Hamlet comes to BBC Two

We are delighted to learn of the planned screening of Robert Icke’s Hamlet on BBC Two in 2018. As huge fans of Robert Icke‘s work and of this production, the screening – commissioned by Patrick Holland (Controller, BBC Two) and Emma Cahusac (Commissioning Editor) – gets two thumbs up from all of us at Oberon HQ. It’s always wonderful to see any steps taken to make great theatre more accessible for everyone, and this decision means people can now watch a stunning modern production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the comfort of home, wherever they are in the country!

This production – which transferred to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre after its sell-out run at the Almeida earlier this year – stars Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott as Hamlet, Angus Wright as Claudius, Jessica Brown Findlay as the tragic Ophelia and Juliet Stevenson as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. It has also cast Guildenstern as a woman (Madeline Appiah) which adds a new and really interesting dimension to Hamlet’s relationship with Guildenstern.

Robert Icke’s modern take remains faithful to the original Shakespearean text, but somehow manages to feel fresh, relatable and up-to-date. It has received unanimous praise, being called ‘thrilling’ (The Stage), ‘rich and beautiful’ (Evening Standard) and ‘masterly’ (Variety). You can read more reviews here.

Another exciting aspect of this TV adaptation is the potential for it to be used in classrooms, alongside the text, to help students appreciate and engage with the play. Reading a Shakespeare play on the page just cannot be compared with hearing and seeing it performed in real time, in terms of understanding the language and the characters. With such a star-studded cast, and a modern Danish setting, this is sure to be a popular choice for English and drama teachers and their pupils.

You can learn more about Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and buy your own copy HERE

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“We finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight.” On the perils of directing Dennis Potter’s ‘Son of Man’

Ahead of its screening at BFI Southbank, Gareth Davies – director of many of Dennis Potter’s early television hits – recalls the challenges of bringing Son of Man to the screen on something close to a shoestring.

Son of Man 3

‘Son of Man’, 1969

Dennis Potter‘s work will one day be critically reassessed and in that process I believe Son of Man will be judged a pretty shoddy production which did not serve the excellent script and cast.

It’s a platitude that critics can only judge what they see and should not concern themselves with the problems, technical and structural, that existed in the 1960s.  An historical analysis, however, might usefully consider the factors that led to poor production values.

First of all no excuses, the main fault was mine. I knew that four days in Studio 1 would be inadequate to stage the production. I suggested that we delay the production until the arrival of Colour TV and try to assemble a coalition of European TV stations and shoot all the crowd scenes in a desert location with each station feeding in its own Jesus and disciples.

I was told not to be silly and to get on with mounting a studio production. Ironically Son of Man was later shown to the European Federation with several members regretting they could not afford to make their own production.

Decisions now had to be taken over the set design and this is where the errors of judgement started.

Son of Man 1

Brian Blessed prepares to snare a cameraman.

Having fantasised about shooting in a real desert I foolishly concurred with the idea of a realistic set in the studio. A desert would be constructed out of sandbags topped off with real sand which would double as Golgotha. The Sea of Galilee measured 8′ x 4′ which meant that when Brian Blessed as Peter cast his net he caught more cameramen than fish.

The cast was tiny for the Sermon on the Mount but large by the standards of the time and under constant financial pressure.  ‘Mark, Luke, Thomas…..?  Yes I know they’re the Disciples but do we really need 12?’

Son of Man 2I decided that all crowds scenes should be shot with untidy edges and cameras on the move so that we would feel that there was life outside the frame.

A miniature Jewish village square would be constructed inaccessible to studio cameras. To shoot these scenes I was permitted to dress 3 cameramen as Jewish peasants and equip them with small industrial cameras under their robes.  These had never been permitted before and took a lot of bargaining.

I retreated into the security of doing what I knew best – working with Dennis and the actors to develop our understanding of the play and pretended that everything was going to be wonderful.

An anecdote:- The rehearsal room floor was covered in hundreds of yards of multi-coloured tape marking out the various sets. When the final rehearsal ended it was the job of two young floor assistants to pull up each inch of tape. This could easily take two hours and then they had to go to the studio to check their props.

We decided to make the final rehearsal a word run only, at speed and with no movement. Colin Blakely wandered the desert pulling up a few feet of tape.  All the cast followed Jesus and by the end of the run the floor was completely cleared and the two floor assistants were in tears.

