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In the beginning: Twelfth Night (BBC, 1939)

The television broadcast of Twelfth Night, from The Listener

The television broadcast of Twelfth Night, from The Listener

‘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.

Ms. Wyndham Goldie appreciated how television could create ‘the actual feeling of being in a theatre’ but she was disappointed that the experience of the drama ‘was rather like being in the theatre and watching the entire action through opera glasses.’ (‘Television: from the stalls’, 19 January 1939, p. 171) The critic from The Times was even more circumspect: ‘The impression given was one of extreme restlessness. Viola was now a tiny figure scarcely distinguishable from half-a-dozen others equally diminutive, and now rather more than life-size, taking up half the screen and hiding the balcony at her back.’ (‘Television from a theatre’, 3 January 1939, p. 8)

These reviews give a sense of the experience of watching televised theatre right at the start of a form that today is manifested in NT Live. Complementary to the contemporary criticism are documents preserved in the programme file in the BBC Written Archive Centre detailing the production of such a broadcast in these early days. Read with the recognition that in 1939 technology did not exist to capture a recording of the broadcast, these written traces (along with associated photographs) are as close as we can come to this significant television broadcast of an important theatrical production.

Michel Saint-Denis had run the French avant-garde theatre group La Compagnie des Quinze (there is a good web site dedicated to his work here). In the early 1930s the company’s work had been received with enthusiasm in London, and in 1935 he founded the influential drama school known as the London Theatre Studio in Islington. In the years before the war he directed many of the finest actors of the day, including John Geilgud, Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans and Alec Guinness, in acclaimed West End productions of the classics. A number of these were mounted by the repertory company that he founded with impresario Bronson Albery for the Phoenix Theatre. They opened with a production of Bulgakov’s The White Guard in September 1938, which was followed in December by Saint-Denis’ staging of Twelfth Night.

For the theatre critic of the The Times, while there was praise for the ‘fluid grace’ of Saint-Denis’ production, and for Michael Redgrave’s Andrew Aguecheek, it was Peggy Ashcroft who was the star of this ‘night’:

… her Viola, sometimes gay, sometimes sedate, always with a light in her, is in herself a lyric, faultlessly at ease. […] [the performance] will remain as a lovely example of the shining quality that is to be discovered in the part and of the gentleness with which it may be played. (Anon,, ‘Twelfth Night’, 2 December 1938, p. 12)

The television broadcast of Twelfth Night

Televising Twelfth Night, from The Times

In two previous posts (here and here) I blogged about the outside broadcast of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married from the St. Martin’s Theatre on 16 November 1938. The success of this transmission meant that BBC executives were open to an approach from T. J. Kealy, the ‘press representative’ for Twelfth Night. In a reply to a letter from Kealy dated 25 November 1938, director of television Gerald Cock wrote:

Yours is an interesting proposal […] but several queries arise about which I should be grateful to have information without delay.

1. Are Mr. Albery and Mr. St. Denis [sic] prepared to televise the whole performance? An excerpt in the case of Shakespeare’s plays would not appeal.

2. Is Mr. Albery prepared to allow approximately 35 kilowatts of extra lighting on the stage, including about three spotlights from the gallery and boxes?

3. Is he prepared to give over the performance that evening to the needs of television, although an audience can be present as at the St Martin’s Theatre, with little inconvenience due to our cameras, etc? […]

For our part we should be prepared to pay fifty guineas for the transmission and twenty-five guineas for the loss of any seat space. (WAC T14/809, letter 28 November 1938; all correspondence and memos below are from this file)

From the theatre programme of Twelfth Night

From the Twelfth Night theatre programme

Gerald Cock initially suggested a broadcast on 26 December, but Albery was unenthusiastic about the date, not least because he did not want to sell tickets at half-price (as had apparently happened at the St Martin’s Theatre) on such an important night. By 14 December, when a technical recce was undertaken, it had been agreed with the theatre that the broadcast would be on 2 January. The negotiations were straightforward and the theatre accepted the fee proposed by the BBC (which, it was explained, had to include any payments to the cast). A week later The Times carried a news story about the plans:

The play will be presented as a theatre performance and viewers will see on the screen the rise and fall of the curtain. One television camera will be installed in the dress circle and two others in the orchestra pit. (Anon., ‘Television from the Phoenix Theatre’, 23 December 1938, p. 8)

Head of outside broadcasts Philip Dorté asked drama producer Dallas Bower to oversee the creative side of the broadcast. One of Bower’s concerns with the staging was what he described as ‘for us the exceedingly clumsy device of black-outs between scenes’ (memo to Tel. P. M., 14 December) He proposed that during these 40-50 second breaks the transmission would switch back to a camera at Alexandra Palace for captions and line drawings. He had used a similar device to cover scene changes in his modern-dress studio production of Julius Caesar in the summer of 1938. And on the night all seems to have gone well between Jasmine Bligh’s welcome to viewers at 8.25pm and the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at closedown.

Decades later, producer Dallas Bower recalled the broadcast in his unpublished autobiography:

Our huge outside broadcast van with its monitors and director’s panel installed itself outside the Phoenix Theatre’s stage door.  I had St. Denis in the van with me and, as might be expected from so fine a stage director, he could not have been more co-operative.  I warned him I would have to ‘close in’ many of his wide and expansive blockings in order to give a reasonable representation of his production on our small screens, and this we proceeded to do.  The production had had an excellent press and the television transmission was duly acclaimed. (Playback: A Life in Radio, Film and Television, unpublished typescript, n. d.)

Well, up to a point, Mr Bower. The Times critic (whose phrasing suggests he had also written the theatre review quoted above) was far from happy with this new way of taking theatre to audiences beyond the West End.

The result was to falsify the fluid grace of the production and to tempt all viewers who were not preoccupied with the technical wonders of the apparatus to close their eyes and to treat the affair as broadcast drama [that is, as radio]. There was then much to enjoy. (‘Television from a theatre’, 3 January 1939, p. 8)

Grace Wyndham Goldie’s columns in The Listener in the pre-war years featured the most considered discussion of early television, as she demonstrated in her thoughtful appreciation of the Twelfth Night broadcast:

The quality of the acting undoubtedly came over. Particularly and notably, I thought, the exquisite rightness of Miss Ashcroft’s ‘Viola’. But the play, seen in camera shots, made very little effect as a whole. How could it? For it was produced for a huge angle of vision, as wide as the theatre’s proscenium arch and it was seen by way of a tiny angle of vision, one no larger than the lens of a television camera. (‘Television: from the stalls’, 19 January 1939, p. 171)



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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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