Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Dramatic Spaces at the BFI: Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968) and Miss Julie (1965)

Since I last wrote about employment I've become a full-time staff member of an historical research project again; but earlier today I left early eighteenth-century bishops behind at my Bloomsbury office, and travelled to the South Bank and 1960s by bus, to see a couple of 1960s television plays in the BFI's Dramatic Spaces season, which ties in with the recent AHRC-funded project Spaces of Television, based at the University of Reading. The two plays were Let's Murder Vivaldi by David Mercer (1968) and Miss Julie (1965) by August Strindberg, translated by Elizabeth Sprigge. Both plays were directed (and in the case of Miss Julie adapted) by Alan Bridges, who died in December. There's an accessibly educated and informed post about the choice of these plays on the Spaces of Television blog, which also confirms the suspicion I had that at least one had suffered cuts at some point. Miss Julie suffers from the abrupt realisation of a sex scene which seems an all-too-brief excursion into the surreal, but was intended to be much longer and better integrated into the play as a whole.

Let's Murder Vivaldi was up first, perhaps because it was part of the most well-known strand of the single television play on the BBC, The Wednesday Play, or because it contained the most familiar faces among its cast, with Glenda Jackson as young civil servant Julie, and Denholm Elliot as her boss, Gerald, with whom, at the start of the play, she is on the verge of an affair. Paul Sumner as Ben, Julie's draughtsman lover, a frustrated violinist, was perhaps the weakest link in the cast, but Gwen Watford was calmly authoritative, patronising, manipulative but honest as Gerald's wife Monica. The play is one of those where the characters' dialogue comes across as shared inner monologue, but is of interest when what is revealed is an emptiness. The play even has a touch of horror-comedy in what its knife fixation builds up to - the slicing of Julie's face by the misarticulate Ben is in part misdirection. In the end, those who learn to accept their 'peculiarities' and stop trying to conform to other people's ideas of what they should be are the happiest. Denholm Elliot is a uniquely soluble actor, often looking as if he has consumed gallons of water and is having trouble keeping which is perhaps appropriate given one of Julie's 'peculiarities', which also works as a comment on television censorship. It's a powerful piece of 1960s rage against sexual, social and workplace conformity, though noticeably the voice of a simpler time.

Miss Julie - produced for BBC2's Theatre 625 strand - was a contrast in that it included some sequences filmed on location rather than being entirely in studio. Where Let's Murder Vivaldi is a series of two-handers (Ben/Julie, Monica/Gerald, Gerald/Julie, Monica/Gerald, Ben/Julie), the 1965 Miss Julie is a play with three speaking characters and in this version several non-speaking ones, all appearing on film. Bridges's Miss Julie reminded me of another television play of this era, Philip Savile's version of Huis Clos, with its largely location-filmed scene-setting. The use of a foreign-accented Gunnel Lindblom as Julie alongside a very English Ian Hendry as Jean and Stephanie Bidmead as Christine seemed odd at first, but perhaps it works as an indicator of class divisions, Jean and Christine being presented as audience identification figures while Julie is exotic and remote. Expectations are teased and confounded several times as sex brings complication rather than a gateway to permanent happiness and class and gender confine by education and expectation. It's mostly Hendry's and Bidmead's play, though, Hendry showing a range as Jean works through his many facets, and Stephanie Bidmead looks on, quietly confident that Christine is one of God's elect.

The BFI notes suggested that camera and performance in Let's Murder Vivaldi turned rooms into cells; this is too blatant an analogy for the way the play used the television camera, often stalking character by character, portrait shot by portrait shot, perhaps suggesting the characters are prisoners of their preconceptions. There are many ways out, all the same - characters go through doors in bedsitland or country hotels, or negotiate fashionable partitions. Gerald chooses to actualise his imprisonment, but blames only one of his jailers; for Julie and Ben, it's a question of coming to terms with who they are, not what they ought to be.

An Alan Bridges camera script must have kept the camera operators of Television Centre going up and down on their platforms. The many changes of tight angle in Let's Murder Vivaldi were noticeable, providing a fluidity which emphasised the brittleness of the harsh alternation of conversation partners in the penultimate Monica/Gerald scene. Miss Julie used yet lower angles on a staircase set, suggestive of moral hazard as well as the space's geographical location; but compared to Let's Murder Vivaldi and its parallel use of the domestic, especially the kitchen, Miss Julie's set and the way it was captured were more suggestive of space, and so perhaps of choices which could be made in the world outside Julie's father's estate, but in the end were not.

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