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Still sharp, 40 years after its Network premiere

Ivo van Hove, Lee Hall, Krystian Lada and Bryan Cranston in rehearsals for Network at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld Ivo van Hove, Lee Hall, Krystian Lada and Bryan Cranston in rehearsals for Network at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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As the National Theatre prepares to stage Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satire, playwright Lee Hall, who has adapted the original screenplay, tells Nick Smurthwaite why the story resonates even more powerfully now, and how it felt to update his hero’s work

Even four decades on from the release of Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, the 1976 film still has plenty to say to us about media manipulation and corporate corruption.

The film won four Oscars, including for best screenplay, and was Chayefsky’s last original screenplay before he died of cancer at the age of 58 in 1981.

As with his earlier film The Hospital (1971), in Network Chayefsky sought to exploit the infrastructure of an institution – this time a major TV network – in order to reflect wider concerns about corporate greed, the erosion of integrity and capitalism out of control.

In bringing Network to the stage, playwright Lee Hall says his first priority was to make it an homage to Chayefsky’s original screenplay, rather than a reinvention of the film.

Bryan Cranston in the poster for the NT’s revival

“He was a great hero of mine,” says the man who brought us Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, as well as the screenplay for the recent biographical film Victoria and Abdul.

“He had the energy and passion of a lot of mid-century writers, like Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder. As well as being a great satirist and visionary, he was also deeply human, with a wicked sense of humour.”

Hall first had the idea of adapting Network for the stage 10 years ago after revisiting the film. Coincidentally the rights to produce it as a stage play came up for auction, and he was approached to do the adaptation.

“The key figure in all this was Paddy’s son, Dan Chayefsky, who is understandably protective of his father’s legacy and gave me permission to look at Paddy’s old notebooks and papers pertaining to Network that are kept in the New York Public Library. It seems it wasn’t until after he’d written it and the film had come out that Chayefsky became clear about what it meant.

“So I tried to reference some of those thoughts he’d intuitively and eloquently written down after the event in my script. I call it keyhole surgery.”

Did he make many structural changes to the script? “My aim from the start was to show Paddy off rather than show off myself, but there was one episode in the film – satirising a black terror group selling out to TV – that may have been pertinent at the time but both Ivo [van Hove, the director] and I felt we’d be doing Paddy a disservice if we left in as it was. So we’ve made it slightly more serious, no longer a parody but something more sinister, in keeping with the times.”

Hall has, however, retained the 1970s setting, believing that was all part of being true to Chayefsky’s original vision.

“Weirdly it doesn’t feel like it is set in the past,” he says. “It seems more current now than when I did the adaptation two years ago. Perhaps the rise of Trump and all the stuff about fake news has allowed satire to catch up with the 1970s.”

Cover of Dave Itzkoff’s 2014 book about the making of the film

In the film, ageing anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) calmly declares live on air that he will kill himself on camera, having been fired by the TV network. The opportunistic head of programming, Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway, sees a way to turn Beale’s very public breakdown to the network’s advantage.

Among the actors considered for the role of Beale ahead of Finch were Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Henry Fonda and George C Scott, who won an Oscar for his leading role in The Hospital four years earlier. It is a role ripe with barnstorming possibilities for a resourceful middle-aged actor, as is that of the younger, alluring Christensen.

Having established himself as the most original and provocative writing talent in Hollywood – by this time he had already won Oscars for Marty (1955) and The Hospital (1971) – Chayefsky had every intention of safeguarding his reputation by keeping a close eye on Network as it went into production.

In his 2014 book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network, Dave Itzkoff charts the ups and downs of the production with pain-staking thoroughness.

He writes: “Chayefsky’s primary concern, more than seeing to it that Network was filmed imaginatively, or competently, or quickly, or on budget, was ensuring that all its dialogue was performed exactly as he had written it in the script. When it was not, he could be counted on to point out to his actors exactly where and how they had gone astray.”

In order to best observe the actors’ work, Chayefsky would position himself as closely as he could to them while the cameras were rolling. Director Sidney Lumet, far from objecting to the writer’s forensic scrutiny, positively welcomed Chayefsky’s constant interjections.

Similarly, according to Hall, Van Hove has accorded the playwright every courtesy and respect, although the modest writer would not presume to interfere with the director’s vision.

“Ivo has a singular vision and is bringing all kinds of things into the mix, but he could not have been more respectful and meticulous about the script,” says Hall. “Things can happen in a rehearsal room that help to shape the play, so I like to be there as much as possible to watch it evolve. I never see a script as a finished thing. I like to be free to move things around.”

Network is playing in repertory at the National Theatre from November 4

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