A really important, and really interesting, aspect of our work is getting a sense of some of the creative figures in the history of stage plays on television. My colleague John Wyver began the blog’s series of ‘Introducing’ posts with a piece about Fred O’Donovan, a television producer working for the BBC from 1938 to 1939 and again from 1946 to his death in 1952. Today I introduce Joan Kemp-Welch (1906-1999) who enjoyed a successful career as a stage and film actor, and then a stage director, before beginning work at Associated-Rediffusion in 1955 as one of the first women directors in television.
Today’s blog post derives from a transcription I have completed of an oral history recording made by the BECTU History Project which has conducted several hundred interviews with practitioners in the film, television, radio and theatre worlds (listening copies of these are accessible via the BFI National Library in London). Screen Plays is also conducting its own interviews with people who have worked in television and material from these will also appear on the blog in due course.
Joan Kemp-Welch (1906-1999) was, as the BFI Screenonline biography of her states, ‘One of the first women directors to work in television in the 1950s’. It is her earlier career on stage and film, however, which is best served by the interview. It is really unfortunate that shortly after the conversation moves firmly into Kemp-Welch’s television career at Associated-Rediffusion the recording seems to end prematurely. The BFI holds three audiotape cassettes, which are labelled as 1, 2 and 3 of 3. At the end of side B on the last of these tapes the interviewer says, ‘Shall we break?’ This is not, clearly, the end of the interview, as Kemp-Welch is in full flow and we have only reached 1961, with decades of her long career yet to be covered, but the BFI have checked their shelves and, sadly, no further tapes seem to have survived.
So what useful things do we learn about Kemp-Welch’s television career, and specifically her work on television productions of stage plays, from this BECTU interview? The interview is a great illustration of the BFI Screenonline biography (cited above), filled with personal anecdote and giving an overwhelming sense of a practitioner of great versatility and drive, and it offers us some valuable glimpses of her attitude towards adapting the plays to the confines of the commercial schedule, the enormous advantages of having been a theatre director when working on plays in the studio and and the difficulties of being a female television practitioner in the 1950s.
First, a little background. Kemp-Welch loved the theatre as a child and it was while training to be a teacher that she started acting in an amateur dramatic society. Her first professional acting gig was under Peter Godfrey at the Gate Theatre in London and she also worked as an assistant stage manager, a role which enabled her to spend her time ‘learning every single thing I could by watching performances’. In the 1930s she also started to act in films (which paid more than the stage), taking small parts in, for example, the 1935 British films Admirals All and While Parents Sleep. Her role as the wet-nurse in The Citadel (1938) brought her to wider prominence, and she went on to act in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), Busman’s Honeymoon (1940) and They Flew Alone (1942). Her stage career continued alongside: she performed in the long-running and widely touring Ladies in Retirement from 1939, for example, which was the first play to open in the West End after the war began.
She had tried her hand at directing before the war, but not without difficulty: ‘I had always wanted to direct. Whenever you [i.e. a woman] suggested it, it was always a big laugh, it really was. People thought you were crazy’. She managed to get a position directing a small company in the East End of London which went on to win a national competition, after which she was asked to adjudicate nationally. Of the finals of one competition in Glasgow, she says, ‘you had to watch three shows and then immediately get up on the stage and discuss and criticize each show and then make a final adjudication and that was a help towards directing too. You had to think quickly’. She moved more fully into stage direction at the beginning of the 1940s, running the repertory theatre in Colchester and the Wilson Barrett company in Scotland.
For the start of commercial television in 1955 she was approached by the first Independent Television company Associated-Rediffusion to come on board as a television director: ‘I said yes immediately’, she recalls, ‘Anything for something new.’
Despite her strong theatrical background she was, surprisingly, not contracted to work on drama from the beginning. She say that this was probably because she was a woman, but it may also have something to do with the fact that she happened to be extremely good – award-winning, even – at the other things she was asked to do. She started off with over sixty magazine programmes for women, the music show for teenagers Cool for Cats, and a lot of light entertainment, including Outside Broadcasts from the Hammersmith Palais.
Before long, however, her talents were once again directed towards directing plays, and the list of play titles she recalls working on for television transmission testifies to the fact that they were pretty much all, as she puts it, ‘pretty solid things’: ‘we did Electra in Greek, we did The Lover – that’s Pinter’s The Lover – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Three Sisters, Princess Alexandra’s wedding, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit, The Vortex, a pantomime Richard Whittington Esquire, Le Malentendu by Camus, A View from the Bridge, A Pain in the Neck, A Cold Heart, Lady Windermere’s Fan’.
