Odysseus: the greatest hero of them all is the latest in an exciting series of experiments in television storytelling.
Tony Robinson, the innovative electronic storyteller, talks about how Theseus, Odysseus and Fat Tulip were brought to the screen.
Very little of what is called storytelling on children’s television has anything to do with what is important about telling stories. Watching someone sitting in a leather armchair in a Laura Ashley dress reading Little House on the Prairie off an autocue is not the same as having your mum or dad reading it to you. The thing about storytelling is the relationship between the people involved; an actor reading aloud on television can’t create that relationship with millions of children. David Bellamy, Patrick Moore, James Burke: they get a relationship because they are passionate about their subjects, they care, they are committed. An actor reading aloud is transmitting someone else’s story, the result of someone else’s passion, a passion generated while writing the words down, crossing things out, doing rewrites, finding rhythms for the page which are quite different from the rhythms of the storyteller.
Storytelling is about how we use our imagination. Demonstrating that on television may make it less of the ruthlessly exclusive medium it is. If I’m telling a story on a hill and the hill becomes the Land of the Dead, or this pedestrian precinct becomes the palace of Sparta, then it seems to me that somewhere the programme is saying, ‘You do this too; it’s easy isn’t it? Your play, your storytelling is the same thing as what those people on the screen are doing.’
In the last two years I’ve been given the chance on BBC Jackanory with Theseus and now Odysseus and on ITV with Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden – to try out my ideas. (I’ve also been asked to ‘freeze’ my storytelling in book form, and I’ve agreed. The ultimate irony?) And now Books for Keeps wants me to talk about my ‘approach to storytelling on television’ and for the first time I’m asking myself where my ideas came from, and realising that my thoughts about storytelling and what it is to be a storyteller evolved slowly over many years.
I started acting when I was 12 and I’ve been doing it for 28 years. By the time I was 25 I had become very dissatisfied with conventional theatre which seemed to me a decayed, dead end culture which could only speak to people who already shared its cultural reference points. I spent the best part of the next ten years working in community theatre. At the end of that time I was still convinced that live performance should and could be a cultural tool in contemporary society but it happened very rarely. I also began to see that all the reference points I had as an actor came out of a tradition that simply didn’t work any more. When `alternative’ comedians arrived at the end of the 70s I was interested, I watched, they made me laugh. What didn’t occur to me at the time, though it has since, is that stand-up comedians are storytellers. It was a link waiting to be made.
By far the strongest influence was my two children. Observing them I began to understand how we learn and about the liberation of play. I also started to tell stories. On holiday with friends who had small children I told long stories on long car journeys. It was partly to shut the kids up and partly showing off but I realised I was enjoying it and suddenly I understood – I’d got the taste of being the vessel through which the story is told for a particular audience and it wasn’t a chore any more, it was expression. I realised too that although I was primarily telling the story for the children there was a bit of me that was telling it to the adults who were in the car as well. That was the harvest of a seed I’d got from Eric Thompson. The Magic Roundabout worked for the very young children it was aimed at and for lots of people of all ages too because he was telling the stories as Eric Thompson; it wasn’t someone playing ‘let’s pretend, children’, it was him.
All this was buzzing around in my head when I went to the National Theatre in 1982 to join Peter Hall’s company for The Oresteia. We worked on the plays for six months which included a lot of work with masks and this was very important for me. As an exercise we would perform three pages or so of Tony Harrison’s very strong rhythmic text to groups of about twenty people. At the end we’d take off our masks and ask the audience what had happened. Everyone agreed that the masks had changed, undergone a kind of transformation as they watched and listened; everyone agreed that it had happened at roughly the same place in the text. When we asked what the masks looked like when they changed everyone said something different, each had a unique vision, a unique response. I began to see the mask as the vessel, the focus; to realise that for an actor there is another way of doing things, an alternative to ‘becoming’ and demonstrating your own mental anguish. Then, still working with masks, we started doing improvisations. We decided we simply didn’t know enough about the stories inside the Oresteia so we agreed to do three or four days’ research and then tell a story, in mask, from the point of view of a particular person – you could be Orestes or just somebody who came in to polish the furniture. I chose Cassandra. I thought about Cassandra a lot, about how she sees things, and it seemed to me she must tell the story in the present tense. When my turn came I just put on a plain mask and started. I wasn’t trying to act; it was just like recalling what happened this morning. The more I got into the 20 minutes the more lucid I got, the more rhythmic it got – but not the rhythm of literature or poetry. I had a spell-bound audience, it’s a good story. At the end there was a silence. I took my mask off and burst into tears. ‘… masks!’ I said in a very male way, went to wash my face, pulled myself together, came back into the room to talk about it and burst into tears again. I’m not usually an openly emotional person and that was a very instructive exercise. It showed me the power of the mask (the vessel) and how it could be used; it made me fascinated with the idea of the economy of storytelling, of storytelling where you are trying to present your listeners with a series of stark images, or people or dilemmas, and where the relationship between tellers and listeners is an active one because the listeners do the work.
