What TV’s on at the BFI in August 2017? Including What the Butler Saw and Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Includes a season of Joe Orton plays

Playwright Joe Orton
Joe Orton

Every month, TMINE lets you know what TV the BFI will be presenting at the South Bank in London

August is normally a quiet time for the BFI, as it gambles that everyone’s probably on holiday. Maybe this year it’s gambling that Brexit means we’ll not be able to afford to go on holiday, because there’s actually a surprisingly full schedule. Most of this comes from a season of works by playwright Joe Orton, but there’s also a preview of BBC One’s adaptation of Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)’s first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and a showing of ITV’s seminal The Naked Civil Servant.

Purely by coincidence, The Weekly Play this week is an adaptation of Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, which was broadcast as part of BBC Two’s Theatre Night in 1987. The play is a farce in two acts and revolves around Dr Prentice (Dinsdale Landen), a psychiatrist attempting to seduce his attractive prospective secretary, Geraldine Barclay (Tessa Peake-Jones). Also along for the ride are Mrs Prentice (Prunella Scales), her lover/blackmailer Tyler Butterworth, government inspector Timothy West and cross-dressing police officer Bryan Pringle.


Wednesday 9th August

18:30 NFT2 (also Sunday 27th August, 15:00 NFT2)

Theatre Night: What the Butler Saw + Q&A with Joe Orton’s biographer John Lahr, Orton’s sister Leonie Orton and actor/Orton’s personal friend, Kenneth Cranham
BBC 1987. Dir Barry Davis. With Dinsdale Landen, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Tyler Butterworth. 85min

Completed just before his death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell in 1967, the play represents the apotheosis of Orton’s technique. Here he finds the magic formula for fusing the best of the British farce tradition with a cascade of breathtaking and brilliant one-liners in the style of Wilde: ‘I represent Her Majesty’s government, your immediate superiors in madness.’

With perfect casting, director Barry Davis captures the fast, furious and outrageously irreverent comedy, while at the same time staring into the heart of Orton’s troubled psyche as the play descends into something darker and more prophetic.

Thursday 10th August

18:15 NFT1

TV Preview: Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling + discussion with actors Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger, director Michael Keillor, writer Ben Richards and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts
BBC 2017. Dir Michael Keillor. With Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Tara Fitzgerald, Siân Phillips, Martin Shaw. Ep1 60min

Cormoran Strike (Burke), a war veteran-turned-private detective, operates out of a tiny office in London’s Denmark Street with his assistant Robin (Grainger). Though he’s wounded both physically and psychologically, Strike’s unique insight and his background in the Special Investigation Branch prove crucial in solving complex cases, which have eluded the police.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in the best-selling Cormoran Strike crime series written by Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling. This major new adaptation by Ben Richards (The Tunnel, Spooks) is produced by JK Rowling’s production company Brontë Film and TV.

Sunday 13th August

15:00 NFT3

Arena: A Genius Like Us (A Portrait of Joe Orton)
BBC 1982. Dir Nigel Williams. 72min

A fascinating portrait of Orton’s life and his troubled relationship with lover Kenneth Halliwell. Interviewees include Kenneth Cranham, Kenneth Williams, Orton’s agent Margaret Ramsey and Orton’s sister.

+ The Eamon Andrews Show
ABC 1967. 14min (extract)

A fascinating rare guest appearance by Orton, alongside Bernard Braden, Barbara Kelly and Eva Gabor, and a true moment of TV history.

+ The Beryl Reid Show
BBC 1977. 12min (extract)

Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid perform a key scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane.

+ Blow Your Mind: See a Show. What the Butler Saw
BFI-CH4 1995. 5min

In this TV show made to encourage theatre attendance, Frances Barber, Brian Cox and Clive Owen perform a key scene from the play.

+ Reputations: Kenneth Williams
BBC 1998. 8min (extract)

Williams provides some revealing insights into his friend Joe Orton.

