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Plays

100 television stage plays: [1] 1930-1939

BFI with Palgrave Macmillan publish the excellent Screen Guides books, each of which features short essays on one hundred films of a particular type (American independents, silent films) or from a recognised genre (westerns, film noirs). Even when (as with the Screen Guides) such selections are not offered as ‘best of…’ lists , they are invariably both fruitful and frustrating, prompting inevitable disagreements about obvious omissions and idiotic inclusions. At the same time they can also be very useful, not least as maps – however sketchy, however mutable – of unfamiliar areas of screen history. And having returned from my holidays, across the next fortnight or so (with interruptions for other posts) it is just such a first map of stage plays produced for British television that I offer for debate.

Production shots of The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, 1930
Production shots of The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, 1930

Each post will list ten stage plays produced for British television during a specific period. The majority no longer exist (none of today’s selection do), and of the ones that are still in the archives, there are many that I have not (yet) seen. I have endeavoured from my own knowledge, from a review of such literature as is available, and from an invaluable list of productions compiled by our colleague Billy Smart to offer only a first, highly tentative outline of one hundred significant plays.

There are undoubtedly numerous important productions that I have missed or that I know nothing about. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the exercise is that it can be repeated next year (and the one after) when Amanda Wrigley and I will have spent a lot more time with the Radio Times and TV Times. Revisions and re-castings of the list will track how our knowledge, and that of our colleagues, develops. In the meantime, please use the comments below to point out my own obvious omissions and idiotic inclusions.

This first group focuses, along with the pioneering Baird broadcast in 1930, on transmissions from Alexandra Palace during the first three years of the BBC service.

1. The Man with a Flower in his Mouth by Luigi Pirandello, produced by Lance Sieveking, transmitted on 14 July 1930.

This offering was part of John Logie Baird’s experimental television service, and although there are other contenders for the title of ‘first television drama’, it does seem to be the earliest production of an existing play. I have blogged before about the production, and there are fascinating posts elsewhere by Derek Brady (including details of the 1968 reconstruction embedded below), Richard G. Elen and Steve Hawley.

2. Marigold by L. Allen Harker and F. R. Pryor, produced by George More O’Ferrall, transmitted 6 November 1936.

Scenes from this popular comedy were broadcast by the new BBC service on the afternoon of the fourth day of transmissions from Alexandra Palace; the cast was Sophie Stewart, John Bailey, Geoffrey Steele and Wyndham Milligan.

Marigold … has been chosen by the BBC for the first public television broadcast in November of a West End theatrical production. The decision to televise plays from London theatres was made this week after private experiments with The Two Bouquets, the ‘Victorian’ operetta at the Ambassadors. Marigold was first staged by the Glasgow Repertory Company, was rejected by the London managers, and was then put on by the authors, Mr F. R. Pryor and Mr Allen Harker at the Royalty, where it ran for nearly two years. Miss Sophie Stewart and several others will play their original parts. The whole company is Scottish. (Anon., Manchester Guardian, 10 October 1936)

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

3. Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, produced by George More O’Ferrall, first broadcast  on 7 December 1936.

The production of Eliot’s verse drama was running at London’s Duchess Theatre, and had been first staged by E. Martin Browne in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral during the previous year’s Canterbury Festival. Scenes were transplanted to the tiny studio at Alexandra Palace and played there by a cast of five, including Robert Speaight, who made his name with his Thomas Becket in this production, and director Browne as the Fourth Tempter and Knight.

The play deals with the last month of Becket’s life. The dialogue is written almost entirely in rhyming verse and the chorus – more than anything else, the play is Greek in form – is in free verse. Robert Speaight, G. R. Schjelderup, and E. Martin Browne played in the radio version broadcast last January. (Anon., Radio Times, 4 December 1936, p. 82)

4. Theatre Parade: Scenes from Hassan, Parts 1 and 2 by James Elroy Flecker, produced by George More O’Ferrall, decor by Peter Bax, first broadcast 8 June and 14 June, 1937.

This two-part presentation of James Elroy Flecker’s fantasy was the most lavish studio production yet attempted at Alexandra Palace. The star was Greer Garson, already established on the stage and as a television leading lady; she would go to Hollywood, under contract to MGM, later this year. The Radio Times listing offered a preview:

Hyam Greenbaum will conduct the BBC Television Orchestra in incidental music by Delius, which was composed for the original production in 1923 at His Majesty’s Theatre. Flecker’s famous play, with its colourful story, will be the subject of the most elaborate and complex production undertaken by More O’Ferrall since The School for Scandal. He has avoided the use of explanations and dialogue between scenes, just as the producer of a talking picture avoids the use of explanatory subtitles, and he hopes that the continuity of the production will thus be as smooth as that of the full-length original.

