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Live from the Intimate Theatre, 1946-1949, part 3

In two previous posts (here and here) I have outlined something of the BBC’s relationship with The Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green in the immediate post-war years. A ban by the Theatrical Management Association meant that the BBC was unable to mount outside broadcasts from mainstream theatres, and so the corporation was forced to rely on small rep houses for live theatre with an audience. Fo three years, the Intimate was the BBC’s mainstay for such theatre plays, with fourteen productions broadcast between December 1946 and August 1949. These were broadcast despite the often poor quality of the productions, frequent technical hitches and obstructive tactics of other producers and copyright holders. After the early stages of the story and a discussion of some of the technical failures, this third post concentrates on the difficulties of the later years and the final, fifteenth Intimate production which at the last minute had to be relocated to an Alexandra Palace studio.

The Intimate Theatre in later years - the posters are for the 1987 panto

The first indications that there might be trouble ahead became apparent just after the third broadcast from the Intimate. St. John Ervine’s Anthony and Anna was given on 18 April 1947 before the three outside broadcast cameras which diffused it to the still very modest television audience located within range of the Alexandra Palace transmitter. (The Sutton Coldfield transmitter, which opened up BBC television in the Midlands only started broadcasts on 17 December 1949.) Before Anthony and Anna the BBC and the Intimate had been hoping to produce Terence Rattigan’s French without Tears but had apparently been told that the copyright owners would not allow a televised performance since they were considering a West End revival. In an internal memo OB producer Campbell Logan noted that there was a rather different story behind the refusal:

Mr Marlow [owner of the Intimate] […] informed me that this, in fact, was not the case, but that it was merely a question of pressure, presumably by the West End Managers’ Association upon authors, not to have their plays televised from theatres. It seems curious that when applying for the copyright of Is Your Homeymoon Really Necessary? we are given exactly the same reason.

Campbell Logan pointed out that this play had just closed in London and it was ‘ludicrous’ to think that anyone was seriously planning a revival. He believed that the Intimate was being ‘victimised’:

Mr Marlow informed me that heavy guns had been produced about allowing television from his theatre but that he did not propose to give way in this matter as he believed that there must always be pioneers of new things if we are to make any progress. (Campbell Logan to Tel. O. B. Man, ‘Copyright of plays televised from Intimate Theatre, 21 April 1947, WAC T14/593/1)

As Asa Briggs has detailed, the television service just a year or so after resuming broadcasts was finding that it was difficult to negotiate access to major events outside the studios: ‘No live television cameras could be taken into Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding [on 20 November 1947]. The Football League was as unwilling to allow television of matches as the theatre managers were to allow even excerpts from West End theatres.’ Briggs does note, however, that the restoration comedy The Relapse was broadcast on 9 October 1947 from The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. (The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Volume IV: Sound and Vision, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 220)

The BBC was determined to fight against these constraints. The manager to whom Logan sent his concerned memo was Ian Orr-Ewing, who was well-connected in literary circles. Three months after the April rebuff he spoke with Rattigan and then followed up with a letter that began, ‘Dear Terry’. Orr-Ewing explained that the BBC now hoped to present French without Tears from the Intimate in the first week of September, but that the theatre had received in response to a request for permission exactly what he had been told months before: ‘ “We cannot give you permission because we are shortly putting the play on in the West End.”‘ Might ‘Terry’ have a word with his agents, Orr-Ewing asked, ‘since I think [the play] would make ideal material for an outside broadcast when we can get the audience reaction which one does not get in a studio production.’ (Ian Orr-Ewing to Terence Rattigan, 30 July 1947, WAC T14/593/1) Rattigan replied the next day, having sorted the problem and stressing that ‘if your people’ should want to do other of his plays, they should write directly to him.

The broadcast went ahead on 5 September, and once again (see the previous post) the close-up camera failed, this time at the end of the first act, and the remaining action had to be shown by a single midshot. The BBC and the Intimate did indeed then return to Rattigan’s writing for a production of The Winslow Boy on 13 January 1948, and this time the cameras behaved themselves. Even so Campbell Logan had reservations, as he noted in his post-broadcast camera report:

It is apparent that unless the acting is of superb quality, serious plays are better treated as inside productions. With static camera positions it is impossible to do full justice to the author of a straight play. Comedy and boisterous audience reaction is really needed to provide a winner. (‘Camera report’, 14 January 1948, WAC T14/593/2)

The quality of the Intimate productions was a persistent concern for BBC executives, largely because the theatre was a typical rep house staging its shows on very tight budgets with a single set and rarely more than a week’s rehearsal. In January 1948 Television OB and Film Supervisor Philip Dorté relayed to Campbell Logan a suggestion from the BBC Programme Director:

Tel. P. D. would like you to discuss with Marlowe [sic] and/or other interested parties the possibility of concluding an agreement with the Intimate Theatre whereby we contract to take a regular series of O. B.s from the Intimate at a frequency of, say, one a month – the BBC to pay a really appreciably higher fee on the condition that the Intimate engages higher-grade for the plays whcih we shall be televising. Accent of course should be on comedy. (P. H. Dorté to Campbell Logan, 20 January 1948, WAC T14/593/2)