Without that sort of company spirit, led by Colin, I don’t think we would have survived the next four days as well as we did.

The morning of the first Studio day:-  I was approached by a man who introduced himself as the Head of Engineering. He called me Gareth and asked was I watching the Test Match? After a few minutes of this bizarre conversation he suddenly said ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve decided you can’t have the hand held cameras. They’re not up to standard.’

Eventually I said that I would simply cut to black where every hand held shot had been planned and HoE stalked off. I got my cameras back but too late to rehearse with them and they were not successful.

Next I was approached by my Designer, white-faced. Permission to use sand in the Studio had been withdrawn as it interfered with the running wheels of the camera dollies. However, oatmeal had been ordered and would be spread over our sandbag desert as soon as possible.

Unfortunately whenever we turned the wind-machines on to make the desert seem bitterly cold, the air filled with flying oatmeal which stuck to the woollen robes of the cast. The wind had to be switched off, leading to one critic calling the production ‘Curiously airless’!  He was right.

All these factors damaged the production but I can’t pretend that they were responsible for the massive overrun that occurred. We were simply overwhelmed. With a stop time of 10pm we finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight. None of the Pontius Pilate scenes had been recorded.

Son of Man 5

Up to this point the BBC had frankly not been at its best, now it upped a gear and responded magnificently.

Starting with chaos at midnight, within the hour the actor’s contracts had been sorted, a programme evicted from the small studio where our Roman sets were standing unused. Gerald Savory put an arm around my shoulder, told me everything was going to be wonderful and to get some sleep.

The next morning in Studio 2 a duty Vision Mixer arrived, complete with her knitting, to find two half-naked boxers rehearsing killing one another with viciously spiked gloves. ‘I’ve come to do Jackanory’ she said. Not any more.

9781783192038

‘The Art of Invective’

Everyone rallied and we finished but Dennis was not well served. My decisions on the style and design of the production were wrong although I’m still not sure what would have been the right approach. The last time I saw a recording it still had a boom in shot!

There are no villains in this tale. I imagine senior engineers believed they were correcting poor planning decisions made by their junior staff. Certainly wrong judgements were made by young programme makers swept on a tide of enthusiasm both for the play itself and for the sheer joy of walking into a big empty box and making magic.

For many of us a BBC Drama Studio was the real National Theatre, shorn of elitism and available from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

Reactions to the production were mixed. Rev Donald Soper was quoted as saying he wouldn’t watch because he knew what it would be like. The first of many telephone complainants to the BBC was disgusted that ‘…this man has hair on his body!’

A year later Graeme McDonald showed me a letter from the Mother Superior of a video-savvy Convent. They loved Son of Man so much, they had played it so often, that their 1 Inch Video reel to reel recording had worn out. Could they please buy a new copy?

How was Graeme to explain that the nun’s actions were illegal and that he should report them? The situation was resolved discreetly.

Dennis Potter and Me

Sunday marks 80 years since the birth of Dennis Potter. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of British television, both as the writer of the seminal dramas Son of Man, Pennies from Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective and as a ferocious TV critic and essayist. One of Potter’s most devoted disciples is Peter Bowker, creator of the acclaimed BBC serials Blackpool and Occupation, whose BBC2 biopic Marvellous won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama last night (10 May 2015).  

In his foreword to The Art of Invective Peter Bowker reflects on Potter’s ‘cruel and witheringly precise humour’ and what this new collection reveals about a spikey and uncompromising character.

Like many a 1970s hysteric, I can lay claim to having been titillated by the work of Dennis Potter long before I had actually seen any of it. Our family didn’t get BBC2 till the mid-Seventies so, for some time, my only acquaintance with his work was the BBC1 announcer intoning, ‘And now over on BBC2, Casanova’ for six weeks. In fairness, that was probably all the TV filth a 13-year-old in 1970s Stockport could handle without imploding.

But the real beginning – the real meeting with his work – was the moment in Pennies from Heaven when Bob Hoskins’ Arthur first turned to camera and opened his mouth and Elsie Carlisle’s voice came out. I can remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ It was so audacious but yet it made perfect sense. It was experimental but it was impossible to imagine the story being told in a better way. And like all great ideas, you were left wondering why nobody had thought to do it before.

