The BFI Southbank programme notes for tonight’s presentation of a 1960 schools production of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy consisted mostly of paragraphs from wikipedia.org about the original play. Since these notes — which are one of the joys of cinema-going in London — invariably track down reviews for the most recondite productions, it was clear that the production on offer was both obscure and undocumented. The print was one of those recently turned up in the Library of Congress archive, the recording having previously been thought lost. And while at times the audio was echo-y and the pictures wobbly, the production proved to have a simple, winning charm.
Originally presented for schools audiences in three 30-minute segments, this version had been stitched together to be shown on National Education Television in the United States. The studio staging by director Roger Jenkins (later a stalwart on series like The Troubleshooters and The Onedin Line) is mostly penny-plain, although there is one startling shot from, as it were, the back a fireplace where previously we had seen live flames. The designer is credited as John Clements, presumably the producer responsible for the innovative film version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck made for Associated-Rediffusion in 1957, about which I posted recently.
The playing from pretty much everyone is on the broad side, but the whole cast make effective use of direct-to-camera ‘asides’. Margaret Courtenay’s elderly Mrs Hardcastle is pantomime dame-ish, but Jane Downs as her daughter — the play’s central character — is winsome, witty and a delight to watch. The undoubted star is Paul Daneman who eventually overcomes his shyness in the company of ladies (he’s fine with serving maids) and wins Kate’s hand. Vivian Pickles has a tiny role as the servant Pimple.
Goldsmith’s play has been a favourite with broadcasters, with the BBC making three versions between 1961 and 1971. John Harrison staged it for The Sunday Night Play series in 1961, Roger Jenkins directed it again in 1966 for Theatre 625, and in the short-lived Stage 2 series in 1971 it was directed by Michael Elliott. In 2008 Sky Arts screened an adaptation directed by Tony Britten with Sussanah Fielding and Mark Dexter.
On 16 and 24 April 1939 BBC Television from Alexandra Palace presented a modern version of the play with, as ‘The Scanner’ wrote in Radio Times, ‘saloon cars, cocktails, cigarettes and all the other things Goldsmith didn’t know about’ (17 March 1939, p. 17). This version, billed as A Night at the Hardcastles, was adapted by Giles Playfair after a synopsis by his father, Sir Nigel Playfair (actor-manager of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, who died in 1934) who had developed the idea as a feature film. A traditional production with almost the same cast (including Eric Portman as Charles Marlow) was shown on 26 March with a repeat on 3 April. In the modern version Celia Johnson replaced Marjorie Lane in the role of Kate Hardcastle. Desmond Davis was the producer of both versions.