And then I was asked to be part of an OU programme about Bruno Bettelheim. I’d never heard of Bettelheim so I read The Uses of Enchantment. There I was with all these nags and concerns and ideas about acting and the theatre, about the problems of speaking as a cultural worker in this country with its disparate cultures and enormous contradictions, the problem of speaking to anybody outside small coterie – and suddenly I came across this person who was saying what I’d been nudging towards for years. Bettelheim gave me the confidence that what I’d been thinking and feeling about storytelling, about myth and folklore was useful. Storytelling done properly is a unifying activity; done properly on television it could speak to a huge audience and by implication say something important about the medium.
I found myself expounding my ideas about television storytelling to Angela Beeching, executive producer of Jackanory. She called my bluff and commissioned me. I chose the story of Theseus. I feel confident with the Greeks. When I was doing the Oresteia I would come home at the weekend and my daughter who was then 3½ would ask me what I’d been doing and I would tell her the story of the Oresteia. There is nothing in that story she could have experience of! But she was hooked. Since then I’ve seen classical stories have the same effect on all sorts of kids. The potency of the stories is phenomenal; if they are told right they stick. They also seem to me to have something in common with children’s favourite TV programmes like The A Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and The Young Ones. The characters in these stories are huge, of mythic proportions; The A Team are like Greek heroes, children revel in their sheer size. I’ve deliberately tried to get the same idea in Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden by building characters that are of mythic size. In my storytelling I’m not interested in realism. Serious television for children is frequently seen in terms of a graphic description of our society as it is – the – other stuff is labelled escapism, That I believe is a false distinction. These stories make a link between the ‘real world’ and the internalised lives of listeners of all ages, if in my telling I can make them a bit more accessible, democratising the references, finding contemporary resonances to illuminate things which were different `then’ but are related to `now’, then maybe there is a chance to open up the whole thing to more people.
The way I tell the stories and the way we make the films is central to trying to achieve that. When my director, David Bell, looked at my first improvised tape for Theseus and read the ‘script’ he said ‘We’ve got to do it on location.’ We only had finance to do it in the studio so he phoned Angela Beeching and told her what we wanted to do. She was terrific: she gave him a really bad time for the first two-thirds of the phone call but he dug his heels in and explained why and eventually she agreed. Making the programmes on location wasn’t just a matter of taste. It seems to have been an imperative that came out of the way the stories were told and what they were. Working in the studio you get an evenness of light, an evenness of acoustic and a lot of tension; it is about making product. On location you are working to a tight schedule but it is a different kind of tension, more a kind of concentration of everybody in the crew; and there is the possibility of unplanned things happening which adds an extra something: that seems absolutely right for storytelling.
After Theseus Edward Barnes, Head of Children’s TV at the BBC asked me what I would like to do next. Ever since I was twelve Odysseus has been a hero for me so it wasn’t a difficult choice. This time of course there was no question – we would do it on location. I had grand ideas about stopping off at different places in England and Wales but that was going to be too expensive. David did a brilliant low cost job, finding three different bases for three different weeks where each location was never more than three or four miles away. We filmed out of Plymouth in Devon, Mevagissey and Newquay in Cornwall. Finding the locations for each story or each part of the story takes ages. I give David a series of images of the kind of environment that I had imagined and he starts looking, coming up with ideas of his own. Then we look together, live the stories for about four days in different environments and see what works. For Troy we used the Citadel in Plymouth, our idea of luxury and decadence for Calypso’s Island was one deckchair on the beach. The choice of locations and what I wear help me get that feeling of tension between modern reference points and epic.
Somehow we couldn’t get a strong image of that sort for Circe’s Island. Last March we were looking all over Cornwall and we couldn’t agree on anywhere. We were staying in one of those faded seaside hotels in Newquay; we’d been thrown out of the restaurant for not wearing ties and gone back in borrowed ones. The restaurant was full of little pink serviettes in glasses; we were the only people there, and there was acres of space. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we did Circe’s Island here…’ and we both shouted in agreement.’ It was exactly right, our visions had come together.
