A true curio has been thrown up by the recent BBC release of the The Terence Rattigan Collection DVD box-set (see here for an introduction). The earliest production to be included, the 1961 staging of Adventure Story was in fact the second television presentation of Rattigan’s historical drama about Alexander the Great. The BBC produced it first in 1950 (no recording was made; details are here at Memorable TV), the year after it had failed in the West End. Quite why it was accorded two productions in just over a decade is a mystery – especially since this oddball 1961 production reveals all of the weaknesses of the text.
Michael Darlow’s online biography of the playwright notes that critics of the stage premiere, which gave Paul Schofield has first starring role, felt that Rattigan’s ‘naturalistic dialogue was not up to the demands of epic drama’. Certainly the first half and more of the drama plays like a slightly ludicrous historical pageant, and only towards the end does it begin to explore something more ambitious and ambivalent, as Alexander faces up to the reasons (seeking his dead father’s approval and his mother’s love) why he has been driven to conquer the known world.
Sean Connery is most definitely the reason to watch it now, shifting from boyish charm in the first scene (there is a framing prologue of Alexander on his death-bed, above) to debauched (the odd glass of wine, vaguely homoerotic embaces with his companions) and tormented anguish towards the end. The previous year, Connery (and this is before Dr. No, released in 1962) had appeared in Colombe for the BBC and as Hotspur in An Age of Kings.
Just after Adventure Story, Connery was at the BBC again as Vronsky in an ambitious single play drawn from Anna Karenina (1961, also available on DVD). Like Anna Karenina, Adventure Story was mounted in the studio by the leading producer Rudolph Cartier, but this earlier drama has little of the distinctive visual style of the Russian adaptation (discussed and illustrated in my Illuminations blog post from October 2010). (Memorable TV here has a full Adventure Story cast list.)
The anonymous critic for The Times in 1961 was (over-)generous about Connery, writing that
[c]ertain inflexions and swift deliberations of gesture at times made one feel that the part had found the young Olivier it needs.
The writer’s judgement was perhaps more accurate when he (most likely) wrote that Rudolph Cartier’s production
had the freedom of spaciousness to which this producer has accustomed us, and all the acting was on a big scale, to match Mr Clifford Hatch’s settings. (‘Study of Alexander the Great’, 13 June 1961, p. 15)
Certainly there is a lavish quality to the staging (which even stretches to three real horses at one point), and the sumptuous costumes are shown to advantage in the fine print on the DVD – although it is occasionally afflicted by break-up in the video image. But I have to believe that the Rattigan box-set offers more satisfying fare amongst the later recordings, which I intend to consider in coming posts.