‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’, scripted originally by Gilbert Cesbron, is the earliest British television drama to survive. It is also the oldest recording we have of a televised stage play. If only, one feels at the end of its one hundred minutes, if only it was more interesting, more involving, less sententious. Yet simple primacy makes it a historical document of the first order, and its presence is very welcome on YouTube, where it has been posted in ten parts posted by the archive of the Alexandra Palace Television Society (the first segment is here; the others follow on).
As I watched the blurred, sometimes desperately indistinct YouTube copy, occasionally pausing for my broadband to catch up with the stream, it struck me that the experience had certain similarities to what it must have been like viewing television fifty-eight years ago. The technology imposed itself strongly, making the process far from transparent, and I was very aware of just how much of the play was being carried by the sound. Large close-up shots of individuals made the strongest impression, as when characters came close to the camera and stared beyond it, as if looking across the footlights. The image quality of the archival original is undoubtedly sharper, but just like early ‘lookers-in’ to television I am happy to sacrifice technical quality (in their case, available in feature films) for the presence of the play in my home.
The play is an earnest act of homage to Albert Schweitzer, who at the time of transmission was still running a field hospital in Labaréné in Gabon (then French Equatorial Africa). In 1953 he was also the most recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and while he is hardly a household name now, in those years children were taught his achievements at school and he was as admired as, say, Nelson Mandela is today.
Born in Alsace, Schweitzer was a profoundly influential theologian and an organist of international repute. In 1905, when he was already thirty, he decided to study medicine so that he could become a missionary. After completing the demanding course, he left for Africa in the spring of 1913 where, with his wife Helene Bresslau, he established a field hospital fourteen days by raft upstream from Port Gentil. When the war in Europe began the following year, Schweitzer and Helene, Germans in a French colony, were placed under military supervision — and it is at this moment that ‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’ is set. Helene, however, has no role in the drama (her supposed presence in Europe is historically inaccurate) and the — minimal — romantic interest is provided by Schweitzer’s adoring assistant, Sister Marie. In his later life, Albert Schweitzer spent the majority of his years at Labaréné, where he died in 1965 aged ninety.
Gilbert Cesbron was a French writer concerned with social questions. He wrote Il est minuit Docteur Schweitzer, which is probably his best-known work, in 1950, and it was made into a film by director André Haguet two years later (Schweitzer is played by Pierre Fresnay, with Jeanne Moreau as Marie).
At the BBC ‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’ was an early production by the producer Rudolph Cartier who had started to work with the corporation the previous year. In his BFI Screenonline entry on Rudolph Cartier, Oliver Wake details the impact of Cartier’s arrival:
Cartier criticised the department’s output as staid, stage-bound and too reliant on adaptations, advocating ‘a new approach, a whole new spirit’. Initially as a freelancer, then as a staff producer (a role which then also encompassed that of director), Cartier quickly came to represent this new spirit, challenging established television conventions and introducing new methods and material. He would stay with the BBC for almost 25 years, resisting the lure of commercial television.
Cartier’s later productions include the canonical adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and the Quatermass serials (1953, 1955 and 1958-59), on which he would work with both of his male stars from ‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’, Reginald Tate and André Morell. One of the television techniques with which Cartier became associated was the extensive use of ambitious filmed sequences within studio dramas, and the beginnings of his interest in this can be discerned here.
Cesbron’s play is in two acts, both of which are set in the living space of Schweitzer’s hospital. But the television production opens with a montage of captions and a stock-shot of an African canoe being paddled on a river. Just before the interval, Cartier also ‘opens out’ the play by depicting on film the murder by a tribesman’s spear of the French priest, Father Charles (Douglas Wilmer). Most impressively, towards the end there is a lengthy film tracking shot through the hospital’s ward as Schweitzer takes his leave; this is played mute, but with Morell speaking as Schweitzer in voice-over.
The rest of the drama (which Cartier stages with frequent fluid camera moves) takes place in Schweitzer’s living area, and is largely comprised of strained debates about duty and sacrifice, religion and honour, war and the white man’s burden. Needless to say, there is no role for an African character, nor any sense of the world around the mission apart from the threatening drums. The first act takes place on the evening before war is declared in Europe, and the second the following night. The title-phrase is spoken at the opening by Sister Marie (Greta Gynt), as she encourages Schweitzer to relax, and at the close by Commandant Lieuvin (Fleming), who has come to take him into confinement. There is a symbolic lamp on the landing stage, to help guide those seeking his help, which Schweitzer at the close asks to have extinguished. But in the final sequence, Marie — who has elected to stay at the mission — lights it again, and a caption informs us that (with capitals as here):
That flame lit in darkest Africa nearly forty years ago is still alight because DOCTOR ALBERT SCHWEITZER is back at his post.
Marie is the focus of the attentions of both Lieuvin and the governor of the colony, Leblanc (Reginald Tate), but their competitive approaches are diffused in dreamy musings about the meaning of life. Only André Morell really has a chance to make something of his character, and he acquits himself well; I disagree with Oliver Wake at BFI Screenonline when he says that the cast, and Morell in particular, ‘project their voices as if to an audience beyond a proscenium arch’.
At The Mausoleum Club blog, because of Cartier’s role in the production, there is a rich (seemingly anonymous) page of information and images about the production (available as a .pdf). From this, and I believe the author is drawing on the programme file in the Written Archives Centre at Caversham, we learn that ‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’ was rehearsed in Studio D, Lime Grove, on Saturday 21 February 1953, and then again the following day, with the live broadcast taking place that evening. No recording was made of this broadcast, as was the policy with all first performances.
Four days later, the cast re-assembled for a further camera rehearsal and the live ‘repeat’, and it is this transmission that was tele-recorded by filming the electronic picture from a screen. The Pictorial Compendium from The Mausoleum Club continues:
Possibly due to the overrunning of its original transmission slot by twenty minutes, the repeat performance was shorn of some of the film sequences and – again, possibly (there’s no anecdotal evidence to either support or disprove this) – some of the staged production also, as the repeat performance is 06’25” shorter than the original. The PasB [Programme-as-Broadcast form] for the repeat performance states that ‘Greta Gynt took part on film, but the shot was not used in the repeat performance’.
Fifty-eight years on, the viewing experience, at least from a YouTube stream, is more about endurance than enjoyment. That said, the only contemporary response that I have found to date, which is Philip Hope-Wallace’s response in The Listener, suggests that it was not so very different back in 1953:
a well-meant but rather dubious tribute […] rather stiff and sententious drama, with a sort of ‘off-White Cargo’ atmosphere, jungle noises, and hospital nurses wondering whether ‘anyone has the right to happiness’ and other magazine-like sentiments […] the total effect was curiously dispiriting. (‘Heroes in the Home’, 26 February 1953, p. 362)