Other Articles: The Norman BroadcastsThis article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, explores then history of the popular television adaptation of The Norman Conquests
The Norman Broadcasts by Simon Murgatroyd
The Norman Conquests is one of the most famous and enduring of Alan Ayckbourn’s creations.
Yet it is also unusual in that its popularity can be contributed not just to its enormous and continued success on stage, but also due to a television broadcast from 1977.
The Norman Conquests is undoubtedly the most viewed and the most influential of all the screen adaptations of Alan’s plays. For many people, particularly in the USA, it was their first experience of Ayckbourn and became synonymous with the playwright.
The Norman Conquests premièred at The Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1973 and initially there were doubts it would even transfer to London. The financial risk of staging a trilogy in the West End was considerable and it would take the success of a fringe production before it was decided to transfer the play to the West End with huge success.
The play opened at the Globe Theatre, London, on 1 August 1974 and practically from the moment the reviews were published, there was substantial interest in adapting the trilogy for the screen.
Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay was Alan’s agent and she found herself fielding enquiries about film trilogies, a single movie or television drama and even a spin-off television series!
Even the BBC was aware of the interest in the trilogy and the controller of BBC 2, Aubrey E Singer, in December 1974 suggested to Peggy it would be 'fitting if these plays were produced here in Britain and the subsequent spin-off series.'
Not that overtures from the BBC turned the experienced agent’s head. While the BBC might offer Alan a 'reasonable sum', she felt the trilogy had a lot more potential, especially given the interest from America.
There were several approaches from the USA from notable production companies - including MGM TV - most of which suggested adapting the trilogy for television before spinning it off into a television series; the preferred format for the latter being 26 half-hour episodes.
For Alan, who had received comparatively little interest in his work from television previously, it was all a bit of a shock: 'I’m mystified as to why these characters (as opposed to many of my others) should merit a TV spinoff but the film men are a law unto themselves.'
Talk, as Hollywood would have it, is cheap. Despite all the apparent interest, it was a full year before there was any substantive offer to take on the trilogy. This came from the American producer David Sussking, who had a strong track record of bringing stage to screen. He had produced the television version of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman and had had recent success with the film All Creatures Great And Small, which was spun off into a popular television series. Sussking was very enthusiastic and proposed three films, made in England by a director of Alan’s choice with the original London cast.
Of all the offers that had been run by Alan, this had obvious appeal. 'It is obviously artistically the way I would prefer it done - i.e. in England with the original cast. I know that in general film people tend not to like original casts but in the case of The Norman Conquests this was an exceptional collection of actors - something quite unique, really - and ought to be captured on film.'
Given a favourable response, Susskind approached Thames Television, who were keen to make the film. Verity Lambert was asked to produce it, who is now remembered as one of Britain’s most successful television producers; among many notable achievements she was responsible for bringing the long-running television series Doctor Who to fruition, producing it during its first three years.
Lambert contacted Peggy and offered £15,000 for screening the trilogy and a single repeat plus £15,000 per play for American screening. She re-affirmed the commitment for a single director with the original cast.
Alan immediately suggested the director Casper Wrede, who had previously adapted Time And Time Again for television. This had starred Tom Courtenay and Alan felt it may be a selling point to the actor to reprise his role as Norman, given his reticence about working on television. Separately, Wrede had also contacted Alan suggesting making a single 90 minute film of the trilogy, which Alan was 'not sold on.'
Although no contracts had been signed, Thames tentatively began looking at recording dates and the availability of the original cast; most of whom were already committed to other projects.
Thames had given an assurance the plays would be broadcast over three consecutive weeks, but the BBC were still interested in filming the trilogy given contracts had not yet been signed. Aubrey Singer reported to Peggy the BBC was 'shattered' at the trilogy going to Thames and would match any existing offer. The offer was tempting, but Thames has made all the right noises and Peggy was inclined to stay put.
Although she was soon reconsidering that option.
