Spot the stars

26th January 1996 at 00:00
The English Collection, BBC2 Mondays 12 noon. Free programme notes, BBC Education: 0181 746 1111, Age range: 14 plus

Laurence Alster looks at classic texts on screen.

The past four decades have seen umpteen interpretations of classic texts, some memorable, some less so, from BBC television. The English Collection rather resembles the mixed achievements of this output.

Aimed at English literature students aged 14 and above, this new, five-part series uses archive footage as an aid to textual interpretation. Students will find the programmes entertaining enough, if only for the opportunity to spot actors since gone to bigger (though not necessarily better) things. Occasionally, though, their academic usefulness is less obvious.

Not that the first programme, on Jane Eyre, gave cause for such thoughts. Alongside presenter Phil Kay's intelligent commentary, clever use of extracts from television and feature film adaptations encouraged questions about the original work and visual interpretations of it. This was a bright start.

Much of the programme was taken up with an examination of the formative influences on Jane's character, in particular her childhood feud with the Reeds, and her expulsion to the dreaded red room. Extracts from four different television adaptations, spanning almost 30 years, helped viewers judge the effectiveness of each producer's interpretation. A key issue here is how much a producer can adapt before the connection with the original becomes over tenuous.

Casting brings its own problems. As Phil Kay remarked, Jane several times refers in the book to her own, and Mr Rochester's, plainness. Hollywood had other ideas. An extract from the 1943 film version featured Orson Welles's Mr Rochester, a burnished croupier with a rumbling, volcanic delivery; opposite, Joan Fontaine's Jane simpered winningly against soaring violins. Further extracts showed that Jane was hardly less submissive in the 1956 television version while, in 1983, Timothy Dalton's Mr Rochester had a profile nowhere evident in Charlotte Bront 's imagination.

Nor was the finale of the 1939 Hollywood production of Wuthering Heights notable for its fidelity to the original. Mindful of the cinema audience's dislike of tragic endings, MGM decreed that Catherine and Heathcliff be shown as ghostly figures, united at last, walking hand in hand to heaven over the final credits.

The second programme, an examination of Wuthering Heights, could have done with this vintage example of filmic bad taste; it might have brought some life to what was little more than a competent plot summary tied to passable character analysis with some standard comments on symbolism thrown in.

With television extracts being used largely to illustrate key episodes in the book, giving little more than a kind of crude visual equivalent of the original, the result looked somewhat uninformed. Helpful for GCSE students, perhaps, but those studying the text at a higher level will not have been so easily satisfied.

The next programmes, both of which focus on the development of tragedy in the theatre, should suit them better. Beginning with a brief look at classical Greek theatre, Phil Kay develops the theme by means of extracts from four of Shakespeare's more widely-studied tragedies then closes with a glance at Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.

That play's author gives a more detailed account of himself and his works in the final programme, Arthur Miller (February 12) which offers opinions on and extracts from his most famous works, including The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.

In Tragedy I (January 29) Kay explains the forms and conventions of classical Greek tragedy - most prominently, hubris, catharsis and peripeteia - with reference to gruesome scenes from Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Such theatre, Kay observes, revolved around matters of high moral and political seriousness, at the centre of which was a hero whose sin of pride could lead only to a death sanctioned by the gods.

The second part of Tragedy I is devoted to Shakespeare's modification of the classical model. Using Othello and Hamlet, Kay shows how Shakespeare expanded the form in terms not only of time and space - in Greek tragedies, the action took place in one day and in a single place - but also in his depiction of character. Othello and Hamlet come to grief not through divine retribution, as in the Greek plays, but as the result of a flawed temperament. The same is true of King Lear which is examined in Tragedy II (February 5).

The preferred technique is to use key speeches from each text. Crucial indicators of character and motive are, for example, revealed in a Hamlet soliloquy, Macbeth's agitated reflections on regicide, Othello's final lamentation on his own suggestibility (delivered by Anthony Hopkins, with Bob Hoskins, as Iago, looking on), and a marvellous Sir Michael Hordern as Lear, smugly anticipating fulsome tribute from each of his daughters.

Other extracts show some choice horror - Macbeth's head spiked on a sword and Gloucester's eyes being gouged out.

On each of the plays, Phil Kay makes sensible, if scarcely profound comments on character, plot and resolution. Not a particularly comprehensive or controversial survey of tragedy old and new, therefore; but one yet good enough to bring basic understanding to new students of the form.

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