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A tale of six Cinders, part 1: Cinderella (BBC, 1946, 1947)

Public domain nineteenth century image of Cinderella from Project GutenbergPerhaps it was the idea of a Fairy Godmother in a rags-to-riches tale that had a particular resonance for austerity Britain in the late 1940s. Whatever the reason, Cinderella was strikingly popular with BBC television producers in the post-war years. There was a studio presentation of a Players’ Theatre version in early January 1947 and an outside broadcast of a different staging in December. Another OB Cinderella was planned for January 1948, although this was cancelled, and then at Christmas at the end of 1948 and again at the end of 1950 there were further lavish studio productions (discussed in the second part of this post).

That makes five Cinders, to which can be added Spike Hughes’ comic opera Cinderella first presented on television in 1938 and considered for revival just after the war (also explored in part 2 of this post). As with the account of the technical disasters afflicting Jack and the Beanstalk from Croydon in January 1947 (discussed in my earlier post), the tales of these various Cinders suggest some of the problems – and the possibilities – of producing stage plays on television in those pioneering days.

Cinderella from the Players’, January 1947

Two versions of Cinderella were considered for the first television Christmas after the war, the service having returned only on 7 June 1946. That both an outside broadcast  from Croydon and a studio production were at one point in the planning documents suggests that OBs and drama operated as quite separate departments with little internal co-ordination. In the event, the Croydon Cinderella was replaced by an OB of Just William from the Granville Theatre, Walham Green. The studio Cinderella also originated on the stage, and was transplanted to Alexandra Palace from The Players’ Theatre just off London’s Strand.

There is an interesting short history of The Players’ on Wikipedia, which includes the detail that each year this twentieth century home for traditional music hall mounted a Victorian pantomime. Certainly that was the case in 1946, when television producer Eric Fawcett brought to the small screen Don Gemmell’s staging for the Players’ of Cinderella, or The Lover, the Lackey and the Little Glass Slipper. First performed at the Strand Theatre, London in 1860, this was one of the notable pantomimes written by dramatist, novelist, journalist and actor Henry James Byron. With some reservations, the anonymous critic for The Times enjoyed the production on the stage:

The puns of the sixties are retailed with due solemnity, the stage conventions of the time exhibited with the dryest of smiles and a sly modern burlesque of an antiquated decked out with charming songs set to lively traditional music. It is amusing enough, but as always happens on these occasions amusement is nagged by a suspicion that the original burlesque provided entertainment with bite and guile and gusto than the emasculated version can pretend to possess. (‘Players’ Theatre: Cinderella‘, 27 December 1946, p. 6)

We know that just after this Times review, the cast rehearsed at the theatre on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day for the television transmission. They then gave the panto in the studio on Thursday 2 January in the evening, from 8.30 to 10.00pm and then a television matinee on Friday 3 January, from 3.00 to 4.30pm. We know too from the programme file in the BBC Written Archives Centre that the BBC paid a flat fee of £300 for cast, production, scenery and songs (Eric Fawcett, Television casting form, 7 January 1947, WAC T5/96R). There are two hand-drawn studio floorplans in the programme file, but to date I can find no other trace of this Cinderella – and of course it pre-dated the BBC’s film recording of studio programmes, and so no moving image archive exists.

Cinderella from Edmonton, December 1947

Although BBC Television on its return after the war had a very active programme of studio drama production (with twenty-four plays mounted in the first forty-eight days of the service), the corporation found it exceptionally difficult to secure  access to theatres for outside broadcasts. The Theatre Managers Association, supported by the actors’ union Equity, adopted a highly restrictive policy which kept cameras out of the West End and other mainstream theatres. The story of theatre relays in the first five or six years of the new service is largely one of the BBC searching out small, independent houses that were prepared to welcome in the cameras. An approach from any venue was taken seriously.

in July 1947, Anne Davis, variety booking controller of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation made just such an approach. She suggested that the BBC consider televising during the coming autumn some of the stage shows mounted by Gaumont British in the cinemas that it ran. There was some internal scepticism, but a recce established that the Regal, Edmonton would be an appropriate venue – and that the BBC could secure programming from there for only modest costs. A provisional transmission date was set for 3 November. (The image of the Regal comes from Lost Treasures, which also has further details about this large cinema that could seat more than 3,000 people.)

