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July 18, 2012

The Wednesday Play: Artemis 81 (1981)

Posted on July 18, 2012 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Artemis 81

Well, in our Wednesday Play slot, we've featured plays that have changed attitudes, plays that have entertained, adaptations of classic works of fiction, the gritty, the funny, the meta and more. But plays can also be experimental.

Generally, television dramas tend to aim for 'mimesis', to be as close to reality as they can. There's a lot that goes into that: characters that seem like real people, dialogue that sounds like something you'd hear in conversation, logical plotting with effect following cause, and so on.

But art doesn't have to have mimesis, as many a surrealist or Brechtian will tell you. Theatre and to a lesser extent film can try not to mimic reality, but instead to challenge conventions and impose its own.

Television finds this much harder to do, thanks to audience expectations. But sometimes it tries.

All of which is a very pretentious, convoluted and somewhat sophistic build-up to my trying to defend the almost indefensible: Artemis 81.

Originally intended as a mini-series, co-funded by Danish TV, this 1981 TV production by noted scriptwriter David Rudkin (as well as several individual plays for television, he also adapted MR James' The Ash Tree for the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas, and contributed to the screenplay for François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451) saw paranormal novelist Gideon Harlax (Shelley's Hywel Bennett) involved in an epic battle to save the earth from the Angel of Death (Eldorado's Roland Curram) and Danish organist Dr Albrecht Von Drachenfels (Dan O'Herlihy), aided and abetted by his wife, Gwen (Dinah Stabb), an Oxford student (Daniel Day-Lewis, but unrecognisable) and the Angel of Love and Light Helith (Sting, in his first proper acting role).

Now if you've made it through that paragraph without inadvertently sniggering once, you're a stronger and more serious person than I. And if you can make it through the first four minutes of Artemis 81, let alone the whole thing, without doing the same, your Herculian strength of will will become a thing of legend. Follow me after the jump where you can find out more about it and even watch it. All three hours of it. Is that a challenge or what?

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July 12, 2012

Nostalgia corner: Casting The Runes (1979)

Posted on July 12, 2012 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Casting The Runes

Since we've been talking a bit about the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas this week, it seems appropriate to have a look at 'the one that (almost) got away': ITV Playhouse's adaptation of MR James' Casting The Runes.

Virtually all the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas were adaptations of short stories by James. Only 1976's The Signalman, written by Charles Dickens; 1977's Stigma, written by Clive Exton; and 1978's The Ice House, by John Bowen, deviated from this tradition. However, this wasn't because the producers had run out James stories to adapt - far from it, since BBC4 went on to adapt James' View From A Hill and Number 13 in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

In fact, just as the BBC was winding up its annual Ghost Stories for Christmas, ITV's ITV Playhouse anthology series chose to get two of its rival's contributors, writer Clive Exton and director Lawrence Gordon Clark, to adapt James's Casting The Runes. This wasn't the first time ITV had adapted James or even Casting The Runes: there had been four black-and-white productions made of James stories between 1966 and 1968, including Casting The Runes, which have now been virtually lost (although some parts do remain of the adaptation of Casting The Runes), and it had adapted Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance for schools in 1975. But unlike those previous adaptations and those of the BBC, which had all been period pieces, this was a modernisation and extension of James' original story.

Starring Just Good Friends' Jan Francis and Children of the Stones' Iain Cuthbertson, Casting The Runes took James' tale of a covert, supernatural battle between a man and an outraged mage who'd received a bad review from him and transposed it to a modern day conflict between a TV journalist (Francis) and a notorious self-styled Aleister Crowley-like figure (Cutherbertson), outraged at being mocked by one of her documentaries.

Most of the features of the original story remain, from the Satanic curse secretly passed to Francis when she least expects it to the demise of a previous critic thanks to the curse a few years earlier, although the narrative is more linear and more eventful than James' original. While lacking the quiet, haunting atmosphere of the BBC adaptations that perhaps only age, the empty countryside and a lack of people can bring, the ITV Playhouse version overcomes this by effectively using visual and sound effects - although Cutherbertson's costuming and performance add an element of unwanted comedy to the proceedings.

Strangely, despite ITV Playhouse running for another five years, there were no more adaptations of James's stories by the series - or by any other series - until Janice Hadlow revived the format for BBC4 and continued it once she moved to BBC2. Hopefully, now that BBC4's drama budget is being handed over to BBC2, we'll get another one this year.

If not, as in 1978, there's now a golden opportunity for ITV to revive the tradition. Are you listening, Peter Fincham?

The full thing's not available on YouTube, although Network DVD have very kindly released it on DVD (as a bonus, you get that adaptation of Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance as well), but here's a trailer for it:

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July 11, 2012

The Wednesday Play: Abigail's Party (1977)

Posted on July 11, 2012 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Abigail's Party

So far, most of the plays in this strand have been worthy, important and serious. But there used to be a strong tradition of comedy plays within most of British TV's anthology series - there was even a Comedy Playhouse anthology series that gave birth to the likes of Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine.

But Play For Today, the BBC's main play series, aired a number of important comedy plays from no less a director than Mike Leigh, the man behind the award-winning Naked, Secret & Lies, Vera Drake, Career Girls and Life is Sweet. But despite having that kind of a CV in the film industry, arguably he is still best known for two of his six Plays For Today: Nuts in May and this week's Wednesday Play, Abigail's Party.

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