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Stephen Arnell: TV is increasingly looking to the stage in the arms race for drama

Andrew Scott in Hamlet at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan Andrew Scott in Hamlet, recently broadcast by the BBC. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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It may be premature to hail a renaissance of stage plays on television. But with the news that BBC2’s Performance Live strand will broadcast a film version of Alexander Zeldin’s social drama Love this autumn, there seems to be a growing trend.

Over recent years the BBC has broadcast adaptations of The Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare plays, Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser in 2015, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III last year. As well as ramping up Shakespeare on screen with Andrew Scott in Hamlet, Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear and the Donmar’s all-female trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest.

Channel 4 is also getting in on the act of stage to screen adaptations – though slightly more current – with a series version of Lucy Kirkwood’s Olivier award-winning geo-political drama Chimerica, starring Sophie Okonedo, F Murray Abraham and Alessandro Nivola.

While acknowledging that The Hollow Crown and The Dresser boast star casting and high production values, the increasingly visibility of TV stage adaptations may signify an appetite for more intimate, dialogue-driven pieces, rather than the pyrotechnics of some recent TV drama. Recent examples include Troy: Fall of a City and Hard Sun on BBC One, Britannia on Sky Atlantic and Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.

When, according to former BBC director of television Danny Cohen, the wait for top writers to become available can be as long as three years, a completed play with name recognition can be attractive to broadcasters.

There’s a tension when televising plays: whether to make a filmed record of ‘classic’ performances, or as a more imaginative opening-up of the material. There are perils in both approaches. A faithful staging can be too static, while a more liberal interpretation may lose the intensity of the performances. Some filmed stage performances have not aged well, markedly Laurence Olivier’s eye-rolling Othello from 1965.

Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear is a recent example of treating the material with some leeway, trimming the running time to 115 minutes, with a modern-day setting, an approach also favoured by Ian McKellen’s Richard III in 1995 and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus in 2011.

The BBC has long been the home of the adapted stage play, with a terrific late flowering in the 1990s in BBC2’s performance strand, which included well-regarded adaptations of Absolute Hell, A Message for Posterity,  The Deep Blue Sea and After Miss Julie.

In the days when there were only three UK channels and ITV was licence-bound to compete with the BBC in the arts, the network televised stage plays in Laurence Olivier Presents (1976-78) and Saturday/Sunday Night Theatre (1969-74).

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 meant ITV could safely abandon some of its public service commitments. Then TV versions of stage plays fell out of favour at Channel 4 in favour of Film on Four, with a few exceptions: such as the RSC’s acclaimed Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1982 and the 2001 Beckett on Film marathon.

Film on Four enjoyed success bringing selected plays to the screen, notably The Madness of King George in 1994, East is East in 1999, Gangster No 1 a year later and the more recent Macbeth in 2015.

Audiences have never been huge for TV adaptations of stage plays, but with the increasing fragmentation of viewers and the general trend to skew up-market we may continue to see ever more contemporary, classic and overlooked productions coming to the small screen.

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