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100 television stage plays: [2] 1946-1954

As introduced in the first post of this series, I am attempting to outline a sketchy and tentative map of the history of the television stage play. This is taking the form of a list of ten plays each day for ten days that I suggest are among the most significant for a particular period of time. Many of the productions were never recorded or no longer exist, and of the ones that are still in the archives, there are many that I have not (yet) seen. There are unquestionably many 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 obvious omissions and idiotic inclusions.

William Devlin as King Lear, BBC

William Devlin as King Lear, BBC

This second instalment focusses on the true terra incognita of our subject: the immediate post-war years when the BBC broadcast a single television channel, initially only from Alexandra Palace and then, after 1950, increasingly from studios at Lime Grove as well. By March 1953, most drama productions were mounted in Lime Grove studio D. This is a period that is particularly ill-documented in the available literature, and so this list of ten suggestions for significant television stage plays from these years should be taken as even more tentative and provisional than most of the others. And I would particularly welcome comments and thoughts about any of the productions below — and about other notable presentations that I have not included.

11. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw, produced by George More O’Ferrall, broadcast on 7 June 1946.

Shaw’s imagining of an encounter between William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, first seen in 1910, was the first drama produced by BBC television after its return from the wartime hiatus. Henry Oscar was the Bard and Dorothy Black played Queen Elizabeth.

12. Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill, produced by Royston Morley, transmitted 30 March 1947.  Shown as a three-hour broadcast in two parts.

The ambitions of television in the post-war years are indicated by this sprawling production. It was one of the programmes viewed by the critic Harold Hobson during his first month of of watching television, about which he wrote for The Listener. He acknowledged that ‘Miss Marjorie Mars gave a fine and tense performance as the heroine of the O’Neill tragedy’, but taken as a whole the medium far from won him over.

Unless television develops aesthetically far beyond anything suggested during the past month, it is not going adequately to substitute radio… so far as I can see television has not added a new joy to the world; it has only dressed up old joys in new clothes, and made them more widely available. For I could see Mourning Becomes Electra in a theatre… (‘Television: a Month of Viewing’, 8 May 1947, pp. 726-27)

13. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, produced by Ian Orr-Ewing, transmitted 28 July 1947.

The complete performance was presented as an outside broadcast from Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre. This was the second year of the production, and The Times’ critic was a touch underwhelmed by the way it came across when you were seated beneath the north London trees:

An excess of ingenuity has led Mr Robert Atkins to loading the play with more ‘business’ than the poetry, or the performers, can carry… Miss Mary Honer’s Puck, which was good last year, is now coarsened and at the same time weakened by a facile, farcical invention… Mr Atkins as Bottom has virtues that make one wish to see him mildly disciplined by another producer. (‘Open-Air Theatre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘, 24 July 1947, p. 6)

The full cast and additional details can be found at the production’s entry on the BUFVC Shakespeare database.

14. Toad of Toad Hall by A. A. Milne after Kenneth Grahame, produced by Michael Barry, 29 December 1947.

Michael Barry’s  production was clearly a Christmas favourite that was presented again the following year, this time on Christmas Day itself. Of the first outing, Harold Hobson wrote in The Listener:

One event in Christmas week… was exceptionally good. I mean the production of Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall… [S]ome of the costumes were odd. Rat, for example, in sweater and trousers looked more like a boxer out for a run than an animal. But once Rat opened his mouth, all this was forgotten. Whenever Rat spoke, poetry opened its heart. He had a quiet zest, a beautiful rhythm that laid an enchantment on the scene. I congratulate Mr Andrew Osborn on a perfect performance. (‘Television: Shakespeare to Milne’, 1 January 1948, pp. 988-89)

15. King Lear by William Shakespeare, produced by Royston Morley, transmitted 22 August 1948.

This production with William Devlin as Lear and Alan Wheatley as the Fool was presented as a three-hour broadcast in two parts. The essential BUFVC Shakespeare database notes that two studios and at least seventeen sets were used for the production, which is recorded as having cost £243. Radio Times noted that ‘the date will be left vague and the characters will wear costumes of what might be called traditional Arthurian type’. (20 August 1948) This can be seen in the still included here, taken from the frontispiece of Adventure in Vision by John Swift, published in 1950. There the caption reads: ‘a photographic study taken from the angle of the television camera during a production of King Lear. Taken by Hugh Tosh, it gained the premier award of the Central Assoication of Photographic Societies in 1949 – the first major award for a television “still”.’