Hassan was a posthumous work of James EIroy Flecker, who died in Switzerland in 1915 at the age of thirty-one, leaving two unpublished plays and a number of books of poetry. In the original production Henry Ainley appeared in the title role, with Malcolm Keen as the Caliph, and Leon Quartermaine as Ishak. These three artists all took part in [radio] broadcasts of Hassan in 1933 and 1935. (Anon., Radio Times Television Supplement, 4 June 1937, p. 4)

5. Journey’s End by R. C. Sheriff, produced by George More O’Ferrall, transmitted on 11 November 1937.

Sherriff’s play, set in a trench during the First World War, had been a major stage hit. It was recognised as the first drama to tackle the war and to achieve both creative and commercial success. This production, mounted for Remembrance Day, occupied the entire evening’s transmission. Even so, the play which lasts some 150 minutes in the theatre, was cut to fit into the hour broadcast slot from 9pm to 10pm. Film extracts from G. W. Pabst’s feature Westfront 1918 (1930) were used in the broadcast.

Writing in The Listener, Grace Wyndham Goldie was strikingly enthusiastic in her response.

Let me say first that technically this was an amazing, a colossal success. It is far the most ambitious dramatic production television has so far attempted, and it was far the most finished, flowing and easy entertainment … The advance in camera handling in the last few months is particularly startling. In Journey’s End, the whole business of the mechanics of production, the following of an actor across the scene with the camera, the change from full picture to close up, and back again and so on, was so good that it was possible to forget it all and be absorbed in the characters and the story. (‘Broadcast Drama: Journey’s End Televised’, 17 November 1937, p. 1076)

Intriguingly, however, this perceptive critic, who had been writing regular columns about radio drama and was now beginning to focus on plays on television, expressed concern that at times this production looked too much like a film.

I missed entirely the special sense that television can give that this play is being acted for one at this very moment and that these actors are real not pictures … And the trouble is that if television is going to give us something that looks like film it must – alas! – give us something that looks like inferior film, film on a small screen, film in which ‘cutting’ is difficult, and in which ‘shots’ must come over exactly as taken instead of after they have been hand-picked.

6. Once in a Lifetime by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, produced by Eric Crozier, first broadcast 6 December 1937.

This popular Hollywood satire was the first play to run at the then unheard of length of 90 minutes, as the Radio Times correspondent ‘The Scanner’ noted:

At the moment the most envied producer at Alexandra Palace is twenty-three-year-old Eric Crozier, the youngest producer in the television service. He has been entrusted with the production of Once in a Lifetime, the comedy that burlesques Hollywood’s film methods. It will be televised on Monday and Friday next, and the timings you see for it in the programme columns are not misprints – the show really has been allocated ninety minutes. As far as I can remember, no television producer has yet sat on duty in the control-room for as long as an hour and a half …

The ‘sets’, five different ones, will be prepared and a preliminary rehearsal will be held on Sunday – the first time that such a thing has been found necessary at Alexandra Palace. On Monday, the day of the first performance, there will be the customary morning rehearsal in the studio. Or, rather, studios, for the studio that has been out of operation and dismantled since one system of transmission was adopted will be used to house one scene. This will mean that at this point those taking part in the show will have to rush out of No. 1 studio and race down the corridor to take up their positions in No. 2 studio. (‘Play That lasts Ninety Minutes’, Radio Times, 3 December 1937, p. 19)

Remarkably (and wonderfully) there is a brief mute 8mm film record of two scenes from the production (shot when it was re-staged on 26 December 1938), preserved and made available by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

7. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, produced by Dallas Bower, transmitted 24 July 1938.

Dallas Bower’s modern-dress staging was one of the most creatively ambitious of the early television dramas. As with all of the other productions listed here, no recording exists (or indeed was ever made) but one can get a sense of the action from this review in The Times:

Mr Dallas Bower is the most daring of the Alexandra Palace producers, and his empiric productions sometimes lead to strange results, but his version of Julius Caesar in modern dress last week was undoubtedly a success… the play, stripped of its classical trappings, becomes a present-day drama of power politics, and the atmosphere of intrigue and unrest is unfortunately but too real in certain countries today. From the moment when Mr Sebastian Shaw and Mr Anthony Ireland were discovered sitting at a café table, discussing the political situation over a glass of beer, looking like two Fascist officers, yet speaking the lines assigned to Brutus and Cassius, the attention of the audience was riveted … the atmosphere of modern war was brilliantly achieved both in the tent scene and by the interpolation of graphic shots from a war film. (Anon., ‘Televised Drama: Julius Caesar in Modern Dress’, 1 August 1938, p. 6)

Grace Wyndham Goldie in The Listener was similarly positive.

