Between 1955 and the late 1960s BBC Television broadcast some seventy live comedies and farces from the Whitehall Theatre in London. Presented by actor-manager Brian Rix, these transmissions – often scheduled at Christmas or on other bank holidays – were strikingly popular with audiences. Yet 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.
The series is the most sustained and successful partnership between a theatre company and a broadcaster, and in a number 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 considers what can in retrospect be seen as a prologue three years before the start in July 1955 of broadcasts of full-length plays.
On 14 May 1952 BBC Television showed just the first act of Colin Morris‘ hit comedy Reluctant Heroes. Morris had begun writing his tale of army life during the war, when he served as a Major in the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. In 1949 Reluctant Heroes was presented by a repertory company in Bridlington, where it was seen by the young theatrical manager Brian Rix. Rix secured the rights and mounted a touring production that opened in March 1950 with himself and his wife Elspet Gray in the cast. By the time it came to the Whitehall, where it opened on 12 September 1950, Morris too had joined the cast. The anonymous reviewer for The Times was resistant to the fourteen first-night curtain calls:
Old army jokes die hard, a fact of which this farce takes the fullest advantage. It consists of nothing else, exploiting in turn all the more familiar humours of army life. […] The grotesque appearance of Mr Brian Rix playing the gormless recruit becomes the comic mainstay, that and the hardy old army jokes which march along as indomitably as pensioners on parade. (‘Whitehall Theatre: Reluctant Heroes’, 13 September 1950, p. 6)
Despite such notices, the show proved critic-proof and Reluctant Heroes ran for 1,610 performance in its initial presentation.
By early 1952, however, bookings were falling off, and Brian Rix spoke with the assistant controller of BBC Television, Cecil Madden, about the possibility of an outside broadcast from the Whitehall. The previous year an excerpt of the play had been broadcast by BBC radio and this had given a noticeable fillip to the box office takings. As a previous post has discussed, in the pre-war year BBC Television had shown a number of plays and musical comedies as live outside broadcasts. Since 1946 these presentations had been revived from provincial and non-West End theatres but both the actors’ union Equity and the West End Theatre Managers Association (TMA) refused to cooperate, believing that such transmissions damaged the commercial prospects of a show.
According to a memo dated 5 October 1950 from Head of Outside Broadcasts Peter Dimmock, the BBC considered broadcasting the first act of Reluctant Heroes soon after its opening. Dimmock was both enthusiastic and condescending about the idea:
The play is not in the least subtle but its provincial humour and pace keeps the audience in fits of laughter throughout. It is really a series of clean Music Hall situations and jokes. The first act of two scenes runs approx. 40 minutes. I think that with the Marconi equipment we could televise it on the existing lighting, or at any rate with only a slight increase in the wattage of the existing bulbs. (WAC T14/1392/1, memo by Peter Dimmock)
The difficulties with Equity and the TMA seem to have been the reason that this did not take place, but eighteen months later, in the spring of 1952, Rix again offered Reluctant Heroes to the BBC. As an independent with no affiliations to the large management companies like H. M. Tennent, he was keen to see the ban challenged. Cecil Madden was won over (‘The laughs are tremendous and I recommend it heartily,’ he wrote in a memo on 15 April 1952) and negotiations were concluded to allow the substantial excerpt of the first act to be broadcast. The TMA insisted that any such extract should be no longer than forty minutes – in the event the running time of the scenes totalled thirty-nine minutes, forty-five seconds (memo from Michael Henderson, 16 May 1952).
Equity also stipulated that any broadcast must be played before a live audience, and so Brian Rix and the BBC conceived the idea that on the night a paying audience would see the show at 6.30pm, half an hour before the usual start time. This show would also serve as a full camera rehearsal, and then the auditorium would be cleared by around 8.45pm. Final preparations would then be made – the cameras, of course, having been rigged earlier and rehearsals having taken place – and an invited house would be let in for the live broadcast to begin at 9.20pm. Even though only the first act was to shown on television, the audience in the theatre would enjoy a performance of the whole show.
Outside broadcast producer Michael Henderson had three cameras at his disposal:
(i) in the front of the Royal Box at the end furthest from the stage. (To cover the stage and also a roller caption in the Box).
(ii) in the Circle front row in the two seats to the left of the centre gangway as you look at the stage.