Saturday 19th August

15:40 NFT3 (also Wednesday 30th August, 20:40 NFT2)

The Seven Deadly Virtues: The Good and Faithful Servant
Associated Rediffusion 1967. Dir James Ormerod. With Donald Pleasence, Hermione Baddeley, Patricia Routledge. 53min

Written as early as 1964 but not filmed until 1967, this is the most biographical and naturalistic of Orton’s plays, drawing on his working-class past in Leicester. Buchanan (Pleasence) is retiring after a lifetime of service. Dispatched with ruthless efficiency by the company’s personnel boss (a chilling Routledge), he soon comes to realise that all the values he held dear are meaningless.

+ The Seven Deadly Sins (Pride): The Erpingham Camp
Associated Rediffusion 1966. Dir James Ormerod. With Reginald Marsh, Peter Reeves, Faith Kent, Angela Pleasence. 53min

For the second of his commissions for TV, Orton was tasked with writing a play about the sin of pride. His response was this highly inventive contemporary re-imagining of Euripides’ The Bacchae – here translated to a 1960s holiday camp. Orton constructs a riotously funny form of dark farce.

Sunday 20th August

15:30 NFT2 (also Thursday 24th August, 20:40 NFT3)

Playhouse: Funeral Games
Yorkshire TV 1968. Dir James Ormerod. With Michael Denison, Vivien Merchant, Ian McShane, Bill Fraser. 52min

Orton’s attack on church and state is riddled with a casual violence and a grotesque upending of traditional values. Death is ever-present, and the dialogue sparkles: ‘All classes are criminal today, we live in an age of equality.’ Bill Fraser gives a fine performance as a corrupt priest, while Ian McShane lends the perfect seediness to the role of an unscrupulous private detective.

+ The Ruffian on the Stair
Yorkshire TV 1973. Dir David Cunliffe. With Michael Bryant, Judy Cornwell, Billy Hamon. 52min

This was Orton’s first play written for BBC radio in 1963, on leaving prison after his conviction for defacing library books. It marks a significant turning point in his style and displays many of the themes he was to return to in later works – sexuality, murder, and prostitution chief among them.

Tuesday 22nd August

18:15 NFT3 (also Saturday 26th August, 20:45 NFT1)

The Naked Civil Servant
Thames Television 1975. Dir Jack Gold. With John Hurt, Liz Gebhardt, Patricia Hodge. 78min. Digital (remastered)

Quentin Crisp – dandy, raconteur, life model and occasional rent boy – is perfectly portrayed by the late, great John Hurt. This newly remastered, much-loved reworking of Crisp’s titular memoir spans the 1930s to 50s, when his courageous, outrageous refusal to hide his queer light under a bushel gets him into scrapes galore.

+ World in Action: Quentin Crisp
 ITV 1970. Dir Denis Mitchell. 27min

Join the legend himself in his London bedsit for a lesson on life, love and gender politics.

Thursday 24th August

18:00 NFT1 (also Monday 28th August, 17:20 NFT3)

Edward II + Q&A with Sir Ian McKellen (work permitting)
BBC 1970. Dirs Toby Robertson, Richard Marquand. With Ian McKellen, Timothy West, Diane Fletcher, James Laurenson. 125min

‘Sensuous, unpleasant, funny, guilt-obsessed – and intensely masculine’ was Time Magazine’s verdict on the Prospect Theatre Company’s stage production of Marlowe’s iconoclastic 1594 play. Captured by the BBC, this version accentuates the homosexuality of McKellen’s King Edward, who, in a watershed moment that upstages even the notorious red-hot poker, enjoys British TV’s first gay kiss with the scandalous Gaveston (Laurenson).

Booking times

Patrons and champions’ priority booking: July 3rd from 11.30am
Members’ priority booking opens: July 4th from 11.30am
Public booking opens: July 11th from 11.30am


Members: £9
Member concs: £7.20
Non-members: £11
Non-member concs: £8.80
Under 16s £6

Reduced prices for weekday matinees. Conc prices are available to senior citizens, students, unwaged and disability visitors. Proof of eligibility may be required.
As always, visit the BFI web site for more details.