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Christmas past at the BBC: the second half of the 1950s. Part 2

Dec 1959 RT coverLeafing through the current Christmas edition of the Radio Times made me think back to the television fare offered to viewers in Christmases long past. Taking a cue from my colleague John Wyver’s seasonal blog posts from last Christmas-time – in which looked at the BBC’s 1947 transmission of Croyden’s Grand Theatre production of Jack and the Beanstalk, which was beset by technical disasters, and also a superb survey of six BBC presentations of Cinderella from 1938 to 1950 (offered in two posts, here and here) – I thought I’d glance back at the BBC Television offerings from the second half of the 1950s, part of the period for which I’ve been engaged in collecting data for the Screen Plays database. This five-year survey has turned out to be quite wordy, thus Part 1 (covering 1955-56) was published a couple of days ago and Part 2, covering 1957-59, follows below.

This survey may read like a catalogue, but it is by far a comprehensive document of seasonal transmissions by the BBC over these five years, nor does it limit itself entirely to works which fall within the Screen Plays methodological net; my aim has been, first, to satisfy my own curiosity and, thereby, perhaps to give readers a flavour of the different kinds of dramatic programme available through the BBC to viewers young and old in this brief period.

Owing to the recent end of the BBC’s monopoly with the introduction of the commercial networks, a comparison with the offerings on independent television would also, at some future point, prove useful and necessary for a more comprehensive survey of televisual offerings at Christmas-time.

In this period there is presented a strikingly rich mix of dramatic material written both for the stage and also especially for television, with – it seems – a gradually increasing number of multi-part series (whether of original television drama or dramatizations of novels) towards the end of the decade. The BBC Television viewer usually had a good choice between productions of stage plays which had a festive or seasonal connection and others which had not (but it is noticeable that these latter plays tended already to have an established reputation on the stage). There were also, of course, the usual sprinkling of pantomimes, some of which were televised from theatres with others presented especially for television; however, there do appear to be fewer pantomimes or other festive offerings televised in the new year period as the decade comes to a close and a subtle shift in taste towards a more realistic and socially engaged television drama is observable in the presentation of stage plays such as So Many Children (1958) and television dramas such as Rest You Merry (1958) and Break in Festivities (1959).

1957

1957 Beauty and the BeastPerformances of biblical and fairy tales started early in the final month of 1957. At 5pm on 10 December, Children’s Television presented the Television Puppet Theatre in Beauty and the Beast, written and produced by Gordon Murray (see adjacent image) and two days later Perlita Neilson starred in Finlay J. Macdonald’s production of J. M. Barrie’s final play The Boy David, about the shepherd boy who became the Old Testament’s King David, which was first performed in Edinburgh in 1936. Trewin, writing in The Listener, recalled how the stage premiere had been a ‘haunted production’, but noted that ‘camera troubles aside’ the actors in the television revival ‘had reached the heart of the piece’ (‘Question Marks’, The Listener, 19 December 1957, pp. 1046-47). The Manchester Guardian‘s television critic, however, was far less kind in sweeping away the ‘remarkable technical disasters’ which beset the production which had been transmitted from the BBC’s Scottish studios:

There was ten minutes’ delay at the beginning and fifteen minutes’ breakdown not long after. This was made much worse by the confused way the gap was filled: first with a jolly film about how horses and men are trained for the Royal Horse Guards, then with repeated apologies (so unnecessary to keep showing an embarrassed announcer), finally with mistakes such as an announcement of the ‘Hall of Fame’ but with a caption of Nicholas Nickleby. When the play recovered it battled along with only one camera, which is always a handicap. (‘The Boy David: Technical Disasters Beset Barrie’, The Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1957, p. 7)

17 December saw a production of the comedy Wishing Well, ‘a well-produced harmless piece of Welsh whimsy’ written by the bus driver turned playwright Eynon Evans (The Manchester Guardian, 18 December 1957, p. 5) and on 20 December Children’s Television repeated Shaun Sutton’s 1956 production of The Goose Girl, a fairy tale written by Clifford Williams and Donald Johnson which took its cue from the story by the brothers Grimm (on which see the first part of this survey). That evening viewers could continue with episode ten of the long-running serialisation of Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby which had been adapted for television by Vincent Tilsley and produced by Douglas Allen. Also coming to a close around this time was the new eight-part serialization of The Railway Children from the book by Edith Nesbit under the Children’s Television banner.

