it.’ I said: ‘No Sydney, what time’s the next plane back?’ Anyway, Ken Adams [Director of BBC Television], with an entourage of very distinguished BBC people came out and by this time we had built, using 150 personnel, what appeared to be a lot in the back of the castle, TV Centre, I mean literally, and he came down and he went around and they all said ‘I see’ and this that and the other, and this is where we’re going to do the scene where Hamlet sees Polonius and everything, fantastic, and these are the scenes where Ophelia this and that, fantastic, and the big scene, the players scene, is going to be in this hundred metre hall, with Robert Shaw playing the King. Anyway at the end it still hadn’t been resolved, the time, and Ken Adams came up to me and said ‘Philip, it’s a wonderful experience and I wish you all the best and you just carry on.’ That’s all he said. Sydney was sitting next to him and I went: ‘Thank you’ [laughs], winked at him and Sydney was fine, relaxed and I remember he got completely drunk with me in the hotel afterwards and that’s how we got the eight days and the two days [filming] and everything else and we had the two units and they were called ‘Nina and Frederick.’ Nina and Frederick at that time were the big Swedish stars so … Anyway I could go on and talk about it for hours and bore the hell out of you.

Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer in Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

LC:  Can I just ask you about all these cameras? Were you actually cutting, or mixing, between cameras as you were filming?

PS:  Yes. Only the film section, which was part of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and some other little moments, were shot on a single film camera. The others, what I did I would shoot like live TV, fifteen minute chunks, five minute chunks, and I remember the longest chunk was twenty-three minutes, most of them were five minute, four minute, three minute, two minute, on multiple cameras.

LC:  Six cameras then.

PS:  Yes, I always kept one just in case, I mean there were times when I was actually using the six cameras, when I’d had continuous movement from one camera downstairs and I was just coming up to the stairs and things like that, but I always kept one camera in case of a breakdown, which you had to do then, because they regularly broke down. I remember one astonishing moment, built into the fabric of the bulwarks of the castle, of this big hall, were the foghorns because of the Baltic Straits, because that’s when I had the cannons and they were all on, firing at the end, and there was this heavy fog that night, so suddenly in the middle of a scene, the flashlights were going across the window, the lighthouse, like this across them (makes sound of loud siren). Anyway this went on and we had to stop. I was determined not to be defeated. I calculated, in seconds, the space of silence between each return of the horn cycle and it was twenty-four seconds, and I thought what can we shoot in twenty-four seconds? [laughs] and I found a bit, it’s when the crowd cheer something that the King had done and they went: ‘Hurrah, hurrah’ and we actually got it and it’s in to this day, shot between the foghorns.

LC:  Why did the BBC want to do it as an outside broadcast rather than say, shoot on film, if it was such a major production?

PS: I suppose cost or something.

LC: I know not many TV dramas were done on film, it would have been even more expensive to do.

PS:  Much, much more, the time it would have taken. I was able to put together all these cameras and training, you know, and don’t forget they had cables inch and a half thick, so every camera had to have a retinue of people going over the cameras like this, underneath and then if you had snagging the cameras wouldn’t go any further [laughs].

LC:  So that was a bit of a first, but how did that compare to, ten years later, when you did The Actual Woman, also as an outside broadcast but obviously on a much smaller budget and different equipment?

PS:  Oh yes it was like Jean Renoir going out to shoot the film Partie de Campagne [1936], sort of, it was like, ‘Hello fellows, bring the wine’, but it was so bitterly cold…

LC:  But was the equipment much better by the time you did The Actual Woman?

PS:  Well, for instance, you were shooting on inch tape, which was a small thing. Those two inch tapes were big and heavy, you know you could do a work out with either of those, lifting them up and down like dumb-bells, but oh yes it was comparatively easy.

LC:  Obviously you were quite pioneering with these OB experiments, but what were the advantages and disadvantages of that lightweight equipment, compared to say shooting on film, on location?