Regal, Edmonton in the 1950sWhile preparations were moving ahead, Gaumont-British also suggested that the BBC consider televising ‘Derek Roy & Company in Cinderella‘ which was to be given at the Regal at Christmas. Peter Dimmock, however, had other worries. In his final detailed planning memo, under the heading ‘Aerial Trapeze Act’, he wrote:

It is understood that the daring young lady in the above turn swings out over the audience and at the pslycological [sic] moment slips and falls a further 15 or 20 feet, and is saved from destruction by a thin nylon cord. This should prove interesting television, but the question of [camera] focus would seem to arise. (memo, 22 October 1947, WAC/T16/932)

Reflecting the very different sensibilities of the time, the billing for Variety from the Regal, Edmonton included not only ‘the thrilling aerial act’ The Flying Desnos but also  Woods & Jarrett ‘those two dark gentlemen’. A further promised attraction was a ‘tableau by recent winners of local Gaumont British Beauty Contests’. Reviewing Woods & Jarrett’s script in advance Peter Dimmock stipulated that only one exchange needed to be cut: ‘You is. Don’t you know the King’s English? Yeah, and the Queen’s Scotch.’ (letter Peter Dimmock to N. George, 28 October 1947)

The broadcast did not go well, and one the main trade journals for the cinema industry could not resist using the Regal broadcast to take a pop at the upstart medium. In ‘An inside view of the trade outlook on the Regal, Edmonton, television experiment’ for Kinematograph Weekly, W. G. Altria recorded that after ‘BBC engineers invaded the Regal, Edmonton’, the first televised variety programme from a ‘kinema’ ‘was an historical occasion for our Industry.’ Mr Altria was present at the Regal and so was unable to watch the broadcast itself. His resourcefulness, however, ensured that Kinematograph Weekly could still pour cold water on the occasion:

A colleague […] who saw best part (sic) of the television show, was sadly disappointed. […] Of what value was the experiment to our Industry? For the life of me I cannot imagine. […] if I had been a paying member of the audience I should think twice about paying hard cash for the privilege of witnessing a show which is being televised. The brilliance of the “spots” and the activities of the camera crew are inclined to be disconcerting, and I missed the normal stage lighting effects. (clipping from Kinematograph Weekly, 13 November 1947, unknown page, preserved in WAC/T16/932)

Gaumont British were not happy, and Ann Davis wrote to Peter Dimmock confirming the cancellation of the plans to televise Cinderella:

It was out original intention to permit this, but after careful consideration we have decided against the idea for various reasons which we have arrived at since the Television Broadcast […] We realise that it is necessary for you to have lighting full-up for these Broadcasts, but with the Pantomimes it would mean that the lighting would be severely upset and we cannot countenance anything that would be injurious to the presentation of these big Productions. (letter from Ann Davis to Peter Dimmock, 21 November 1946)

The BBC, however, secured the promise of delivery on 28 December of two new highly sensitive outside broadcast cameras (‘C. P. S. Emitrons’), which would allow a stage show to be televised with the normal stage lighting. Gaumont British relented and plans were made for the broadcast of Part One of Cinderella on 30 December and Part Two on the following evening.

Again, however, the first transmission had severe technical problems – which underlines just how fragile television outside broadcasts were in these early years. Head of television service Norman Collins apologised to the Director General for the ‘peculiarly poor pictures’, which were the result, among other problems of ‘an unusual amount of red in the lighting which resulted in a black picture’ and ‘fluctuations in the local power supply’. (Memo from Norman Collins to D. G., 31 December) The second broadcast appears to have been more successful, and despite coverage of the show from just the two new cameras, according to producer Campbell Logan, ‘the results obtained were encouraging and for the first time we really captured a genuine theatre atmosphere’. (Memo from Campbell Logan to Tel. O. B. Man., 1 January 1948)

Not that the technical issues were the only problems. The day before the first broadcast it was discovered that the music publishers Chappell controlled several of the musical numbers in the Cinderella score. Chappell had instituted a complete ban on the use of any of their music by television, and so Campbell Logan tried to get Derek Roy to remove these songs. In this he was unsuccessful, although I have yet to find the documentation for what penalties, if any, the BBC had to pay. In a final reflective memo, the manager of television OBs Ian Orr-Ewing summed up the experience:

The rest of this regrettable incident has now passed into history and we only hoped it has helped show some of the appalling difficulties we are up against when taking other people’s shows. (Memo, 6 January 1947)

(In part two of ‘A tale of six Cinders’, I look at the ruminations about a revival of Spike Hughes’ one act opera Cinderella and at original Cinderellas staged in the BBC studios at the end of 1948 and again two years later.)

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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