On 22 December 1957 lovers of the Brian Rix Presents series of farces (on which see part one of this survey) could enjoy the presentation from the Whitehall Theatre of the full 90-minute production of Thark by Ben Travers in the Sunday-Night Theatre slot. The anonymous critic in The Times was not, however, amused by this play on the supernatural happenings in a crumbling Gothic mansion: ‘even in farce the supernatural has to be taken seriously. If ghosts are treated without due respect they may coldly withdraw taking most of the fun with them, and this is what happened in last night’s performance’ (The Times, 23 December 1957, p. 9).

1957 Behold the KingAt 6.15pm on Christmas Eve, Children’s Television presented Behold the King, John Keir Cross’ play (likely to have been written especially for television) about the nativity, followed later in the evening by the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas Day held a feast of delights, with Children’s Television transmitting a film version of The Sleeping Beauty, a one-hour telerecorded production of The Babes in the Wood, presented under the banner Television’s Annual Frolic, Pantomania (with Eamonn Andrews, The Beverley Sisters, Benny Hill, Sid James, Frankie Vaughan and many others) and 90-minute production of J. B. Priestley’s early 20th-century comedy When We Are Married. (On the much earlier 1938 BBC Television production of this play, about three middle-aged couples who turn out not to have been married after all, see John Wyver’s posts here and here.) Ivor Brown, writing in The Listener, found Pantomania to be disappointingly ‘under-rehearsed’ but Vivian A. Daniels’ production of Priestley’s play to be ‘revived excellently’ (‘Shakespeare, Hancock, Priestley’, 2 January 1957, pp. 36-37: p. 37). At 5.45pm on Boxing Day younger viewers were offered Rex Tucker’s television play version of Aladdin, followed later in the evening by the television play Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to Anthony Hope’s book The Prisoner of Zenda, designed and produced by Hal Burton. On the same day the Home Service broadcast a radio programme entitled Hail, Pantomime! addressing the enduring enjoyment of the genre and also tracing its gradual movement with the times (the subject also of a Radio Times article, ‘Panto has moved with the times’, by Gale Pedrick, 20 December 1957, p. 8).

John Neville as the King, Patricia Cree as Katherine and Nancie Jackson as Alice in Henry V

John Neville as the King, Patricia Cree as Katherine and Nancie Jackson as Alice in Henry V

Introducing the Television World Theatre series in an article in the issue of the Radio Times for the following week, the Head of Television Drama at the BBC Michael Barry notes that ‘There is one aspect of television about which comment is seldom heard – it has made plays talked about! […] Such a strength of interest in plays has not existed in this country for generations. What a stimulating state of things this represents’ (Radio Times, 27 December 1957, p. 3; original emphasis). The series of fourteen productions of plays from the stage began on 29 December 1957 with John Neville in the title role of Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth produced by Peter Dews. Subsequent Sundays in the early new year presented Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (5 January; on later productions of The Cherry Orchard at the BBC see Billy Smart’s Spaces of Television blog post) and Euripides’ Women of Troy (12 January, on which see my Screen Plays blog posts here and here).

1957 A Midsummer Night's DreamThere was a little more Shakespeare two days later on New Year’s Eve with a fifteen-minute Theatre Flash programme from the Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Frankie Howerd as Bottom (see adjacent image), Joyce Redman as Titania and Paul Daneman as Quince. This was followed at 8.30pm by Donald Wilson’s television play Flight of the Dove, with Leo McKern, John Welsh, Leonard Sachs, Billie Whitelaw and Julia Arnall. Other televised drama included a four-part adaptation and dramatization of J. B. Priestley’s novel Angel Pavement and several television plays under the Canadian Television Theatre banner. On 4 January 1958 the one-hour programme The World Our Stage, which presented excerpts from a number of pantomimes and other entertainments across the country, was followed by the Saturday Playhouse slot which offered The Man Upstairs, Patrick Hamilton’s last play which had been produced on the stage earlier in the decade but which had faded quickly from view.

1958

I suppose that a play which dealt faithfully with the pains and sufferings of the secular Christmas would be generally unacceptable; but there the Herculean labours are – the fuss, the crowding, the fatigue, the over-long preparation which makes tempers over-short […] A play on that note is not what the BBC is likely to offer or viewers are likely to welcome; the Drama Department cannot sit palely loitering and yawning in the rubicund face of Yule.