PS:  The disadvantages of shooting on those lightweights then, it was a fancy camera, a German camera, the same camera that I used in Boys from the Black Stuff [BBC2, 1982], only I had two, and the disadvantage, in wide-angle shots, long shots, the clarity was not good, the definition. The moment you moved into a medium shot, or close, you were fine, the moment you had location, countryside or definition, in wide-angle shots, it was hazy, whereas on film of course you get total focus. In that particular one, before they brought out the luminem correction, sudden changes in light, say going from cloud to sun, it would break up, it would smear. I don’t know if you remember, those early days, you got little smears, traces of smears on it, because the gradation was barely 20 to 1 [whereas] in film the gradation from say white through the spectrum of colour right through to black is about 129. Gradually they improved, it became 30 and 40 and now of course it’s high definition, I would say it’s almost parity now with film.

LC:  BBC English Regions Drama was set up to commission regional work, either from regional writers or to have work that was set in the regions and it sounds like, because you were shooting around Birmingham in the hills or whatever, that there was a regional dimension to The Actual Woman. Gangsters obviously had a regional dimension, being set in Birmingham.

PS:  Absolutely, that was something else. That was really so ahead of its time on a purely political level, it was equivalent today to something like State of Play [BBC1, 2003], something that’s very political.

LC:  But it was filmed like a gangster movie.

PS:  Yes, when Barry said to me ‘What do you think about this?’ and I said ‘I absolutely love it, but we have to be bold about it. It’s not just social realism, it’s heightened and we have to use the metaphor of the definitive gangster images, things like that, and integrate it and to make it entertaining. But I tell you the day it went out there was complete uproar from Birmingham City Council, who denied any of these things were going on. It was like front page of the Birmingham Post: ‘Asians smuggled into… believed to be carriers of Class A drugs’ something like this and we said ‘How can you say it does not happen?

LC:  Did Philip Martin write it like a gangster movie?

PS:  Yes.

LC:  What did you bring to it, do you think?

PS:  Well I brought to it a sort of frenetic action, fast paced action, fast pace delivery of lines and things like that, sexuality, it’s one of the earliest scenes of a girl fixing on heroin, and graphically, Elizabeth Cassidy, the actress, fantastic. Racial things with the girl who played the dancer, the singer [Tania Rogers], and also a tremendous amount of work on the early Muslim communities who were under the cosh and being exploited, nothing had been [done] like that. We encouraged Philip to go for it and Philip Martin, I have to say, researched it brilliantly. He got me to meet Eddie Futrell, the guy that owned all the big clubs, and I went to see him and he was a kind of little guy and he had big lifts in his shoes and he was a complete bastard and I remember him saying to me [affects strong Birmingham accent]: ‘So then you’re going to unmask me then are you? Well of course I’ll give you any co-operation you want in any of my clubs.’ In fact, we did use some of his clubs and he actually became friends and invited me to dinner but, I mean, it was the American Cosa Nostra, exactly the same, except they [affects Italian-American accent] ‘didn’t talk like this’, you know, ‘they talked like that’ [Birmingham accent]. I mean it was the Mafioso.

LC:  A very unusual project for Play for Today.

PS:  And a lot of people didn’t get it, they were outraged. There was this marvellous review of it [by] a man called Hunt [Albert Hunt]. He wrote this long piece, really in depth, complete grasp, I thought this man is amazing because he said it was almost a send up and it had a mixture of music, of course, a lot of music.

LC:  Was it shot on 16mm or 35mm?

PS:  It was 16, yes.

LC:  Was that because of cost?

PS:  Of course and also lightweight, speed and we just went like the clappers in that. I remember we invited down the Chief Constable of the Birmingham area. He came down and we said look we want to [film] in this area over there, Spaghetti Junction, and the cars will come here at speed and he says ‘Oh, really, that sounds very exciting.’ I said ‘Well we hope so, can we rely on your co-operation?’ He said ‘Well I can’t actually close it down, but providing every precaution is taken we will keep a low profile.’ And we actually had them travelling at 70-80 miles an hour amongst traffic whilst we were shooting in the back of the car. Not like today when you go on a proper rig and it’s all there with the lights, we had to do it in the side of the car and the back and things like that and it was amazing and people were phoning in and saying ‘There’s a mad car chase going on here.’

