Listen to The Browning Version from RTE Radio 1
Cast-list and introduction to the BBC Production
RTE Radio 1, 14 April 1978; BBC Radio 4, 11 June 2011
My recent discovery of the fantastic podcast library at RTE's Drama
on One page (http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_dramaonone.xml), enabled me to make a unique comparison between two productions of the same play. Regrettably the RTE site gives neither
a cast-list nor directorial credit, so I am unable to name anyone; but the BBC version, broadcast last year as part of a special
season marking the centenary of Terence Rattigans's birth, had an all-star cast including Michaek York as Crocker-Harris,
Joanne Whalley as his wife Millie, Ioan Gruffudd as the young teacher (and Millie's lover) Frank Hunter, and Ian Oglivy as
Premiered in 1947 with Eric Portman in the title-role, and memorably filmed four
years later by Anthony Asquith with Michael Redgrave, The Browning Version is a classic study of repression;
of Crocker-Harris, a brilliant classical scholar worn down by years of teaching the same subject in a minor public school,
with few friends and a wife who cannot stand him. Over the years he has construced a defence mechanism of total indifference,
which renders him apparently impervious to suffering, but transforms him into a monster, with little or no sympathy for
In the RTE production, Crocker-Harris came across as someone who sustained a facade
of politeness but had little or no reason to do so. Millie hated him; Frank Hunter perceived him as something of an anachronism;
while the Headmaster ignored his sensibilities, while informing him in no uncertain terms that he would not be granted a pension
from the school, despite his long years of service. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to go. In the BBC production, directed
by Martin Jarvis, York's Crocker-Harris just seemed tired as he went through the motions of his last few days at school prior
to his retirement. He would agree to anything, so long as he could leave as soon as possible.
What makes Rattigan such a great playwright is his ability to dig beneath the respectable
surface of his characters and explore the turbulent emotions underneath. This was definitely the case in the RTE production,
as Crocker-Harris burst into tears on receiving the (quite unexpected gift) of the Browning version of the Agamemnon
from Taplow. He sniffed twice, gulped for breath ... and just about recovered his sang froid. York's Crocker-Harris
seemed more willing to express his feelings; at last someone had taken notice of him after years of apparent neglect. Taplow
(Matthew Wolf) mumbled in embarrassment, as if uncertain how to react.
This moment represents the turning-point of the play; from then on, Crocker-Harris
learns something about himself and what his future course of action might be. He maintains a facade of almost exaggerated
politeness, but decided to follow his own inclinations rather than allowing others to dominate him. In the RTE production
he listened patiently to Frank Hunter's advice (that he should leave Millie), took a deep breath and declined. In
his view this would simply be running away from his responsibilities. In the BBC production York's Crocker-Harris seemed much
friendlier towards Frank (Gruffudd), as if understanding that his colleague had not yet discovered marriage and what it entailed.
However both productions made a lot of the play's climax, in which Crocker-Harris
telephones the Headmaster and vows to speak last at the forthcoming prize-giving ceremony, in defiance of the Headmaster's
wishes. In the RTE production he picked up the phone, took a deep breath and spoke in slow, measured tones, pronouncing the
syllables in every word so as to ensure the Headmaster would listen to what he said - perhaps for the first time in many years.
In the BBC production York sounded almost triumphant; his voice rose slightly at the end of the play, suggesting that he had
at last woken up from his emotional slumber and was ready to face the world with renewed vigour. In both production, however,
I got the feeling that the ending was somehow right: Crocker-Harris might not have changed his life, but at least he had acquired
some sense of self-determination.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two productions was the style of delivery:
the RTE production adopted the clipped, rather brusque way of speaking characteristic of plays and films of the late 1940s
and early 1950s. Crocker-Harris reminded me very much of Michael Redgrave in the Asquith film in the way he enunciated his
vowels. In Jarvis' BBC production the style of speaking was far more relaxed, emphasizing the fact that, while The
Browning Version might be a period drama, it still has a lot to say today about emotional repression.
More than anything, however, both productions proved Rattigan's brilliance as
a writer. He might have passed away thirty-five years ago, but his plays live on as living testament to his understanding
of human suffering, especially in situations that seem so outwardly respectable.