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Plays

100 television stage plays: [3] ITV, 1955-1964

Laurence Olivier, TV Times cover, 14 November 1958I outlined the aim of these posts in the first post of this series: an attempt to outline, in a list one hundred television stage plays, a sketchy and tentative map of the history of the form. In each entry I am offering ten plays 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. As we have said, 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 in the archives. 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.

With this third instalment we reach the start of commercial television, and I have chosen to focus on ten ITV productions in the service’s first decade. In the next post I will look at the BBC’s offerings in the same years, which for the corporation are those just before the introduction of the Play of the Month classics. Associated-Rediffusion, ATV and Granada all made numerous dramas for the network, initially relying on plays previously produced in the theatre but increasingly – and especially once the executive Sydney Newman arrived – commissioning original contemporary scripts. To anyone with only a sense of ITV’s recent output the list below may look extraordinarily bold and challenging. 

21. International Theatre: A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev, directed by Robert Hamer, produced by John Clements, broadcast on 27 September 1955.

On 22 September 1955, the first night of ITV’s broadcasts, the new channel presented short extracts (now lost) of Saki’s Baker’s Dozen, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Private Lives by Noel Coward. Four nights later Associated-Rediffusion, one of the new franchise holders, offered the melodrama Little Gerty by George Lander. But the service’s serious drama credentials were established with what appears to be a filmed version of Turgenev’s classic (which apparently survives), given in an adaptation of Constance Garnett’s translation. The Times was enthusiastic:

One is used, in television drama, to a sense of enclosed and occasionally cramped intimacy, but here there was instead a large, cinematic spaciousness. People wandered in the house and grounds, coming close or growing small in the distance. Mr Robert Hamer’s accomplished direction made it all very pleasant to watch, and managed to fuse the smooth elegance of film with the closeness of feeling which is the special property of the smaller medium.

The cast was impressive: Margaret Leighton, Laurence Harvey, Michael Gough and Miles Malleson; ‘individually,’ suggested the reviewer, ‘one remembers them all vividly, but the interaction of people in a community was not so surely caught.’

Perhaps the very freedom of the treatment was partly to blame; as the camera roamed the play tended to disintegrate into luminous fragments, and one was only intermittently aware of the social surfaces which television can reveal so well. Moreover, at times the viewer’s special disadvantage of being forced to watch the speaker when he would like to see the listener as well weighed rather heavily. Nevertheless, this was an exciting experiment in a species of drama which needs far wider exploitation – the television film.

A novel experience, which the great British public would quickly have to adapt to, was recognising that there was a reason that this was called commercial television.

Natalya’s great scene was Beliayev was followed by a boastful voice declaring: ‘I brush my teeth once a day.’ The intrusion of advertisments seemed unforgivably crass. (Anon., ‘Turgenev on I.T.A., 28 September 1955, p. 3)

22. International Theatre: The Wild Duck, directed by Charles Crichton, produced by John Clements, broadcast on 30 January 1957.

This was another of John Clements’ filmed plays, and following its recent screening at BFI Southbank I have written very positively about it in this Screen Plays post.

23. Play of the Week: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, produced and directed by Silvio Narizzano, broadcast on 27 November 1957.

Granada mounted distinguished productions of several of Miller’s plays in the late 1950s, of which this was the first. No recording of it is known, so for our knowledge we are dependent on traces like written at the times by the anonymous reviewer for The Times:

Granada […] really did the play proud. Besides bringing over Mr Albert Dekker to play Willie Loman (the part he played on Broadway), they managed, for the first time, to mount a two-hour production […]

In Mr Silvio Narizzano’s production the various levels [of reality and fantasy] were introduced with unerring smoothness and were clearly distinguished. The distinction, although perfectly manipulated, gave no impression of visual trickery, for such was the force of Mr Dekker’s performance that all departures from reality seemed to burst irrepressibly from the potently disordered imagination of the central figure. Stumbling in speech and turning a massively brooding face towards the camera, he returned to scenes of crushing humiliation and desperate ambition with  haggard energy and retreated from them in abject exhaustion. (28 November 1957, p. 3)

24. Play of the Week: The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan, produced and directed by Peter Graham Scott, 5 November 1958.

Brendan Behan’s first play had its London premiere in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The Times was not completely convinced that the transfer to television was successful (and disappointingly no copy of the production has survived):

Transferred from the draughty and cavernous depths of the stage of Theatre Workshop to the cramped realist settings of last night’s Associated-Rediffusion production, Mr Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow underwent a marked change of character. Gutsy theatrical exuberance declined, and the prevailing atmosphere approached that of a documentary. (Anon., ‘The Quare Fellow on Television’, The Times, 6 November 1958, p. 3)

Daily Mail article about John Gabriel Borkman25. Play of the Week: John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Christopher Morahan, produced by Caspar Wrede, broadcast on 19 November 1958.

