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Plays

Brian Rix presents: Postman’s Knock (BBC, 1952)

My first ‘Brian Rix presents’ blog explored the production context for the BBC’s broadcast from the Whitehall Theatre of the first act of Reluctant Heroes on 14 May 1952. As the viewer research report documented, this was immensely popular with its audience, achieving the high Reaction Index of 90 and prompting ‘tremendous, unqualified enthusiasm’. Later in the year the BBC followed up with another farce from the Whitehall, Philip King and Alan Bromly’s Postman’s Knock, this time given as an abridged form of the full play and with a distinct approach to the production. But it was then to be almost three years before another Whitehall farce began the live broadcasts that were central to the BBC schedule for the next decade and more. This post considers how Postman’s Knock came about – and why, despite a success comparable to Reluctant Heroes, it did not immediately lead to further broadcasts.

BBC test card, 1952(Incidentally, it is an indication of how ‘invisible’ these Whitehall farces are in the journalistic record, in theatre histories and in television studies that I cannot find a single directly relevant image with which to illustrate this post – hence the slightly desperate inclusion of the 1952 BBC test card. Nor was any recording of the broadcast made. Despite the lack of visuals I hope nonetheless that you’ll persevere with the post.)

Converting a theatre into a studio

Like so many television programmes then and now, the idea for what became Postman’s Knock was first discussed over lunch. One afternoon a fortnight after the successful broadcast of the first act of Reluctant Heroes, on his return from meeting Brian Rix, assistant to the controller of television programmes Cecil Madden sent a memo to his senior colleagues at the BBC:

An idea came to (and Rix is perfectly willing to agree and play) which would not involve us in any difficulties with Equity (unless they make these deliberately) and which should give us a lot of publicity.

The BBC at this point was unable to broadcast regularly from West End theatres because of the resistance of the actors’ union and of the Theatre Managers’ Association.

My suggestion is that we should stage a farce, particularly a new one, Post Haste, which has been tried out already in Repertory by Philip King [...] This play has been optioned by Brian Rix and he would allow us to stage this on a theatre stage to an invited audience (thus constituting a studio), in his own theatre, the Whitehall, on a Sunday night [...] This would frankly be experiment [sic] and the Press could be invited, with sets installed in the theatre. But there should be laughs and a reaction. Rix would be able to see the play on a stage and we would get a complete result. (Memo 26 May 1952; all correspondence and memos in this blog post come from the programme file for Postman’s Knock in the BBC Written Archive Centre, T14/1389)

Madden’s suggestion appears to have met a lukewarm reception, and he had to follow up with further nagging notes over the next month, during which time the title of the play changed from Post Haste to Postman’s Knock. At this stage Madden was suggesting that the farce could be given on a Sunday night, when there was no performance at the Whitehall Theatre, and that a dress rehearsal could be put together for the previous Sunday. By 8 July head of drama Michael Barry had been won over, and he lent his support in a memo to the controller of television programme Cecil McGivern.

By 11 August, Madden had spoken with McGivern, who had approved the idea but not for a Sunday night. Instead, it had been suggested that the BBC could hire a theatre that was dark, perhaps the Scala near King’s Cross, and that the broadcast might be on Tuesday 28 October. ‘The alteration is caused by the fact,’ Madden minuted in a memo to Michael Barry, ‘ that C. Tel. P. [Cecil McGivern] is anxious that the play should be done on a weekday.’ (Memo to H. D. Tel, 11 August 1952) Not that anyone at this stage had spoken about the change of venue to Brian Rix, who controlled the rights to the play.

Brian Rix was interviewed in 2007 by Kate Harris for the invaluable British Library Theatre Archive Project, and the transcript is freely available online. He recalled that ‘Cecil McGivern was a bit of a religious nut and thought that only dramas should be done on Sunday nights, not farces’. Hence the change of day, but not as far as Rix was concerned, a change of venue. He suggested instead that Reluctant Heroes, which was still running at the Whitehall, could have an early performance on 28 October and that Postman’s Knock could be broadcast after that, with a 9.15pm start. A dress rehearsal, with an invited audience, could still be organised for the Sunday two days before.

Which is just about how things panned out, with the co-writer of Postman’s Knock Alan Bromley, for the stage directing a new production for just two theatre presentations, the second of which was before the cameras. The play was abridged, although a 90-minute transmission slot was allocated, and it was presented with one-minute breaks rather than full intervals. Three weeks of daytime rehearsals were organised on the stage of the Whitehall. And as with Reluctant Heroes, three outside broadcast cameras were brought in to cover the action, although this time the OB director was Alan Chivers, who would become a valued member of the team for future broadcasts from the Whitehall.

All right on the night, and after

Brian Rix remembered the evening of transmission in his Theatre Archive Project interview:

They then had to change the set [after the performance of Reluctant Heroes].  I had to run upstairs, get out of my sweaty battle dress and take all the black off my face – make myself look like a young juvenile, [change into a] suit and all the rest of it. The scenery had to be changed completely and up we went at half past nine with Postman’s Knock. It went on ‘til 11 o’clock, and again was a huge success. [In fact, the transmission was, as planned, from 9.15-10.45pm]

A technical report from Mr Bill Ward, who had been centrally involved in the broadcast, was written on the day after transmission. It includes an intriguing reflection which suggests that the stage of the Whitehall was not used simply as it might have been had this broadcast been a conventional OB from a theatre.