There is of course the question of the script. If the stories were to work I had to be genuinely telling them. I would like to be able to say that it was more improvised to camera than it was. With thirteen 15-minute stories, and filming bits of episode 7 followed by two minutes of episode 10 in the same place on the same day, we couldn’t leave it so loose. There came a time when I semi improvised a script into a tape recorder so that we could time the sections in advance. Once that was fixed I couldn’t suddenly go off on a whim in mid-story adding exciting visual detail or whatever. Where the improvised quality does come in is in the physicality of the telling. I know roughly how each sentence is going to start and finish; what I don’t know when I’m starting the telling is how I’m going to move around. My choreographed relationship with the hand-held camera means the story comes out differently each time, the flavour of different takes can vary enormously. We are especially lucky in our cameraman. I wanted someone who would ‘find’ the story’ and capture it rather than put it in a proscenium arch. Frank Shepard who started with us on Theseus cottoned on to the whole idea in 30 minutes. He loves the stories, he listens and because of his involvement the camera moves in and focusses with his experience of the story.
Before I could improvise a script there was a lot of research. Richard Curtis and I had to decide which story of Odysseus to tell. I’d never really researched anything before so I just read and read; it was a real pleasure. When I started I had some romantic notion of finding a translation in a dusty secondhand bookshop which would be the best version ever. In the end I must have read about twenty versions and decided the Penguin E V Rieu was as good as any. As well as the Iliad and the Odyssey we’ve used the play Philoctetes, and the Oresteia, Robert Graves, The Anger of Achilles, and the Little Iliad – about ten different sources in all. I don’t think I’ve made anything up but I’ve run some characters together and sometimes I’ve trade an explicit contemporary reference. Some scholars may get cross about that but for me that is what storytellers do and my retelling is part of a long cultural tradition.
This Odysseus reflects its origins in that most of the stories are about men and public affairs. One of the storylines I wanted to tell was the story of Helen, Clytemnestra and Penelope, all of whom are profoundly intelligent, and actors rather than receivers. But that had to be pared away for the direction of the story and the limitation of having only 13 episodes. I care passionately about having stories which present a whole variety of possible activities for people of both sexes; I want to deromanticise war. But there has to be a time when I become a storyteller; the demands of the story to be told are stronger than my desire to be didactic. I’ve tried not to draw conclusions’ about the characters. I’ve tried not to think about the moral imperative of Odysseus’s actions and rather leave it to the listeners to decide for themselves. I like this wily little guy who gets out of situations by using guile rather than being macho – you may not.
My collaborator Richard Curtis was the perfect person for me to work with, especially in converting the tellings into a book. Richard got a first in classics at Oxford and has written a lot of Not the Nine O’Clock News and Black Adder. I’ve written programme notes, speeches, leaflets but I had no idea about writing as an expression of anything other than the immediate task. Richard shares with me a passion for the classic stories and a vision that they can be told for now. With the book we spent a long time trying to find a mode of address which would do in text what we’d been trying to do with television. In places the stories in the book have a different flavour – they are slightly more reflective, lingering on a particular aspect of a scene. They tend to point up the contradictions between the epic and the mundane more. As a storyteller I can say, ‘There was this massive giant,’ and add gesture and movement; on the page that is not good writing. It was Richard who cracked the majority of the problems. I’m used to the technology, the politics, the economics of TV. I know how I feel about it, what is possible and what isn’t. I’m not in the same situation yet with books though I am pleased that I am being asked to write more.
What of the future? One of the characteristics of the Mycenean stories is that they are a reinterpretation of a reinterpretation at a great distance. An artefact that is continuously reworked and repolished approaches universality. It might be worth exploring the opposite of that, something with a specific quality in relation to what is going on here and now – you could pursue the Robin Hood story or King Arthur for its Englishness. As an actor I can only get excited about things I find dangerous. That’s probably terribly childish and not necessarily something to be applauded but I have the feeling that if I am excited about what I am doing there is a chance it will come across to some of my audience. After years of being an actor in other people’s control – however much I might enjoy expressing myself via a great- writer’s language in a production with other actors, with lighting, with a set – TV storytelling is an enormous liberation. There’s just me, and a few rabbits and a story to tell.
Odysseus: the greatest hero of them all starts on BBC1 on Thursday 13th November. The book, published by BBC, 0 563 20497 4, £6.95 hbk; BBC/Knight, 0 340 39679 2, £1.75 pbk, tells the first half of the story up to the end of the Trojan War. A second series of Fat Tulip tales, Fat Tulip Too, has been made and will be shown on ITV. Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden are published by Hippo. Tony Robinson can also be seen as Baldric in a new series of Black Adder.