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Plays

Pre-war theatre from BBC Television, 1.

Thanks to the online Radio Times listings, it is possible to explore in detail BBC television in the pre-war years. So in this first of three posts I look at small-screen productions of great playwrights between 1936 and 1939. What follows are some first brief notes about which writers from the past featured in the early schedules and which writers — like August Strindberg — were entirely absent. In two subsequent posts, I will look at the range offered of plays by living playwrights.

The earliest review of a television drama that I’ve so far unearthed is of a play The Tiger by a playwright named by The Times on 24 November 1936 as ‘the late Captain Reginald Berkeley‘. He seems to be a comparatively obscure figure, and Wikipedia even gives two dates for his death: either 20 March 1936 or exactly one year earlier. But he was clearly a prolific writer in the early 1930s and he adapted Noel Coward’s Cavalcade for the screen in 1933. The Times review of The Tiger is fascinating for what it reveals about attitudes to watching television in these very early days– remember this is only three weeks after regular broadcasts had strated from Alexandra Palace.

For those who had not previously seen television in action the experience was a memorable one. The first sight of the tiny screen recalled childish memories of biographs on piers in the days when hansom-cabs outnumbered taxis, but there was something far removed from the childish when the screen woke to life. There was, indeed, something alarming in the thought that what was comfortably witnessed in the Marconi theatre in Tottenham Court Road was at that same and precise moment being performed in a studio at Alexandra Palace.

The screen flickers; it imposes a strain upon the eyes; the coat of M. Clemenceau was at one moment impressively dark and at the next had faded to the dingy white of an improvident umpire, but there was achievement and not merely promise in every minute of the 30 the television lasted. faces are recognizable, voices are audible and capable of expressing shades and modulations of feeling …

As for the playwrights that we remember today, there was no television production of Strindberg between 1936 and 1939, but there was one early production of — at least part of — Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, given on 12 November 1937 with Clifford Evans and Frederick Bennett. Scenes from a production running at Vaudeville Theatre were re-staged in the studio at Alexandra Palace for what was at that point an audience of a few thousand in the London area. The writings of the other giant of late nineteenth-century European theatre, Anton Chekhov, were more in demand by the BBC, not least because he had left a number of comic one-act dramas which seemed conveniently matched to the television schedules.

The monologue The Danger of Tobacco was presented in June 1937 and re-staged on 13 September, on which day Chekhov’s three-hander The Proposal was also repeated, having originally been given in April. On the High Road was played in February 1938. The Bear was put on in September of that year, when the Radio Times‘ correspondent ‘The Scanner’ reported slightly plaintively:

I should imagine that even those who can’t believe that a jest by Anton Chekhov can be funny will turn on their sets. The play is well worth seeing. Although it won’t make you roll about the floor clutching your sides, I think you will like it sufficiently to wish it were longer.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ The Importance of Being Earnest was played in October 1937, or at least some scenes from it were, since the broadcast was scheduled to last only forty minutes. The production was also re-staged in August and September of the following year. Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant also provided the framework for an original ballet for television in 1939 which was choreographed by Joy Newton to music by Eric Coates.

Act 3 Scene 3 of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife was a component of an experimental broadcast in May 1938 produced by Jan Bussell. This is the description of its opening from ‘The Scanner’:

The producer’s idea is to give a few isolated impressions of a period [of the early eighteenth century]. The transmission will open with a moving pattern of shapes composed of fans made between 1700 and 1750. The movement will be rhythmic to harpsichord and other music of the period. A general kaleidoscopic effect, rising from the fans of Gillian and Isobel Scaife, will be brought about by means of superimposition and mirrors.

After this the production moved on to a conventional presentation of the Vanbrugh scene.

Moving further back in British theatrical history, the pre-war production that most intrigues me is a presentation of part of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, played in January 1938 with Esmé Perry in the title role. At the end of the year, viewers with an interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy were well-served first by a production of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (on 11 December, illustrated in the Radio Times as above) and then just over a week later (19 December, with a re-run of 30 December) by Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

There’s much more to discover (and to blog) about televised classical theatre in these years but for the moment here’s another revealing Times review from the end of the period, from just under two years after the one above. Here the anonymous reviewer is writing about a studio production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac given in a translation from the original French by Robert Loraine. In the response to The Tiger there is a sense that — as Doctor Johnson notoriously said of women preaching — ‘It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Here the critic is fully engaged with the achievement of the production — and with comparing it to a remembered theatrical presentation.

One specific criticism of the staging must be made. The Balcony scene is the focal point of the play, and if this does not succeed a vital point is missed. Well do we remember the staging of the scene in Mr Loraine’s production at the Garrick; the two men concealed in the darkness of a tree, the object of their adoration on her balcony in full moonlight above them.

In the televised version not only was the balcony quite near to the ground but the two men were in full view (‘Myself a shadow’, said Cyrano untruthfully) and painfully obvious not only to Roxane as well, who could never have been tricked into accepting this love-making by proxy. Here was an opportunity for one of those ‘long-shots’ which came at intervals throughout the play, and showed remarkably good camera work. It seems that in order to succeed television will have to achieve the same mobility of the films, the same variety of scenes, the same attention to detail.

This post was originally written for the Illuminations blog and first published here on 25 June 2010.

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