LC:  Another ground-breaking drama really. Did Barry Hanson get you involved with that?

PS:  Oh yes, completely.

LC:  Did you have a good working relationship with Barry?

PS:  Fantastic, he was a wonderful producer. You know a good producer’s one, for me, that if there’s something you’re not sure about and you want a really good sounding board and a proper considered answer that could be a contribution to the production. He was the kind of person that would go in to see David Rose and say ‘Look David, we need this and I know it’s going to cost more than we’d budgeted, what can you do?’ and most of the time we won our battle, every now and again David just said ‘No way.’

LC:  You weren’t involved with the Gangsters series.

PS:  I was asked to do it and David said to me they were going to be done in the studio with some film inserts and I said ‘David, forget it. You’re going to ruin it’ and he was bit put out that I turned it down. I think that Philip Martin had to make the series a little artificial.

LC:  They were more non-naturalistic really.

PS:  Yes, they took it even more… I thought it span itself, you know, up its rectum as they say. They sort of took it outside itself and it blew itself out I think, but I liked the first couple, I did, I liked it very much.

LC:  Rotten was the very last Second City First to go out in 1978 and that was obviously a very non-naturalistic piece.

PS: Yes!

LC:  In fact it’s probably one of the most experimental TV dramas I’ve seen I think…

PS:  It was.

LC:  …in its use of video technology and effects.

PS:  Yes, I hardly ever get a chance to do anything like that now.

LC:  I was wondering to what extent that was written like that, by Alan Brown, or was that all down to you?

PS:  Well I have to say, maybe rightly or wrongly, I did influence it. Originally he wrote it as a straight naturalistic piece and I just said well I don’t see how the audience could be interested in this strange young person. I knew it was autobiographical anyway and I said I think we ought to heighten it in some way which in its way will be entertaining and interesting. Anything that I experiment with I always try to think well am I going to bore the pants off people by this, you know, or is it so possibly elitistly intellectual that people through sheer inability to grasp it will just switch off, which people do, and most of the time I think I got it right, occasionally I indulged a bit [laughs].

LC:  Were you experimenting with new video technology there?

PS:  Yes.

LC:  I’m thinking of the colour separation overlay and that kind of thing…

PS:  Oh completely, yes, completely.

LC:  … which of course you used much more with The Journal of Bridget Hitler [BBC2, 6 February 1981] two or three years later.

PS:  Oh yes and I remember shocking a lot of people when I did Count Dracula [BBC2, 22 December 1977], which there again was a mixture of film and studio. I remember one of the moments when the Count was in his transformation, you know seeking blood and things like that, I polarised his face, Louis Jordan, the French actor, and a lot of people were disturbed by this and of course now it’s done quite regularly, but that’s what I wanted to create in the audience, this sort of ‘wow’, you know, something like that.

Count Dracula (1977)

LC:  When you say you polarised it, it was a kind of a solarisation effect, was it?

PS:  Solarising, yes, and then I would polarise that, put that through a filter as well, so that the colours would change within themselves as they were coming up on screen. I was quite into that at that time. I think I did some of that in Rotten as well, did I?

LC:  Yes, I think so. Again it sounds like Rotten was something you were experimenting with.

PS:  Yes, I remember there was a man working at the BBC, from Northern Ireland, he was the Chief of Special Effects at the BBC and we regularly would meet, ‘Come in, bring a bottle’ and we’d do downtime. Downtime would be like from midnight plus thirty to three, four o’clock in the morning and we used to experiment with what you had then. Now of course you can do anything, but then it was like we had to connect several pieces of machinery and they weren’t all in the same lab, some were down the road and we had to send cables along the corridor and things like this, it was really a bit like Frankenstein’s laboratory [laughs].

LC:  I was really knocked out when I saw Rotten, I thought it was great.

PS:  I know what you mean.

LC:  Boys from the Blackstuff on the other hand was much more realist, at least in terms of its style…

PS: Yes, well that’s what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to…

LC:  … apart from, I suppose, the fantasy sequences in Yosser’s Story [31 October 1982].