1958 Rest You MerryThus noted Ivor Brown in The Listener as prelude to his review of Elaine Morgan’s Christmas play Rest You Merry, one of television’s first dramas in the Christmas programmes for 1958 (‘Christmas Puddings’, 25 December 1958, pp.1090-91). Brown applauded the fact that Morgan’s play, which was produced from the BBC’s Welsh studio, was not, ‘despite its title, unmitigated mirth and mistletoe’. Televised on 17 December, Rest you Merry, a play of ‘domestic realism’ in which both dialogue and acting was natural, told the story of a family who were struggling to afford the expense of the festive season (see image adjacent). The critic in The Manchester Guardian, however, found the plot rather ‘artificially contrived’, like a ‘glorified version of the Grove family [the characters of the BBC Television soap opera The Grove Family, 1954-57] transferred to Wales’, and lamented the casting error manifest in the London accents of the child actors which stood in sharp contrast with the Welsh setting (‘A Welsh Family Christmas: Rest You Merry‘, 19 December 1958, p. 5). Morgan’s play seems to have been written especially for television (and her biography, online here, does describe her as a television playwright), but it was published in two acts by Samuel French in 1959 so it is just possible that it subsequently had a life on the stage.

Pinero's The Magistrate, December 1958

Pinero’s The Magistrate, December 1958

Leading up to Christmas a number of stage plays were televised. On 19 December, Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, a short comic play first produced on the stage in 1935 and televised two years later (source: Wikipedia, to be verified), was transmitted before an installment, later in the evening, of the twelve-part Dickensian dramatization Our Mutual Friend – and, it should be noted, just three months after the play had been broadcast on BBC Radio as part of a Noël Coward drama festival. The following day, 20 December, Arthur Pinero’s extremely popular farce The Magistrate (1885), which concerns a respectable man caught up in a series of scandals, was transmitted in a Saturday Playhouse production by Peter Dews (see adjacent image), but it failed to impress Ivor Brown: ‘This kind of late-Victorian jest […] needs the animation of the living theatre and, above all, the encouragement of an audience out to enjoy itself’ (‘A Great Piece of Acting’, The Listener, 1 January 1959, p. 34-35: p. 35). BBC Television on the next day, too, presented another offering from the stage, but this time it was the seasonal Ben Travers farce A Cuckoo in the Nest in the Sunday-Night Theatre slot.

On Christmas Eve, the modern Cinderella story received its seasonal outing in the 1943 film Higher and Higher, starring Frank Sinatra and Michèle Morgan; on Christmas Day itself an hour’s excerpt from the London Coliseum pantomime version of Cinderella, featuring Jimmy Edwards as the King, Tommy Steele as Buttons, Kenneth Williams as one of the Ugly Sisters and a musical score by Rodgers and Hammerstein, could be heard on BBC Radio; and Boxing Day television offered yet another version of the story in the Children’s Television slot, but this was not a pantomime but ‘the real story of the little kitchen girl [played by June Thorburn] who found her Prince’, produced by Shaun Sutton (Radio Times, 19 December 1958, p. 10).

On Christmas Day a production of the distinctively unfestive The Black Eye (1935), a comedy of fraternal love-rivalry by James Bridie, was produced (for the second time in four years!) by Campbell Logan in the BBC’s Scottish studios. Boxing Day eve offered two flavours of television drama – first, at 8.45pm, another installment of the serialization of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and, later, at 9.50pm Frank Vosper’s play Love from a Stranger, produced by Adrian Brown. Vosper’s stage thriller of 1936 was adapted from a 1924 short story by Agatha Christie and first produced in London in 1936; it proved extremely popular, with multiple film and production versions appearing in the 1930s and 1940s and, it appears from Wikipedia (although this requires further research), two earlier BBC Television productions transmitted in 1938 and 1947.

Thora Hird, Richard Goolden, Nora Nicholson and Denis Quilley in So Many Children (1958)

Thora Hird, Richard Goolden, Nora Nicholson and Denis Quilley in So Many Children (1958)

The next day, Saturday Playhouse presented Thora Hird in Gerald Savory’s play So Many Children, the action of which takes place in a northern seaport town one December (see adjacent image). This, notably, was the first television production of a play which had only previously toured stages in the north of England, with Hird reprising the role she had played on the stage of a women who takes in children sent to her by the probation office. Ivor Brown was left deeply impressed by her performance, in a review worth quoting from at length:

Were I compelled to make one of those ‘Best of the Year’ awards, which seem to me essentially futile […] I would certainly consider Thora Hird’s performance in So Many Children (December 27). Gerald Savory’s piece about the keeper of a lodging-house for the difficult cases passed on to her by the probation officer might have been given the glutinous succulence of a Christmas trifle. Aggie Thompson, the woman in question, had a secret and desperately unhappy life and knew also that she was dying. Yet she plodded on with the service of her problem ‘children': a tense, repressed, angry German girl, a doddering ex-burglar turned night-watchman, and a young ex-trawler-crew loafer and playboy.

