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Plays

Will before the war

One of the questions that Screen Plays will negotiate over the coming months is the question of what we make of William Shakespeare. Unlike almost every other aspect of our subject, Shakespeare productions for British television have been extensively analysed and immaculately documented in the essential Shakespeare database from the British Universities Film and Video Council. As we do not want to duplicate this work, we expect that our focus for much of the time will be on dramatists other than the Bard — but this does not mean that we will ignore him. And a first offering, here is a post originally written for Illuminations and published here on 19 June 2010.

Peggy Ashcroft and Esmond Knight in Twelfth Night, 1939Regular television transmissions from the BBC at Alexandra Palace began on 2 November 1936 with an audience of a few hundred. By the time the service came off the air on 1 September 1939 the number of viewers had probably reached the low tens of thousands, still almost all in and around London, and the medium had begun to explore the potential that it would realise in so many forms in the post-war years. These early public presentations included productions of Shakespeare plays, or elements thereof, and I have been researching these thanks to the invaluable ‘Radio Times’ online records. Among the long-disappeared delights: Laurence Olivier in scenes from the Old Vic’s 1937 Macbeth, Celia Johnson as Desdemona, and both Greer Garson and Peggy Ashcroft (left, in a poor reproduction of a Radio Times image) in different productions of Twelfth Night.

The online ‘Radio Times’ are not quite complete in the early months, but even so I’m pretty sure that the first Shakespeare to be shown was on Friday 5 February 1937. (Shown, that is, in the regular television broadcasts — before November 1936 there had been an extensive series of experimental transmissions, and the content of these, and specifically whether there was any Shakespeare, remains to be researched.) On the afternoon of that February Friday Margaretta Scott played scenes from As You Like It for just fifteen minutes from 3.45 until 4.00. Then in the evening, Yvonne Arnaud, Henry Oscar and Marie Mervin gave scenes from Henry V. As the ‘Radio Times’ noted, Yvonne Arnaud had played the role of Katharine at the Alhambra Theatre in January 1934; Henry Oscar first appeared in a Shakespeare production at the Stratford Memorial Theatre in 1911.

These short ‘scenes from…’ broadcasts continued throughout early 1937. Then to mark Shakespeare’s supposed birthday (see my post Happy unbirthday, Will) producer Stephen Thomas, who was responsible for the previous broadcasts of extracts, mounted a “a Mask arranged from the Fairy scenes” of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with Mendelssohn’s music and choreography by Andrée Howard. Remarkably, the role of Puck is credited in ‘Radio Times’ as being played by Patricia Hayes who went on to become a familiar face in Hancock’s Half-Hour and The Benny Hill Show, and who would have been twenty-eight in 1937. (There’s an interesting discussion of the work and life of choreographer Andrée Howard here; apparently she committed suicide, suffering from depression, in 1968.)

Greer Garson, playing just before she was ‘discovered’ by Louis B Mayer and signed to an MGM contract, gave scenes from Twelfth Night on Friday 14 May, by which time broadcasts such as this had expanded to a half-hour length. Then on Friday 9 July producer Jan Bussell staged Pyramus and Thisbe, being the concluding scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This proved particularly popular, and was re-staged more than any other pre-war television Shakespeare, with two further presentations in July as well as a revival in late January and early February 1938.

Remember, there was no videotape and no telerecording in these days, which is why the only surviving fragments of pre-war television are contained in promotional films made to showcase the service. As far as I’m aware, none of these precious traces are Shakespeare extracts. And of course when the television service wanted to repeat a production, which it often did during the week of the first transmission, then the whole live broadcast had to be re-run.

Among the early extracts presented on screen were scenes from stage productions then running in London. Actors who made the journey up to Alexandra Palace to play before the cameras included, in autumn 1937, players from Tyrone Guthrie’s Old Vic production of Measure for Measure and also Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson. The latter presented scenes from Michel St Denis’s Macbeth at the Old Vic.

In December 1937 the television service, only just over a year old, presented an Othello, which was scheduled to last for 35 minutes — but the billing was for the whole play, not just ‘scenes from…’ Promised by ‘Radio Times’ was a cast headed by Diana Wynyard (Desdemona), Ralph Richardson (Othello) and Henry Oscar (Iago). But something must have gone badly wrong, as the day after the broadcast on Tuesday 14 December ‘The Times’ review listed the following actors in the respective roles: Celia Johnson, Baliol Holloway and D A Clarke-Smith.

The fascinating review in ‘The Times’ (anonymous, as was the norm in those days) is the earliest I’ve so far found of a televised Shakespeare.

The watching of televised drama, especially of Shakespearian drama, is an astonishing experience to the spectator who is completely new to the medium. His first gaze at the microscopic screen is as fascinated and as unnatural as that of a small boy on his best behaviour facing the lens of the camera. The small boy realizes that the portrait will eventually appear and be handed round to admiring aunts, and the uninitiated spectator realizes that the tiny screen will be peopled by moving and articulate figures, but surely the portrait of the small boy, with his immaculate collar and self-conscious smile, will be as far removed from the real child as the television puppets will be from the stage and the tradition of Shakespeare.

Yet after expressing such reservations, which were presumably widely shared, the reviewer acknowledges that he (presumably) has been won over — or at any rate, almost.

There are times, especially when Iago is alone on the screen—although it is by no means Mr D A Clarke-Smith’s fault—when the memories of the primitive cinema are irresistably conjured up, but there are other times when the tiny screen seems magnified to the proportions of the theatre and Othello is the great man, spiritually and physically, that he was… at the end of this constricted but fluid adaptation of Othello, the impression is that a great play, and not merely a conjuring trick, has been performed.

You can chart the growing confidence of the medium by the transmission time allocated to new Shakespeare productions, and on 24 July 1938 Julius Caesar spread itself across 70 minutes. This was a modern-dress production co-ordinated by Dallas Bower who appears to have been a truly innovative producer in these early years (and is most definitely an intriguing subject for further research). This is ‘The Times’ again:

Mr Dallas Bower is the most daring of the Alexandra Palace producers, and his empiric productions sometimes lead to strange results, but his version of Julius Caesar in modern dress last week was undoubtedly a success. Mr Ernest Milton played the part of Caesar. Mr D A Clarke-Smith that of Antony, and Miss Laura Cowie was Calpurnia. [I had to look up ’empiric’: ‘one who is guided by practical experience rather than precepts or theory.’]

Dallas Bower was also responsible for the two remaining studio presentations of Shakespeare before the war. On Sunday 5 February 1939, and also on the following Wednesday, the BBC gave his 90-minute version of The Tempest, with incidental music by Sibelius (written for a 1926 production in Copenhagen) and with Peggy Ashcroft as Miranda. (Surely this is the one pre-war performance of which we would most like to discover a recording.) And in March Bower presented Katharine and Petruchio, David Garrick’s 1754 version of The Taming of a Shrew. This, ‘The Times’ said, ‘reduced a riotous comedy to a polite entertainment’.

Shakespeare seems hardly to have featured in the 1939 schedules, apart from right at the start of the year. The evening transmission on Monday 2 January was given over to a broadcast from the Phoenix Theatre of the entire performance of Twelfth Night. This was the fourth occasion that outside broadcast cameras had relayed scenes from a West End theatre, and only the second on which a full play had been shown (the first being Priestley’s When We Are Married).

The ‘Radio Times’ in these years ran a weekly column with snippets of news about programmes credited to ‘The Scanner’, who wrote in the week before Twelfth Night:

There will be three cameras in the auditorium—one in the centre of the circle and two close together in the orchestra pit. These last two cameras will be fitted with different lenses so that changes can be made from mid shots to close shots and vice versa without any change of angle—viewers will not feel they have been suddenly snatched out of a theatre seat and planted in another with every camera change.

Peggy Ashcroft was Viola, and other roles were taken by Michael Redgrave, Esmond Knight and — as Sir Toby Belch — George Devine, who would transform the post-war theatre as the manager of the English Stage Company. In only just over two years, television had matured from showing 15-minute studio ‘scenes from…’ to being sufficiently confident to present, with just three cameras, a full performance as an outside broadcast.

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace