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‘A television experiment’: the Teddington Theatre Club’s Noah (BBC, 1966)

greeting to the sun following the end of the rain

greeting to the sun following the end of the rain

When recently browsing my bookshelves for some holiday reading, I came upon a volume I hadn’t opened recently and clearly hadn’t ever read in any detail: Adrian Rendle’s Everyman and His Theatre: A Study of the Purpose and Function of the Amateur Society Today which was published in London in 1968 by Isaac Pitman & Sons. My copy, which still has the reading ticket from Grimsby Borough Libraries safely tucked in its pocket inside the front cover, was bought from Hay-on-Wye in December 2004 when I was firmly of the opinion that in the meagre span of a PhD thesis I could cover all twentieth-century British engagements with Greek tragedy on the page, on radio, on television and the amateur stage, not to mention non-élite and self-educational institutions. (In the end I looked at just two decades of activity on BBC Radio, reassured by my supervisors that the bigger project could wait until my retirement!)

Everyman and His Theatre wasn’t quite what I was looking for in terms of holiday reading, but I did put it to one side for closer inspection on my return because Chapter VII was promisingly titled ‘Making a Play: A Television Experiment’. Its author, Adrian Rendle (c. 1928-1988), was an experienced theatre director, writer and lecturer who had been the director of the amateur Tower Theatre in Canonbury and one of the Artistic Directors of Stage Sixty at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In later years he went on to teach at RADA and LAMDA, and to set up a theatre academy in Malta for the British Council (The Times, 30 September 1988, p. 16).

making-up Noah

making-up Noah

The flyleaf states that the object of the book is ‘to review some of the major aspects of the amateur theatre from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day’. In the Preface, Rendle states his aim more practically as ‘an attempt to tackle some of the artistic and managerial problems that have arisen wherever people have grouped themselves in the name of theatre and tried to make it work’ (p. viii).

Roughly in the middle of the book, following his interesting overview of the development of the amateur theatrical movement, Rendle notes that ‘the theatre on “telly” has gained a great deal of affection’, with viewers ‘often anxious to know more about the working side of an entertainment which many of them have always regarded as something for the very few’. The result, he considers, is that ‘the theatre is rapidly becoming a subject that more people can talk about than ever before’ (p. 49). He refers to the BBC’s Man Alive programmes which considered the problem of out-of-work actors and another BBC offering in the form of a series on ‘Great Acting, in which the giants of the stage spoke personally about their work’ (p. 50). ITV, he notes, transmitted a series entitled Take it from the Top which looked in on professional rehearsals, programmes on modern theatre introduced by David Jones, and others ‘on “improvisation” for schools’.

rehearsal - the family sleeps and Noah thinks

rehearsal – the family sleeps and Noah thinks

Rendle then goes on to discuss in detail (over 38 pages) his own involvement as the presenter of the BBC Television series Making a Play which considered the typical problems faced by amateur groups. The purpose of this, the seventh chapter of his book, is not so much to document the television series as to present a prose version of the lessons imparted by the series. It is therefore a little light on the kind of detail that I would have liked to read, but it does document that the Making a Play series was produced by Victor Poole for the Further Education Department and it was transmitted on Saturday mornings.

The series focused on the Teddington Theatre Club’s production of André Obey’s Noah which had premiered as Noé in 1930 and which had been given in English in London in 1935 with John Gielgud taking the title role. Both the theatre company and the play had been selected by the production team. Teddington was considered to be a typical amateur group and Noah offered the kind of elements they wanted to cover in the series: the ‘opportunity for some chorus work, a demand for interesting costume design, and a set that has to be adaptable for both interior and exterior scenes’ (pp. 52-53).

production conference

production conference

The series took the ‘magazine approach of showing numerous departments of the theatre’ (p. 51). Across eleven or so programmes, which were transmitted in the first three months of 1966 on BBC1 (later repeated on BBC2), the series covered all aspects of how an amateur group brings a production into being. The first programme was a general introduction to the series, involving a committee meeting in which Rendle discussed the administrative matters of running this particular company and designing a season to include Noah. Another showed the auditioning process,  group improvisations (including a scene from Euripides’ Trojan Women) and a discussion of problems arising from the different characters; yet another showed a production planning meeting between the director, designer (John Dorsett) and stage manager (Bernard Turner) – pictured here. There were two technical programmes (the fit-up and the lighting rehearsal) and another on make-up (see image above). Budgetary concerns were covered and costings for a scale model of the set, samples of material for the costumes, lighting and the hire of a rain projector discussed.

the family sew in the cabin

the family sew in the cabin

Two programmes were devoted to rehearsals (see the still above) and the last programme in the series offered a twenty-minute scene from the play in costume, as if at a final dress rehearsal. It opens with Noah telling his family, stranded as they are in their ark (see adjacent image), the dreadful truth that all other human beings have perished and ends with their jubilation at the stopping of the rain (see their greeting to the sun – the first image above). Although this ‘dress rehearsal’, broadcast on 26 March 1966, was thought to be as far as the series could take the exercise, ‘Inevitably it began to be regarded as a finished performance’ (p. 85). Rendle concludes his chapter with the following interesting note:

To be absolutely true to the concept of an amateur performance in a hired hall the progress of Noah could, I suppose, have been shot from the best seat in the auditorium. But the idea of a basilisk eye fixed with grim precision at a set number of feet away from the stage filled Victor Poole and I with horror. A production seen in such a way could be nothing but diminutive and flat. […] On the studio floor I could see his effects coming up on the monitor and at times during the all-day session I would alter moves that were assisting the work of the cameras rather than regarding the sightlines of the theatre’ (pp. 86-87).

Not all viewers approved, however, as Rendle notes: ‘it was evident that some people who saw the programme were disappointed that they were not treated to twenty minutes of flat-canvassed play acting’ (p. 87).

The fact that only an extract from Noah was transmitted means that this ‘production’ is only of peripheral interest to the Screen Plays research project, but reading this account is really valuable background for me as I embark on my second case study which is looking at theatre plays in educational contexts on television. This case study draws on my work on the BBC Schools Philoctetes (1961-62) and the BBC / The Open University collaborations for the A307 Drama course in the 1970s (for example, read about Oedipus Tyrannus and Macbeth) and it will benefit from insights provided by my colleague John Wyver’s forthcoming post on a very fine BBC Schools production of Julius Caesar (1960).


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