This brings me to a point regarding our own theatre shows involving an audience. At the moment we attempt to turn the theatre stage into a studio; to break that theatre stage up into a series of two or three little sets with various linking sequences exactly as we would do in a studio, except that the whole thing is done on the theatre stage. And I wonder in the light of Postman’s Knock if we are not trying to do something that is impossible until we design a television theatre in the future Television City. (‘Technical report: Postman’s Knock‘, 29 October 1952)

With one or two caveats (see below for one), Michael Barry was pleased: ‘This went very well. The extravagance and fun gathered and maintained more momentum than could ever have occurred in a non-audience studio production.’ (Michael Barry to Cecil McGivern, 30 October 1952) Brian Rix too felt that the broadcast had come off. ‘So far the critics seem to be in favour,’ he wrote to Cecil Madden, ‘and once again your little brainwave seems to have been successful.’ As a consummate producer, Brian Rix also could not resist the idea of pitching future projects in the same letter:

If you think the experiment is worth repeating, I have several other farces which would probably make very good television productions, so perhaps you could let me know how you feel about this. (Brian Rix to Cecil Madden, 30 October 1952)

As noted, it was in fact to be more than three years before the BBC returned to the Whitehall. In his interview for the Theatre Archive Project, Brian Rix recalls the reasons:

The BBC said, ‘Would you do a series of farces?’ I said, ‘No, not on Thursday nights’. (He has mis-remembered that Postman’s Knock was broadcast on a Tuesday.] But they said, ‘Never on Sunday’ or rather Cecil McGivern did [...] we stayed in this state of limbo, and they kept asking me and saying, ‘Would you do…?’, ‘No, no Sundays’, ‘I can only do Sundays’. Until luckily ITV started. And a programme called Sunday Night at the Palladium and Beat the Clock [...] it was so big… the audience at the BBC had gone away completely. And [the BBC] came back to me and said, ‘You can do them on Sunday night’. So I signed a contract – the first contract for three years – to do five a year on Bank Holidays or Sundays. And I did them on Sundays, always on Sundays.

The next broadcast, Love in a Mist was presented on 29 January 1956 — but that’s the subject of my next post in this series.

What the viewers thought

Postman’s Knock achieved a Reaction Index of 78, apparently ‘close to the high average (76) for plays televised from a theatre’. (Viewer research report, 5 November 1952, VR/52/484). Apparently there was some concern about ‘ “suggestive” lines and situations’, but ‘[m]ost viewers were left helpless with laughter, and there were many requests for more rapid, robust farce like this.’ It is intriguing that the research for the report specifically asked the four hundred people who completed a questionnaire about the issue of the production being played before a live audience.

Viewers were asked how the presence of a theatre audience had affected their enjoyment. 50% said that the theatre audience had increased their enjoyment, 42% that it had made no difference and 8% that it had detracted from their pleasure. This last small group, however, consisted mainly of viewers who disliked the play itself anyway, and were irritated by the bursts of ‘moronic laughter’ at situations that they felt were completely unfunny.

Rather astonishingly, we can supplement the official report with the response of one individual viewer. I came across the following reaction to the broadcast (of which no archive recording exists) tucked away in the diary website of Brian David Williams. Mr Williams, who was born in 1935, has posted his extensive diaries online, including The diary of a Birmingham schoolboy 1947-1953, which he describes as

a chronicle of radio programmes and personalities, films seen at suburban cinemas, the excitement of television; astronomy, bird-watching, nature study, pond life, seaside holidays, of long walks with Ginger (and later with girl friends) in roads and streets and countryside which no longer exist; of singing, music, theatre, church, the spiritual life.

In the entry for Tuesday 28 October 1952, after ‘village shopping with Ginger’ and afternoon prep, he wrote:

On TV this evening there was a really excellent play Postman’s Knock, a new farce by Philip King and Alan Bromley. It was presented before an audience at a London theatre. It was a first class production that had me rocking with laughter at times. Sometimes though, the audience seemed to be laughing for no apparent reason, and it always gives one a rather unsatisfactory feeling — as though viewers are being denied something which is highly amusing to the audience but forbidden to the cameras.

Mr Williams’ diary is most definitely a website to be mined for further reactions. His acute observation was echoed by the rather more erudite (and snobbish) critic Philip Hope-Wallace, who reviewed Postman’s Knock for The Listener:

With Postman’s Knock, a lost trousers and comic cosh job destined for a long run in the cultural quarters of our big cities, we were in a more endearing world of British farce [...] Rightly, a live audience was present, who seemed – one lady in particular –  to be very easily moved to mirth; although not, I thought, always at the same things as were regaling our eyes. While the camera showed us some gorgeous moments of feigned sleep or trouser play on one side of the stage, the audience, by the sound of it, seemed to be enjoying something else on the other side of the stage which we couldn’t see. This was most tantalising [...] (‘One man’s meat…’, 6 November 1952, p. 782)

Michael Barry had recognised this problem on the night, as he wrote in his post-show memo to Cecil McGivern:

There was one passage where considerable laughter was heard from the theatre audience at something unseen on the screen – the dress-changing of the little postman. [...] I suggest this is a case for deciding either to stop the plot and let both audiences share the clowning – allowing the live audience to carry the screen one with it – or to cut out clowning that only the live audience can appreciate.

As we have seen, such issues were not to be a problem again until early in 1956.

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