Beckett on Film: looking back twenty years

Twenty years ago, in 2000, a major project was set in motion: Beckett on Film, the filming of the nineteen stage plays of Samuel Beckett. A co-production of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, RTE, the Irish Film Board, and UK’s Channel 4, it was a star-filled set of engrossing and intiguing pieces.

It wasn’t my first introduction to Beckett – at school we had studied Waiting for Godot, I had read the play Happy Days in a printed anthology, and I had watched and recorded the 1989 TV version of Endgame (starring Norman Beaton and Stephen Rea). I was hooked on the strange absurdity of the language and the originality of the situations.

Beckett on Film was a major event for me as a regular theatregoer, but one who was somewhat frustrated at the lack of productions available from this dramatist. The prospect of not only seeing the big guns (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Endgame) but also a range of shorter pieces appealed. Even now I remember the talking statue/urns of Play, the fast-moving mouth of Not I, the trio of ladies in Come and Go, Niall Buggy’s facial contortion at the end of That Time, the table-tapping of Ohio Impromptu, and my favourite of them all, John Gielgud’s silent goodbye in Catastrophe.

This was brave television drama, and sadly proved to be the last major retrospective of any playwright’s work to reach the screen. From this, I found myself searching for earlier adaptations with those who the plays were written for – the great Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s important muse, in Not I and Rockaby; Patrick Magee in Krapp’s Last Tape, a moving piece of reaction and regret to the passing of time.

I have all these recordings to watch any time – I regularly scoured the TV listings to capture all of Beckett on Film (a feat in itself, you may recall, due to Channel 4’s insistence on moving the schedules around). I remember ticking all the titles off and feeling quite triumphant that I had finally completed the set of nineteen. I sent off for the accompanying booklet, too, which has discussions and descriptions of all titles: I still have and read it today.

Screencap from Happy Days

Since then I have caught two Godots on stage, one Krapp, one Happy Days and one Not I. I have read all the plays on the page and have understood what I have seen far more when considering Beckett’s strict stage instructions. He is by far my favourite modern playwright, and I have a healthy and tolerant interest in the Theatre of the Absurd generally.

Look out next month for my exploration of the unofficial #BeckettInLondon season which is running in London this year. I will be reporting back in due course from the Pleasance, where Godot is a Woman will be running; the Coronet, where How It Is (part 2) is on; and the Old Vic, where Endgame is one of the centrepoints of their new season, showing alongside Rough for Theatre II. I also hope to do a feature on the triple bill (Not I, Rockaby, Catastrophe) running at the Brockley Jack Studio next month.