PS:  Yosser’s Story, yes. I remember having a little bit of a [disagreement with] Alan Bleasdale [who] thought that the opening… he didn’t want any of it, he wanted them just to wake up and I said ‘No, no, no, you’re missing a marvellous opportunity here.’

LC:  So he wanted it to be a bit more social realist?

PS:  Yes more like that, yes. I could have done it that way and I suppose it would have worked, but I wanted to… if I can I always like to bring a bit of poetic enlightenment into something.

LC:  That obviously worked very well and it was highly acclaimed, quite rightly.

PD:  Oh yes, in the New York Times you know they raved about Yosser’s Story. It’s wonderful isn’t it that Bernard Hill has become such a big, big star on Lord of the Rings [2001-3] and things like that.

LC:  Yes. Do you find it easy moving from one style to another? From one production to another?

PS:  I do, yes. I try not to come out of the same hole twice if I can but it gets much harder now to be experimental. I don’t like to be experimental just to be high-handed or to be conspicuous, to be different, because I think that in experiments you can trigger off things in people, particularly in the surreal world. But then of course when you look at some of the commercials they’re so surreal now, amazing things, you think what was that about? [laughs].

LC:  That’s where the non-naturalism is on TV these days, in the commercials.

PS:  Well, absolutely. I tend to think of it as magical realism really, let’s put it that way, not non-natural, but magical realism.

LC:  That’s more how you would describe your style?

PS:  Yes, I would say that would be a good word to use.

LC:  I suppose I tend to think of your work as being much more expressionistic in style compared to other people working in a more realist or naturalist area.

PS:  Yes I think that would be the best word to use. I’ve been called impressionist many times. There were two directors that I admired immensely, one was Ingmar Bergman and the other was Fritz Lang and these I remember impressed me and stuck with me and I sort of went along with some of their concepts and ideas until I began to find my own way in things like that.

LC:  Most of Blackstuff was obviously shot on video, apart from Yosser’s Story.

PS:  Yes.

LC:  I was wondering whether you found having to use video more restricting.

PS:  Yes. Well remember because of the short, relatively short, shooting schedule, I think we shot the whole series in nine weeks, which was pretty amazing. A couple of them were over 65, one was 70-odd minutes, they were all well into their 50s and I had two cameras. I remember one of the cameras – it took us quite a while to find out – when we looked carefully there was a little speck. We didn’t take any notice at first and then we saw more rushes and the speck was there but in the same place, so then we rushed the camera over to be inspected and they said there was a flaw in the lens and this we didn’t discover until after the third part and they didn’t have another camera. So right to the very end and only when I did Yosser’s Story that we had a pristine picture all the time. Someone asked me a little while ago if I was filming it would I have shot it any different and I would say no.

LC:  Because you were using single camera techniques anyway.

PS:  Oh yes, completely. Maybe some of the lighting might have been better because we didn’t have to light for two cameras. The difficult thing with two cameras is sometimes if you’re running out of light. Light with those cameras, even in those days, lasted longer because you could wind up the luminence factor in a printer and many a time we shot a scene where you could barely see the lines [laughs]. I’d say, ‘How’s that?’ ‘Well look at it, it’s alright isn’t it?’

LC:  So you were using two video cameras when you were shooting?

PS:  Yes, always, oh I’d never have got through it otherwise.

LC:  Right and then putting it all together in the editing?

PS:  Yes. I shot single cameras but they were recorded independently.

LC:  But you had two cameras on the same scene?

PS:  Yes.

LC:  At different angles?

PS:  Yes, usually it would be like a medium shot or they might move and then the other one might be closer on detail and move around and things like that. So I knew I could get several cuts that were different.

LC:  Right, but traditionally with outside broadcast you would have been in the truck, cutting between cameras…

PS:  Yes, absolutely.

LC: … but you weren’t doing that with Blackstuff.

