The Norman Conquests on TV

Tom Conti as Norman in the TV adaptation of The Norman Conquests (© Thames Television)

During October 1977, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous works – The Norman Conquests – was broadcast on British television.

Shown over three weeks, it marked the first time a living playwright had been given six hours of prime-time television and it was a phenomenal success attracting large audiences in both the UK and, later in the USA.

Alan Ayckbourn wrote about his thoughts on The Norman Conquests and television adaptations in general in the Amateur Stage in 1978 and this article offers a glimpse into his thoughts at that time about his work on television.

The Norman Conquests and TV by Alan Ayckbourn

As far as the TV production was concerned – I think that all my plays tend to lose something on television, because they’re written for the stage.

Talking to TV directors, they tell me that one of the problems is that if one is writing well for the stage (which I hope I am!), then anyone who is on the stage is important. But in TV you are always selecting: the whole art of television drama seems to me to be able to focus on the correct face at the correct moment.

In my plays for the stage there are no correct faces: if, for example, you take the seating scene at dinner in Table Manners, which on the stage is a pretty high comedy spot, it goes for nothing on TV, because the director is forced to select his or her face; the joy on the stage is to sit back and watching the five or six stupid people wandering round the table, arguing and getting furious with each other – it is the whole visual impact which is wonderful. You can’t shoot everything in long shot on TV – so it loses.

Where the TV production of The Norman Conquests did gain was in a kind of melancholy aspect – one saw them as rather sadder characters.

Herbie Wise, who directed, said to me: “I’m not going to be able to make them as funny as on the stage, but I’ll try to make the characters as true as I can. Maybe there’ll be elements that will be indicated by the close-up. Annie’s plight became that much more poignant.”

I think anyone who hasn’t seen them onstage quite enjoys them on TV, but anyone who has is always disappointed. You just can’t capture that shared experience with the rest of the audience.

As far as affecting future box-office is concerned, the TV production of a stage play does reach an audience that it wouldn’t normally reach. When you’re talking about viewing figures, you’re talking in millions.

But I don’t think the TV audience and the average theatre audience necessarily overlaps at all. As far as a playwright is concerned ,TV productions do help because it means that your plays do reach a much wider audience.

When one thinks of the number of productions my plays have had, and the amount of publicity, it’s mainly been theatrical – so there are still vast numbers of people who know me less well (even in a town like Scarborough, where I’m always in the papers) than they would a TV playwright, because his name is in their sitting room, whereas this is theatre and therefore something different.

Theatre is still a minority interest, though I think an increasingly sizeable one. I hope there’s a feed-back to the theatre – for I would hate people to think that having seen The Norman Conquests on TV they had actually seen The Norman Conquests.

So maybe it will help wider audiences to think, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of him on TV – I’ll give it a go in the theatre.’

You can find out more about The Norman Conquests at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here and if you’re interested why Alan wrote the trilogy, visit the Ayckbourn YouTube Channel for a insight into the unexpected reason here.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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