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Live from The Intimate Theatre, 1946-1949, part 2

Intimate Theatre programme for Junior Miss

My previous post sketched the start of the story of The Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green and of the BBC’s outside broadcasts which began from there in December 1946. This second of three posts picks up the relationship with the second broadcast from N13, of the Broadway comedy Junior Miss.

The television service of the time was unable to negotiate access to mainstream theatres because of the obstructive attitude of the Theatrical Management Association (TMA). Most stage producers believed that live television transmissions would reduce the numbers of those who would buy tickets in the conventional manner. But the owner of the Intimate, Fred Marlow, was prepared to deal directly with the BBC and as a consequence his modest rep house in north London provided fourteen live dramas over a period of three years. Yet there were constant frustrations, caused both by the temperamental television technology of the time and by the TMA’s pressure on copyright holders to deny the Intimate permission to stage certain popular plays. The frustrations are mostly dealt with in a third post in this series, which is still to come.

After the broadcast of George and Margaret by Gerald Savory on 2 December 1946, the BBC returned within the month for Junior Miss, another successful comedy adapted by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields from Sally Benson’s semi-autobiographical short stories that had first appeared in The New Yorker. The BBC’s formal letter offering terms for Junior Miss detailed the technical arrangements, which appear to have remained the same for each transmission from The Intimate Theatre over the following three years:

Our three cameras will be installed in the front row of the circle. It will be necessary for the whole of the front row to be removed and for the whole of the second to be reserved. […] Our lighting will also be installed in the front row of the circle. (Letter from P. H. Dorté to Frederick Marlow, 12 December 1946, WAC T14/593/1)

The installation of the equipment occupied the whole of Sunday and a rehearsal was conducted from 3.00-5.30pm on Monday 30 December, on the afternoon just before the evening transmission. In his internal programme report, OB producer Campbell Logan noted, ‘I had only three days in which to see the show before actual production, which is not really long enough.’ (Programme report, 31 December 1946, WAC T14/593/1). He also regretted that a different OB unit was assigned to the broadcast, despite the experience that had been gained by the team who worked on George and Margaret.

BBC cameras at The Intimate Theatre, 2 December 1946As with George and Margaret, one of the three cameras played up, ‘showing bad interference’. Intended to provide the long shots of the stage, this camera according to Logan ‘was pretty well useless and only used for fading in and out the beginning and end of each scene’. The shot from a second camera ‘was distorted and the edges of the pictures was very dark; but it had to be used as there was no alternative’. Only Camera 3, which gave a close shot, worked as it should, and Logan praised the camera operator in his report:

Wright did an excellent job on the C. S. camera and mastered some very neat split second panning. A little wobbly to begin with but ultimately very satisfactory. The M. S., I’m afraid, missed some of the action, as I found it very difficult to recognise the characters owing to the darkness of the edge of the pictures but the blame for this, of course, is entirely mine.

Nothing of Junior Miss was recorded, nor is there any moving image archive of any of the other Intimate broadcasts, but from the programme report we can see that the whole of the two hour fifteen minute broadcast (excepting the two intervals, during which a caption card was broadcast from Alexandra Palace) was effectively carried by just two cameras, one of which was technically unsatisfactory. The experience of watching long, long shots from the same camera would have been very different from the rapidly cut, multi-camera coverage with which we are familiar today.

Despite the difficulties, the BBC’s outside broadcasts manager Ian Orr-Ewing noted in an internal memo just over a week after Junior Miss that ‘provided the radio interference can be reasonably reduced [this was one of the causes of the camera malfunctions], we shall be making  visits to the Intimate Theatre every six weeks or so.’ (Memo from Ian Orr-Ewing, 9 January 1947, WAC T14/593/1). There was also concern from the London County Council that audience members were sitting too close to the lights in the balcony. But Orr-Ewing felt that this problem could also be satisfactorily addressed, especially if, as his colleague Tony Bridgewater noted, ‘wives and relations of the staff’ could be excluded from the area immediately adjacent to the equipment.

The BBC returned on 18 April 1947 for St. John Ervine’s play Anthony and Anna, during which Campbell Logan’s cameras seem mostly to have behaved themselves, even if, as he recorded, ‘the production itself struck me as appallingly static’. (Camera report, 21 April 1947, WAC T14/593/1) It appears, however, that although studio cameras could by this stage cut from one shot to another, shot changes on OB mixing desks could still be achieved by comparatively lengthy mixes of several seconds’ duration. Regretting that this was still the case, OB manager Ian Orr-Ewing also recorded his own disappointment with the production:

I think the play was badly cast and poorly acted. This may have been due to the unfortunate withdrawal of the usual producer (Ronald Kerr) […] With regard to the view that it would have been better produced in the studio, I think if such a bad production had been given in the studio it would have been quite unbearable, whereas, with a very live audience reaction, I felt it was entertainment value. (Memo by Ian Orr-Ewing, 23 April 1947, WAC T14/593/1)

The technical demands of these broadcasts were also leading to tensions between the OB engineers and the production department’s expectations. In a long memo to Ian Orr-Ewing, Tony Bridgewater argued that rehearsal time should be cut to allow engineering an adequate time to prepare.