Edward II, BBC

Edward II, BBC

16. Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe, produced by Stephen Harrison, transmitted 1949?.

Producer Stephen Harrison also directed a notable version of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1947). Illustrating his argument with the image featured here, John Swift writes interestingly about Harrison’s production in his book Adventure in Vision (although so far I can find no other reference to this production – can anyone help, at least with a transmission date? [see Comment below]):

Edward the Second called for seventeen different sets. Such a number is obviously out of the question in a studio measuring at most seventy by thirty feet, so the producer brought into use the ‘penumbrascope’. This is a device which, using back projection, casts shadow patterns on to a transparent screen in front of which the action is played. In Edward the Second two such screens were used so that the symbolic shadows could be changed on one while the scene in front of the other was being transmitted. By having two cameras covering the action in front of each screen a considerable variety of shots was obtained, and this moving chronicle play was presented with a sweep and sense of space which would not have been possible if the studio had been cluttered up with sets. The symbolic shadow ‘scenery’ was use for almost the entire play. (Adventure in Vision, London: John Lehman, 1950, p. 162)

17. Trespass by Emlyn Williams, produced by John Glyn-Jones, broadcast 29 January 1950.

Harold Hobson, who was later to become the much-feared theatre critic for the Sunday Times, was the regular television critic for The Listener at the end of the 1940s and in the early years of the next decade. His columns are an essential resource for anyone interested in the programming of the time, and many of his concerns come through well in his response to a Sunday Night Theatreproduction of Williams’ thriller.

The television production of Emlyn Williams’ Trespass is not the best television that I have ever seen, but I think it is the only television version of a stage play that I have seen that has been better than the original. Lest this may seem a considerable compliment, let me at once begin to chip the edges off it.

Hobson details his responses to the individual members of the cast, only one of whom played in both the original Globe Theatre production and on screen. In the main, he is unimpressed with the television cast.

The merit of Trespass, then, did not lie in its playing. It was better than the stage production simply because it was clearer. The greater mobility of television caused us to know at every moment during the last act precisely what was happening. We not only saw the terrified investigators cowering in their castle, but also the inexorable ghost marching up to their room. This added immensely to the effectiveness of the play. At the Globe Theatre, I never, in the last act, knew what was happening; here I both knew and was excited. (‘Television: Danger in Success?’, 9 February 1950, p. 262)

Val Gielgud
Val Gielgud, author of Party Manners

18. Party Manners by Val Gielgud, produced by Val Gielgud, transmitted 1 October 1950.

Unlike dramas written specifically for television (such as Jim Allen’s series Days of Hope (1974)),  productions of stage plays have rarely been the focus of a political row. In the dying days of the post-war Labour government, however, Val Gielgud’s comedy was seen by the Daily Herald and others as an unwarranted attack on those in power. The BBC Story, the Corporation’s own online history, explains that this ‘fictional tale of a Labour minister facing a comic dilemma over nuclear energy in 1950, aroused little protest when performed as a play, first on the stage and then on BBC radio. A first airing on television was similarly unremarkable…’

Two days after the first transmission, however, the scheduled repeat was cancelled. The Times reported that ‘a BBC official said that although the play had been presented in the West End of London, and had been well received, it could now be misunderstood.’ (‘Television Play Withdrawn’, 4 October 1950, p. 3) This was all the more remarkable since Gielgud, after a distinguished period as head of radio drama, was the executive responsible for the Corporation’s television plays.

