Ah, the perils of programming. Tonight I made my way to BFI Southbank in the expectation that I would be seeing the 1960 BBC production of Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt. Apparently a recent rediscovery at the Library of Congress, this stars Donald Wolfit and Bernard Cribbins, and indeed an introduction by Mr Cribbins was promised as an added attraction. Alas, this was not to be.
The BFI had programmed the evening in good faith, but when the digital file turned up from Washington just over a week ago, it was discovered that the title was in fact a later production of Thomas’ farce, recorded in 1965 and with Richard Briers in the title role. But it too was ‘missing believed lost’ and now that it has been restored to us it is revealed as both great fun and a rather fascinating hybrid of studio theatre play and sitcom.
Charley’s Aunt is frequently described as the most popular farce of the English theatre. First staged in 1892, it is a farrago of dim-witted students, decorative ‘gals’, mistaken identity and cross-dressing, bolted together in a brilliant piece of plotting across three acts. For the short-lived Summer Comedy Hour series in July 1965, the evening’s entertainment was edited down to sixty minutes by one ‘John Wraith’. As a consequence, the production rattles along and, even for an audience nearly five decades on (and over a century since the play’s debut), the production by Graeme Muir delivers a decent number of laugh-out-loud moments.
In the archives of television comedy ‘John Wraith’ is credited as the author of the pilot of the sitcom All Gas and Gaiters (BBC, 1966-71), but apparently it was a pseudonym for the husband and wife writing team Pauline Devaney and Edwin Apps (I am indebted to The British Comedy Guide for this information). And Edwin Apps here also takes the role of the manservant Brassett. Along with Briers, who does a very decent turn in an old lady’s frock, the cast also includes the distinguished Pauline Jameson and Frank Pettingell as Stephen Spettigue (Pettingell was Sir John Falstaff in An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960)) . According to a Radio Times feature on 8 July 1965:
By a fascinating coincidence, Frank Pettingell finds himself playing a character whose name is in fact a variant of his own. Apparently Pettingell’s uncle Joseph was a solicitor in Hull and a close friend of Brandon Thomas. When Thomas was writing Charley’s Aunt it occurred to him that Joseph Pettingell would be a perfect name for his lawyer, so he approached his friend for permission to ‘immortalise’ him. For some reason this honour was declined, so the author coined the very similar name ‘Spettigue’.
The frocks of all the ladies (designed by Mary Woods) are particularly lavish, but the most striking aspect of the production is its studio staging. Each of the acts is played ‘as live’ in a separate set with the action recorded by a number (probably four) of frontally arranged cameras. Each space could easily be on a stage, and this theatrical sense is heightened by the inclusion of a laugh track that (as far as I can tell) was recorded live with an unseen studio audience. Certainly the cues are very precise (including applause at Richard Briers’ first entrance), and the effect is to transform the farce into a studio sitcom, complete with very broad performances from all involved.