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Pre-war theatre from BBC Television, 3.

Two recent posts have used the online Radio Times listings to consider theatre plays staged by BBC television in the years 1936 to 1939. The first looked at works by classic dramatists and the second at plays by the still-living George Bernard Shaw and J. B. Priestley. Here I want to offer a brief overview of plays produced at Alexandra Palace by other significant writers who were alive and active in the late 1930s. These include Noel Coward, Eugene O’Neill, James Bridie, Sean O’Casey (d. 1964) and W. B. Yeats (d. January 1939). One other name that you might expect is Terence Rattigan (d. 1977), but he had only two plays on the London boards before the war, French without Tears, 1936, and After the Dance, 1939 (currently being revived by London’s National Theatre), so it’s perhaps not that surprising that he doesn’t feature in the schedules.

One of the viewing highlights of the 1938 holiday season was a performance, lasting close to two hours, of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever which was shown on the evening of Christmas Day. ‘The presentation’, Radio Times promised its readers, ‘will as much as possible follow the lines of Noel Coward’s first production at the Ambassador’s Theatre in 1925.’ The producer was Reginald Smith who had apparently staged Coward’s playlet Red Peppers for television the previous May (my source is Radio Times‘ correspondent ‘The Scanner’), but I can find no listing for this. Coward’s short drama Hands Across the Sea, however, is there in the February 1938 schedules, again adapted from the author’s original production and produced for television by Smith.

Both Red Peppers and Hands Across the Sea do seem have been presented, as by February 1939 a fourth television presentation of a play by Coward was announced, The Young Idea, again produced by Reginald Smith. And Smith was responsible too for one of the last major drama productions before BBC television came off the air in September: Noel Coward’s Private Lives, with Diana Churchill and Denis Webb. Needless to say, nothing of this or of any of the other pre-war dramas was recorded.

According to Wikipedia, the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill ‘wrote only one well-known comedy’, Ah, Wilderness!, and it was this that the BBC presented in June 1939. The reviewer for The Times had mixed feelings about Eric Crozier’s production.

The comedy is a true comedy, a delightful study of the older and younger generations at logger-heads, and Mr Crozier’s production was replete with the loving sympathy the play demands… the boy-and-girl moonshine love scene at the end was in character, though lacking in mystery. Why is it that television moonlight is so unbearably cold? On the stage this scene is full of romance of a gentle kind, but on the television screen it was only passable.

Earlier in the year O’Neill’s satire Marco Millions had also been transmitted, in January, in Michael Macowan’s production from the Westminster Theatre ‘by arrangement with the London Mask Theatre’. In May 1938 the BBC had shown an hour of O’Neill’s great play The Emperor Jones (The Times was underwhelmed), and a year before this, in May 1937, the cameras had caught Act 2 of the Westminster Theatre production of O’Neill’s Anna Christie with Flora Robson. There’s yet another archival trace one would long to have.

James Bridie is a popular writer in the 1930s (and a collaborator with Hitchcock in the 1940s) whose plays have been treated by posterity rather less well than those of Coward and O’Neill. His Tobias and the Angel was given by the BBC in April 1938, with Tyrone Guthrie as the Archangel Raphael. It appears that the television production had a few optical tricks on display, which

… permitted [Mr Guthrie] not only to have a halo but the faculty of becoming transparent and of melting into thin air when his mission on earth was ended.

This was a case of refashioning a stage effect for the television screen. Many will remember how in the original production at the Westminster Theatre a similar result was got by painting great wings on the backcloth so that the great figure of the Archangel was seen for a moment in all his glory before he vanished. We could not have the colour of that apparition, but his fading away on the television screen was both impressive and mysterious. (The Times, 9 May 1938)

The following March, the BBC presented Bridie’s comedy The Switchback and, in May, The Anatomist, about the body-snatchers Burke and Hare. Then in August 1939, television screened a second production of Tobias and the Angel. I think this is the only instance of a contemporary play having two separate outings in these years, and it’s not entirely clear in what form the second presentation was made. On 11 August, Radio Times bills the play as ‘Frank Napier’s production from the Open Air Theatre (under the supervision of Robert Atkins) in Regent’s Park’ but I’m not sure if this was brought into the television studios (as I suspect) or undertaken as an outside broadcast from the park.

Sean O’Casey’s short comedy The End of the Beginning was staged in April 1938, and then his great tragedy Juno and the Paycock was presented in October of that year. The Times was enthusiastic:

Mr Sean O’Casey’s tragedy Juno and the Paycock was beautifully presented on the television screen for the first time last week by Mr Fred O’Donovan. Skilful use of the mobility of the cameras allowed shots to be taken of the adjoining room and the street door, and the funeral procession passing by. The future of television seems to lie in extending the stage in this way, and emancipating the production from stage conventions.

A short drama by W. B. Yeats, The Words Upon the Window Pane, was presented in September 1937, and then returned to in March 1938. As the Radio Times explained, the production ‘has an unusual broadcasting history. Originally it was an experimental production of Eric Crozier when he was a student in the BBC Staff Training School. So successful was it that he produced it at Alexandra Palace last September, and so successful was this television version that it was given a sound broadcast in Experimental Hour last November.’ Yeats’ short verse play The Shadowy Waters was also staged in April 1938 and a month later there was a full-length presentation of Yeats’ Deirdre, first played at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1906.

Bridie, O’Casey, Priestley, Shaw, Yeats—viewers have seen plays by nearly all the living giants of the theatre. This week an obvious gap is to be filled on Monday and Tuesday with The Breadwinner, the first Maugham play to be televised. It was first produced in 1930 at the Vaudeville, when it ran for 158 performances. Later, in April, 1935, and August, 1936, it was broadcast.

That’s the Radio Times in its 4 November 1938 issue, and when it says ‘broadcast’ at the end it means ‘on the radio’. W. Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey, the story of a hairdresser who wins £8,500 in a sweepstake, was also given in July 1939, with Aubrey Mather in the title role. And for 3 September 1939, Maugham’s The Circle was promised, ‘thought by many to be Somerset Maugham’s finest play’.

This Sunday’s televising of The Circle, by Somerset Maugham, marks the first big television production by Val Gielgud, BBC Director of Drama. Among its distinguished cast is Eva Moore, who played the part of Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney in the original sound-broadcast version, produced by Gielgud in October 1935. Gielgud will handle several more big shows. The next on the list will be Schnitzler’s Liebelei, to be televised on September 22 and 26.

Neither The Circle nor Liebelei was to make it to the screen this year, or for a good few years to come. On Friday 1 September, two days before the planned transmission of Maugham’s play, television tranmissions from Alexandra Palace were closed down for the duration of the war.

This post was originally written for the Illuminations blog and first published here on 11 July 2010.


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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