1970 'Angels Are So Few' promo shot

1970 ‘Angels Are So Few’ promo shot

As the years went by and I took in Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective and Cream in My Coffee, I used to fantasize that me and Dennis Potter could be mates. Reading this collection does make me think that he would have been a tough mate to have.

The cruel and witheringly precise humour that we see Philip Marlow exercise in The Singing Detective is very much present in both his views on television and his views on himself. Reading this collection it is clear that critically, he didn’t appear to have a safety catch. He seemed not to recognize that simultaneously being a practising dramatist and a drama critic was problematic in any way, or, being Potter, relished the fact.

Just as his best drama simultaneously provided a critical and often musical analysis of the drama as it unfolded, so his non-fiction often reads as a dramatic monologue disguised as analysis. The musical rhythm of his dialogue and the savage put downs are all present and correct in his prose style.

Here he is reviewing a 1972 adaptation of War and Peace and taking on his familiar anti-realist position. Noting how much the director lingers on the soup plates, he goes on, ‘Naturalism might well demand that life be turned into one damned dish after another, but the insights of a great novelist are rather more interesting than the eye-line of the head waiter.’

9781783192038And here again, in a review of Till Death Us Do Part in which he worries that the character Alf Garnett has become a hero to the very racists he was invented to parody. He opens with an anecdote about a recent stay in hospital in which he found himself sharing a ward with:

assembled Alfs addressing themselves to the unpalatable fact subdued Pakistanis had somehow managed to infiltrate into the ward under the pretence of chronic sickness. We all knew as a matter of course that these cunning brown bastards were only there to draw social security payments, an argument which temporarily wavered when one of them so miscalculated his ruse that he actually went so far as to die. “There’s yer bleed’n curry for you,” observed my nearest Alf, not entirely without compassion.

As a piece of satire, I can’t think of a finer or wittier skewering of the myth of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits cheats’ in the space of one paragraph.

As a piece of prose it has elegance and playfulness, that final ‘not entirely without compassion’ reading almost like a stage direction and, like a perfectly weighted pass, allowing the reader to take it in their stride.

Most rewarding of all for the Potter geek, it is recognisably the blueprint for a moment in The Singing Detective where Ali – the Pakistani in the next bed to Philip Marlow – turns the expectation of racist abuse into a moment of shared hilarity between Marlow and himself at the expense of a liberal young houseman.

With his eye for absurdity and precision of language, how I would have loved to have read Dennis Potter on the likes of Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage, with his strained combination of fake bonhomie and victimized suburban bluster, could almost be a character invented by Potter – and played by Denholm Elliott. Cameron, you suspect, would be too easy a target, although I would like to see what he would have made of Nick Clegg’s avowed love of Samuel Beckett.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter circa 1987

There’s a tone in Potter’s prose and in his voice in interviews that reflects the masochism at the heart of his greatest work. He endlessly tortures himself with the notion that TV isn’t worthy of the same intellectual interrogation as literature or art but then makes it clear that he intends to ignore his misgivings and give the same forensic attention to an episode of Steptoe and Son or Coronation Street as he would, indeed does to War and Peace.

Naturalism, as Dennis was keen to remind us throughout his career, was just one way (and a flawed way at that) of writing television drama, but it had, partly through soaps and long running series like Z Cars, become the most familiar and dominant form by the time Pennies from Heaven burst on to our screen. Watching it now it reads as a largely naturalistic drama with music. The only time it really steps out of its realist framework is during the song sequences and during the encounters with the mystical Accordion Man. The Singing Detective then used the Pennies from Heaven template as its starting point to gloriously and triumphantly deconstruct the whole way in which we tell stories.

The towering achievement of The Singing Detective was to be simultaneously formally adventurous (A man in bed with a skin disease is writing or rewriting a detective novel, reminiscing about a traumatic childhood, peopling the film adaptation of his detective novel with characters that may or may not be characters from that troubled childhood. He is simultaneously being ripped off by his agent or wife or both for the film rights to the story he is writing. He is being psychoanalyzed. These multiple worlds bleed into each other from the beginning, and the musical sequences emphasize and restage his fears of illness, of betrayal, of loss of mind, of loss of conscience) and yet still to create a character who we cared about, who we believed and with whom we emotionally engaged. When Philip Marlow raises his still misshapen hands in triumph as he leaves the ward for the last time, I cry every time. He has won. He has beaten his sickness. He has taken up his bed and walked. He has become the triumphant hero of his own story – his own stories even.

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