A307 drama: from the complexities of Oedipus to Balcony baloney

That a drama can reflect and illuminate the period in which it is produced and the pedagogy of the OU can be seen through an examination of the 1977 BBC/OU production of Oedipus the King for A307.

The seventies were a time when nostalgia became marketed with large sales of Small is Beautiful (1973) and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (1977). In The heritage industry: Britain in a climate of decline (Methuen, London, 1987) Hewison claimed that half of Britain’s museums had been founded since 1971. It was also a period when, to some, it appeared as if the state and society were under threat. In 1976 the government was forced to request a$3.9 billion loan (the largest ever made by that institution) from the IMF. The titles of some of the books published in the period reflect a sense of disruption: Is Britain Dying?, Britain against itself (two American studies), Britain’s Economic Problem, The Breakup of Britain, Policing the Crisis, The End of Britain. There was another perceived threat as well. Men’s status appeared to be undermined by equal opportunities legislation (notably the Equal Pay Act 1970) and more women were attending universities. Perhaps this is why the theme of the inevitability of male entrapment was a source of humour within popular situation comedies of the period including The Likely Lads and Rising Damp. In another tale of men fated to struggle, Steptoe and Son (a sixties TV series revived between 1970 and 1974) although Albert had a far larger role that Laius and there was no Jocasta in Oil Drum Lane and Harold Steptoe did not actually kill his father Albert, he did threaten him in many episodes. On the stages of the UK there was a rise in radical theatre. Both Gay Sweatshop  and Monstrous Regiment were formed in 1975. Perhaps more directly related to the original tale, challenging interpretations of classic plays were being promoted, such as Dennis Potter’s critique of suburban life Schmoedipus which was broadcast as a ‘Play for Today’ in 1974 and repeated by the BBC in 1975.

These discourses may have informed the presentation and reading by viewers of Oedipus the King, so might accusations of marxist bias at the OU which arose in the 1970s. In addition, putting on a canonical play may have helped to counter those within the HE sector who were sceptical about the OU on the grounds that, by being open to those without formal qualifications, it was not sufficiently academic. In an interview for the Oral History Project Asa Briggs recalled that the OU’s first Vice Chancellor was only permitted to join the CVCP after a ‘very hard’ battle. Robert Jackson, a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford and later Tory MP suggested that the OU’s very existence led to ‘demoralisation’. He defined a university as ‘an institution built up around a way of life. It is a place where human beings live together in groups and share a certain set of experiences of life’ and concluded that ‘the Open University is not a university [indeed] not an institution of higher education in any sense other than the descriptive’ (Times Higher Education Supplement, 15 October 1971, 29.October 1971, 26 November 1971). The Spectator felt that it was ‘very difficult to see in what justifiable way the Open University can be regarded as in any sense a university …it seems quite impossible for it to provide any alternative to a university education … a kind of modern and middle class WEA, should not, [be] misnamed the Open University when it is certainly no university and in all probability not open (The Spectator, 9 January 1971).

The OU, with its access to the airwaves, was able to integrate plays and pedagogy in ways that others could not. Indeed it has been argued that its status derived in part from the ‘association in the public mind with the British Broadcasting Corporation and its quality programming’ (John R Verduin Junior and Thomas A Clark ‘distance education: the foundations of effective practice, San Francisco Jossey-Bass, 1991, pp. 113-114). It could teach about one medium, theatre, using other media, books and television. In so far as watching television and reading books were familiar activities, it offered a simple means to support learners in ways that conventional correspondence and broadcast materials did not. Unlike students at conventional universities who were assessed on their understanding of literary criticism the OU showed this play. By presenting what might be conceptualised as a primary source, a play, the OU was able to reinforce the notion that education was not about transmission from experts to learners but was a relationship which could provide learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education.

As well as helping to establish the academic credibility of the OU the play was evidence of the OU reaching out beyond its own formally registered learners and thereby fulfilling the terms of its Charter which committed it to promoting the ‘educational well-being of the community’. To broadcast a novel version of a play to an audience which was likely to be unfamiliar with the original version might have been of limited value. This production had many conventional elements which demonstrated elements of how the play might have been perfomed in the period of its first presentations. For example, the actors wore masks and dressed in costumes reminiscent of those of ancient Greece (see picture). In 1979, in an echo of this production the OU broadcast for students of A292 ‘Greece 478-336 BC’ part of a staid 1974 BBC production of Sophocles’ Electra.

Guidance was offered to those interested in studying with the OU. For example a college in Bilston offered group meetings and tutorials. Ivor Wymer explained that his first task in ruinning such courses was ‘to explode the degree mythology; the impression that only a very small proportion  of the population, the seven ro eight per cent who go to university are capable of degree work’ – Ivor Wymer, ‘Back in 10 minutes. Preparing Open University students, Education & Training 12, 10, October 1970, pp. 376-377 (p. 376). This play might have been reassuring to some viewers who could see for themselves that such texts were comprehensible by many viewers and not only for an elite.

The production of Oedipus the King was also determined by a need to be cost-effective, which was interpreted as the production of drama in a small studio with a limited cast. The play was produced in the relatively small (26×64 feet) Studio A at Alexandra Palace. Students were informed that ‘our set designs were planned to be functional and economic’ (‘A307 Supplementary Material A307’, 1977, Open University Archives). Dramas had to be relatively short as the time slot allocated was only 50 minutes on this occasion and for most progrmmes it was half that. As the first Arts Faculty Dean, John Ferguson, pointed out in his account of working at the OU, ‘TV programmes last twenty minutes only and it would take ten programmes or more to present one Shakespeare play. So it has to be used more subtly” (The Open University from within, p. 88). It was probably useful that there was no need to employ a translator of the play from the original Greek as John Ferguson did this work.

Consideration of such factors may help us to understand The Open University’s version of the Oedipus story as a production which, despite the plot, which involves considerable violence, offered a sense of conformity, continuity and calm within the stormy 70s. Eye-stabbing was both reassuring and a means of showcasing a method of teaching, texts integrated with edited drama on the television, that other universities were unable to employ.  The openness of the OU to academic scutiny may have been a driver for some staff. One Professor, when commenting on a colleague’s material, pointedout that it was a ‘serious strategic’ error to make the course ‘too easy’ because of the need for ‘academic credibility’ He concluded: ‘it might be as wll to think of the kinds of attacks you might get in the educational journals and magazines’ (David Harris Openness and closure in distance education, 1987 p124 n13). Christensen has argued that disruptive innovation involves off-the-shelf components being used in new ways. This production indicates one of the ways in which the OU was disruptively innovative in the 1970s.

One source of the images and some of the information in this posting is former OU student and current OU Associate Lecturer Dr Amanda Wrigley. It was she who encouraged me to think about A307. For her work on the 1977 BBC / OU Oedipus production see here. She is engaged in a research project about theatre plays on British television and on 7th December is to give a talk, at the University of Westminster, on ‘Greek Plays on British Television: Theatre, War, Sex, Education’.

3 Responses to “A307 drama: from the complexities of Oedipus to Balcony baloney”

  1. Nick Levinson Says:

    As a producer who worked on the drama series, I am very glad to note the interest being shown. There was lots of discussion and argument at the time about production styles and principles. There was also disagreement among OU academics about the validity of the whole project! No wonder there was also dissent from other quarters of the BBC.

    A footnote to your discussion of Oedipus is that a president to the idea of a kind of authenticity adapted to the medium of television and producible in AP Studio A , was Aristophanes: The Clouds in A100, the first foundation, another collaboration with John Ferguson course, recorded in 1970.

    I think there is a lot of evidence worth gathering from the surviving producers…

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