Jonathan Miller and The Drinking Party (1965)
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 17, 2011
Oh dear – this blog has become rather neglected. My last post was in January – not good! I don’t even have a very good excuse, either. I mean, I’ve been busy writing papers and marking essays, but then academics are always busy with those things. I must do better in future!
Anyway, I spent last weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford attending the 10th Annual Fantastic Films Weekend, a hugely enjoyable event which I try to get to every year. The emphasis tends to be on classic horror films, but the definition of ‘fantastic’ is deliberately kept broad, and I often find that one of the most enjoyable elements of the weekend is the screenings of little-known gems from the museum’s archive of vintage TV recordings.
This year, one of the headline guests was writer, director and medical doctor Sir Jonathan Miller, who was interviewed for the festival audience by no less a figure than the academic and film critic Sir Christopher Frayling. To get us in the right mood for the interview on the Sunday evening, the festival line-up included three of the television dramas which Miller had directed in the 1960s: his 1966 Alice in Wonderland, his 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and (most exciting for me as a Classicist) a 1965 piece entitled The Drinking Party, which is an adaptation of Plato’s Symposium.
The Symposium is perhaps Plato’s best-known dialogue, presenting the conversation from a symposium (all-male social gathering over food and wine) at which each speaker was asked to give a speech in praise of Love. It’s hardly the sort of thing I would expect to see being used as the basis for a 50-minute TV drama these days, though. Miller’s adaptation actually took the form of an episode from a mid-’60s arts documentary series called Sunday Night, and sadly isn’t widely available, but this YouTube extract gives a good sense of the whole:
The basic set-up is that a group of young men gather on the terrace of a neo-Classical building (actually in the grounds of Stowe School), for a formal dinner in honour of their Classics master, played by Leo McKern, during which they adopt the roles of the characters in Plato’s dialogue, and deliver their speeches in a re-enactment of the original symposium. Both the script and the direction are the work of Jonathan Miller, and date from very early on in his career. But it is a very clever adaptation, knowingly and playfully translating to the world of the Oxbridge tutorial not only Plato’s words, but also the dramatic structure of the dialogue and the cultural setting of the Athenian intellectual elite. Not everything matches perfectly, of course – particularly the central concern of the original dialogue with (what we would now call) homosexual love. But I felt that even the mismatches were handled in a way that was true to the character of both the original dialogue and the 1960s Oxbridge setting.
One of the most striking features of Plato’s original dialogue is that its description of the symposium is presented at several removes. Plato as author purports to be writing down an account of the evening told to him by Apollodorus, who was not actually at the symposium himself, but heard about it from another friend, Aristodemus, who was present at the original gathering, although not strictly as a participant since he didn’t give a speech. Furthermore, the climactic speech delivered by Socrates also introduces another level of distance – while the other speakers express their own views on Love, Socrates instead reports what he had learnt from a woman named Diotima.
On one level, The Drinking Party can’t help but be far more direct than the original dialogue, since we see the characters making their speeches in live action on the screen. It’s actually perfectly possible that Plato, too, wrote with the idea that his dialogues would be performed orally, rather than simply read – but that isn’t how most people approach them today. They have become above all texts, and seeing this one delivered as a physical performance made for a very different experience. For one thing, it really allowed the performers to bring out the contrasting character of the different speeches. So Eryximachus the doctor’s speech is delivered drily and awkwardly, reflecting his very scientific approach and his obvious discomfort with both public speaking and the very theme of Love. And Aristophanes’ very famous speech about how human beings originally had two conjoined bodies, but were split in two by Zeus, and that is why we are all searching for our soul-mate, was delivered very much as a parody played for laughs – as appropriate for a comic poet. What’s more, presenting the dialogue in live-action form also allowed room for the reactions of the other diners, as the camera panned around to show them either listening with rapt attention, laughing, or looking bored as appropriate. It meant that The Drinking Party could function as a commentary on Plato’s dialogue, as well as a performance of the dialogue itself.
