Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television

A new three-year research project at the University Westminster is currently underway with the ambitious aim of collating information on all plays written for the theatre that have been produced for British television since 1930. The project’s Principal Investigator, John Wyver, and Research Associate, Dr Amanda Wrigley, provide an overview.

About the Authors:

John Wyver is Principal Research Fellow at the University of Westminster, and a writer and producer with Illuminations, a company specialising in arts media production that he co-founded in 1982. His recent productions include the film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, 2009, with David Tennant for BBC/WNET/NHK; Rupert Goold’s film version of his stage production of Macbeth, 2010, with Patrick Stewart for BBC/WNET; the three-part series Art of Faith, 2010, with John McCarthy for Sky Arts; and the forthcoming Art of Survival, a 6-part formatted documentary series for Sky Arts.

Dr Amanda Wrigley is the project’s Research Associate. Her research specialism is engagements with ancient Greece in Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1970s, particularly through such media as radio, television, theatre, paperback translations and non-élite educational schemes. More details of her research background and publications can be found here.

On 15 July 1930 John Logie Baird’s experimental television system broadcast a version of Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in his Mouth. Since Baird’s earlier offerings were mostly mixed variety bills there is a good case to be made that this is British television’s first distinct ‘programme’ – and it was an adaptation of a stage play. As soon as the BBC’s official service began in November 1936, extracts from theatre plays were an essential strand of the schedule. Later, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, theatre plays on television were central both to the BBC’s output and then to the early years of ITV. Today, however, terrestrial television rarely draws on anything written for the theatre and live broadcasts from the Royal National Theatre and elsewhere have found a home on arthouse cinema screens both here and abroad.

Stage plays on television have also received comparatively little attention from critics and media historians. Television studies over the past two decades has concentrated on original drama written for the medium, whether it be the plays of Dennis Potter or the exploits of Doctor Who. Concerned to establish and explore the specificity of the television medium, academic engagement with television drama has to date marginalised theatre plays on television and to a significant degree dismissed them as being … theatrical.

Diana Rigg in 'The Serpent Son: Part One: Agamemnon' screening at the BFI Southbank in June.

Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television ( is a three-year research project, based in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that aims to document all productions on British television since 1930 of plays that were first written for the theatre. We are producing a database of information about all of these productions, which we believe to total just over 3,000 (of which around 1,000 have been preserved in the archives). We are working on conferences – the first of which will be in October this year – journal articles and two books as well as activities with partners including a BFI Southbank season of Greek plays on television in June (see here).

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