A Month in the Country is the first stage play produced for ITV, but it is not in any sense a typical television drama of the mid-1950s. Like John Clements’ production of The Wild Duck (1957; discussed in a previous post here), this lavish Turgenev adaptation was not recorded in a television studio using multiple electronic cameras. Rather it was shot on 35mm film with a single camera in a movie-style set (and fortunately it survives in the archives). The cast, including Margaret Leighton, Michael Gough and Laurence Harvey, could have graced a top-level feature, and the director Robert Hamer had only six years before made one of the defining classics of the British cinema, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
I have just watched the BFI National Archive’s good-looking 16mm viewing copy of A Month in the Country. In researching the production I have become increasingly intrigued by John Clements (1910-1988) in his dual role as a producer for both the stage and television at the start of ITV in 1955. There are only a few figures who have attempted to bring together both creatively and commercially the stage (as opposed to stage plays) and the small screen. Even though his engagement with Associated-Rediffusion seems to have lasted for less than two years, on the evidence of The Wild Duck and A Month in the Country it produced some exceptional work.
Twenty years earlier, in 1935, John Clements founded the weekly repertory company known as the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green. Often producing and starring, he played numerous roles for the group over the next five years, as well as appearing in films including Things to Come (1936) and The Four Feathers (1939). During the war he worked extensively for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), and he continued a career as a prominent actor and theatrical manager in the post-war years. From 1966 to 1973 he was director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, taking over from Laurence Olivier who had launched the venture in 1962.
Adviser to Associated-Rediffusion
Associated-Rediffusion, the new ITV company providing Monday to Friday transmissions from London, appointed Clements as their drama adviser in April 1955 (they also engaged Sir John Barbirolli as music adviser). On the opening night of ITV in September that year Clements appeared with his wife Kay Hammond in an excerpt from Noel Coward’s Private Lives. In the same programme John Gielgud, Edith Evans and Margaret Leighton played a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest, although Maurice Richardson in The Observer was unimpressed: ‘The I. T. A. excerpts were a little disappointing. The cast glistered… [but] the lighting was poor, the situations too alike.’ (‘First days and nights’, 25 September 1955, p. 11)
At the same time as his work for Associated-Rediffusion, Clements had also been engaged to mount productions at London’s Saville Theatre. He opened his tenure with a production of The Shadow of Doubt by Norman King, a new play that the BBC would present in a studio production three years later. Clements also announced plans to stage from the winter of 1955 a run of classic revivals which would run for just eight weeks and then be filmed for commercial television. According to Richard Linklater writing at the time in Tribune, ‘This season of revivals is, I understand, only possible because of Mr. Clements’s association with commercial television. (‘It’s the best in London, but…’, 6 January 1956, p. 6) The Wild Duck was one of these, as was a now-lost presentation of The Rivals; both were filmed in early 1956.
The first days of ITV, however, were worrying ones for the partners and investors in the new service. As Bernard Sendall records in Independent Television in Britain: Volume 1 Original and Foundation, 1946-62 (London: Macmillan, 1982),
By mid-November 1955 it was evident that ITV was attracting an audience which the BBC had barely touched. But it was also becoming clear that, gratifying as public response had been, the audience at that time was just not big enough to secure the level of advertising revenue needed to keep ITV afloat. […] The message was clearly received throughout ITV, but with special force in the boardroom of A-R.’ (pp. 327-328)
Costs were cut back significantly and, in a process that came to be called ‘the retreat from culture’, programmes of specialist appeal were moved out of primetime. Clements’ productions were among those hit by the changes. In June 1956 the company’s head of drama, Norman Marshall, announced that future broadcasts of John Clements productions would be televised direct from the theatre. (Anon., ‘Wider scope for British writers’, The Manchester Guardian, 7 June 1956, p. 7) the moment I can trace only a broadcast of this kind of of The Seagull in early October 1956 (of which no recording survives). The presentation left Maurice Richardson deeply disappointed:
[T]he comparative failure of Associated Rediffusion’s presentation of John Clements’s production of The Seagull – one had hoped for a real occasion – was saddening and rather maddening. The feeling of cramp, as if they were playing sardines, which infected the acting, could so easily have been avoided with a little imagination in the use of the camera. (‘Wandering eye’, The Observer, 14 October 1956, p. 14)
Bernard Levin, at the time the television critic for The Manchester Guardian, also wrote about the presentation, reflecting a similar frustration that so little had been done to translate the production effectively to the small screen:
This production was the one that recently closed at the Saville Theatre with not a hair out of place. […] There was nothing to suggest that anything had been done to make it suitable for television, apart from the provision of cameras, lights and microphone, nothing to suggest that the director, Mr Michael Macowan, had appreciated the fact that television and theatre technique are entirely different things. (‘The exception that proves the rule?’, 13 October 1956, p. 5)
A film for television
As his first production for Associated-Rediffusion, and before ITV went on the air John Clements produced the film version of A Month in the Country. Unlike The Wild Duck, there does not appear to have been an original stage production. The film was shown just five days after the start of the new service, and was hailed by critics of the time. Bernard Levin wrote that with it, ‘I. T. V. scored its first great triumph’.
