Couldn’t we do this?

Posted on July 18, 2010

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Years ago I remember being plonked in front of a TV by my A-Level English Lit teacher and watching a studio production of King Lear by the BBC.

At the time, the majority of the class dismissed this approach to teaching as lazy and indicative of our teacher’s lack of ability to control us.

And yet, as we fast approached our A-Level exams, the benefits of this opportunity (and other’s like it) became apparent. Instead of merely reading the script from a book, we’d had an opportunity to see a staged performance without waiting for a theatrical production to roll up in a nearby theatre. It aided learning and undoubtedly made the revision go a whole lot more smoothly.

A rare specially adapted for television performance of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical theatre piece Into the Woods has bubbled up to the top of one of my weekend searches on YouTube. The simple set design and borderline quaint presentation reminds me of those early BBC TV productions of Shakespeare plays. It does – frankly – make me go all warm and fluffy.

It reminds me of a style of production the BBC used to do which I rather wish it would revisit. There’s joy implicit in the simplistic set design of the Lear clip at the top of the page. Something reflected in the specially adapted opening sequence from Into the Woods. I’m not entirely clear on whether the Sondheim performance is from a Wogan TV chat show as suggested in the YouTube description or indeed whether it’s got anything to do with the South Bank Show Arts Review show as indicated in the comments on that video.

What’s important about both these clips is that a deliberate attempt has been made to adapt a stage performance into something specifically for TV without relying on external locations, swift edits or overly complex TV trickery. Some might conclude that makes for a bland TV experience. I’d suggest it merely emphasises the key elements in both works. In King Lear the simple set focuses attention on the script – that is why any A-Level student studies it after all. Where the Sondheim clip is concerned our attention is focused on the complex orchestrations in Sondheim’s music, marvelling at the challenges inherent in the melody and lyrics while paying close attention to the characterisation of the performers. This in itself a cornerstone of musical theatre.

In this way, I’m reckoning on how both these clips represent a forgotten advantage offered by TV. It doesn’t need to be complex realisation to do the original material good. We should return to a simpler approach to production, making use of the resources we have access to already to produce something of value to fans of the genres and for those studying the works. A double-hitter, if you will.

Oh. And if you’re looking for somewhere to start, start with Sondheim’s work. The man is 80 years old this year. What better coup for a broadcasting organisation like the BBC than to produce a series of special TV adaptions of the great man’s works with him involved?

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Posted in: Audio & Music, TV