This prestigious ATV production was Laurence Olivier’s television debut, and the company made much of their dramatic coup. A selection of design drawings and press materials has been posted online at the fascinating web resource devoted to the life and work of production designer Richard Negri (and who is clearly a fruitful focus for further study). An Evening News article reproduced there (Kendall McDonald, ‘Millions See it Tonight’, 19 November 1958) details the preparations for the live broadcast:

For the established star of stage and screen facing live cameras with no chance of retakes, this is a critical 90 minutes. It is understandable, therefore, that this is probably the most intensively rehearsed television play yet. […] This production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman comes to you from ATV’s Wood Green studio, the one used for Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectaculars. It is about the size of the whole Centre Court area at Wimbledon. There are eight sets. Four cameras will operate from the centre area of the studio moving from scene to scene.

A recording of the production apparently exists in the archives. Also from the Richard Negri website, is the extract of the Daily Mail article (Paul Tanfield, ‘TV triumph for Sir …’, 20 November 1958) reproduced above.

Display advert for A-R's The Birthday Party, The Times

Display advert for A-R's The Birthday Party, The Times

26. Play of the Week: The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, produced and directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, broadcast on 22 March 1960.

Harold Pinter’s first full-length play had been a commercial and (mostly) critical flop when it was first produced in 1958, initially at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and then at the Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith. In his biography of the playwright, Michael Billington recalls the television transmission two years later.

That broadcast stemmed from the total faith in Pinter’s work of Peter Willes, a former Hollywood actor who became head of drama at Associated Rediffusion and a great champion of new writers including, later, Joe Orton. […]

[T]hat historic 1960 production, brilliantly directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, was seen by 11 million viewers and gained glowing reviews. ‘A play to scorch the nerve-ends’, announced the Daily Mirror with metaphorical accuracy. ‘A Stage Flop is a Big Hit’, trumpeted the Daily Herald. As one of those 11 million watchers, I recall the play as being like a hand-grenade thown into one’s sitting-room: a terrifying, gripping account of a nightmare invasion, with the director seeing the interrogative faces of Goldberg and McCann in looming close-up from Stanley’s point of view. A play that had originally left Tynan, Shulman, Darlington and others bemused became a bus-stop talking-point the next day. (Harold Pinter, London: Faber & Faber, 2007, p. 110)

Frustratingly, no copy of the recording appears to have survived.

27. Television Playhouse: Fiddlers Four by Harold Brighouse, produced and directed by John Knight, 26 February 1960.

Researching this post, the most intriguing group of productions that I have come across (and of which I knew nothing before) are those by Granada in the early 1960s reviving the repertory plays of the Manchester dramatists of the 1900s. Harold Brighouse is probably the best-known of the writers, but they also include Elizabeth Baker, Stanley Houghton, Allan Monkhouse and Elizabeth Baker. Clearly Granada saw productions of works by these writers as affirming their regional identity – and the group is most definitely a subject for further research.

28. Electra by Sophocles, directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, broadcast on 28 November 1962.

My colleague Amanda Wrigley has contributed a detailed Screen Plays post about this remarkable Associated-Rediffusion production, which was played in modern Greek — without subtitles.

29. Play of the Week: Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw, produced and directed by Stuart Latham, broadcast on 30 October 1962.

In the autumn of 1962 Granada broadcast a quartet of Shaw productions across a month, and this appears to be the one that was most positively received (no copy survives). This is from the review in The Times:

Among those involved in last night’s production only one, Mr William Mervyn – trailing clouds of Saki – seemed completely and effortlessly at home with the glitter of Shaw’s higher comedy. But the rest worked themselves skilfully into the right style, and Mr Peter Vaughan, in particular, as one of Shaw’s most appealing self-made men (a character old enough to be his father), played with the force and finesse we have come to expect of him. (Anon., ‘Shaw Play on Television’, 31 October 1962, p. 8)

30. Play of the Week: Camino Real by Tennessee Williams, produced and directed by Henry Kaplan, broadcast on 27 January 1964.

By the mid-1960s, ATV and Associated-Rediffusion were concentrating on productions of contemporary scripts, and it seems to have been increasingly left to Granada to produce adaptations of classic and modern theatre plays. Much as they had done fifteen months before with four Shaw dramas, in early 1964 the company mounted three productions of Tennessee Williams plays: The Rose Tattoo (13 January), The Glass Menagerie (20 January) and this rarely-performed oddball allegory (all three productions appear to be lost).

Once again, the contemporary critic for The Times helps us to begin to approach the production:

A very personal, allusive fantasy is not the most immediately accessible of dramatic forms, and Mr Williams’s dismissal of the tattered shreds of romanticism to a purgatory from which only its broken will prevents its excape demands a considerable literacy from its audience.

The play’s unconventionality as television entertainment, however, in so far as it is separable from what Mr Williams intends to say, was handled skilfully by Mr Henry Kaplan’s production; the obscurities of style which remained are those which the author demands. (Anon., ‘Personal, allusive fantasy’, 28 January 1964, p. 13)

Unsurprisingly, this is British television’s sole production of this play.

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