[T]he contemporary central European settings, Julius Caesar as a Dictator, gunmen in uniform armed with revolvers ranging streets and cafés and the like revealed the amazing topicality of the play. So that although some of the detail was exasperating yet the production as a whole was continuously interesting because in it television was giving us something fresh, something we have not had, as yet, from the theatre. ( ‘Television: Now Then, Ally Pally!’, 11 August 1938, p. 307.)

8. When We are Married by J. B. Priestley, broadcast 16 November 1938.

This was the first occasion on which full evening’s play was transmitted to viewers from a West End theatre. Priestley’s play was televised direct (‘by permission of Basil Dean‘) from the St Martin’s Theatre. This is the anonymous correspondent of The Times writing just prior to the presentation:

Emitron cameras will be installed in three positions. One in the dress circle will give a comprehensive view of the stage, while two cameras at opposite ends of the stalls will provide close-ups. The play begins at 8.30pm and it will be presented as a  theatre performance, and viewers will see the rise and fall of the curtain. The transmission, with two ten-minute intervals, will last just over two hours. (‘First Television from Theatres’, 7 November 1938, p. 10)

The stage producer Basil Dean was somewhat equivocal about the occasion when he came to write about it his 1973 autobiography, Mind’s Eye:

A special screen was fitted up in the bar at the back of the dress circle where Jack [Priestley] and I spent our time hovering between drinks and audience to ‘double watch’ the proceedings. It was great fun of course; first occasions are always memorable. But it did not help the run of the play particularly because we were selling out already. Moreover, at that early stage of development television aroused only limited curiosity, and gave small sign of the world-wide influence it was destined to become. However, from the letters I received from various members of its staff, the BBC evidently accounted this ‘first night’ a great success.

9. Clive of India by W. P. Lipscomb and R. J. Minney, produced by George More O’Ferrall, first transmitted 9 February 1938.

Clive of India, set between 1748 and 1773, had been a West End hit in 1934, and this sixty-minute adaptation was scripted by Lipscomb working with the producer. Jason Jacobs provides a detailed production history of the play in his essential The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 49-56), in which he quotes Lipscomb’s views as explained to George More O’Ferrall:

A television story will have to be devised and written in an entirely different way — halfway between sound broadcasting and films. In preparing Clive of India for television, we are televising a play which will be neither a stage play nor a screen play. It should be more mobile than a stage play, using the film technique, but not the whole technique. (Quoted in Memo from George More O’Ferrall, 28 January 1938, BBC WAC T5/98)

10. The Tempest by William Shakespeare, produced by Dallas Bower, first broadcast 5 February 1939.

Bower followed up the success of his Julius Caesar with another radical production the following year, as ‘The Scanner’ detailed:

A field-day for experimental-minded Dallas Bower on Sunday February 5 – he will produce The Tempest, a play that cries aloud for special television treatment. First of all the Sibelius incidental music will be used. This was written for a production of The Tempest in 1926 at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, but has not, I think, been used before for a stage production in this country. There will be two penumbrascopes (popularly called ‘umbrella scopes’ at Alexandra Palace) and Ariel will be made far more of a tricksy spirit with the help of the cameras … The cast is very strong indeed, with among others, Peggy Ashcroft as Miranda, Richard Goolden as Trinculo, John Abbott as Prospero, George Devine as Caliban, Stephen Haggard as Ariel, and Richard Ainley as Ferdinand. (‘Intelligent Rubbernecks’, Radio Times, 27 January 1939, p. 16)

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “100 television stage plays: [1] 1930-1939

  1. This is a really exciting exercise, John, and I am really looking forward to seeing how it develops, as our research progresses, over the next three years. A lot can be learned from this kind of overview, as you suggest in your opening paragraphs, and I must thank you for mapping out some of the significant points in the history of stage plays on 1930s television so interestingly.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 23 August 2011, 7:25 pm
  2. This is fascinating John and it was great to meet you today in Caversham! We must keep in touch and i look forward to chatting again in October. Jamie

    Posted by Jamie Medhurst | 15 September 2011, 8:54 pm

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