With good dialogue to work on and a good production by John Harrison, Thora Hird not only completely rescued this heroine of the mean streets from becoming a tear-jerking foster-mum; she made me believe without hesitation in the actuality of Aggie Thompson. […] all the scolding, well-earned by her lodgers, had the right gusty mixture of tartness and kindliness, while the passages in which her own heart-break was gradually emerging were taken with a superbly controlled pathos. False emphasis here would have drowned the whole story in a sweet lachrymosity. But there was not a false step, no touch of exaggeration. I shall not forget Miss Hird’s brisk presence and haunting departure; here was a welcome and wonderful change from the routine jollification of the Christmas programme. (‘A Great Piece of Acting’, The Listener, 1 January 1959, p. 34-35)

1958 An Ideal HusbandOn the following evening, 28 December, the choice of stage-play was, for the season, more traditional (by which I mean something already proved to be popular and / or from the established stage repertoire) with a presentation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, produced and designed by Hal Burton, in the Sunday-Night Theatre slot. The critic in The Manchester Guardian was disappointed with the choice of play for television presentation – ‘for television this is perhaps the least amusing of his plays […] the concentration that television focuses on individual characters tends to make one expect brighter pearls of humour than actually fall from their lips’ – but not the acting or the production (‘The Ideal Husband: Disappointment, But Not with the BBC’, 29 December 1958, p. 3). The Wildean play followed a half-hour programme of scenes from Tom Arnold’s ‘spectacular Ice Pantomime’ Babes in the Wood which was running at the Sports Stadium in Brighton (Radio Times, 26 December 1958, p. 9).

On New Year’s Eve, Max Miller (Idle Jack), Jean Kent (Dick Whittington), Jon Pertwee (Alderman Fitzwarren) amused viewers in a version of Dick Whittington and his Cat, but the pantomimes don’t seem to have been extended into the new year as readily as in the previous years in this survey. One new year play – albeit one not written for the stage, it seems – received such a positive critical reception that it is worth recording here. Geoffrey Trease’s Time Out of Mind, a play set in a northern grammar school on the theme of tradition vs. innovation which was produced by Desmond Davis, is considered by The Manchester Guardian to be ‘on of the best [plays] that has yet come from the North of England studios’ (3 January 1959, p. 3) and the critic in The Times noted that the play ‘possesses the combination of self-respecting literacy, solid workmanship, and genuine concern for subject-matter that is the best substitute yet found for white-hot inspiration’ (2 January 1959, p. 4). An article by Trewin in The Listener seems to suggest that it had previously had an airing on BBC Radio (‘Fighting it Out’, 13 December 1956, p. 1009-10: p. 1009).

1959

1959 Cinderella, RT articleShaun Sutton’s Cinderella opened the festive season on 15 December 1959. This production for television, first transmitted in the previous December, was this year accompanied by an illustrated article by Sutton in the Junior Radio Times, a pull-out supplement for children in the 11 December 1959 edition of the Radio Times. In this article Sutton explains the problem he found in presenting the well-known story for the medium. He considers that ‘the usual theatre pantomimes simply do not “come off” on the screen. So the author, C. E. Webber, and I decided to go right back to the original, ancient tale of Cinderella and present it as a straightforward story’, with all the magic of the story but none of the songs and dances usually omnipresent in the pantomime versions: and so, the Cinderella’s sisters are not the ‘hideous freaks’ of the stage but ‘graceless, ill-tempered, and hoity-toity’ real people and Buttons is a mischievous little boy who adores Cinderella from a distance’ (supplement, p. 1).

The customary Christmas-time Aldwych farce, presented on 20 December, was A Cup of Kindness, a play with a suburban setting and ‘plenty of good will and seasonable spirit to make this an apt and entertaining start to Christmas week’, presented on the Sunday before Christmas (Radio Times, 18 December 1959, p. 3). Two days later Willis Hall’s ‘brass band and kitchen comedy’ Poet and Pheasant (which had its stage premiere at the Palace Theatre, Watford the previous year) did nothing to impress Mary Crozier, the television critic of The Guardian: ‘No circumstance of phoney northern life was lacking: much of the conversation, if it could be called that, was an incessant cry of “now Tom, nay, now, nay, nay, now, Tom, nay”. […] the band won the competition; a noisy time was had by all and at the viewing end one felt thoroughly battered and exhausted’ (23 December 1959, p. 5). Irving Wardle of The Listener found more to enjoy in this production, citing some ‘robust character observation’ and a ‘superbly economical drunk scene’ (‘A Blow-Out’, 31 December 1959, pp. 1172-73: p. 1173).

