One of the foundational essays for the study of theatre plays on television is Neil Taylor’s ‘A history of the stage play on BBC television’ (in Jeremy Ridgman, ed., Boxed Sets: Television Representations of Theatre, Luton: John Libbey Media, 1998, pp. 23-38). An element of Taylor’s research is an invaluable table listing playwrights by the total number of BBC presentations of their work from 1936 to 1994. Unsurprisingly, this is topped by Shakespeare with 235 complete productions; second, by some distance, is George Bernard Shaw, with 99 complete productions. (The next five dramatists in order are Ibsen, Priestley, Chekhov, Coward and Barrie.)
Looking at the profusion of Shaw productions in the medium’s early years I was particularly struck that there were three presentations of his 1913 ‘fable’ Androcles and the Lion between 1938 and 1951. Each of these – the other was in 1946 – was a distinct presentation, although all three were mounted by producer Desmond Davis. The play has also been given twice more, in 1960 and 1983, on both occasions in strands made for schools. Did this mean, I wondered, that if the plays of Shakespeare were excluded, this was television’s most performed play?
A little research using the listing of theatre plays on television compiled by our colleague Dr Billy Smart at Reading revealed that there is one (surprising) title that has been given eight productions in more or less full versions, another staged seven times, and two more that have been presented on six separate occasions. Moreover, the five productions of Androcles and the Lion are matched by some eight other non-Shakespeare plays (details of all of these are below).
Androcles and the Lion, 1938
Shaw wrote his ‘religious pantomime’ Androcles and the Lion in 1913, in part as a reaction to the huge success of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan: ‘I wrote Androcles to show what a play for children should be like,’ he later remembered (quoted in Michael Holroyd, London: Vintage, 1998, p. 409) He was also responding to the extraordinary popularity of the Christian melodrama The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett, whose calculated and erotic sensationalism Shaw abhorred. But this tale of a puny Greek tailor triumphing over the Roman emperor is, as always with Shaw, a commentary on the politics of his time, with the Emperor standing in for the British monarchy.
Although it was to become one of Shaw’s best-loved works, the play was not initially successful, running for just fifty-two performances during its premiere London outing. Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd quotes the critic Desmond MacCarthy writing in the New Statesman: ‘An English audience has not as a rule sufficient emotional mobility to follow a method which alternates laughter with pathos, philosophy with fun, in such rapid succession.’ (pp. 433-434)
From the late 1920s onwards, after some initial reluctance, Shaw had acceded to radio productions of his works. In 1937 he permitted BBC Television to present How He Lied to Her Husband (an one-act play that had previously been poorly filmed) and he had appeared to be pleased with how it had come off. He was present at Alexandra Palace for the first transmission and spoke briefly to the cameras at its conclusion (see ‘In the beginning: two traces’). Androcles… was the second of his works to be tackled by the new medium and, as Shaw insisted on for the radio broadcasts, it was done without any cuts to the text. Esmé Percy (who in 1938 also appeared in Gabriel Pascal’s feature film adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion) took the role of the Lion and Androcles was played by Guy Glover (who would later have a distinguished career as a documentary producer in Canada).
The production was played live in Studio A at Alexandra Palace on the evening of Monday 4 July 1938 and then repeated by the same cast on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 July. The prologue was played before two cameras in front of a ‘jungle variety cloth’ which was hung in front of the Act II set. Two further cameras presented Act I before a set at the other end of the studio, and then three of the four cameras were called into action for Act II, with the fourth being used for captions. The camera script preserved in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham indicates that there were just twenty-seven changes of camera shot during the hour-plus production.
The critical response was positive, with ‘E.H.R.’ writing in The Observer that the play ‘was delightful entertainment and not a minute too long though it ran over an hour’. (‘Television’, 10 July 1938, p. 11) The anonymous reviewer for The Times was similarly enthusiastic:
Androcles and the Lion was televised with conspicuous success […] Any play which relies on dialogue for its effect is excellent television material, and no points in Mr Shaw’s delightful fable were missed […] The scene in the arena was well-staged by the simplest means, and the reunion of Androcles and the Lion most touching, as Mr Percy played the part of Christian-about-to-be-eaten with absolute sincerity. (‘Televised plays: reliance on dialogue’, 12 July 1938, p. 21)
In The Listener, the acute critic Grace Wyndham Goldie (who would later become an influential executive in BBC television current affairs) used her column during the week after the play’s transmission to reflect on the remarkable advances that television drama had made in recent months:
It is high time that a few bouquets were handed by appreciative viewers to producers of television plays. The standards of presentation of these things is advancing with such kangaroo leaps that yesterday’s masterpieces are out of date today and the screen, which only a few months ago seemed uncomfortably crowded when it was showing more than two characters, now deals entirely successfully with war scenes on the Western Front (as in Brigade Exchange), with exploration in the Antarctic (as in White Secrets) and very nearly with Christians, lions and gladiators in the Colosseum in Imperial Rome. Has the screen increased in size? No. Why, then, is there this astonishing change? Because producers are continually discovering fresh ways of using the available space to better advantage. Lighting has improved; the material chosen is more suitable; bits of film are more skilfully linked with studio action. (‘Television: leaping drama’, 14 July 1938, p. 103)
Television’s favourite (non-Shakespeare) plays
George Bernard Shaw is the author of both works – Candida and Arms and the Man – that have been made six times each for the small screen, but of neither the play produced on eight different occasions nor that favoured with seven productions. The play produced eight times is Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde has been given seven times.