Working with the translation by Constance Garnett (published in 1934 in Three Plays by Turgenev) and with adapter Alwyne Whatsley (working with Hamer; she took a similar role on The Wild Duck), Clements cut the original to ninety minutes. The events of the play, written 1848-50 and set on a Russian country estate in the 1840s, are focussed even more tightly than in Turgenev’s text on the competition for the love of the young tutor Belyaev (a quietly glowering performance from Laurence Harvey).
The rivalry is between Natalya, in her late twenties and the wife of landowner Islayev (Geoffrey Keen), and the seventeen year old Vera (Zena Walker). Natalya is played with a cut-glass accent and a desperate English reserve by Margaret Leighton, who was to marry Harvey in 1957 and divorce him four years later. Complicating these affairs of the heart are Michael Gough’s impressive Rakitin, a family friend himself in love with Natalya, and a sort of comic sub-plot with the doctor Shipgelsky (Miles Malleson) and the rich neighbour who Vera finally elects to marry on the rebound from Belyaev’s rejection. But these minor characters are side-lined, along with the bulk of Turgenev’s sophisticated class analysis.
Bernard Levin most definitely approved of the central performance and of the overall approach:
Miss Leighton skirted the edge of tragedy, but she never quite toppled into it – or at any rate no more than, say, the mistress of The Cherry Orchard. And round his Natalia Mr Clements set this lovely play dancing and tinkling into a thing of light and beauty.
‘Light and beauty’ are most certainly qualities of the production, but there is a question about whether these are primarily attributable to Clements or to Robert Hamer. Hamer had enjoyed a remarkable first decade as a director since the extraordinary ‘The Haunted Mirror’ story in Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945); in addition to Kind Hearts and Coronets, he had also made the exceptional Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). Robert Murphy’s excellent overview of Hamer’s career for BFI Screenonline suggests that the play was a personal project: ‘An intimate drama in which bored, unhappy people yearn for but are never able to achieve happiness in love seemed to mirror Hamer’s own outlook on life.’
Working with director of photography William J. Harvey (credited here as James W. Harvey), a veteran of numerous fast turnaround B movies, Hamer achieves with long-shots and understated moves an elegant, clear camera style that precisely underlines both the characters’ relationships and the cast’s performances. The action remains bounded by a drawing room, a terrace and a garden (each one a finely detailed design by Fred Pusey), but there is nothing here of the electronic television studio’s usual reliance on close-ups and tight groupings. The distinctive style was astutely described by the anonymous critic in The Times:
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. (‘Turgenev on I. T. A.’, 28 September 1955, p. 3)
Visually, the film remains a delight, but for this viewer this week, A Month in the Country felt brittle and superficial, with little of the density of feeling that was achieved by, say, Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival Theatre 2010 production of Turgenev’s play in Brian Friel’s adaptation.
Coda: The television version has two breaks which are announced with captions bearing the word ‘Interval’. Both Bernard Levin and the reviewer for The Times commented unfavourably on what was then the exceptionally novel experience of having a drama interrupted by what Levin described as ‘the particularly brash and vulgar series of advertisements’. The Times offered a more precise description:
After the first half-hour came a raucous transition to ‘Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh‘, and some remarks about brightness and whiteness; while Natalya’s great scene with Beliayev was followed by a boastful voice declaring ‘I brush my teeth once a day.’ The intrusion of advertisments seemed unforgivably crass.