For all this vivid directness, though, The Drinking Party does offer its own sense of distance – but one created using techniques appropriate to the medium of TV, rather than the hand-me-down narration technique used in Plato’s dialogue. The dramatisation begins with a narrative voice-over, introducing the gathering, and explaining that this group of friends meet annually to read the Symposium together. In part, this was probably necessary to orient the original audience, but it also serves the same purpose as Plato’s introduction (explaining how he has come to hear about the symposium and its speeches) of reminding us that we are an audience witnessing a work of artifice, and not actual participants in the event. The speakers are also self-conscious about their own roles as performers, recreating the dialogue at second-hand – or indeed, third-hand, given that they are actors, playing the part of diners, playing the part of Plato’s original characters. They don’t simply behave as though they actually are the participants in Plato’s original dialogue, but stand there in their dinner-jackets with texts in their hands, sometimes needing to consult them and sometimes not, and slipping in and out of character to discuss their own performances, the meaning of the dialogue, and textual issues such as conflicting translations (at one point, one person’s text reports that Aristophanes has the hiccups, while another’s says that he is burping). Meanwhile, Aristodemus is present on screen, but, true to his role in the original dialogue as a medium between the original symposium and Plato’s report, he is described in the opening narration as the group’s photographer. And while Socrates is reporting Diotima’s wisdom about Love, he turns and faces away from the other diners, and away from the television audience, nicely conveying the extra level of remove which Plato uses for his speech.
And then there is the dialogue’s profound concern with love between men. This must have been a prominent issue in contemporary public debate, given that the adaptation was broadcast in the wake of the Wolfenden report (which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality), and only two years before its recommendations were put into practice. (Not, as Terence Lockyer reminded me, the same year, as I had initially believed.) The narrative voice-over at the beginning sets the scene for this, establishing the alien cultural context of the dialogue by explaining that in ancient Greece, women were marginalised, and love between men was seen as the highest form of human affection. This is a time-honoured technique for dealing with cultural differences between the past and the present – essentially saying that they must be addressed because it is part of the historical truth of the past culture, but that to do so does not necessarily imply approval. But already the camerawork is gently subverting what the voice-over is saying by offering us suggestive angles on a distinctly homoerotic sculpture of two naked wrestlers placed at the centre of the table – and thus perhaps implying that homosexuality is not such a remote and alien concept after all.
The speech of Pausanias the lawyer (played by the ever-wondrous Michael Gough) discusses the same issues of cultural difference in attitudes to love between men – just as the original speech does in Plato’s dialogue. He sets out the legal and moral framework for such relationships in Athens, draws explicit comparisons with other cultures where love between men is accepted (Elis, Boeotia) or condemned (Ionia and barbarian regions), and particularly emphasises that the focus of debate in Athens is not the fact of romantic relationships between men per se, but the manner in which they are conducted and the motives of the two partners. Meanwhile, we are once again treated to a very nice view of the sculpted arses of the two wrestlers in the centrepiece. :-) Later on, while Agathon the tragedian makes a very romantic speech all about the youth and beauty and happiness of Love, we also see Pausanias / Gough looking rather maudlin, and casting Significant Glances towards Agathon over his wine-glass – perhaps signalling some kind of unrequited passion.
But it is when Alcibiades arrives that the issue is most explicitly addressed from a contemporary perspective. Plato’s dialogue at this point is all about the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, which (in the proper Greek style as set out by Pausanias) clearly mingles romantic and sexual attraction with the bond between pupil and mentor. Miller seems to have considered that this was a little too much for a 1960s audience to take if played straightforwardly, so this is one of the points at which the diners drop out of character to comment on the dialogue, rather than recreating it, allowing the young man playing Alcibiades to object that it is all rather ridiculous. But again, the alternative point of view is carefully, gently put forward too, as Leo McKern (now very much in the guise of the Classics master rather than Socrates as such) suggests to his pupils that Plato knew what he was doing, and was cleverly raising important questions – is hero-worship so ridiculous after all, and perhaps it is natural to show affection for another man whom you admire? It isn’t exactly positioning itself as a clarion-call for decriminalisation – and nor would I expect anything broadcast on the BBC in 1965 to have done so. But I felt that hints of a recognisable equality agenda were there if you cared to look for them.
Aesthetics and design
Meanwhile, all of this philosophising is set into the context of a very pleasing design aesthetic. I’ve already mentioned the grand neo-Classical setting, but not the soundtrack of baroque chamber music – perhaps deliberately matching the architectural style of the building and its contemporary use as a music studio? And the cameras are hard at work throughout, showing us not just the curved bottoms of statues, but dozens of lovely incidental shots of the small business of the dinner-table – wine being poured, waiters being beckoned, drinks being savoured, and so forth. Both the dinner and the speeches are also interrupted by torrential rain at the end of the third speech, which drives the whole party indoors. I happen to know from having spoken to Jonathan Miller afterwards (see below) that this was completely unplanned – but it is used to beautiful effect, giving rise to lots of fantastic shots of the rain dripping off umbrellas left propped up over the dinner table, and of the diners listlessly milling around within the building, waiting for the rain to stop so that they can continue with their evening. It also prompts the use of a different setting for the fourth speech by Aristophanes, which is delivered under the shelter of the colonnade, rather than around the table like the rest. If I didn’t know that this had been an unplanned response to an act of nature, I would suggest that it was a deliberate comment on the tendency for this particular speech to be excerpted from the rest of the dialogue, and treated as an independent text, separate from the rest. But, just for once, I know for sure that that is only my reading – not part of the original design.