PS:  Sometimes I did, yes, sometimes in interiors. I don’t know if you realised but some of the houses were very small. We usually want more space so that we can move the camera around, but then suddenly if a wall is there you can’t get rid of the wall like you can in the studio, so I said to John Kenway, wonderful cameraman, he was literally scraping his elbows and we had to pad his elbows up. I said ‘Gotta get wider.’ ‘But if I put it on a wider lens Philip and then when we go in like that it won’t be close enough for what you want’, but I said ‘Look we need to make a virtue of the fact that they live in small rooms, rooms that were 8 or 9 by 12, or something like that, which a lot of those houses were, and when you went through a door it was just a two foot three door or something like that. I remember there’s a scene with Michael Angelis and Julie Walters, when they have one of their rows and I had Julie moving from room to room and we did it all on one tape, she moved across the room and we panned and you heard him off and she came back and into another room and then she did this several times to try to get him off her back and then eventually when we were ready we went through the door into the room, into a close two-shot, where I think she smashed a plate or something, but I mean all those things you could never have done in the studio. Of course in film you could have done it, but you couldn’t have done it – now you can with Steadicam – you couldn’t have done it on a trolley, you know, a track and dolly, you couldn’t dolly through those doors, so he actually did it with a hand-held camera.

LC:  And that was the advantage of the lightweight video camera.

PS:  Oh yes, it was wonderful.

LC:  And the quality of the video was very good. I remember one shot in particular in the final episode where you’re at the Albert Dock…

PS:  Yes.

LC:  … and you know it’s the scene when George dies and you had that long shot from up on the roof looking down, I think there’s a zoom in…

PS:  Yes and then it ran with him right across Albert Dock, yes, fantastic.

LC:  … and that was a really striking shot and very good quality. Going off to another subject altogether, you said something in the Chris Dunkley interview at the NFT [14 August 2001], when he was asking you about A Night Out [ABC, 24 April 1960], which he didn’t follow up which I thought was quite interesting, so I thought I’d ask you about it, when you said that you experimented a bit with A Night Out and Pinter was a bit worried about it and I just wondered what it was, how you experimented? Or what you meant by that?

PS:  The experiment part of it was I did some dissolves through time, through a clock face, and I remember getting the clock face at a very acute angle, which slightly distorted it, and I played around a lot with the sound and also the way I shot it, I shot it in a sort of intense close-up a lot of it, which is used quite commonly now. I thought he was generally very happy with it, we remained very good friends ever since. I launched him on television, fantastic.

Tom Bell in A Night Out (1960)

LC:  Some of the Armchair Theatre plays were pre-recorded, I believe as early as 1958, when video first came in but they tended to be recorded as if live, I think, because you couldn’t cut the tape. When did it become possible to edit electronically.

PS:  You really want to know?

LC:  Can you remember?

PS:  Yes I can, very clearly, since I started it.

LC:  Oh well, I’m asking the right person then.

PS:  Well I’ll tell you how it happened in Armchair Theatre, I don’t know about anywhere else. I was doing a play, I can’t exactly remember what it was, and I think the week before Ted Kotcheff, the Canadian director, did a play, very complex play, in which an actor, who I’d worked with, called Gareth Jones, actually keeled over and died in the middle of the performance. Panic broke out, even though they were taping it, the floor assistants, the stage managers and loads of the actors, and he was apparently lying literally dead just below the level of the camera angle and they were improvising, trying to get through, because they all knew the play very well, and certain lines someone took and they managed to get through everything and of course they announced it at the end of the production. Ted Kotcheff and I met and said ‘Look this is ridiculous, if you’d have stopped, you know, just stopped, you could have done something about it.’ And I said ‘This is absolutely mad, we can cut the tape, we can edit the tape.’ So we hit upon this idea where I with the next production and he would follow up the next production, we would deliberately encourage an actor to ‘dry’, okay, and ‘dry’ in close-up. Now the actor in question, who’s since become very famous…