When it was relayed to the BBC’s chairman, Lord Simon, that the Labour leadership found the play offensive, he ruled that plans for the repeat should be scrapped… It was, he quickly discovered, a serious blunder. He was pilloried in the press, carpeted by the BBC’s own General Advisory Council, and criticised in a debate in the House of Lords, where Lord Hailsham accused him of ‘humourless sensitivity to criticism’.

Lord Simon apologised in the House, admitting he did not foresee the ‘hurricane’ of feeling his decision would stir. The storm, he concluded in his memoirs, was so violent that ‘quite obviously no Chairman will ever dream of doing anything of the sort again’. (The BBC Story)

Writing nearly twenty years later, the commentator Peter Black suggested that Lord Simon’s decision also had long-term consequences for the BBC and television more broadly:

… there might have been no ITV if Lord Simon had not been Chairman of the Governors, for one of the things that determined the Tory Party’s decision to end the monopoly [and establish ITV] was Simon’s fatal decision to ban, on the chairman’s authority, the second showing of Party Manners… The ban convinced Lord Woolton that the BBC was not free from political bias.’ (‘A Generation Ago – Peter Black on the Rise of Television in the Early Fifties’, The Listener, 4 September 1969, p. 306)

19. Back to Methusaleh by George Bernard Shaw, produced by Harold Clayton, transmitted in five parts between 5 May and 6 June 1952.

Back to Methusaleh, BBC, 1952

Ursula Howells, Maurice Colbourne in Part IV of Back to Methusaleh

‘A metabiological pentateuch’ was the subtitle Shaw gave to his cycle of five plays and a preface. Written between 1918 and 1920, they have – for understandable reasons – enjoyed only a limited life in performance. Yet the BBC brought forth a post-war version to which the critic Philip Hope-Wallace responded with characteristic elegance.

An intrepid reader of The Manchester Guardian (no rarity) has complained that G. B. S. in Back to Methusaleh babbles like a shallow brook and has drawn the retort that in a wicked television world seventy minutes of such sane babbling, even if only for five weeks, has shone like a good deed…

[T]he television screen is still much less a stage, let alone a communal altar, than a checking board to help us listen to good talk. Shaw (who never wrote anything more beautiful than that speech of the She-Ancient which will have been heard in the last instalment before these words of mine appear) seems doubly welcome. The accuracy and success of the whole undertaking can hardly be overpraised. Harold Clayton has the thanks of us all, Shavians or not, and the large cast can imagine itself bowing to long-drawn applause. (‘Television: Good Talk and Novels’, The Listener, 5 June 1952, p. 934)

20. It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer by Gilbert Cesbron, produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, broadcast 22 February 1953 and repeated four days later.

And at last the mist clears and we have what appears to be the first full recording of a stage play presented from a British television studio. That this is currently available on YouTube (albeit in a very murky print) is thanks to the Alexandra Palace Television Society archive, and the accompanying notes are packed with interesting information. The recording is of the repeat presentation, and is seemingly somewhat shorter than the first transmission. I intend to return to this production soon to write a fuller response.


One thought on “100 television stage plays: [2] 1946-1954

  1. Lisa Bolding has been researching the BBC Written Archives Centre file for Stephen Thomas’ production of Edward the Second, and she writes that the transmission times were 8.30-10.15pm on 30 October 1947 and 3.00-4.45pm on the following afternoon, 31 October.

    In an e-mail to me, she says, ‘A letter from Harrison to the actor who played Old Mortimer refers to both broadcasts, so it looks like they both aired as planned… There was a lot of nice material in the file! It’s a pity that there were no drawings of the penumbrascope cut-outs for Edward II; the ones in the Doctor Faustus file are stunning.’

    Posted by John Wyver | 25 January 2012, 5:41 am

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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