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Our 100th post: the 2011 top 10

As a way of saying goodbye to the old year, I thought it might be interesting to detail which of our previous 99 posts have attracted the most attention. This can be measured quite precisely in terms of the views for each individual post, and so the list that follows features the ten posts that received the most views between 1 June and 31 December this year. Amanda’s revelatory post on the Open University’s largely unknown Macbeth from 1977 was by some measure the most popular offering, and after that it was Amanda’s excellent series about Greek plays on television that were most appreciated. Continue reading


Sunday Night Theatre: The Lady from the Sea (BBC, 1953)

Reviewing for The Listener a 1953 BBC television production of Ibsen’s poetic play The Lady from the Sea, Philip Hope-Wallace wrote that the dramatist ‘has recently been hailed as the perfect television playwright.’ I wish I could track down his reference, not least because it might help us understand why quite so many Ibsen dramas were produced for the small screen during the 1950s (eighteen by my current count). Hope-Wallace was writing about the earliest to survive – producer Harold Clayton’s richly interesting studio presentation that is distinguished by a compelling performance from Irene Worth. This production is the focus of my last substantive post of 2011 Continue reading

Brian Rix presents: Wolf’s Clothing (BBC, 1961)

I am writing a series of blogs about the remarkable series of comedy outside broadcasts made by the BBC with Brian Rix at the Whitehall Theatre between 1952 and 1969. Previous posts have considered Reluctant Heroes (BBC, 1952) and Postman’s Knock (BBC, 1952), and today I want to respond to the recording of Wolf’s Clothing, which was shown on 21 May 1961. This was the twenty-fifth live broadcast from the Whitehall, but it appears to be the first one to survive in the archives — and from the seventy or so transmissions, I can at present identify only this recording and two others. Continue reading

Comparing scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1937 and 1956)

This long-promised post complements two previous ones in which I sketched the background to two early television presentations of scenes from William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. A November 1937 live broadcast from a studio at Alexandra Palace featured extracts from Andre van Gyseghem’s production at the Embassy Theatre. Nineteen years later, in October 1956, two scenes from the recently opened Old Vic production by Michael Benthall were transmitted live from the Lime Grove studios. Remarkably, detailed camera scripts for both productions have been preserved and these permit a detailed comparison to be made between the basic language of studio drama just a year after the start of the BBC Television Service and the relative sophistication of that language two decades on. Continue reading

Postscript to The Serpent Son: Of Mycenae and Men (BBC, 1979)

The 1979 BBC three-part production of The Serpent Son — Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish’s translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy — which I posted about recently was followed by a ‘sophisticated modern comedy’ written by the translators. This half-hour play, Of Mycenae and Men, took the place of an ancient Greek satyr play, and it gently parodied the story of Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy. It follows the reunion of Helen (Diana Dors) and Menelaus (Freddie Jones), with Bob Hoskins in the central role of the slave. As an original television play, Of Mycenae and Men lies beyond the methodological net of Screen Plays, but I thought it would be nice to write about it as a postscript for the holidays. Continue reading

A pantomime of errors: Jack and the Beanstalk (BBC, 1947)

Today’s seasonal post relates a take of woe about a pantomime broadcast from a Christmas past. What follows is a brief encounter with the catalogue of problems that afflicted the planned presentation in early January 1947 from the Grand Theatre of ‘Croydon’s biggest pantomime’, Jack and the Beanstalk. Continue reading

Greek plays: Philoctetes (BBC Schools, 1961-62)

In 1961 and 1962 Sophocles’ Philoctetes was produced by BBC Schools and transmitted in two parts in a series on ‘Greek Drama’ for Sixth Forms. The series also featured a production of Euripides’ Bacchae and introductions to the two plays by the moral philosopher Bernard Williams. This post offers my thoughts on the first half of Philoctetes which exists in the BBC’s archives. Continue reading

Brian Rix presents: Postman’s Knock (BBC, 1952)

My first ‘Brian Rix presents’ blog explored the production context for the BBC’s broadcast from the Whitehall Theatre of the first act of Reluctant Heroes on 14 May 1952. This was immensely popular with viewers, and later in the year the BBC followed up the broadcast with another farce from the Whitehall, Philip King’s Postman’s Knock, this time given as an abridged form of the full play. But it was then to be almost three years before another Whitehall farce began the showings that were central to the BBC schedule for the next decade and more. This post considers how Postman’s Knock came about – and why, despite a success comparable to Reluctant Heroes, it did not immediately lead to a series of broadcasts. Continue reading

In the beginning: Twelfth Night (BBC, 1939)

‘I sat in my own sitting room the other night,’ Grace Wyndham Goldie wrote in early 1939 in The Listener, ‘and watched Twelfth Night being performed on the stage of the Phoenix Theatre. And the miracle of television came home to me afresh.’ The prompt for this recognition of the fledgling medium’s power was a stage production by Michel Saint-Denis with Peggy Ashcroft as Viola, which was the second full-length drama to be broadcast from a theatre. Continue reading

Brian Rix presents: Reluctant Heroes (BBC, 1952)

Between 1955 and the late 1960s BBC Television broadcast some seventy live comedies from the Whitehall Theatre in London. Presented by the actor-manager Brian Rix, these transmissions – often shown at Christmas or on other bank holidays – were strikingly popular fixtures in the schedules. They were rarely discussed by journalists at the time and have been ignored by writers on television ever since. Recordings of only a handful survive, but there is extensive documentation of almost all of them in the BBC Written Archive Centre. They are the most sustained and successful partnership between a theatre company and a broadcaster, and in a series of posts over the coming weeks I intend to explore their production context, the responses of both critics and audiences at the time, and how we might assess their significance today. This first post details what might be regarded as a prologue to the main series – the broadcast on 14 May 1952 of just the first act of Colin Morris’ hit comedy Reluctant Heroes. Continue reading

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace