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Plays

Live from The Intimate Theatre, 1946-1949, part 1

George and Margaret programme, The Intimate TheatreBetween 1946 and 1949 the BBC broadcast fourteen productions from The Intimate Theatre, a modest repertory house in Palmers Green. (There was also a fifteenth Intimate Theatre production presented from Alexandra Palace.) These outside broadcasts from London N13 were a significant element in the schedules of the returning television service. Yet the stage productions had usually benefitted from only a week’s rehearsal before they were transmitted live by three cameras (which themselves seem to have been afflicted by frequent breakdowns).

The quality was patchy, at best, and of the 1948 transmission of The Shop at Sly Corner the television producer wrote, ‘the performance itself was indifferent and there was some very bad miscasting’ (Campbell Logan, ‘Camera report’, 9 April 1948, WAC T14/593/2). But the members of the Theatrical Management  Association (TMA) were preventing the BBC from having access to more prestigious theatres. As a consequence, the broadcasts from The Intimate Theatre were the most significant engagement between the London stage and television in the immediate post-war years. This post, which is the first of three, considers both the potential and the problems of the ‘Intimate’ relationship.

The Intimate Theatre, which is still used for the presentation of plays today, was built in 1931 as a church hall. Four years later the young actor John Clements converted it into a theatre with a resident professional repertory company . Clements was subsequently to become a significant film actor and theatrical producer and also to play a key part in early television drama (on which, see my post about the 1957 film International Theatre: The Wild Duck). At the end of 1935, however, at the age of 25 he was the star and producer of a presentation of A. A. Milne’s comedy The Dover Road, the debut of his newly founded Intimate Theatre. Praising ‘a promising start’, The Times reported that

The venture is the first attempt made in North London to bring the theatre within easy reach of a population which in recent years has grown enormously. The company intends to stage new plays at short intervals before presenting them at London theatres. (‘The Intimate Theatre’, 28 December 1935, p. 6)

Over the next three and a half years, The Intimate Theatre – in traditional rep fashion – staged a new show almost every week. By August 1936 Clements’ group was attracting a committed local audience and he was sufficiently confident to make extensive interior alterations to the hall and to consider ‘a similar experiment in another part of London’, although this seems not to have materialised (‘Repertory in North London: a successful venture’, The Times, 5 August 1936, p. 10). On 15 July 1939 the Intimate Theatre company was also presented by BBC radio in an adaptation of Hugh Walpole’s The Cathedral.

The house of around 450 seats closed for a time during the war, but it opened again in August 1941 under the management of the former variety agent Frederick Marlowe. The programme mixed rep stalwarts – mostly comedies and thrillers – with occasional new plays and presentations of the classics. Clements left soon after its re-opening to pursue his film career, after which many of the productions were produced by Ronald Kerr. Kerr worked at The Intimate Theatre until 1947 and then again for nearly a year after May 1950. (He committed suicide on 20 March 1951, the day after he was arrested for ‘importuning male persons for an immoral purpose’; homosexuality, of course, was still illegal at the time.)

My knowledge of the early Intimate Theatre is derived from Intimate Memories: The History of the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green written by Geoff Bowden (Westbury: The Badgers Press, 2006). Bowden’s admiring study is packed with titles and dates, photographs and anecdotes, and it takes the story of the Intimate right through to its date of publication. Fourteen of its two hundred-plus pages are devoted to what are excitedly described as ‘The Television Years’. Much of Bowden’s information for this period comes from the three Intimate Theatre OB production files in the BBC Written Archives Centre (T14/593/1-3), on which these posts also draws heavily.

It is not clear from the production files how the first broadcast from the Intimate came about. In the final year of the pre-war television service, the BBC had undertaken fourteen outside broadcasts from central London theatres, starting with a transmission of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married from the St Martin’s Theatre in November 1938 (on which, see my post From the London Theatre, 1938-1939). But when television began again in June 1946 the TMA was unwilling to allow the return of cameras to the West End (see Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Volume IV: Sound and Vision, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 207). The Corporation’s commitment to the relationship with the Intimate over the next three years, despite the many difficulties, demonstrates how important live theatre played before an audience was to the BBC, even if the productions had to come from a house mounting them in just one week in one unchanging set.

The Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette set the scene in its front-page report on the first broadcast:

It was an excited and rather tense audience that filled the theatre well before time for the curtain raising. Up in the circle was installed part of the mechanism of the wonderful trick of television; in the centre, three massive cameras, of weird design to the untechnical eye, and at either end a group of huge floodlights.

