⬆ Year One: Granada and the Drama 

21 March 2017 tbs.pm/11245

BEFORE it is possible to make any sort of assessment of Granada’s contribution to the Drama, it is essential, I think, to recognize the nature of television itself.

Television is a means of dissemination, of, quite literally, broadcasting. What it broadcasts is a sort of film. The basic material of the medium, the picture on the screen, is exactly the same as in the cinema. It is also, of course, a method of production for film which has the advantages of speed and cheapness. Once these truisms are honestly acknowledged it becomes easier to see what it can do best, how it can speak most potently. First, it has a sense of intimacy unrivalled in any other field of entertainment. With this intimacy goes a ruthless concentration. In every home the little screen can be flicked off with the turn of a knob. In this lies the real challenge to every production company, to rivet the amorphous polyglot audience from the distractions of its own home, or from the cumulative tedium of an evening’s programmes. In the answer to this lay Granada’s choice of Look Back in Anger, their first major production, and, to a large extent, their whole dramatic policy.

When Granada first considered the production of Look Back in Anger it was the most controversial play in England. The first reviews of it in the theatre had quickly written it off with calm superiority as a piece of jejune unpleasantness. Only the Observer and the Sunday Times originally recognized it as the work of a major new English dramatist. Despite its successful run, however, it had not penetrated beyond a fairly specialized audience. The insulation of the English theatre from life, from real people and from real issues, had accounted for its original reception. Here was a play speaking from a particular and very passionate point of view. It was just this passion, this arrogance if you like, that not only made it controversial but made it speak to the wider audience — an audience that does not normally find its way into the theatres. Granada had learnt a lesson that the American cinema, amongst others, has taught over and over again — that controversy of any sort can be one of the most potent attractions in entertainment. If an audience can be stirred or angered, it cannot dismiss. This pursuit of controversy has outlined nearly all the Granada productions. Shooting Star was a story of corruption in the football industry; Home of the Brave was a study of the colour problem. Significantly, when it was a question of presenting Ibsen, Granada plumped for An Enemy of the People, where again the issue is social — a single man who for the sake of his conscience fights and opposes a whole community.

The scene on the set is in an alley-way, and cobblestones are required – a pot of paint provides them

No less than the themes of the individual plays themselves, Granada’s sense of the controversial has been reflected in its choice of writers. Besides John Osborne, it chose Arthur Miller’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People and presented the first English production of Another Part of the Forest, a study in Southern corruption and decay by the important American dramatist Lilian Heilman.

It would, of course, be foolish to say that the level of all Granada productions has been the same. It is noticeable, though, that Granada’s greatest successes as measured by any standards, press reception or viewing figures, have been in the production of the more significant and controversial plays. Granada’s failures have been in the occasional attempt to transfer from stage to screen the conventional play or the stage comedy with its highly artificial laws, manner, and stereotypes.

The problem, however, of finding original writers for television is one which it has not yet begun to tackle. This is absolutely vital. Television’s greatest success in America has been when it has used its own talents like Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose. English writers must be discovered — not geniuses, not the exceptional talent, but honest solid professionals.

Similarly, with directors, undoubtedly the most important and the most ably professional work in television has been done in North America. Granada rightly brought directors from Canada to Britain and they have set a standard easily surpassing the BBC and Granada’s commercial competitors. For the future it is necessary that lively new directors should be discovered and developed in an organization which gives them both scope and support.

A group of actors rehearse for tomorrow’s play; the scene is in a saloon bar

Here perhaps I may be allowed a personal digression. When Granada first asked me to direct Look Back in Anger on television I thought of it as primarily a technical assignment. I had already staged the play in the theatre, and I had re-rehearsed several replacements in the cast. For television it would be a question, I imagined, of planning the shots, arranging the cameras, composing sequences. When I began to replot the play for the cameras, however, I found just the contrary — a quite exceptional sense of freedom. Technically, I hardly had to think consciously about it at all. More than any other television show I had directed, technical questions became almost irrelevant; problems were solved even before they were posed; form became completely dominated by content. It was a question merely of bringing out this moment, underlining that value. The result was a production liberated from the orthodox conventions of television grammar.

Every medium must, of course, have a grammar even if it only acts as a safeguard. The grammar of television is based on that of the film: long shot, medium shot and close-up are the standard relationships for both. Necessarily, though, the emphasis in television is always on the closer shot because of the size of the screen itself. These easily acceptable transitions, valuable as they are as a stand-by for all visual story telling, can however — and often do — become something of a tyranny. The smoothness can kill real texture and punch. You can, however, only break the rules if the material you are presenting is absolutely mastered.

Ready to start the programme: Eleanor Summerfield in ‘My Wife’s Sister’ awaits her cue to face the cameras

Now, to know a play, for instance, as thoroughly as this is not usually possible with television. It has to be rehearsed in three weeks. In such a short time it is hardly ever possible for a director not only to create the play, the performances, the camera script, but when he is in the control room to know, inside-out, the very essences and subtleties of those performances, the tiny pauses, the fractional speeds that can make, in cutting, for the polish of a production. It is impossible too for the actors to create richly enough under such conditions. In the theatre the final shape of a production is hardly ever certain until after its opening; in the movies the pattern can be dictated absolutely by the editor; but in television there is only one opportunity to capture each moment. Ideally, perhaps, a major television outfit would have a live theatre attached. A play could then be rehearsed, played and transferred later, by the same director, to the screen. The gain in quality would be staggering. Economically, however, it is impossible in the foreseeable future.

But to return to our main theme: the most hopeful and the most tremendous thing about all Granada output is that there has been any policy at all. This, for a television company, is quite revolutionary. None of the others can present a list of such consistency. This same conviction is apparent, too, in some of Granada’s other programmes in which there is a similar emphasis on controversy. They have shown that here is an organization aware, despite the compromises necessary in a popular medium, of its social responsibilities. In presenting these programmes, Granada is fulfilling some of its responsibilities and attempting to reveal and assess some of the problems that are facing the society that it is serving.


Tony Richardson was Assistant Artistic Director of the English Stage Company at the time this article was written. Born in 1928 in the West Riding, he excelled at school and at university, becoming President of both the Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club. From there he went on to direct for theatre and film, winning two Academy Awards for the latter. He was married to Vanessa Redgrave from 1962 to 1967 and they had two daughters, the actors Natasha and Joely Richardson. He left Redgrave for actor Jeanne Moreau, and while with her fathered a daughter, Katherine, with Grizelda Grimond, the daughter of the then-Liberal Party leader. He died in 1991 from complications due to AIDS.

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