I must stress the fact that a full length Theatre relay is, from an engineering point of view, one of the most difficult operations that we tackle. For one thing all the cameras are ranged on the same small area and therefore each is compared very critically with the other, and the great length of the programme in turn necessitates aiming at a higher general standard since blemishes which might be excused or overlooked on a short programme tend to become very conspicuous and monotonous on a longer one. (Tony Bridgewater to Ian Orr-Ewing, 23 April 1947, WAC T14/593/1)

Orr-Ewing’s had-written response noted that ‘unfortunately [I] sympathise with both sides. Until new equipment arrives which can be set up quickly and which is reliable I see no solution to the problem.’

The technical presentation of the shows improved as the BBC mounted further broadcasts from the Intimate. The quality of the stage productions, however, often still left much to be desired. Of Harry Relf’s The Family Upstairs, transmitted on 27 June 1947, Campbell Logan wrote in an internal memo

The play, I thought, was a very bad one but seemed to command a boisterous audience reaction. It is a very popular play with repertory companies however, and I suppose makes a tolerable evening’s entertainment of the little theatre type. (Camera report, 27 June 1946, WAC T14/593/1)

Perhaps it was felt politic to ‘rest’ Campbell Logan from the next production, and the OB of Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears on 5 September 1947 was presented for television by Harold Cox. He too had camera problems, with the last two acts having to be covered by a single mid-shot camera only; there was also a breakdown in the signal going to Alexandra Palace in the last act, which necessitated the use of a caption card accompanying the OB sound only for a minute or so. Television programme director Cecil McGivern, however, was more concerned that the cast used words and apparently expletives which were not in the script. ‘This is very noticeable in Rep. Companies, where the casts seldom manage to be word perfect. I think this happened a lot in French Without Tears.’ As a memo to Ian Orr-Ewing made clear (dated 12 September 1947) he was not happy about what he felt was the slackness of the OB department in allowing this to happen.

By this stage in the relationship between the Intimate and the BBC, the Corporation was beginning to suggest to Fred Marlow which plays he might consider mounting. One production file in the BBC Written Archives Centre includes a seven page list of all the plays that the Intimate had mounted through to 1947, some on several occasions, and this was clearly used by the BBC producers to encourage the theatre to consider new productions of certain favoured scripts. The production of Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy appears to have been particularly successful, as Campbell Logan (who had returned to overseeing the broadcasts) wrote to Fred Marlow (15 January 1948, WAC T14/593/2):

Everyone was full of praise, and were particularly delighted by the performance of Monia Stutfield. I would be grateful if you let me have some information about her – where she comes from, where she has been working, etc, as the powers-that-be are anxious to have information on this subject.

The Intimate Theatre presentations appear to have attracted the notice of television reviewers only very rarely. One significant discussion, however, was a column for The Listener by the critic Harold Hobson about the broadcast of The Winslow Boy:

Television, so far as the drama is concerned, seems to be uneasily in the position of the cinema thirty-five years ago. Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Herbert Tree used to make films by simply photographing stage plays… Similarly, from time to time, television presents us with what is in essence a talking film of a stage play. (‘Theatre v. studio’, 29 January 1948, p. 194)

Later to be the distinguished (and feared) theatre critic of The Sunday Times, Hobson here brought together a sympathetic interest in television’s journeys to the Intimate with a faintly dismissive atttitude to the theatre’s audience:

Throwing aside its experiments, its studio effects, [television] retires to the fastness of the Intimate Theatre in Palmer’s [sic] Green and shows us what the locals are getting for their three-and-six. On these occasions nothing is done – or seems to be done – to adapt the performance for television purposes; the dramatic beverage is served up as for the suburban cognoscenti, and the television camera drinks it neat. If television drama is itself an art, with its own laws, its own limitations and its own peculiar possibilities, the result ought to be disappointing. Often enough it is; but not more disappointing – this is the really disturbing thing – than most studio performances: Palmer’s Green and Alexandra Palace, Tweedledum and Tweedeldee.

Hobson goes on to praise in particular the performance at the Intimate (and on the screen) of David Raven as the barrister Sir Robert Morton in Terence Rattigan’s drama. But although the broadcasts could occasionally attract positive notices like Hobson’s, and although they appear to have been popular with audiences (they pre-date the start of detailed audience figures), these ‘dramatic beverages’ from Palmers Green were soon to be troubled by copyright wrangles that would force, first, a relocation to an Alexandra Palace studio and then the ending of the Intimate partnership. The story will continue in a third part of this post.

The list of the semi-regular live broadcasts from The Intimate Theatre between December 1946 and August 1949 is as follows:

  • 2 December 1946    George and Margaret by Gerald Savory
  • 30 December 1946  Junior Miss by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields
  • 18 April 1947             Anthony and Anna by St. John Ervine
  • 27 June 1947            The Family Upstairs by Harry Delf
  • 5 September 1947    French without Tears by Terence Rattigan
  • 6 January 1948         The Man from the Ministry by Madeleine Bingham
  • 13 January 1948       The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan
  • 20 February 1948     The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley
  • 8 April 1948               The Shop at Sly Corner by Edward Percy
  • 13 May 1948              Quiet Wedding by Esther McCracken
  • 8 July 1948                 Distinguished Gathering by James Parish
  • 16 September 1948   Acacia Avenue by Mabel and Denis Constanduros
  • 14 October 1948        Children to Bless You by G. Sheila Donisthorpe
  • 15 August 1949          Two Dozen Red Roses by Kenneth Horne

Note: The image and caption of the BBC cameramen at the 2 December 1946 presentation of George and Margaret comes from The Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette, 6 December 1946, as reproduced in Geoff Bowden’s book Intimate memories: The history of the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green (Westbury: The Badger Press, 2006)


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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