Multichannel TV, and satellite in particular, is often cited as a major contributor to a drift into superficial, short-attention-span programming, so there's a certain irony that niche satellite channel Sky Arts has chosen to make a no-frills, low-budget version of a classic stage play as its first period drama.
She Stoops to Conquer is a word-for-word rendition of Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 comedy, which will be shown uninterrupted at two hours and 20 minutes (a version broken into five half-hour episodes will be screened later in the year).
As producer Averil Brennan points out, it's the type of project which the mainstream networks never do any more. The last televised version of the play, which starred Tom Courtenay and Brian Cox, aired in 1971.
Set in and around the country home of Mr Hardcastle, the plot concerns the visit of young city buck Charles Marlow as a possible suitor for Hardcastle's beautiful, spirited daughter, Kate. Marlow and his friend George Hastings get lost en route and stop at a tavern where they meet Hardcastle's mischievous stepson, Tony Lumpkin.
Lumpkin directs them to Hardcastle's house but tells them that it is an inn. Most of the farce revolves around this misunderstanding and what it reveals about attitudes to social class and sexual manners.
The project is the brainchild of composer turned director Tony Britten, founder of Capriol Films. Sky Arts has previously acquired several films from Capriol, mostly about music, but this is the first direct commission and the first straight drama. Britten has executive produced, adapted and directed the play himself, as well as writing the music and making a Hitchcock-style appearance as a drunken yokel. “I'm quite good at making tea too,” he jokes.
The challenges for Britten and Brennan were two-fold. Firstly, the budget was, in the words of Sky Arts commissioner Adrian Zak, “pretty tiny”, and considerable inventiveness had to be exercised in the deployment of resources. Capriol is based in north Norfolk and the team was able to draw on a pool of local expertise, including Norwich-based Brennan, whose previous credits include Kingdom, Foyle's War and Spooks. “A small but highly experienced crew means you can move faster,” says Brennan. “We were filming about nine pages a day, which is very unusual.”
The team found an ideal filming location in Wiveton Hall, north Norfolk, a small Jacobean mansion complete with wood panelling and authentic period features. The cast were accommodated in a wing that was used as self-catering accommodation, saving at least two hours a day as well as the cost of cars and caravans.
The surrounding estate provided leafy lanes and an old stable was dressed as the tavern. When I ask if the inn sign - a painted panel over the doorway rather than a swinging board - was another economy, Britten tells me that production designer Spencer Chapman insists this was authentic. Apart from cast and crew, the largest single item in the budget was the hire of an 18th-century carriage which is used in several scenes, all shot within one day.
A greater challenge was turning an 18th-century stage play into a 21st-century film. The intention was always to use the complete text, unadulterated. The play is an A-level syllabus regular, and currently a set text. Both Capriol and Sky Arts realised early on that the film would have potential within the educational market. There is also a tie-in with the Sky Learning website and an accompanying documentary entitled A Gooseberry Fool which explains the background to the play and looks at Goldsmith's life and career.
“We had to make sure that it didn't look static,” says Brennan. Fortunately, Goldsmith's language, though somewhat formal and flowery by contemporary standards, is relatively direct and accessible, and could easily be delivered in the more naturalistic manner required by film. Most of Goldsmith's many scripted asides are delivered as voice-overs, rather than addressed directly to the audience.
Britten feels the single camera set-up, using a Sony HDW 750P, and filming on location brings greater fluidity than shooting a staged performance with multiple cameras. “The presence of the camera was an advantage in that much of the comedy lies in the reactions of the characters as much as the lines themselves, and those we could show in abundance. Many of the cast are seasoned television performers and did not need to be told about the dangers of overacting.”
For Britten the biggest directorial problem lay in the length of the scenes. “Television actors are used to scenes of about two pages. Some of Goldsmith's scenes are 12 pages. I split them up into two or three scenes each and we had short breaks but that can create continuity problems and puts a strain on the cast and crew, but they coped brilliantly.”
Britten, Brennan and Zak all see the production as a productive way forward for low-budget drama, and Brennan hopes that more and more broadcasters will follow their example. “There are lots of people who do not get to see productions at school because they can't easily get to a theatre,” says Zak.
TX: SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER
Broadcaster: Sky Arts
Producer: Capriol Films
Start: 27 January, 8pm
Length: 140 minutes
Commissioning editor: Adrian Zak
Executive producers: Tony Britten (Capriol) Adrian Zak (Sky Arts)
Writer: Oliver Goldsmith, adapted by Tony Britten
Producer: Averil Brennan
Director: Tony Britten
DoP: Peter Eveson
Production designer: Spencer Chapman
Costume designer: Andrew Joslin
Editor: Jeremy Brettingham
Key cast: Ian Redford, Polly Hemingway, Susannah Fielding, Holly Gilbert, Mark Dexter