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 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.
The broadcast begins with a sequence of cartoon-like caption cards, accompanied by bouncy music: ‘Laughter from the Whitehall’, ‘BRIAN RIX presents’, and only then the title of the play, ‘Wolf’s Clothing’. The next card is ‘A comedy by Kenneth Horne’, with the final one being ‘Introduced by Brian Rix’.
After which there is a filmed medium close-up of Rix speaking to camera. He explains that the comedy tonight is written by Kenneth Horne, who also wrote Love in a Mist, which in January 1956 was the first in the regular series of Sunday-night Whitehall comedies. Rix also mentions that in the cast is a veteran of the Aldwych farces from the 1930s, Robertson Hare, and that his real wife Elspet Gray takes the role of his wife in the play.
Kenneth Horne (1900-1975) is often confused with the popular comedian Kenneth Horne (1907-1969) known for BBC radio comedy series including Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh and Round the Horne. There is strikingly little written about the ‘other’ Kenneth Horne, but available online is an informative piece by the writer and musician Robert Farrar, My grandfather Kenneth Horne, playwright. Horne wrote twenty plays between the mid-1930s and 1970, thirteen of which were presented in the West End. Farrar characterises Horne’s writing in this way:
The only advice he ever gave me was, ‘Comedy must be played straight.’ This was also the basis of his writing. He wrote straight. The comedy is understated, camouflaged, the madness disguised. He lived in an age when things didn’t have to be gut-wrenchingly hilarious to be considered worthy of attention. As a result, his plays have room to breathe. Because they are not constantly falling over themselves to produce the next huge laugh, there is time for storytelling. If there is a theme running through them, it is the clash between irksome moral obligation and anarchic, frisky instinct, which is also the clash between nineteenth- and twentieth-century values.
Wolf’s Clothing had been previously presented at the Strand Theatre in London in 1959 with Patrick Cargill in the cast. As with most of the other BBC broadcasts from the Whitehall, the 1961 had been mounted and rehearsed specifically for the cameras. It was also significantly abridged, because although the BBC version features all three acts of the full-length play, its running-time is only 75 minutes. What is undoubtedly lost is what Robert Farrar characterises as ‘time for storytelling’.
After Brian Rix’s introduction, the screen shows us the curtain of the theatre over which is superimposed a caption: ‘The Calverts’ home on the Hampshire coast. A summer evening.’ The curtain rises to reveal a modern suburban living room, with a sofa centre-stage, on and around which all of the action, set across the next eighteen hours or so, takes place. There are to be no scene changes, only minimal alterations to the lighting plot and no music for the stage – although recordings are played over the brief pauses between acts.
An attractive young woman, Ulli (played by Jacqueline Jones), is tidying up. She is foreign, with a minimal command of English, as well what the script describes as ‘busty’; both attributes will be comic well-springs as the play unfolds, and there is a gratuitous moment in which she appears to do calisthenics in a bathing suit. Rix enters to applause from the theatre audience, who throughout are heard but never seen. Elspet Gray is greeted similarly, as is Brian Reece later in the show. But with the invisible audience, and no shots of the exterior of the Whitehall, the broadcast is not concerned, as was the transmission of Act I of Reluctant Heroes in 1952, to give the television audience any sense, beyond the curtain rising and falling, of ‘going to the theatre’ (for details see my earlier blog).
As the domestic comedy unfolds, with a sequence of ever more unlikely coincidences, it quickly becomes clear that the performances are broad and loud, pitched at the theatre’s gallery and with little sense that they have been ‘brought down’ for television. The on-stage interactions are covered by three cameras, all at the same level, with one central and the others shooting at a moderate angle from either side. Long shots and medium close-ups alternate, but only as the curtain rises do we briefly see the front of the stage (with a mounted microphone). The use of close-ups is sparing, although at one point the passage of time is indicated by a move in to frame a whisky bottle that has its part to play in the plot. Breaks between the acts are signalled by the curtain coming in for thirty seconds or so, but this is essentially extended sitcom from a stage.
Happily married Julian and Sally (played by Rix and Gray) are visited by, first, Janet (Jan Holden) and then her husband Andrew (Brian Reece), who are having a tiff over Andrew’s adultery. The plot has Andrew sleep in the same room as (but most definitely not have sex with) Sally, and Janet do the same with Julian. Comic guilt and faux recriminations are heightened by the presence next door of Sir John and Lady Blore (Robertson Hare, Fabia Drake), who Julian wants to impress to secure a job in the colonies, and also by Sally provoking Julian to sexually harass Ulli.
There is a good deal of coy talk about ‘making love’ (by which the characters do not mean sex) and ‘sleeping together’, but for all the innuendo, as one of the characters observes, it is ‘all perfectly innocent’. This very much the world before, as Philip Larkin expresses it so neatly in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three…
Seen fifty years on from its live broadcast, Wolf’s Clothing provokes a laugh or two, but for much of its length it also feels more than a touch tedious. Which is a reaction also recorded by at least one critic back in 1961. This is the verdict of the anonymous critic in The Times:
There was the usual extravert heartiness, the customary relentless attack on the back row of the gallery and, unfortunately, the expected monotony of timing and intonation that, in a small room, tends to be self-defeating. (‘Monotonous Bank Holiday romp’, 22 May 1961, p. 11)
In The Listener, Anthony Cookman, Jnr. (somehow critics these days don’t seem to use such appellations) was more generous:
Wolf’s Clothing was the best of [the Whitehall farces] that I have reviewed to date, and perhaps proved the value of works written for the stage. The lines were wittier, the situations more amusing and less basic and, with fewer comings and goings through secret doors, there was more room for acting. […] Brian Rix proved a gratifyingly capable hand at this superior brand of farce, as did Elspet Gray, wide-eyed but by no means dumb. Easy and enjoyable and never more so than on a full and chilly Whitsun. (‘Theatrical pessimism,’ 25 May 1961, p. 940)