Each piece of apparatus had its attendant genie, the cameramen wearing headphones through which a constant stream of direction reached them from one of the vans outside. Down in this van a further group of technicians was receiving the television on a screen and carrying out certain processes, one known simply as ‘mixing’. (‘World premiere in history of television’, 6 December 1946)

The BBC and Fred Marlow had started talking about a broadcast from the Intimate in October. Marlow was paid £59 as a facility fee, from which he had to pay the cast, and the copyright fee for the play was £31. Easily the most substantial item in the £333 6 shilling budget was the £150 charge paid to the Mole, Richardson company for the lighting and generator. Marlow agreed that instead of continuing with his usual one-week turnaround he would keep a production on for a fortnight, so that it could be seen by the production team on its opening night and appropriate preparations made for a broadcast on the Monday evening eight days later.

The chosen play was George and Margaret, a comedy by Gerald Savory that had enjoyed a successful run in the West End in 1937 and which had been filmed by director George King in 1940. (Savory was later to be a notable producer and television drama executive, first for Granada and then for the BBC.) Featuring some way down the cast list was the actor John Whiting, who would later become a noted dramatist himself, writing The Devils (1961) which would become the basis for Ken Russell’s notorious 1970 film. Ronald Kerr had overseen the staging, and The Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette recorded his address to the theatre audience just before curtain up:

‘I am not going to do what I believe is done sometimes [he said] – that is, I am not going to ask you to laugh, because hollow laughter would be worse than none. This great battery of lights makes you visible to each other and you may find this embarrassing, but do not let it deter you, if you are really enjoying yourselves, from laughing like anything.’

Transmission was from 7.15pm until just after 9.30pm, with two eight-minute intervals, marked only by captions on screen, and towards the end of which bells were rung over the incidental music to simulate those that summon theatre patrons back from the bars. But despite a smooth dress rehearsal in the afternoon, on the night things did not go well for outside broadcast producer Campbell Logan. Early in the broadcast he lost the picture from the Super Emitron camera with a 6-inch lens which he had intended to use for close-ups. As a consequence almost the whole of the play was shown through a single Standard Emitron with a 12-inch lens which ‘gave a magnificent M. S. [medium-shot] and carried the whole show’. Logan’s third camera ‘gave an interesting establishing shot, but was too small to use for the action of the play. It was used in this way once to remind people that they were in the theatre.’ (‘Programme report’, 3 December 1946, WAC T14/593/1)

Employing an aerial mounted on what looked like a fire-escape ladder, the pictures were transmitted by a radio link to the ‘receiving site’ at Swains Lane in Highgate, from where they went by a G. P. O. cable to Alexandra Palace. (That such a link could be established from Palmers Green must have been a factor in the BBC’s choice of The Intimate Theatre as a rep house from which to attempt broadcasts.) This part of the process seems to have worked smoothly, and the broadcast pictures were clear and stable. Despite the camera problems, the transmission received a rapturous write-up in the local paper:

With a cup of coffee near to hand, a soft carpet beneath my feet and a fire glowing rosily, testing the shadows’ depths with its lazy flickering, I saw and hear George and Margaret in comfort in the home of a friend on Monday evening. In other words, I was at the receiving end of the Intimate Theatre’s televised comedy – and a grand experience it was. […] There were five of us looking-in, and all were impressed by the brilliance of the Intimate players’ bubbling enthusiasm, skill and polish. […] Reception was admirable: the sound perfect. The laughter of the fortunate audience heartily coincided with our own less dignified outbursts as the gems of dialogue flowered. We missed, perhaps, those close-ups, which would have admitted us even more intimately to the family circle, but only those acquainted with television would have noted it. (quoted in Geoff Bowden, Intimate Memories, pp. 70-71)

In a follow-up letter to Fred Marlow, Campbell Logan made light of the technical problems:

From all accounts, in spite of the mishap to our close-up camera, the show appears to have gone down very well. I hope very much that you will think it worthwhile repeating the experiment at a future date. (Campbell Logan to Frederick Marlow, 3 December 1946, WAC T14/593/1)

Marlow most certainly did, and inside the month the BBC outside broadcast van was once again parked alongside the Intimate for a transmission on 30 December 1946 of the Broadway comedy Junior Miss by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields. Part two of this series of posts (which is appearing rather later than I intended) will consider that production and those that followed, while part three will examine the difficulties on which the BBC’s Intimate relationship eventually foundered.

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