(iii) on a Kamm dolley to start in the foyer looking into the bar; then to pick up people coming down the stairs and dolleying with them into the theatre entrance at the back of the Stalls; to shoot the stage from this position.
The opening moves of the third camera working to bring the television audience ‘into’ the theatre were reinforced by the script of presenter Brian Johnson on the night. His apparently off-the-cuff comments included ‘One or two are having a last quick one in the bar’ and ‘They will have to hurry, the curtain’s just going up’.
Assigned as BBC press officer to the production was Huw Wheldon (later the presenter of Monitor, then Managing Director, BBC Television, and knighted in 1976). He worked effectively with Brian Rix’s press agent Torrington Douglas to secure extensive coverage of this first outside broadcast from a West End theatre since the war. As he later recalled in his autobiography, the ambitious manager also made sure that the invited audience would contribute to the success of the transmission of what he called ‘our well-oiled production':
The audience, too, were well-oiled. Many a member of the Honourable Artillery Company was out front – arranged by my solicitor, Geoffrey Posner – as well as members of the Armed Forces invited from the Nuffield Centre. Most had whiled away the hours of waiting in the near-by clubs and pubs […] The result was a pleasantly pissed audience, prepared to roll about at every available opportunity. And they did. (My Farce from my Elbow, London: Secker and Warburg, 1974, p. 117)
In a Programme Report submitted two days after transmission, producer Michael Henderson detailed his approach to the broadcast:
As the play had been running for eighteen months it was decided that we could not try to alter the grouping, particularly as they had a public performance between the television rehearsal and transmission. Eventually I did ask for about six small changes in moves and the artistes remembered every one of them.
I saw the show eleven times plus two rehearsals plus transmission, making fourteen in all. This was not overdoing it in my opinion. The cameramen saw it twice each and said they would have liked twice more but this was not possible owing to their other commitments. We were able to evolve a tightly planned shooting script and having seen it so many times I had most of the cue lines and movements in my head.
The shots of the bar and the people coming downstairs and into the theatre were designed to give the feeling that viewers were in a theatre and I think that Brian Johnston’s very brief interview with the author gave a good finish and a useful though not blatant plug for the rest of the show. (Programme Report, 14 May 1952)
The BBC had secured a prominent production on a comparatively modest budget, excluding the OB van and crew, totalling £300. The cast divided £183 15 shillings between them, and Colin Morris received a copyright fee of £50. The television audience was also delighted, as an audience research report detailed a fortnight later. On the basis of 485 completed questionnaires, the Reaction Index was calculated to be what the report called ‘the phenomenal figure of 90 (Northern viewers gave 92)’. As the author detailed:
Only two televised plays have ever gained higher Reaction Indices – Counsellor at Law (week 6, 1951) had Reaction Indices of 91 and 92 [the two figures are explained by being the original broadcast and the live ‘repeat’ in the same week]; the second performance of Night of the Fourth (week 43, 1951) had 91. So far comedy or farce has come anywhere near the popularity of Reluctant Heroes.
3. There is very little to report save tremendous, unqualified enthusiasm. Viewers unhesitatingly voted this the most entertaining programme for a very long time; they found it uproariously funny, and considered the acting and presentation first class. […] a very large number said that the Outside Broadcast had decided them to see the play itself.
4. Again there was nothing but praise for the way television had handled this relay; it seemed that the atmosphere of a theatre ‘got across’ most effectively and that viewing conditions were perfect. (Viewer research report, VR/52/205, 4 June 1952)
The enthusiasm of the television audience was also immediately apparent in new bookings, as Rix recalled with pleasure in My Farce from my Elbow:
As soon as ten o’clock came [on the night of the broadcast] and the excerpt was over, the phones started ringing in the Box Office. […] Next morning queues stretched out of the theatre and right down Whitehall and it went on like that for months. (p. 117)
The all-round success of the broadcast was such that the corporation returned to the Whitehall in October 1952 to broadcast an excerpt from Postman’s Knock. But then it was not until three years later, when in July 1955 the BBC was facing up to the imminent arrival of commercial television that part of Dry Rot was shown. This had been written by John Chapman while he was understudying for Reluctant Heroes. After Dry Rot the idea developed of presenting between four and six Whitehall comedies each year, which continued for more than a decade. This series was also soon to include a presentation in 1956 of the whole of Reluctant Heroes. Neither this later presentation nor the earlier outside broadcast in 1952 survives in the archives.