LC:  Who you don’t want to name…

PS:  … no, said ‘But I’ll never work again in television.’ ‘Yes you will.’ Anyway he was shaking in his boots and I said ‘You’re not to tell anybody about this, okay.’ Because I revealed all this later on to Sydney Newman. And he dried: ‘Well I was supposed to be…… as I was saying I was supposed to be……’ and then what happens the stage manager had a clip to cut out the sound to give the actor the line and she’s going ‘…there at Trafalgar Square…’ and then he goes ‘Well as I was saying I was supposed to be somewhere, or where I don’t know… in, in… Trafalgar Square.’ So I’m cutting now to another camera and of course he’s got a long speech. So finally he puts his head down: ‘I don’t want to go on about this, you know what I mean’ and of course he hasn’t given any of the clues to motivate the next scene. So Sydney Newman’s in the box, he’s in the control room: ‘Oh my God Philip, this is going out at peak time’, right after [Sunday Night at the] London Palladium. So I just say ‘Stop the tape, we’re stopping.’ ‘Philip you can’t do that, I’m ordering you.’ I said ‘Stop the tape, we’ll cut.’ Anyway Sydney rushes down to the actor: ‘Are you alright, I mean, how come…’, you know, well-known stage actor. He said ‘I’m so sorry, I just, I couldn’t remember, I came out in a sweat, it’s very hot in the studio.’ So I said ‘Sydney look, it’s very easy, you just make an edit, right, and we carry on.’ Meanwhile, of course, it was all planned that I could change the cameras around to another angle, which would then give much more breadth to the production, so we did this and twenty minutes later we carried on.

LC:  It had been recorded as a continuous production.

PS:  Oh, yes, continuous, because they didn’t want to cut the tapes because you couldn’t use them properly afterwards. Later on of course they worked out how to synchronise the tape. So Sydney called a meeting, all the directors, and he said: ‘We’ve discussed the thing, had a talk with the other networks and since we do have the facility now of editing they’ve said that we can allow up to six edits only in the tape, but none to happen in the first twenty minutes, in other words before the first commercial break’ and we all looked at each other, ‘Oh thank God.’ Then we could plan the productions more like a film.

LC:  Right, so you had to record in long chunks.

PS:  Yes.

LC:  And you could stop the tape.

PS:  Yes I could stop the tape and I could get a camera in a place which you couldn’t get, because otherwise it means going through the screen, since the cables wouldn’t wrap around the whole set. Don’t forget the cables were an inch and a half thick and plus they [the cameras] were the great big heavy things like Vinten dollies, so this became what we did and of course we planned the productions and we’d then encourage the writers, it transformed the whole writing technique, because remember, in those early days, some of the plays, although they were very cunningly written, had to incorporate information that normally you wouldn’t have to say, because you’d just see it. So the writers appreciated it and then eventually of course with discontinuous recording after 1964 it was, you know, you could edit the tape, you could cut it, because that’s when they introduced one inch.

LC:  Right, so with something like A Night Out was that all done continuously or did you actually edit A Night Out by stopping?

PS:  No, I didn’t stop.

LC:  It was all done continuously,

PS:  I tell you one thing we did do though. One of the actors, I’m not sure whether it was Harold or not, had to clear the set and go right round to another set and he had nine seconds only to do it, because I couldn’t ask the actor to stretch the dialogue too long because otherwise it would have been unnatural, unnatural in the wrong way, okay. So, I tied up two cameras, because we only had four or five cameras then, five cameras was a luxury, and I tied up two cameras, one camera completely punched up on the screen, watching the other camera get into position to take a shot, and he had nine seconds to do it and it was amazing because we got to the thing and he was almost there, the actor was there and make-up had dabbed the perspiration off his cheek and it was ‘seven, eight, nine, take it!’ and I remember at that time we had turret lenses, revolving lenses, and he [the cameraman] went through the lenses like that, I mean it was unbelievable. That was when the television director particularly was like a kind of God in a way because you were really in the hot seat and boy did the seat get hot, it was amazing. Now of course it’s all completely blasé: ‘Okay wrap it up now, you’re fantastic, champagne anyone?’

LC:  What about The Afternoon of a Nymph [ABC, 30 September 1962], which was a couple of years later, did you edit on that?

PS:  Oh yes.

LC:  I imagine you would have needed to because it was a very complex production.

PS:  Very complex, yes I edited on that.

LC:  The one where the actor died on the set was Underground [ABC, 30 November 1958].

PS:  Underground, that’s right, yes. Gareth Jones, he had a great future in front of him. I did a production with him called Miss Olive [ABC, 6 April 1958] which was an office party about a secretary who falls in love with a salesman and he gets drunk at a party and she’s very sad and he sort of takes her out of herself by lighting candles on his hat, wonderful, like a young Charles Laughton, and then he went into Ted’s and then he died, shame, he had a heart attack.

LC:  You did so many Armchair Theatre productions, I’m astonished at how many you did. In 1958 alone you did seven.

PS:  Seven, yes.

LC:  A Gust a Wind [ABC, 23 February 1958].

PS:  Oh yes, that was wonderful, that was with Harry H. Corbett, playing an Italian. Which other ones were there?

LC:  Then Miss Olive, then Death of Satan [ABC, 25 May 1968].

PS:  Oh that was one with Duncan [writer Ronald Duncan]. That was one of the saddest moments of my life. The great actor, Wilfred Lawson, I was warned by everybody, because he rarely did television, and he was a tremendous alcoholic and every day he was fine up until midday and the ones that knew said ‘Just deal with it, get rid of him at twelve o’clock, you’ll be fine, after that there’s no hope’ and I had a marvellous actor called Alan Badel, who was a very distinguished actor, and they didn’t get on. Wilfred Lawson came word perfect to the reading, it was a long verse play and you never do things like that, and then in the afternoon I tried to get rid of him but Wilfred Lawson, who was pissed as a newt by then, would just talk all the way through and he was like this… (incomprehensible drunken words) and finally Sydney Newman came down and said ‘Philip I’m sorry to say this but you were warned.’ So they said ‘There’s no way it will go on, the network will never take this on, it’s too risky, you’ll have to let him go’ and this man I absolutely worshipped as an actor and I literally wept to tell him: ‘Wilfred, I’m going to have to let you go.’ ‘I understand… it’s alright old boy’ he said, like that ‘it happens to me all the time’ and at that point that was it and I wept and I just gushed, I said ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve tried so hard but there’s nothing I can do, it’s a technical thing…’ and I got John Laurie to take over at the last moment, I don’t know how he remembered it, amazing…

LC:  After that you did Noon on Doomsday [ABC, 6 July 1958].

PS:  Oh, that was the moment, you know of all the different things… Noon on Doomsday, Rod Serling, right, I brought over a French black actress called Marpessa Dawn who was in Black Orpheus [1959], I really liked that and you couldn’t do… 

LC:  I know, there’s so many, we can’t go through them all, this was just one year. The Time of Your Life [ABC, 19 October 1958]

PS:  The Time of Your Life! William Saroyan, with a huge cast, Ann Sheridan, Franchot Tone, Rita Gam, Dan Dailey, I can’t even remember half of them, incredible stars that were in this thing, fantastic, this was an hour and half show.

LC:  Oh, really, because they were normally one hour, weren’t they?

PS:  Yes, this was a big co-production with ATV, we had to pay phenomenal money. Live! Half the cast were completely pissed. I remember saying to Franchot Tone, who by this time, almost before we started, was three quarters of the way over a fifth of vodka and I said ‘Look I want you to get up here at this point and then walk over to the bar and get …’ and he said (affecting drunken voice) ‘Philip, no. You bring the bar over to me’ and of course Ann Sheridan was cut to the quick as well and one of the other people, marvellous actor, said to me ‘The reason why Philip, I tell you, is because they’ll fall over’ [laughs].

LC:  So that was being done live then.

PS:  Yes.

LC:  So you weren’t recording at this stage then.

PD:  No. Now Boy with the Meat Axe [ABC, 23 November 1958] was ground breaking because that was when the phrase ‘kitchen sink drama’ came out. I did the very first kitchen sink drama, which hung around for years, you know.

LC:  And the final one you did that year, of the seven, was The Deaf Heart [ABC, 12 December 1958].

PS:  Oh that was such a beautiful play, with a lovely actress who [died] quite early, Janet Munroe. She [played] a deaf-mute. That was such a beautiful play. When you think of all those different, completely different [plays], now you have to wait at least nearly ten months to see something completely different.