She considers that she had been ‘blessed by god with an outside slice of imagination and very much visual imagination. I’ve always been able to picture things and I think […] I’ve always been filled with […] new ideas and new pictures. That comes very easily to me and therefore it was all a help in television because there were a lot of things that I did for the first time, for instance, the first time for a play that cameras in the studio were ever taken outside [for the television play God and Tony Lockwood in 1961]. I spent about a month imploring the powers-that-be to let me try because I thought it would be so exciting to do the exteriors with television cameras and did the first one’.
She earned the Prix Italia for her 1963 production of Pinter’s The Lover. She was also, as BFI Screenonline informs, the first woman to receive the Desmond Davis Award for creative work in television. The year previously she had directed the television version of the Dimitris Rondiris’ internationally touring stage production of Sophocles’ Electra by the Peiraïkon Theatron company which was presented on television in modern Greek translation, with no subtitles! (Read more in my post on that production here.) When asked, at a press conference, whether this did not seem an unusual production for Associated-Rediffusion in that it was apparently indifferent to the likely number of viewers, she replied, ‘I do a show for myself and never look at the ratings’ (Anon., ‘How’s your Greek?’, The Guardian, 21 September 1962, p. 12).
In the same year she directed The Typewriter, a newly located copy of which received a rare screening in summer 2011 as part of the BFI Southbank’s UnLOCked season. My colleague John Wyver, writing about it for the Screen Plays blog, considers that she ‘directs with a style that makes frequent use of extended shots; one in particular lasts for more than three minutes without an edit. Choreography within an uninterrupted shot is a trademark of classical studio drama, and Ms Kemp-Welch here proves herself to be a past master of the technique’. It is a great pity that the interview does not cover these years, nor the rest of her work up to the 1980s.
On the script of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – which she did for Rediffusion in 1964 and which received ‘one of the biggest audiences up to that time for a television production of Shakespeare in Britain, largely for the appearance of Benny Hill as Bottom’ (BFI Screenonline) – she says:
I knew we had to cut it. I had George Rylands, the great Shakespeare expert at Oxford, and he was asked to be in charge of the literary side, because they were slightly nervous about it, the first they’d ever done as a commercial proposition and he said to me when we first met – we got on terribly well – and he said we’ve got to cut it and I would reckon that we cut about 500 lines. You cut a version and I’ll cut a version. And out of those 500 lines we only differed on 40 of them. So that was … it means cutting is fairly obvious. I did all the Chekhov plays … he is difficult to cut. A line that seems nonsense in the first act becomes of vital importance in the last act. These were really difficult.
When asked about the ‘morality of cutting someone else’s work to fit within a commercial time segment’, she responds in entirely pragmatic terms: ‘Well, people like Ibsen and Chekhov wrote when television and films didn’t exist, therefore they wrote what they thought was necessary for their play, but I am absolutely convinced that if they were here today and had to write a play for television they would automatically cut it. They would cut it themselves — I don’t think there is any question about that at all. Therefore, as I say, I really do try, when I’m directing, I really do try to put before the public what the author had wanted them to know’.
She considers that directing plays for television is not very different from directing them for the stage: ‘Rehearsals are much the same. It’s a different technical background. The lighting is different and […] the movements of the camera are as important as the movement of the actors […] and you have got to weld them together so it becomes a more … an interesting problem’. She believes her long experience in the theatre stood her in good stead for her television work, in more ways than one:
I think I had an enormous advantage over the fact that I had a knowledge, a really very good knowledge of lighting. […] I was lucky in the fact, again, as far as scenery was concerned, you see, because I had so often designed scenery in the theatre, moved it myself, built sets myself, you know, handled them, I was then in a position to know what people on the floor could and couldn’t do. This was an enormous help because I never asked them to do something which was impossible or which I myself couldn’t do and if they said they couldn’t do it I would very often go down and show them how to. And that’s, you know … in the same way in the theatre as a woman director I was jolly hated, because they hated having women in the theatre, and they used to play tricks on you, you know. For instance, if you asked for floats, if you asked for more floats, they wouldn’t move them, and they would say, ‘Is that better?’ because if you look at lights they get brighter anyway, so you can’t tell if they’ve taken out so they used to test you like that, you see. And then if you would say I want them jumped please, if they jump them, you can tell them. And so they could … you caught them out. Or, I knew all the different colours by the numbers and the names, so If I said I wanted a 51 and they put in a 53 I would know it wasn’t a 51. I think you had to know your job.
The interviewer asks who ‘they’ were, and she responds ‘Stage-hands. Electricians’, noting however that ‘It was amazing that the second they knew you knew the job there was no problem at all’.