So all in all, The Drinking Party was a real pleasure to see. But as I said above, the whole reason it was being screened in the first place was as part of the warm-up for the real climax: a live interview with its director at the end of the festival.
Screen-talk: Sir Christopher Frayling in conversation with Sir Jonathan Miller
This was absolutely fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Frayling for years anyway, so I would probably have paid the price of admission to see his knowledge and intellect applied to just about anything. But Jonathan Miller really did make a particularly rewarding subject, coming across as incredibly clever and erudite, but also immensely good-humoured and quite happy to have a laugh at his own expense.
Most of the conversation focused around Whistle And I’ll Come To You and Alice in Wonderland. We learnt all sorts of fascinating details about how Miller had approached both of them as stories, and what techniques he had used to bring them successfully to the screen. For example, he spoke about how he had deliberately sought to recreate a Victorian look for Alice…, using crumbling period buildings and replicating the look of contemporary photographs. Or how he felt unable to use any of M.R. James’ prose directly in Whistle…, because it was too dry and academic, and he needed his central character to be less sceptical, so that he could plausibly be frightened when he encounters the possibility of a ghost.
But along the way, we also learnt a great deal about the themes and ideas which he felt he had kept returning to over the course of his career – things like the grammar of dreaming, which puts commonplace elements into an illogical sequence; the difference between events (like one ball hitting another) and human actions (like a person wielding a snooker cue); the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism; the importance of small, negligible details like people’s unconscious gestures while they are talking; and his fascination with the folds of drapery. Many of these interests, of course, relate back to his work as a medical doctor with a particular interest in cognitive and psychological disorders, which has obviously profoundly influenced his work as a writer and director. The term ‘Renaissance man’ doesn’t half take some abuse, but with feet so firmly planted in the worlds of both the arts and the sciences, Miller surely qualifies for it if anyone does. He seemed eminently capable of mastering almost anything he chose to put his mind to – and yet genuinely not arrogant or pompous with it, as his willingness to do impressions of chickens and Oxford dons during the course of the conversation made quite clear!
We were all quite entranced already listening to the two speakers on the stage, but after an hour Tony Earnshaw (the organiser of the festival) reminded them they they should leave some time for audience questions, too. Various people asked questions about Alice… and Whistle…, but I decided that, having enjoyed The Drinking Party so much, I should seize what would probably be my only ever opportunity to ask its writer and director a question about it. So I asked to what extent Miller had felt that he was contributing to the contemporary debates around the issue of homosexuality by making it at the time when he did. Actually, he didn’t say anything all that illuminating in response – only really that he felt homosexuality was a tacitly accepted part of Oxbridge culture anyway, so he hadn’t really needed to think too hard about it. (As should be clear from my review above, I think that answer belies the very careful handling of the issue which I believe is actually visible in the adaptation, but never mind! He did make it 45 years ago, after all, so I can forgive him for having forgotten the details of whatever judgements he might have been making at the time.) But he was clearly very pleased to have had a question about it, and said a few more things about how the production had come about, the setting he had used for it, and what he had been aiming to achieve.
Afterwards, too, as we were gathering our things and making ready to depart, he and Christopher Frayling were standing nearby, so I thought it would be polite to acknowledge how much I had enjoyed the evening, just by saying “thank you!” in their general direction. I wasn’t expecting anything more than that, but in fact Jonathan Miller responded by coming right over to me, and asking if I was a Classicist – a possibility to which he had apparently been alerted by earlier conversations over a fag with my chum Jennie Rigg (another indication of how friendly and unpretentious he is). So I replied that I was (though not a Hellenist), expressed enthusiasm for how much I’d enjoyed being able to see The Drinking Party, and took the chance to ask another question which I’d been pondering over – had the rain in it been something he’d planned on, or was it pure serendipity? And that is how I know that the rain was simply the work of nature – and indeed something that his cameramen had been cursing over, but which he had managed to turn into a positive boon.
I can only hope that The Drinking Party makes it to DVD some day – perhaps as a nice double-feature with a follow-up, also by Miller, from the same series entitled The Death of Socrates (if that even still exists). In the meantime, I am just very glad that I had the opportunity to see it.