A polished adaptation of Jules Romains’ drama, the BBC production of Doctor Knock was originally transmitted at 8pm on the first Sunday of 1966. In the BBC2 schedule that night it was preceded by People to Watch with Roy Jenkins M.P. and followed by an edition of Horizon. Thirty-five minutes before it began (no-one seemed to worry about common junctions in those days), BBC1 started running a classic feature film, On the Waterfront (1954), while over on ITV in London there was an hour-long Danger Man episode, followed, inevitably, by Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The BBC repeated the play in September that year, when J. C. Trewin in The Listener hymned its star Leonard Rossiter as ‘vastly professional and carefully casual’ (‘Drama and Light Entertainment’, The Listener, 22 September 1966, p. 433). And then the corporation either wiped or threw away the master recording.
That it can be enjoyed again tonight at BFI Southbank is thanks to its almost accidental survival as a copy sold to the education television station NET in New York, from where it made its way to the Library of Congress archive to be re-discovered last year. Of the five productions shown this month in the UnLOCked season, this is the one I am most pleased to see resurrected.
That pleasure is not because Doctor Knock in any sense transforms our still-very-sketchy ideas about the history of stage plays on television, nor thanks to it offering anything more than engaging entertainment with two of television comedy’s best-loved figures, Rossiter and John Le Mesurier. Directed with panache by Herbert Wise and lovingly designed by Eileen Diss, it is a fine example of the state of the art of studio drama in the mid-1960s, and for all that the pace feels a little slow and the exposition a touch laboured, it deserves to be recognised as craftsmanship of a high order.
Jules Romains wrote his immensely successful comedy in France in 1923 and it is given here in what was for years the standard English translation, made by Harley Granville-Barker a few years later. Granville-Barker was a major force in British theatre in the early years of the twentieth century, both as the playwright of The Voysey Inheritance (1905) and Waste (1907), and as a producer, most notably of the plays of George Bernard Shaw. But by the 1920s he had retired to France where he also wrote the influential The Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927-45). Intriguingly, however, the artistic director of New York’s Mint Theatre, Jonathan Bank, claimed in an online interview last year that the Romains estate no longer permits Granville-Barker’s version of Doctor Knock to be played. For his production in 2010, Bank commissioned a new version that is ‘absolutely true to the original—more so than the Granville-Barker, in fact, which may have been another reason why the estate won’t allow that to be used anymore’.
The play is a satire directed both at the medical profession and the gullibility of the public in permitting themselves to be convinced of imagined illnesses. Dr Parpalaid (Le Mesurier) tricks Dr Knock (Rossiter) into purchasing his quiet rural practice for far more than it is worth. But within a few months Knock’s persuasive ways transform it into a thriving business and, as Parpalaid discovers on a return visit, a psychotic medical vision. Knock’s methods centre on the allure of supposed scientific methods and the gullible suggestiveness of those who he converts from the hale and hearty into dependent invalids.
The text today comes across as a mix of the over-obvious and the powerfully strange, and Leonard Rossiter in particular successfully combines comedic charm with disturbing mania. The drama retains a clear three-act structure and almost all of it is played in finely detailed studio sets, with only the ill-judged interpolation of some driving shots recorded on film. As Lisa Kerrigan observes in a review for BFI Screenonline, ‘Knock’s oppressive personality is especially evident in a claustrophobic scene in Parpalaid’s old-fashioned car, which acts as a metaphor for his traditional style of medicine’. Director Herbert Wise achieves considerable fluidity in his movement of the cameras, but he knows exactly when to close in and hold still on Rossiter’s face.
On the Sunday evening in 1966 when this was first shown, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was less than two months away from calling a general election, which would be fought (and won) on Labour’s record with the welfare state, including the National Health Service, in its first year and more of office. Whether viewers at the time made connections between the satirical thrust of Doctor Knock and their everyday reality or whether the production’s period setting and familiar comedy insulated it safely in the past, remains, of course, unknowable. But that the recording is once more available is most certainly a cause for celebration.