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Entente cordiale: a French Othello (BBC, 1950)

Parochialism is, has been and almost certainly always will be a problem for British television. The Killing and one or two other crime series aside, our mainstream schedules remain remarkably resistant to programming from pretty much any other culture that is not the United States and to any language apart from English. Almost the only exceptions are arthouse films in their original language on certain digital channels as well as occasional presentations of operas in, as it were, their native tongue.

At present, however, I can think of only two occasions on which a substantial part of a theatre play has been broadcast in a language other than English (excluding for the moment broadcasting in Welsh). Amanda has written a fascinating post about one of these: the primetime transmission by Associated-Rediffusion of Sophocles’ Electra in modern Greek in November 1962. This post is about the other, which was the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello (Act V, Scene 2) given in French by the Comédie Francaise in March 1950.

Final scene of Othello, Comedie Francaise, The Listener

Jean Debucourt (Iago, held by soldiers on left) and Aimé Clairond (Othello) in the final scene of Othello performed by the Comédie Francaise, from The Listener

BBC Television organised the broadcast in honour of the state visit to Britain by the French president, Vincent Auriol. Quite where the idea came from of inviting the French state theatre to perform is unclear from records that I have so far explored at the BBC Written Archives Centre. By 12 January 1950, however, Head of Television Programmes Cecil McGivern was disputing with the BBC’s Head of Drama Val Gielgud about whether the planned broadcast should have an English translation or be followed by the scene presented in English — McGivern was strongly in favour of one or the other (memo from Cecil McGivern to Head of Drama, WAC T5/379). Neither scheme was in fact employed, but the distinguished producer Michel St Denis, who was then working at the Old Vic, was engaged to introduce the Comédie Francaise.

Producer Eric Fawcett travelled to Paris at the end of February both to film elements for the Michel St Denis introduction and to rehearse for the television broadcast with the company. He also saw two full performances of the production at the Comédie Francaise. It was also just at this moment, on 24 February 1950, that Claude Barma produced the first live French television show which also featured actors from the Comédie Francaise.

The party of eight from Paris arrived in London on the overnight boat train on the morning of 7 March. They rehearsed at Alexandra Palace that day and the following day before transmission in the evening. At their request they stayed at the Dorchester, but the relevant memos stress that the company would pick up the difference between the costs and the usual BBC subsistence allowance. The costumes also came over by boat but the BBC design department knocked up a decent reproduction of the stage setting.

The Paris production was an adaptation by the French dramatist, poet and filmmaker George Neveux. In 1951 a film directed by Marcel Carné of one of his plays was released with the English title Juliette, or Key of Dreams. Othello was played by the (white) French actor Aimé Clariond, who had been appointed to the coveted role of ‘Societaire’ of the Comédie Francaise in 1937 and who would stay with the company until his death in 1959. Jean Debucourt, who took the part of Iago, was perhaps better known as a film actor.

A month or so before transmission it was agreed that Radiodiffusion Francaise in Paris would relay to French audiences the audio of the television broadcast, including a version in French of Michel St Denis’ introduction. A memo from Imlay Newbiggin-Watts, who was handling the liaison with Paris, records that because of the radio feed the French broadcasting authority ‘will now not require a telefilm of the performance of Othello on British television’ (memo from Imlay Newbiggin-Watts to H.Tel.P., 15 February 1950). Needless to say, no other recording was made, yet here we are tantalisingly close to the idea that the earliest record of a substantial element of British television drama might have been one that was performed in French!

The Wednesday evening broadcast took a half-hour slot at 8.30pm. Fortunately, in the absence of any archive recording (and also of any press reaction, which I can find no record of), there exists a Viewer Research Report dated 24 March 1950 (VR/50/86). The recorded Reaction Index figure was 54, ‘not a very impressive figure,’ the report notes, ‘though perhaps not altogether unexpected for a performance in a foreign language. The average for the last twenty studio plays is 64.’ The report continues,

Just over a third of the reporting audience enjoyed this programme very much; the rest were either unmoved or definitely hostile in their reactions and these made it clear in their comment that they did not take kindly to the idea of Shakespeare in French. Admittedly, a number of viewers regarded the language difficulty as a matter of secondary importance, inferring that the acting was so expressive that the action was perfectly clear. The more general attitude, however, was that the broadcast taxed the viewers’ powers of concentration far too much to make watching an agreeable experience.

Which remains, I believe, the final word on the one and only BBC broadcast of a substantial section of a classic play in a language other than English. Just over sixty years on, perhaps some foolhardy producer might be persuaded to try such an experiment once again.

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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