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A tale of six Cinders, part 2: Cinderella (BBC, 1938, 1948, 1950)

The first instalment of this two-part post highlighted a studio production and an OB of different Cinderellas in the first two years of the BBC’s television service after the war. This continuation discusses two post-war studio Cinderellas as well as another that was also considered for a revival, having initially been televised in 1938. (As an opera,  if we are being strict, this final Cinderella falls outside the corpus of work being explored by Screen Plays, but its tale is nonetheless interesting.)

Cinderella from Spike Hughes, 1938

As he was planning his end-of-the-year schedule in September 1948, head of television programmes Cecil McGivern sent a note to senior colleagues seeking their opinion of what he described as ‘Cinderella, a pantomime specially written for television by Spike Hughes’ (memo from McGivern, 30 September 1948, WAC T5/96R). He had been prompted to consider this by a personal letter from Hughes to McGivern’s boss, controller of television Norman Collins. Hughes had enquired about the possibility of a revival of ‘my little opera, Cinderella, which we performed on television a couple of times at Christmas 1938’. As he explained further,

The cast is not enormous […] but most important the scenery is all built. Indeed, I think it is in daily use at Alexandra Palace, for I believe I recognised some of it when I was up there in January – being used to show off Geraldo’s profile. (Letter from Patrick Hughes, known as ‘Spike’, to Norman Collins, 9 August 1938)

Spike Hughes, 1930sPatrick Hughes, who used ‘Spike’ as a professional name, is an intriguing figure who distinguished himself as a jazz musician in the early 1930s (there is a detailed discussion of his recordings by John Wright here) and later as a respected writer and broadcaster about classical music. During the 1960s and ’70s, he hosted Southern Television’s occasional opera broadcasts from Glyndebourne.

Cinderella was given at the start of 1938 on BBC radio, after which producer Dallas Bower – who acknowledged being ‘a close personal friend of the composer’ – sought to produce it for television (memo from Dallas Bower to Tel. Ex, 10 November 1938). Bower had a reputation for experimentation at Alexandra Palace and he set out to make Cinderella highly stylised and distinctive. For a short work to be shown first in an afternoon slot of 13 December (and then repeated eight days later), the production was also comparatively complex, requiring both studios at Alexandra Palace as well as film inserts. The role of Cinderella herself was sung by soprano Gwen Catley, then at the start of a successful career. In addition to the singers, there was also a ballet component with eight dancers, one of whom was the celebrated choreographer Antony Tudor.

Cinderella, Radio Times listing, 13 December 1938

Radio Times listing, 13 December 1938

When Cecil McGivern sought out memories of this production a decade on, there was no great enthusiasm for returning to the piece. Head of television design Peter Bax (who had overseen the settings in 1938) wrote that ‘in general I thought it rather precious and lacking in humour’ (memo, 30 September 1948). Music organiser James Hartley, however, recalled that ‘most people thought it a clever and attractive piece of work’ (memo, 30 September 1948). Executive Philip Bate contributed the most interesting reflection, which suggests how television’s sense of itself – and of its audience – had changed from ten years before:

… it was a sophisticated, rather brittle production, the sort of thing which was more easily accepted by the rather limited viewing public at that period rather than our present one. There is not a very great deal of paper about it in the files, but I pick out one significant line. Dallas Bower, the Producer, asked that the dressing should be in the style of Ludwig Mayer’s UFA film of Cinderella made in 1925. (Memo Philip Bate to H. Tel. P., 7 October 1948)

Four days later, having collated these responses, Cecil McGivern penned a one line memo: ‘I feel it is not for our present audience.’ (Memo from Cecil McGivern to Norman Collins, 11 October 1948) Collins was left with the task of conveying the news to the composer, which he did with a certain economy of truth:

… having consulted with all the old guard of producers and heads of departments who were connected with pre-war Television, and therefore knew your Cinderella and liked it, I am going to be a disappointment to you. The trouble is simply that the studios this Christmas will be packed to bursting point and I daren’t add another costume piece of any kind whatsoever. (Letter from Norman Collins to Patrick Hughes, 13 October 1948)