The suggestion, however, did not go down well with Frederick Marlow, who felt that this strategy could damage the theatre’s relationship with its regular audience. The contrast with the weeks when the BBC’s money did not pay for such enhancement would be too stark. Another notion that Marlow was less than keen on was the idea that a number of West End managers might be invited to the Intimate to see the broadcast arrangements for The Ghost Train, scheduled for 20 February 1948. It was envisaged that they might have a look around the theatre and then watch the broadcast on a set specially installed in the manager’s office. Perhaps it was as well that the plan does not seem to have been acted on, since a letter from Logan to Marlow just after the show acknowledged that ‘It was disappointing that we were deprived of the climax of the second act…’ (Campbell Logan to Frederick Marlow, 23 February 1948, WAC T14/593/2)

Despite repeated visits by the BBC to the Intimate, the technical problems persisted. Superintendant Engineer Television D. C. Birkinshaw expressed his frustration after the broadcast on 16 September 1948 of Acacia Avenue by Mabel and Denis Constanduros:

None of these OBs [from the Intimate] have been really first class. The reason for this is that if you take an OB from an outside theatre you cannot put the lighting where you want it, a point which makes a great deal of difference. Secondarily, the cameras are not, in my view, sufficiently sensitive. (D. C. Birkinshaw to S. S. E., 21 September 1948, WAC T14/593/3)

Perhaps because of these concerns, there was one further regular Intimate broadcast, of G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Children to Bless You on 14 October 1948, and then nearly a year’s break before the cameras returned. Indeed it seems to have been an invitation from Frederick Marlow (on 6 July 1949), in which he said that the theatre would be closed on certain nights in August, that led to the idea of another transmission from Palmers Green. By this point, however, the actors union Equity had barred its members from taking part in relays from theatres. Further research is needed on this ban but it appears to have been put in place because Equity believed that its members received fees for relays from theatre managers that were far too low. The union was, however, prepared to allow the BBC to broadcast specially mounted productions from theatres, as long as the BBC paid appropriate rates. As a consequence, Two Dozen Red Roses, which was transmitted from the Intimate on 15 August 1949, was the regular Intimate rep production but on this night only staged in the theatre before an invited audience and as if at the request of the BBC.

On the evening there were familiar camera problems (in a letter to the Intimate two days after the broadcast, Assistant Head of Outside Broadcast  Peter Dimmock wrote of ‘our bad luck with the close-up camera’), but the show went sufficiently well for the BBC to plan to repeat the experiment. Mountain Air by Ronald Wilkinson was chosen by the Intimate for an autumn run and was scheduled by the BBC for transmission on 22 November 1949. The play had enjoyed a run at London’s Comedy Theatre in early 1948, when it had been described by Tribune‘s theatre critic Richard Findlater as ‘a mild and insular entertainment about a young couple on a Swiss holiday: the humour rests largely on the incredible inability of foreigners to speak English’. (‘Theatre’, 6 February 1948)

The ownership of the rights turned out to be more complex than first thought, and the BBC’s copyright department found themselves dealing with Jack de Leon, the impresario who owned the small Q Theatre in west London. In 1947 Wilkinson had signed a contract with De Leon which included ‘the sole right to arrange broadcasting [that is, radio] or television performances of the said play’.

On the telephone, De Leon told the BBC’s assistant head of copyright R. G. Walford that

he would not have raised objections if we had chosen to put on our performance at the Intimate Theatre at a time when the general public would not normally have been admitted to the theatre, but that as we had chosen an evening time it was in his view a performance from the theatre, and in view of his undertakings to the Theatrical Managers’ Association he had felt bound to place this whole issue on their agenda for Thursday. (R. G. Walford to Tel. P. O. and others, 16 November 1949, WAC T14/593/3)

The following day De Leon informed the BBC that the TMA ‘unanimously take the view that the televising of a play from a Theatre closed to the public during times when the Theatre would normally be giving a public performance’ was not to be permitted by members of their organisation. As a consequence, De Leon withheld his permission for  the broadcast which was now just five days away. (Jack De Leon to Norman Collins, 17 November 1949, WAC T14/593/3)

Negotiations with De Leon eventually led to him agreeing – reluctantly – to a compromise suggested by the BBC. He confirmed that he would raise no objections to the BBC taking the Intimate Theatre production into a studio at Alexandra Palace and broadcasting it from there – which is exactly what happened. As Frederick Marlow wrote to the BBC executive Cecil Madden a week later, ‘From all accounts, Mountain Air did very well in spite of the lack of audience reactions. However, it seems that all these things are sent to try us.’ (29 November 1949, WAC T14/593/3)

Not that the Intimate relationship would ‘try’ the BBC any longer. After Mountain Air there were no further plays from the theatre and live relays of stage plays all but disappeared from the schedules. It was only with Brian Rix’s initiative with his first Whitehall farce three years later (discussed in ‘Brian Rix presents: Reluctant Heroes (BBC, 1952)’ that live theatre was once again offered to BBC audiences.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Live from the Intimate Theatre, 1946-1949, part 3

  1. Just found this. I produced and appeared in a play “ALL RIGHTS RESERVED”, at the Intimate, I guess it must have been early 1949 or 1950. I also appeared in the title role of William in “JUST WILLIAM” at the Granville Walham Green in 1947, which was televised live by the BBC that Christmas. Thought you’d be interested.

    Posted by John Clark | 4 October 2016, 2:22 am

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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