LC:  I counted up that you did about forty-odd Armchair Theatre plays in about five or six years.

PS:  Yes, amazing, we were doing regularly seven or eight a year.

LC:  The following year, 1959, you did seven again, so there’s seven a year.

PS:  Yes, there was a big turnaround, it was like Warner Brothers, it was the nearest thing to Hollywood in the ‘40s.

LC:  I wanted to ask you one more technical question. Would it have been possible in the early ‘60s, in live TV, to do a split screen shot?

PS: Yes.

LC:  The reason I ask is that I was reading a camera script for a short drama that Troy Kennedy Martin wrote for the Storyboard series, in 1961, and there’s a sequence involving a telephone conversation between two characters where it looks like Jimmy MacTaggart, who was directing it, wanted to superimpose the two characters during the conversation and I wondered why he hadn’t gone for a split screen and then I thought well maybe it wasn’t technically possible to do.

PS:  Well it might not have been available, because in those days the equipment was very expensive, it’s even more expensive today, but it might have been in use for a game show, which always took precedence over any drama. Or maybe he wanted to do a soft edge, in the early days it was hard-edged and maybe he didn’t want it hard-edged. Later on of course they were able to make it soft-edged. Yes, it could have been that, but it was definitely possible, I did it quite a lot.

LC:  There was something written on the script, which I assume was Jimmy MacTaggart’s direction to the camera operators or vision mixers, saying if we can’t achieve this then we’ll intercut as usual.

PS:  From what I pick up on what you say it must have been that the equipment was not available to them when they needed it. But it was definitely possible.

LC:  In your long career…

PS:  Oh dear please don’t say that it’s terrible…

LC:  … you seem to have chosen to work more in television than the movies, I know you have done some feature films…

PS:  I’ve just done a big film of The Gospel of John [2003].gospel-of-john

LC:  Yes I did notice, so perhaps this isn’t true, but you seem to have stayed with TV when other directors have gone on to work in the film industry.

PS:  Yes, it’s strange because I remember in the ’50s, I lived in America for about three years and I came back to England and desperately wanted to get in to make movies and it was quite difficult then, I was very young and you had to serve your time then, not like today, and I’d just done a production in the theatre of a Strindberg play, The Creditors, which later on I did in television actually and at that time ITV was starting up and I’d just worked with Philco Playhouse in America, Studio One, CBS, with people like Arthur Penn and David Suskind and Sidney Lumet, and I applied for an interview and I spun them a line: ‘Yes I can do this, I can do that’, usual arrogance of youth.

So I went down and did my training, I did my own original work as a test piece called The Last Fade Out and wrote it and directed it and then I was hired. I was offered so many marvellous things and of course the turnaround involved you in work all the time and the only way I could have perhaps moved – there was one attempt when I wrote a screenplay which almost got put on – it would mean that I’d have to drop out of work and I had a young family, I had a house, mortgage, the usual things, and the money was very good at ITV, it was highly paid, relatively, we lived a great life and I just went up a ladder and started winning lots of awards and things.

Then later I began to make movies and I sometimes think, not that I regret staying in television, that if I’d have spread some of my ideas… I did some, The Logic Game [BBC2, 9 January 1965], things that nobody understood [laughs], if I had done some of the experimental things like that in movies… You see at that time there was nothing happening here like that, not like it is today, you can be very surreal today and it’s like eating Kentucky Fried Chicken or something, everybody does it, every commercial’s like that. So I think that’s the reason why, I found the opportunity. When you look at the portfolio of work, I was challenged, amazingly challenged. But so far I’ve had a good life so…



* Since posting this interview David Rolinson’s obituary of Philip Saville has been published in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, 9 January 2020). Rolinson states that Saville ‘was born on 28 October 1927 at the St Marylebone Infirmary, in Northumberland Street, Marylebone, London’, information that was taken from Saville’s birth certificate. Rolinson adds in the obituary: ‘In later life Philip Saville gave his birth year as 1930, a date repeated in all his obituaries.’ 

4 replies on “Philip Saville (1930-2016)*”

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