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Saville, Philip (1930-)

Director, Producer, Actor, Writer

Main image of Saville, Philip (1930-)

Philip Saville is one of Britain's most prolific and pioneering television and film directors. Having started out as an actor, his television career in Britain continued behind the cameras in 1955. His early work at Associated Rediffusion contributing to comedy programmes with Richard Lester proved a false start and he soon left to join ABC. There he rapidly became one of the leading directors of the Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74) drama strand, for which he would direct over 40 plays.

Along with a handful of colleagues, Saville pioneered the innovative visual style for which Armchair Theatre became known, with rapid and intricate camera movements during the often live productions. This is evident in his surviving plays of the era, such as 'A Night Out' (tx. 24/4/1960) and 'Afternoon of a Nymph' (tx. 30/9/1962), both of which involve complex party sequences. Saville's plays often caused controversy, due to their freewheeling style or sensitive subjects, with some even failing to make it as far as transmission. 'Three on a Gas Ring', a play about a single mother recorded in 1959, was considered too shocking to transmit and, according to some accounts, was banned by the Independent Television Authority.

On top of its stylistic innovation, Saville's early work was notable for its expression of his interest in psychological states and subjective viewpoints. This was nowhere more obvious than in his first work for the BBC, 'The Madhouse on Castle Street' (Sunday-Night Play, tx. 13/1/1963), a macabre drama about a disturbed recluse in which Saville cast a pre-fame Bob Dylan. Saville spent much of the rest of the 1960s at the BBC directing similarly unusual and innovative dramas.

In 1964 he pioneered the use of videotape for location recording, capturing the whole of Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC, tx. 16/4/1964) electronically in and around Denmark's Kronborg castle. It was a spectacular success and earned Saville the director's award from the Guild of Producers and Directors (the forerunner of BAFTA). The production paved the way for future adventures with location video, including Saville's own 'The Actual Woman' (Second City Firsts, tx. 11/3/1974), the drama debut of new lightweight video equipment. Conversely, Saville's experimental drama 'The Logic Game' (Six, tx. 10/1/1965) was one of the very first television plays to be made entirely on film. One reviewer felt that "its style and the measure of its success indicate the possible affinities of a new kind of expression in television drama". It was this "new kind of expression" which Saville actively pursued.

Further ambitious pieces followed, including the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany (tx. 28/2/1965) and 'The Machine Stops' (Out of the Unknown, tx. 6/10/1966), an Edwardian vision of a dystopian future that won first prize at an international festival of science-fiction films. For 'The Mark II Wife' (Wednesday Play, tx. 15/10/1969), Saville mixed conventional video production techniques with those of film, recording the play in the electronic studio but editing and dubbing on film to allow the realisation of alternating point-of-view shots, which would otherwise have been impossible.

The 1960s also saw Saville directing feature films, starting with an Oscar-nominated version of the West End musical Stop the World I Want to Get Off in 1966. The star-studded Oedipus the King (1967) and the bawdy comedy The Best House in London (1968) followed.

Saville continued his innovative television work on Play for Today (1970-84), with the vivid and nightmarish 'The Rainbirds' (tx. 11/2/1971) and the musical 'In the Beautiful Caribbean' (tx. 3/2/1972), among others. Never far from controversy, he found particular notoriety with 'Gangsters' (Play for Today, tx. 9/1/1975), a vivid tale of sex, violence and racketeering that made good use of location filming around Birmingham but maintained a non-naturalistic edge. The colours were garish and gaudy and Saville incorporated freeze frames and inter-cut footage from old films. While technically unusual, the play was criticised for its "sex and savagery" and accused of misrepresenting Birmingham's Asian community. Even so, it spawned a popular series by the same name (1976-78).

As television technology advanced in the 1970s, Saville was increasingly able to embellish his productions with all manner of electronic effects. Sometimes these worked well, as in his lavish Count Dracula (tx. 22/12/1977); on other occasions, such as 'Rotten' (Second City Firsts, tx. 13/5/1978), the results were less impressive. Perhaps the most extreme of Saville's experimental pieces was 'The Journal of Bridget Hitler' (Playhouse, tx. 6/2/1981), for which Saville purposely brought the whole of the television studio into view. The intention was to dramatise the production of a television programme about Bridget - who claimed her brother-in-law, Adolf, had spent time in Liverpool in 1912/13 - rather than simply tell her story. Mocking the propensity of electronic effects to misfire, and including scenes set in the BBC canteen, Bridget Hitler effectively undermined all the rules of television naturalism.

1982 saw what was arguably Saville's greatest success when he was assigned late in the day to direct Alan Bleasdale's grim unemployment saga Boys from the Blackstuff. He recorded all bar one of the episodes exclusively on video, recording on location in a way that was closer to film than video production but exploited video's greater flexibility. This lent the footage a greater fluidity and immediacy than would have been possible with more traditional methods, and undoubtedly contributed to the series' immense success. Blackstuff became an overnight sensation and won a BAFTA award, as did one of Saville's later BBC productions, the imaginative and disturbing Fay Weldon adaptation The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986).

Subsequently Saville's output slowed and he worked widely across all of Britain's television networks, with film productions for Channel 4 and the BBC, and taking work in America. He returned to the big screen with films such as The Fruit Machine (1988) and Metroland (1997), and more recently directed The Gospel of John (2003) for the Visual Bible. He continues to work in film and runs the Philip Saville Studio for aspiring actors at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Oliver Wake

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)Afternoon of a Nymph (1962)

A young actress learns the dark side of showbiz

Thumbnail image of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Pivotal drama about unemployment and desperation in 1980s Liverpool

Thumbnail image of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

The Shakespeare play staged at the real Elsinore castle

Thumbnail image of Life and Loves of a She-Devil, The (1986)Life and Loves of a She-Devil, The (1986)

Witty supernatural feminist revenge thriller by Fay Weldon

Thumbnail image of Night Out, A (1960)Night Out, A (1960)

Harold Pinter's first television play, about an oppressed 'mother's boy'

Thumbnail image of Those Glory Glory Days (1983)Those Glory Glory Days (1983)

Nostalgic story of a young girl's obsession with Tottenham Hotspur FC

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Armchair Theatre (1956-74)Armchair Theatre (1956-74)

Hugely influential ITV anthology drama series

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Arden, Jane (1927-82)Arden, Jane (1927-82)

Writer, Director, Actor