This was a real curiosity. I'm glad I made the trip to the BFI on the South Bank, where each month they exhume forgotten television programmes of the past half century. At the moment there's a short season of revenge tragedies, and last night they showed Roland Joffe's film of John Ford's 1630s century shocker 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.
It's great to be reminded that there was a time when the BBC hadn't yet dumbed down its drama output, and regularly showed material that would today be considered far too highbrow even for BBC4. As curator John Wyver and original cast member Kenneth Cranham told us, the film was hurriedly made as a substitute for a collapsed project about the life of painter Stanley Spencer.
There's some terrific acting, especially by Cranham as Giovanni and by Cherie Lunghi as his sister Annabella, with whom he has a passionate incestuous affair, and by Tim Piggott-Smith as the sinister servant Vasques. There's also a chance to see Anthony Bate as Annabella's husband Soranzo and Rodney Bewes as part of a comic subplot. When Giovanni declares his love to his sister, Lunghi's face, shown in close-up, registers a wonderful succession of emotions, starting with timid modesty and ending with lustful abandon. It was worth the journey just to see that scene.
The film (135 minutes) has been buried in the vaults unseen since its original broadcast on BBC1 (yes, BBC1) 33 years ago. So the obvious question is, why? Leaving aside the BBC's current neglect of any theatre-based drama (last year's short Shakespeare series being an exception to the general rule), it's clear to me that Joffe's version is of uneven artistic and technical quality.
It was filmed on location at Chastleton, a magnificent Jacobean country house near Oxford, now cared for by the National Trust. But instead of keeping in period, Joffe Victorianised the play, with very flawed results. There are some elements of the plot that demand an urban setting and a variety of locations, for a start. And the Victorian atmosphere of propriety and order, while well suited to the theme of hidden incest, is not the best backdrop when the bodies start to pile up in quick succession. When Giovanni appears at a formal Victorian dinner table clutching the bloody heart of Annabella at the climax of the play, there's a real artistic disconnect between the story and the setting.
Another problem is that Joffe and his collaborators have tweaked the text, not always very successfully, when they should have left it alone. The result is a mix of 17th, 19th and 20th century dialogue that sometimes grates on the ear. Ford's original play has its weaknesses too, especially the fact that the relationship between Giovanni and Annabella doesn't develop. In fact Giovanni does little more than watch on the sidelines, taking little part in the action.
This was filmed in colour on 16mm, then transferred to video, using natural sound and a lot of natural light. There's a lot of clomping feet on wooden floorboards, and a lot of dodgy lighting. TV in 1980 had moved on from live studio performance but wasn't able to match the production values of cinema. I assume that the original 16mm film, which would have been of better quality than this VT recording, has been lost. It wouldn't be acceptable for broadcast today, except as a curiosity from the archives. But it makes me wonder what other treasures of great acting are lying untouched in the BBC's archives, unexplored.