Gordon Ross’s Television Jubilee: The Story of Twenty-Five Years of BBC Television (London: W. H. Allen, 1961) was published in the run-up to the quarter-century anniversary of the start of the television service from Alexandra Palace. Exactly fifty years on, the book is valuable both as an outline history of the first years (which in terms of the programmes at least have yet to be properly explored by academic histories) and as a kind of self-portrait of the medium at that moment. The blurb on the inside cover flap notes that ‘the author’s research has had the wholehearted and generous support of everyone at the BBC’.
Ross’s approach to the writing of television history is very much cuttings-and-paste combined with personal memories (and frustratingly there is no index). With regard to the concerns of Screen Plays, there are mentions throughout the book of plays on television and drama is the exclusive focus of Chapter Ten (there are thirteen). In his discussion of pre-war television, for example, Gordon Ross writes about the live broadcast from the Victoria Palace theatre of Me and My Girl in May 1939. The King and Queen apparently decided to visit the musical famous for the Lambeth Walk on that same night.
Only two hours before the curtain rose the theatre was told of the visi, but as permission would have to have been sought beforehand, it was not possible to show their Majesties in the royal box. The Queen, however, noticed the cameras soon after arriving and pointed them out to the King. Meanwhile Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret saw the first act on television at Buckingham Palace. (p. 62)
Ross also writes interestingly about two BBC appearances in 1956 by Eartha Kitt. She first played a murderess in The Valiant, a thirty-minute original script for television. This was not well-received, and as a consequence she suggested that she might reprise her performance in Miss Patterson, which had been a huge success on Broadway.
Her role was that of a 15 year old coloured girl who wants to be a real white woman, like her mother’s employer, Miss Patterson. This time the press said [Ross gives no further reference]: ‘Although Broadway gave Eartha Kitt her first big chance as an actress in the play Miss Patterson, she had to come to London to face the BBC cameras to convey the full flavour of her remarkable talent… Eartha Kitt’s last moments on the screen were a brilliant silent demonstration of how a girl grows up and learns the first great adult lesson that life goes on whatever your dreams may be.’ (p. 109)
When Ross wrote Television Jubilee, the BBC’s Head of Drama was Michael Barry, and he is the focus of the book’s chapter devoted to plays. Barry made his debut as a television producer on 17 April 1938 with a play called The Marvellous History of St Bernard. The writing credit in Radio Times was ‘adapted by Henri Ghéon from a manuscript of the fifteenth century, translated by Sir Barry V. Jackson’, and the programme guide further informed its viewers about the work’s pedigree.
This was performed for the first time in August, 1924, before the Castle of Menthon, near Annecy, under the auspices of the Society for Millenary Celebrations of St. Bernard. In England it has been produced at the Birmingham Repertory, the Kingsway, and, by Michael Barry himself, at the Croydon Repertory Theatre. (15 April 1938, pp. 20-21)
Ross relates Barry’s recall of the production.
He found then that the camera had a narrow field of focus; the long column of pilgrims showed him that it was inadvisable to hold moving figures for too long, but it was here, in some strange and unrelated way, that Barry began to sense that the machine about which he knew so little, did have an imagination of its own… St Bernard convinced [Barry] that television did have a quality of individualism — a specific characteristic, not perhaps clearly identifiable at the time, but existing none the less. (p. 168)
Television Jubilee was written just at the moment when the medium was seeking to shake off its reliance on theatre plays and to concentrate on original scripts. As a consequence, the focus is very much on this new writing, but Ross also considers productions taken directly from the theatre.
Including excerpts from theatres the BBC televises approximately 250 plays a year. Theatre excerpts are limited by the Theatre Managers to forty-five minutes, and can never include the last act. Why should the theatre expose the ending of a ‘whodunit’ to would-be theatre customers? It would be cutting their own throats…
Henry Sherek did permit the televising of a complete West End play whilst it was still running when he presented Frieda just after the war and was nearly thrown out of the Society of West End Theatre Managers for his temerity; it was this that led to the agreement to televise only excerpts. Sherek’s view was that if the television production was good, it usually put the theatre takings up by at least 50 per cent. If badly done it could be disastrous, as could be the case with musical comedies, which are difficult to adapt because big production numbers do not look effective on small screens. (p. 179)