Alan met with Verity Lambert on 24 May 1976 to discuss the play and directors. As an afterthought, she mentioned the plays were scheduled for a 90 minute slot, which after credits and advertising, meant cutting the plays to 80 minutes; a loss of at least 30 minutes from each play. Alan was not happy and considered such brutal cutting would badly damage the plays; an argument repeated by Alan many times over the years to come concerning the television adaptations of his work.
Peggy, ever the diplomat, noted Alan’s concerns to Lambert, suggesting it might be best to go back to the BBC, who were offering 90 minute slots. Concurrently she wrote to the BBC, telling a white lie that Thames wanted to reduce the time to 60 minutes!
When this news reached Lambert, she was shocked and contacted Peggy stating the plays would never have been less than 80 minutes in length and she was happy to fight for a longer running time. She insisted she had told Alan she would be 'loath to lose the texture of the plays and that at this point we should only go to cutting what we feel should go, rather then what could go in order to fit the time slot.'
Singer at the BBC upped the ante by offering to record the plays full-length and broadcast on three consecutive nights. Peggy, now in a difficult position, told Alan she didn’t think Thames would be able to offer 90 minutes. Alan suggested returning to the BBC or asking Lambert to cut the scripts to 80 minutes on the understanding contracts would only be signed in the unlikely event he was happy with the edits. Fortunately neither option was necessary.
Lambert returned to Peggy with the unexpected news she now had three 120 minute slots, allowing each play to run for 104 minutes with minimal cuts to the text.
It was a deal-maker and on 18 July 1976, almost two years after interest had first been expressed in filming the trilogy, Alan signed the contract. Surprisingly it would be 9 May 1977 before the cameras started rolling.
The director for the project was Herbert Wise (director of the first Ayckbourn TV adaptation, Relatively Speaking, in 1969), who had just finished working on the acclaimed series I, Claudius. Casting was more problematic as most of the original West End cast was unavailable, however Penelope Keith agreed to reprise her West End role of Sarah and Penelope Wilton returned to the role of Annie; Wilton had been in the original London production of the trilogy at the Greenwich Theatre. The rest of the cast was new, but potentially very strong. Richard Briers, who had a history with Alan in the West End, was cast as Reg, David Troughton as Tom and Fiona Walker as Ruth.
Thames announced on 11 January 1977 that Tom Conti was to star as Norman in an adaptation of the plays which would mark the first time six hours of prime-time British television had been given over to a living playwright. The Norman Conquests was broadcast in the UK on ITV on 5 October 1977 over three consecutive weeks and was apparently watched by 30m people (presumably 10m per ‘episode’).
Despite the popularity, it was not a happy production as a technical strike midway through filming compromised the production and Alan Ayckbourn has never been entirely happy with the final product.
Thames sold the trilogy to America for broadcast on PBS, where it proved to be an unimaginable success with combined viewing figures apparently passing 100m! Alan was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Regular or Limited Series with Continuing Characters. The popularity of the trilogy led HBO to negotiate a video release of the plays in 1980, which was exceedingly popular over the years.
Back in the UK, the issue of the home video market proved to be slightly more vexing though. Whilst it seemed obvious this nascent market would be exploited, Thames only spoke to Peggy about the video rights for the UK in 1980 and then she heard no more from them. Imagine her surprise when in 1981 Alan contacted her having seen an advert for Table Manners on video - being released on the same day as Star Wars on video. Thames believing they had video rights as well as TV had released the first part of the trilogy without signing a contract and now attracted the ire of Peggy.
Thames did renegotiate the video rights for the complete trilogy, but it is not apparent whether they actually released the entire trilogy in the UK; just three years later the contract expired and it was not renewed. It was only in 2005 the trilogy was re-released on DVD in the UK. Ironically, the title was deleted in 2008 just prior to the Old Vic's acclaimed London production and its Broadway transfer. It was not released again until 2014 and is now available both on DVD and to stream.
Frustratingly, in 2009 the BBC were approached by the production company Tiger Aspect about recording the award-winning Old Vic production of the trilogy for television. Despite its huge popularity and success in both the West End and on Broadway, the BBC expressed no interest in the proposal and it was abandoned.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.