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More scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1956)

Barbara Jefford, [name] in Cymbeline, 1956

My previous post explored the half-hour BBC Television presentation on 29 November 1937 of scenes from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Nearly twenty years later, on 30 October 1956, the BBC broadcast another half-hour of scenes from the play. Both transmissions were drawn from then-current stagings – the earlier from the Embassy Theatre, the latter from the Old Vic – and both involved transplanting the actors from their stages to a television studio for a live programme. In neither case does a video recording exist, but in the programme file at the BBC Written Archive Centre at Caversham (T5/121), there are detailed camera scripts for both. These scripts allow us to reconstruct, at least in part, these lost broadcasts, and offer the chance to compare elements of the visual language of television in its earliest form and almost two decades on.

This is the second of three planned posts about these two productions, and here I aim to sketch the background and response to the 1956 broadcast; the third post will look in detail at the camera shots for the scenes presented in 1956 and compare these with the shots in 1937. The later programme featured only the parts of the text known as the ‘wooing’ scene and the ‘trunk’ scene, while in 1937, as we have seen, there were additional elements from the palace garden and Philario’s house in Rome. In 1956, producer Michael Barry elected to feature a lengthy spoken introduction by Dame Sybil Thorndike, and it is this element that filled out the half-hour.

On stage at the Old Vic – and a planned ‘liaison’

Cymbeline was produced on stage by Michael Benthall, who had taken on the role of artistic director of the theatre company three years before. He was part-way through his ‘five-year plan’ to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays, an initiative that had been welcomed by audiences and critics at a time when certain plays – including Cymbeline – were far less familiar, and staged less frequently, than they are today. The production opened in the theatre near Waterloo on 11 September 1956, and the following day the anonymous theatre critic for The Times contributed an ambivalent notice:

Mr Michael Benthall is probably right […] to assume that when it comes to Cymbeline we shall prefer speed to colour and verisimilitude. More or less dispensing with scenery, he sets the action going in a high dark cavern as quickly as the actors can speak their lines. […] Mr Derek Godfrey, as Iachimo, alone reaches distinction: he is effective in his encounter with Imogen and the bedroom trick is played with a great sense of the Italian’s delight in his own audacious finesse. […] Miss Barbara Jefford gives a somewhat hard reading of a woman who has all the gifts. (‘Old Vic: Cymbeline‘, 12 September 1956, p. 3)

Reservations were echoed by Philip Hope-Wallace for The Manchester Guardian:

The Old Vic last night put on Cymbeline – not well, but not without merit here and there. […] Barbara Jefford scored some points very well: a sincere unaffected approach and a handsome person go far in this rewarding part. (‘The misfortunes of Imogen’, 12 September 1956, p. 5)

The idea of presenting part of the production was being discussed at the BBC in August, when Controller of Programmes Cecil Madden wrote to Head of Drama Michael Barry, ‘Have we fixed a Sunday night for Cymbeline?’ (T5/121, memo, 27 August 1956). At this point it appears that Madden envisaged an outside broadcast of a Sunday evening performance. A fortnight later, however, Madden was exploring a weekday slot for a studio presentation of scenes from the production (Memo, 10 September 1956).

The plan was formulated more precisely by Michael Barry who on the morning of the opening night watched a dress rehearsal. In a memo he reported to his senior colleagues that Michael Benthall and the Old Vic’s publicity manager Patrick Ide

are both anxious for the company to appear on television. Their new company is young and promising with Barbara Jefford, known to us here [that is, on television] from The Rose without a Thorn and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. My feeling is confirmed that we should take the opportunity of developing a liaison with the Old Vic (Memo, 11 September 1956).

Barry suggested that in the short-term the BBC might present two two-handed scenes from Cymbeline in a half-hour programme, and that this might be followed up with an outside broadcast of at least part of Much Ado About Nothing with Barbara Jefford again and Keith Michell.