The former was staged in 1939 (like the three early productions of Androcles and the Lion, by Desmond Davis) and 1956 for the BBC, and in three parts for the ITV series Played Upon a Stage in 1960 (this survives – and see my blog post here – but the other two do not). There was a John Harrison production as The Sunday Night Play for the BBC in 1961 and in 1963 a four-episode ITV production (presumably for schools) by Roger Jenkins (both versions are lost). Jenkins directed the play for the BBC2 strand Theatre 625 in 1966 and Michael Elliott contributed the most recent version, again for BBC2 but this time in the series Stage 2, in 1971 (both survive). In 2008 Sky Arts screened an adaptation directed by Tony Britten with Sussanah Fielding and Mark Dexter.
In 1937 Royston Morley was the first producer to tackle Oscar Wilde’s comedy, and he returned to the play less than a year later (the extent to which this can be regarded as a separate production is unclear). Ronald Marriott presented the play for Associated-Rediffusion in 1958, and the ITV strand Armchair Theatre offered it again in 1964, in a version directed by Bill Bain (this is the earliest to survive). James MacTaggart made a lavish version for BBC1’s Play of the Month in 1974 and Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed it in 1986 for Channel 4 (both can be seen in the archives).
Television’s choice from the Shaw catalogue is topped by Candida and Arms and the Man, both seen in six separate productions. Candida was given by the BBC in 1939 (producer Jan Bussell), 1946 (Fred O’Donovan), 1950 (Royston Morley), 1955 (Harold Clayton) 1961 (Naomi Capon) and finally, directed by Alan Cooke for Play of the Month, in 1971; the two most recent versions survive. The perhaps more obviously popular Arms and the Man was not broadcast until 1952 (in a Sunday Night Theatre production by Ian Atkins), and then two years later, produced by Harold Clayton, also for BBC Television. Sunday Night Theatre gave the drama again in 1958, when it was produced by Alan Bromly. The first ITV production was in 1971, in one of Anglia Television’s rare drama contributions to the network. Philip Casson directed a version shot from the stage for Channel 4 in 1983, and then in 1989 James Cellan Jones directed a production for BBC2’s Theatre Night.
Androcles and the Lion, 1946
The producer Desmond Davis returned to the play after television transmissions resumed from Alexandra Palace in the summer of 1946. Androcles and the Lion was given again from Studio A on November 3 and 5 of that year, when the returning medium was making do with exceptionally limited resources. From the floor plan for this presentation, the production appears to have been very similar, although this time Victor Woolf played the Lion (he was later a stalwart Derwent in numerous episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1955-60) and Androcles was Andrew Leigh (who had acted and directed Shakespeare at the Old Vic during the Frist World War).
The camera plot for this production can be compared directly with that for the television staging in 1938 that, in the life of the interrupted medium, was less than twenty months earlier. Where there had been twenty-seven changes of shot from one camera to another in that earlier presentation, now in settings that were almost identical there were ninety-four. The tripling of the number of separate shots in such a short space of time indicates how rapid was the development of the new medium, for all its poverty of resources.
Other theatre staples for television
No play by George Bernard Shaw apart from Androcles and the Lion appears to have been made just five times for television, but his popularity as a playwright among producers is almost matched by J B Priestley, whose Dangerous Corner and When We Are Married have both been given five times each (the former in 1946, 1957, 1963, 1970 and 1983; the latter in 1938, 1951, 1957, 1964 and 1987). Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (in 1947, 1958, 1962, 1971 and 1981) and Three Sisters (1954, 1963, 1970, 1981, 2004) have also both enjoyed five television productions.
Hedda Gabler is television’s favourite Ibsen (shown in 1957, 1962, 1972, 1981 and 1993), but it is perhaps surprising to find that Strife by the Edwardian playwright John Galsworthy has been produced on the same number of occasions (in 1950, 1960 – in three parts for schools – 1965, 1975 and 1988). The other plays honoured by being produced five times are the repertory staples Hay Fever by Noel Coward (1938, 1946, 1960, 1968 and 1986) and Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1949, 1958, 1961, 1977 and 1989), as well as – astonishingly (from the perspective of 2012) – A Phoenix Too Frequent by Christopher Fry (in 1946, 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1972).
Androcles and the Lion, 1951
Desmond Davis returned to Androcles and the Lion in the summer 1951, and now the live broadcast was from Studio G in the newly refurbished television studios in Lime Grove, which had opened in May 1950. An anguished letter from him to the scheduling manager there (Davis appears to have been more than ready to complain about facilities and staff) worries that he has been allocated far too little rehearsal time with the unfamiliar set-up:
This is a heavy, major, 75 minute, complex production with a large and expensive star cast […] Television has now a vast audience and has, in the case of the big major productions, to stand up to criticism in all the national papers alongside Hollywood and the West End theatre. If I do a bad, rough production, despite the fact that it may not have been my fault, C. A Lejeune will tell the world so on the following Sunday and I shall not be in a position to tell her why. (Desmond Davis to Alec Sutherland, 11 August 1951, BBC WAC T5/17)
On this production, as he had not done before, Davis recorded in advance five shots which depicted the recognition by the Lion of Androcles in the arena and their happy reunion. But during the studio run, one of the four cameras broke down and the production, at least from Davis’ point of view, was plagued by other technical problems. Frustratingly, as with so many productions from before the introduction of the tele-recording of drama in 1953, we have no moving images for us to make our own judgement, and nor have I so far been able to find a contemporary critical response to this third television production in just seven years of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘fable’.