During the discussion after Monday’s BFI Southbank screening of Colombe, Library of Congress curator Mike Mashon casually dropped into his presentation a rather exciting piece of news. Only last week his colleagues in the archives had identified one further British television drama of which no copy exists on this side of the Atlantic. Although he did not have all the details to hand, he knew that the play is Volpone and that the recording dates from around 1960. So it seems highly likely that this is the 1959 BBC recording with Sir Donald Wolfit.
If so, this is particularly interesting since Wolfit’s Volpone was one of the signature roles (along with his Lear) of this legendary actor-manager. Wolfit started his professional career as an actor in 1924 and from 1937 for the next twenty-six years he toured a company of thespians up and down the country. To many in smart London circles he became something of a figure of fun, but Ronald Harwood writes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Often embattled, he developed a majestic persona, grandiose, passionate, often pompous. He could be frightening and brutal but also astonishingly kind and genuinely humble.
Wolfit played occasionally on television in the 1950s, including giving a supposedly striking King John in Shakespeare’s drama in 1952. Later, in the early 1960s, he took the role of Sir Andrew Wilson in several episodes of ATV’s crime series Ghost Squad. He also starred with Bernard Cribbins in a 1961 production of Brandon Thomas’ farce Charley’s Aunt (see below, and picture above) But his resurrected Volpone (for the script of which he also receives an adaptation credit) has to be a fascinating fragment from a long-gone theatrical tradition. The production is also interesting as it was overseen by producer Stephen Harrison who started mounting the first television thrillers for the BBC at Alexandra Palace in 1938.
Priority booking is also now open for the second part of BFI Southbank’s season of UnLOCked: The Library of Congress Discoveries (public booking starts next Tuesday, 14 June). The five productions to be shown during July are as follows:
6 July, 18.10, The Sunday Night Play: Charley’s Aunt, BBC 1961, director: Stuart Burge, with Bernard Cribbins (who will introduce the screening) and Donald Wolfit.
12 July, 18.20, The Sunday Night Play: The Rivals, BBC 1962, director: Hal Burton (following up his earlier production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, discussed here), with Betty Marsden, Dinsdale Landen.
15 July, 18.20, The Victorians: The Ticket-of-Leave Man, ITV 1963, director: Stuart Latham, and The Victorians: The Silver King, ITV 1963, director: Herbert Wise.
19 July, 20.40, Play of the Week: The Wild Duck, ITV 1957, director: Charles Crichton, with Angela Baddeley, Michael Gough, Dorothy Tutin.
Describing this discovery as ‘a major find’, the July programme booklet for BFI Southbank recalls that ‘after the play’s successful run at the Saville Theatre, director Charles Crichton assembled the entire stage cast at Shepperton Studios to shoot this version [of Ibsen’s masterpiece] for Associated Rediffusion.
28 July, 18.20, Played Upon a Stage: She Stoops to Conquer, ITV 1960, director: Roger Jenkins, with Paul Daneman, Margaret Courtney.