Within two weeks it was fixed that the scenes from Cymbeline would be broadcast live from Studio D at Lime Grove studio on 30 October. This was a night when the Old Vic was giving Timon of Athens, and both Ms. Jefford and Mr Godfrey were free of other obligations. The producer Michael Elliott was attached to the production, and the idea had emerged that Dame Sybil Thorndike should provide an introduction. The outside broadcast of Much Ado About Nothing was also still under discussion, possibly for 2 December, but in fact this remained unrealised.

Advance notice of the broadcast appeared in The Times on 24 October 1956, when the paper’s correspondent noted that

Last year the BBC televised the Old Vic production of Julius Caesar. […] This is the first production of [Cymbeline] at the Old Vic for 25 years, and indeed the play seems fated to have long intervals in its stage history. Dame Sybil Thorndike, who will introduce the televised performance on Tuesday, first played Imogen at the Old Vic in 1918, the first time the play had been performed, apparently, since Ellen Terry appeared in it in 1896. (‘Old Vic players on television’, p. 3)

Cymbeline on the small screen

Sybil Thorndike as Imogen, c. 1918

Sybil Thorndike as Imogen, c. 1918

Unlike in 1937 the television version of these scenes from Cymbeline was rehearsed just prior to the broadcast. Michael Elliott worked with the actors for three half-days at the Old Vic from 25 October. Just before this the script for Dame Sybil’s introduction was written by Michael Barry after he had spoken with her (T5/121, Michael Elliott letter to Sybil Thorndike, 22 October 1956). From a total budget  of 250 pounds and 6 shillings (not including the studio time and crew), Dame Sybil took home a fee of fifty two pounds and ten shillings – rather more than either of the two stars. Barbara Jefford received thirty five pounds and fourteen shillings, while Derek Godfrey was paid thirty pounds and nine shillings. The total allocated for designer Eileen Diss to create the studio settings was forty one pounds. (Budget note, n. d.)

The programme played from 10.15 to 10.43pm on Tuesday 30 October. Dame Sybil Thorndike’s introduction opened with her speaking Imogen’s words, and included her reminiscences of playing the part in 1918. She recounted the plot and, between the two scenes, explained that

Michael Benthall, the producer of the production at the Old Vic, as at the production at Shakespeare’s Globe, uses no scenery because he deliberately wants you to give all your attention to the players. (T5/121, draft of Dame Sybil Thorndike’s speech, n. d.)

Having been only luke-warm about the Old Vic production in The Manchester Guardian, the critic Philip Hope-Wallace also wrote – this time for The Listener – about the television presentation:

The voice of Dame Sybil Thorndike declaiming the threnody from Cymbeline lingers in memory. How beautifully she spoke it […] It was the sort of introduction which mishandled could have ruined the ensuing scenes, which in the event came up, I thought, a lot better than they had when I saw them on the stage. For this, credit must go to Michael Elliott who  kept Imogen and Iachimo just near enough to engage our attention fully without thrusting them down our throats. The trunk scene is unfailing: Derek Godfrey in his ruminations and Barbara Jefford in her slumber filled imagination fully. It was among the most successful brief screenings of Shakespeare that I can recall. (‘Drama: The heat of the sun’, 8 November 1956, p. 768)

As with all other pre-war programmes, there is no record of the audience’s response to the 1937 broadcast. But for 1956 there is a detailed Audience Research Report, which recorded a Reaction Index figure of 61.

[This was] close to the figure (63) for a performance of Act I of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (which was, however, televised direct from the stage of the Old Vic theatre) in Week 29, 1952. Part II of The Merry Wives of Windsor (televised from the stage of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) reached an Index of 64.

Most viewers appreciated Dame Sybil’s introduction, although some felt that she went on too long. As for the excerpt itself

[it] made a strong appeal to well over half of the sample. These viewers enjoyed the acting (and particularly Derek Godfrey’s performance as Iachimo) very much, and thought the presentation of the bedchamber scene ‘entrancingly done’, with the action made very dramatic by close-up camerawork and an ‘effectively simple set’. Criticism from this group consisted mainly of regret that the play could not be broadcast in full. (T5/121, Cymbeline: an audience research report, VR/56/571)

My third blog about this production will interrogate that ‘close-up camerawork’ using the detailed camera script, and compare this with the 1937 production.


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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