In the years following Watergate and the Vietnam war, watching the news was not Paddy Chayefsky’s idea of fun. The playwright and screenwriter concluded that the viewers didn’t “want jolly, happy family type shows like Eye Witness News” in notes later acquired by the New York Public Library for the Public Arts. Chayefsky reflected that “the American people are angry and want angry shows.”
The inner scream of the average viewer, Chayefsky concluded, seemed to go like this: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
The reason these notes were ascribed importance by the Public Library are because they form the basis of Chayefsky’s screenplay for the 1976 movie Network, where anchor Howard Beale famously urged his viewers to open their windows and shout that phrase.
And shout it they do. They scream it.
If you feel that the networks often deliver a version of events not agreed upon before broadcast rings true, National Theatre director Rufus Norris agrees.
On Friday morning, he announced a stage adaptation of the 1976 film featuring some of entertainment’s most in-demand performers.
The script is adapted for the stage by Lee Hall who has delivered works as diverse as Shakespeare in Love, Our Ladies of the Perpetual Succour (from Alan Warner’s book The Sopranos), a Guardian article about The Pitmen Painters and his own film screenplay Billy Elliot to the stage.
The director is Ivo van Hove, the man behind the awards-garlanded A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong, and Patrick Marber’s current translation of Hedda Gabler.
The man playing Beale will be Heisenberg himself, Bryan Cranston, the star of the most talked about television programme of the past decade, Breaking Bad. Cranston has not yet tread the London boards.
It is unusual for such stellar talent to converge on a stage adaptation of a film, rather than an accepted classic or work from a fashionable playwright, but this is no ordinary film. Or to be more accurate, no ordinary screenplay.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Unusually, Network was billed as “a film by Paddy Chayefsky” rather than crediting the director, Sidney Lumet. Lumet was no rookie, having already directed 12 Angry Men, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.
As demonstrated by those assembling to play a version of his script in 2017, he has clearly earned that privilege.
The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin said recently: “If you put it [Network] in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week.” Chayefsky was Neil Simon’s favourite writer and Quentin Tarantino is another admirer.
Few writers before and since had the power that Chayefsky had, but making the film was a tortuous process.
In his engrossing book, Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, author Dave Itzkoff details the back and forth between Chayefsky, Lumet and the studio to get the film made.
Faye Dunaway was unhappy with how her love scenes with William Holden would be shot, leading to lengthy negotations.
Pauline Kael slated it in her New York Times review
And the man who played Howard Beale, Peter Finch, had a fatal heart attack the January before he became the first man to be posthumously awarded the Best Actor Academy Award.
The celebrated photo (above) by Terry O’ Neill, who would later marry Dunaway, of the morning after the night before, memorably depicts the bittersweet nature of the four Awards won.
It’s arguable that the most rocky part of the journey in the making of Network was getting Paddy Chayefsky’s vision on to the big screen.
In the same notes purchased by the Public Library, the screenwriter had written over the top “THE SHOW LACKS A POINT OF VIEW.”
Anyone who consumes network news or talk radio in the age of Sean Hannity, Paul Mason, Bill O’ Reilly or James O’ Brien knows in part what to expect.
This lack of a political perspective of Beale’s rant in part gave the film its power. People were mad as hell and wanted to shout but after that, what?
With another few months of President Trump, Jeremy Corbyn as opposition leader and Piers Morgan on daytime TV, a London audience could well be ready to hear the Greek chorus on stage proclaim: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”
And if that’s a bit too raw for them, there’s always social media.