On Christmas Eve viewers could tune in to see Julie Andrews star in The Gentle Flame, a special musical playlet by written for television and produced by Francis Essex. Her character was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, in the story of the same name; in this version, however, the match girl is able – by lighting all her matches at once – to enter briefly into her romantic dream-world where at a fabulous party she meets a man (played by John Fraser) she falls in love with. This was, considered Irving Wardle in The Listener, ‘a really bad example of old-style musical comedy, eliciting push-button responses to such things as a waif in the snow’ (‘A Blow-Out’, 31 December 1959, pp. 1172-73: p. 1173). Later that evening Gian Carlo Menotti’s nativity opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was transmitted for the fourth time in recent years but, as noted in the first part of this blog piece, in a new production by Christian Simpson with the Royal Philharmonic.

1959 A Kiss for CinderellaChristmas Day saw a production of J. M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella a play written in 1916 and set in London during the First World War. The Cinderella figure, played by Jeannie Carson, is a ‘young Cockney kitchen-maid, nicknamed Cinderella, who comes to believe that she really is the Cinderella of legend and that one night she really will be going to the ball. the dream world into which she projects herself is full of Barriesque humour and satire’ (Radio Times, 18 December 1959, p. 9). The Listener‘s Irving Wardle, who so deplored the cliched use of The Little Match Girl in A Gentle Flame, thought much more highly of Barrie’s reworking of Cinderella here: ‘Desmond Davis’s production was most sensitively attuned to the play’s wayward intermingling of fantasy and realism; its sentimentality came straight from the heart. Jeannie Carson and Kendrick Owen, playing with delicate self-parody, built the romance into something very touching; and there was a score of real distinction by Christopher Whelen’ (‘A Blow-Out’, 31 December 1959, pp. 1172-73). (It was sad to read that Davis, clearly a talented producer, died in what was described as ‘an electrical accident’ at his home in between completing A Kiss for Cinderella and its television transmission: ‘TV Producer Dies after Accident’, The Guardian, 16 December 1959, p. 2).

1959 Mother GooseThe Boxing Day pantomime, recorded before an invited audience of 1,500, was Mother Goose starring Frankie Howerd in his first role as a pantomime dame: see adjacent image. The producer Richard Afton declares this to be a ‘traditional pantomime with no variety acts’ (Radio Times, 18 December 1959, p. 10).

The Sunday-Night Theatre production on 27 December presented N. C. Hunter’s Waters of the Moon, a play set in a small hotel just after Christmas produced by Harold Clayton. It featured a starry cast including Lewis Casson, Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike who were reprising the roles they had played on the London stage. The play had proved itself to be a popular success in London following its 1951 stage premiere; still, Hunter recognized the need to make ‘some alterations’ to the script ‘in order that it should not seem dated’ in this television presentation (Radio Times, 25 December 1959, p. 3).

1959 Break in FestivitiesOne of the last, if not the last, BBC drama productions of the decade sums up, perhaps, the gradual shift in taste, which is observable certainly in this second part of the blog post, towards a more realistic and socially engaged television drama. On 29 December 1959 a 45-minute production by Terence Dudley of A. C. Thomas’ television play Break in Festivities presented two West Indian immigrants ‘who have been in England for three months, and who find the mixture of Christmas festivities and colour prejudice more than just bewildering’ (Radio Times, 25 December 1959, p. 16). The play is a modern rendering of the nativity, as Bill (played by Harry Haird) and his heavily pregnant wife Susie (Corinne Skinner) make their way through London on Christmas Eve in search of a room but encounter only ‘humiliating rebuffs’ before coming to rest in a squalid attic where Susie gives birth to their child (Irving Wardle, ‘A Picture of the Times?’, The Listener, 7 January 1960, pp. 40-41: p. 41).

I won’t venture (yet) further into the early days of the 1960s, as this blog post is long enough as it is! But I won’t sign off before wishing all Screen Plays readers a very happy new year from both John Wyver and myself. Here’s to 2013!

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Christmas past at the BBC: the second half of the 1950s. Part 2

  1. Your 1950s Christmas articles form a useful companion and overture to this exhaustive – but fascinating! – overview of the Christmas British TV schedules between 1970 and 2009 – http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/?page_id=3772

    H A P P Y N E W Y E A R A M A N D A !

    Posted by billysmart | 31 December 2012, 5:05 pm
    • Thanks so much for posting this, Billy – a good reminder for the later period and, as you say, definitely worth a very close look! Superb! Wishing you all the very best for the New Year!

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 31 December 2012, 5:10 pm

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