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Plays

In the beginning: Marigold (BBC, 1936)

‘I think we should have a play from a London theatre for the opening week of programmes,’ the BBC’s programme planner Cecil Madden wrote in a memo on 24 September 1936. Madden was assembling the offerings for the first days of the BBC Television Service which was to open on 2 November. He was anxious to fix on a production at this stage so that the title could be billed in Radio Times, and he had noticed that a revival of the Scottish comedy Marigold was about to open. ‘As this play originally ran for two years at the Kingsway Theatre,’ Madden wrote, ‘I think there is every hope that it may be on a fortnight after its opening night’ [when the broadcast might take place]. The consequence of Madden’s reflections was that scenes from Marigold became the first drama to be televised officially by the BBC, although as I detail in my earlier blog in this group of posts about the earliest small screen stage plays, scenes from The Tiger and The Insect Play went before the cameras during experimental transmissions.

Madden’s memo is preserved in the production file for Marigold in the BBC Written Archives (‘Play for opening week’, WAC T5/316), along with a newspaper clipping of a review that he sent to the producer scheduled to mount the play, George More O’Farrell. The review is not identified, but since the paper is orange it may be from the Evening Standard; the byline is ‘H. H.’, so it may be from the pen of Harold Hobson, who was to become a noted theatre critic for the Sunday Times after the war. The writer describes Marigold as an ‘artless, sweet play [...] not so much post-war or pre-jazz [it had first opened in London in April 1927] as leaves from some journal of life in the Highlands of the Never-never-land’. ‘This is what I feel too!’, Cecil Madden scribbled on the clipping.

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Marigold is set in 1842 and its plot concerns a young girl who runs away from home to see Queen Victoria in Edinburgh. As such, the script fulfilled Madden’s belief that in the choice of the service’s first play ‘we should play for safety by having something that is comparatively innocuous and which does not present too many technical problems’ (‘Play for opening week’). A deal was done with Herbert Cambrose Ltd., the company presenting the play at the Royalty, and a fee of £50 agreed to include ‘the services of all artists taking part, the use of costumes and the right to broadcast the material used on this occasion’ (Programme Contracts Department order, WAC T5/316).

The artists for this first presentation included, in the title role, the young Scottish actress Sophie Stewart. Two years later she also played Marigold in the eponymous feature film made with director Thomas Bentley. Ms Stewart, however, was not available when the BBC decided a day or two after the 6 November broadcast to repeat the presentation twice, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, on 30 November. By this date she had left the production to make another film, and her part was played by Katharine Page. The fee for the repeats was £75.

From memos relating to the presentations on both dates, it is possible to reconstruct quite precisely the running order for the programme. On each occasion the scenes were mounted in the Alexandra Palace studio used for the Baird transmissions (which were alternating daily at this point with those using the Marconi-EMI set-up). The Baird system utilised two distinct set-ups, which were known as the Spotlight studio — used for close shots — and the I. F. (‘Intermediate Film’) studio — brought into action for wider set-ups. The scenes from Marigold were split between the two.

The presentations began from the Spotlight studio. Standing in front of a poster (presumably for the show at the Royalty Theatre), the theatre producer Lance Lister introduced for the scenes for about two minutes. There was a black-out while the poster was removed to leave a white background. Although the first scene was meant to be set in ‘the Manse parlour at Paradykes’, there was no scenery. Lasting approximately three minutes, this scene was then played between Marigold and Mrs Pringle (Jean Clyde). There was another black-out while the poster was reinstated, and the shot of this was held until the I. F. studio was ready.

The drama was then played (supposedly from ‘Archie’s quarters’ in Edinburgh Castle) for some seventeen minutes in the I. F. studio, with all six actors along with Pipe-Major Iain Macdonald-Murray. It is not clear whether more than one camera was used during this scene. The image above (which comes from the 1952 book Adventure in Vision by John Swift) would appear to illustrate this central part of the broadcast (unless it was a staged photograph taken for publicity). The presentation then switched back to the Spotlight studio for a third scene (also from Archie’s quarters, but supposedly the next morning) of some seven minutes with four of the cast (George More O’Ferrall, ‘Marigold‘, 6 November 1936; Cecil Madden, [memo], 9 November 1936; anon., BBC Internal Circulating Memo, n. d.).

All seems to have gone well with both broadcasts, and the programme file contains a warm note from Cecil Madden thanking Lance Lister. But there is a curious postscript from just over a year later. Also in the file is an Evening Standard clipping dated 14 January 1938. Headlined ‘West End show lost £11,000 in 13 Weeks’, the unsigned article reports on a winding-up order brought by a creditor against Herbert Cambrose Ltd. The main shareholder, one G. H. Steele, appears in the summer of 1936 to have invested some £14,000 in the company, all of which he now had no hope of recovering. He had no experience of theatrical management, and it was the presentation of Marigold at the Royalty Theatre that had lost him most of the money.

Mr Steele was running the business ‘under the guidance and on the advice of a Mr Lance Lister’ who had of course introduced Marigold on screen. But ‘Lance Lister’ was the stage name (he had been an actor for nearly twenty years) of ‘an undischarged bankrupt, whose real name was Solomon Lancelot Inglis Watson’. The Official Receiver was far from happy with the ‘chaotic state’ of the company’s books and was recommending that ‘the affairs of the company desired the closest attention’. The journalist, however, could report one piece of good news:

‘The play was televised in November and December 1936 [as we have seen, three times in November],’ said Mr Bird [Assistant Official Receiver]. ‘The company received a fee of £125, as against its expenses for salaries amounting to £63 — the one cheerful, if insignificant, feature in this tragic comedy of errors.’

Sadly for Mr Steele, while it was recognised that he was due £11,294, the realised assets of the company consisted solely of a bank balance of £3 10s 6d.

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Discussion

One thought on “In the beginning: Marigold (BBC, 1936)

  1. Let me add one further footnote about Mr Lance Lister. According to a short Law Report in The Times headed ‘An Actor’s Affairs’ (29 October 1935, p. 5), he was in fact a declared bankrupt before he had started the venture with Mr Steele. The report also gives just a tiny taste of his colourful life:

    ‘Mr C. Bruce Park, Official Receiver, stated that the debtor [Lance Lister] had stated that he was 15 years of age when he first became associated with the stage. In 1932 he and another person started a theatrical agency in Green Street. The venture was not a success and the partnership was dissolved six or nine months later. For some months before last March he was without an engagement. [...] The debtor further stated that some three months since he and a friend attended and made a book at race meetings with the result that a loss of £1,000 was sustained. The money was provided by a friend, to whom the debtor’s share of the loss was owing.’

    Posted by John Wyver | 18 September 2011, 10:36 am

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