Cinderella from Alexandra Palace, 1948

Cinderella, BBC, 1948One of the productions which by mid-October 1938 was packed into the schedule of the Alexandra Palace studios was an ambitious original production of Cinderella as a pantomime. There is comparatively little documentation of the background to this presentation, but its scale (together with traces of some of the fall-out which are preserved in the files) indicates the increasing confidence of the television service more than two years after it had started again after the war. Such was the budget, indeed (£2,785 was allocated), that two repeat transmissions were considered, although in the event the live production (of which no recording exists) was presented only on 27 December 1948 and 4 January 1949.

The cast of thirty (including eight extras) was led by the popular comic actor Jack Hulbert (as Buttons), who also co-produced with BBC producer Walton Anderson. Eric Robinson led a sixteen-piece orchestra, backing eighteen members of the George Mitchell Choir. There were also comparatively elaborate film inserts, with interiors shot at Lancaster House (whose administrators were concerned that the building should not be recognisable) and additional filming at Westminster Ice Rink and in Hatfield.

Such notices as are recoverable suggest that this Cinderella met with a mixed reception. I can find no substantial review of the pantomime, although in a round-up of seasonal stage offerings for The Manchester Guardian, Ivor Brown wrote that television ‘gave us the affable, elongated page-boy of Jack Hulbert in a version which nicely used film to show Cinders’ coach careering across the country’ (‘Buttons and beaux’, 2 January 1949, p. 2). In The Listener, Harold Hobson also congratulated Hulbert for his ‘successful endeavour[…] over the Christmas holidays to lighten what Stevenson so oddly termed the “great task of happiness”.’ (‘Critic on the hearth: television’, 6 January 1949, p. 34)

There is just a trace, albeit expressed rather obliquely, of what some of the audience thought in a memo – which also includes his own response – from superintendant engineer television D. C. Birkinshaw to controller of television Norman Collins:

Thank you for sending me the correspondence about Cinderella. Certainly viewers are nothing if not candid. […] I found the book weak as if it had been done by the writer when he was tired and, as a consequence, not able to generate many interesting ideas. ‘Cinderella’ I thought insufficiently attractive for the part and the selection of music left much to be desired. […] On the other side, however, there was some pleasant spectacle and if I may praise my own people for a moment, I thought it was an example of first-class lighting. (Memo from D. C. Birkinshaw to C. Tel., 10 January 1949)

Cinderella from Lime Grove, 1950

Co-producers Jack Hulbert and Walton Anderson returned to Cinderella two years later. An original script (‘the book’) was written this time by Gordon Crier and Sally Ann Howes played Cinders. The pantomime horse appeared in the by-now familiar guise of the television favourite Muffin the Mule – no copyright fee was payable for this, but a verbal credit to the creators of Muffin was given in the programme. Most drama production had by this time transferred to the studios at Lime Grove, and live performances were scheduled for 26 December 1950 and 1 January 1951. Budget cuts, however, were a fact of life even then, and only £2,250 was allocated for this production, £585 less than the previous year. Even before what is referred to one memo as ‘the unfortunate accident’ it was clear that the budget was insufficient (memo from Ronald Waldman, 22 December 1950).

On 18 December 1950, The Manchester Guardian on page 5 carried this short news item:


Six Shetland ponies pulling a coach carrying ‘Cinderella’ – the actress Sally Ann Howes – bolted yesterday at Hatfield, Hertfordshire while being filmed […] Miss Howes was unhurt but the coachman, James Holt (73), of Greys, Essex, was taken to hospital.

The BBC’s programme file on these post-war Cinderellas fails to record the fate of Mr. Holt but we must hope that he made a full recovery. This was the last of the four Cinderellas from the BBC during the six years of post-war Labour government, which would be voted out of office in October 1951. A fairy-tale ending was just around the corner with a consumer boom and years that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in a speech on 20 July 1957, could describe as a time when ‘most of our people have never had it so good’.


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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