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Emperor Jones (1958)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Emperor Jones (1958)
For Armchair Theatre, ABC for ITV, tx. 30/3/1958
75 minutes, black & white
DirectorTed Kotcheff
ProducerTed Kotcheff
AdaptationTerry Southern
From the Play byEugene O'Neill

Cast: Kenneth Spencer (Brutus Jones); Harry H. Corbett (Smithers); Connie Smith (old woman); Uriel Porter (Lem); Van Boolen (auctioneer)

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Brutus Jones, an escaped black American convict, has set himself up as the tinpot ruler of a West Indies island. When the islanders rebel, Jones escapes into the jungle, where he is forced to reap the consequences of his tyrannical rule.

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This television adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's American stage play, adapted by an American and directed by a Canadian, was transmitted shortly before another Canadian, Sydney Newman, arrived at ABC as Drama Supervisor and shook up Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), creating its reputation for a new and gritty - and distinctly British - social realism.

In March 1958, though, director Ted Kotcheff had yet to embark on a collaboration with Newman which would produce innovative plays like 'Hot Summer Night' (tx. 1/2/1959) and 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960). 'Emperor Jones', written in 1920, is an example of the classic theatre productions which ITV selected for television as a means of securing cultural prestige in the face of BBC dominance.

Kenneth Spencer portrays the disintegration of the mind of Brutus Jones, a ruthless black dictator, formerly a porter and a convict in the US. Harry H. Corbett (four years before the stardom that awaited him in Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1963-74)) plays Smithers, who informs Jones that his people have turned against him. Jones flees to the forest where, in a series of expressionist tableaux, he is forced to confront the false identity he has constructed, and which is rooted in the perverted forces of racial oppression.

The play was performed live in Didsbury studios, looking very much like a theatre set, with stage-prop trees and creepers and lightweight, rather wobbly rocks. The performances depend on the traditions and confines of theatre acting, with, for example, stylised slow-motion movements to enhance Jones' hallucinated scenes of slavery. Despite this, there is evidence of a nascent televisual language. The camera is extremely mobile, and there is an adventurous use of tracking shots - an innovation at a time when television cameras were still used largely to frame a performance.

In Act One, a soundtrack of footsteps over a camera tracking shot represents Smithers own viewpoint as he discovers Jones' palace is deserted. In Act Three, Jones shoots directly into the camera, which tracks back at speed - forcing a technician to jump out of shot. The crew are, in fact, often in view throughout, sometimes for 5 or 6 seconds at a time. This unintended documentation of their intensive work on set illustrates the complex logistics of live performance but also an early determination, as Kotcheff put it, "to push against the limitations of the media... and not enslave it to the theatrical tradition".

Laura Pearson

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Video Clips
1. Some devilment (3:02)
2. Ghosts (4:01)
3. Slave auction (3:37)
Corbett, Harry H. (1925-1982)
Armchair Theatre (1956-74)
Live TV Drama