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Christmas past at the BBC: the second half of the 1950s. Part 1

Christmas issue of the Radio Times, December 1957Leafing through the current Christmas edition of the Radio Times has made me think back to the television fare offered to viewers in Christmases long past. Taking a cue from my colleague John Wyver’s seasonal blog posts from last Christmas-time – in which he looked at the BBC’s 1947 transmission of Croyden’s Grand Theatre production of Jack and the Beanstalk, which was beset by technical disasters, and also a superb survey of six BBC presentations of Cinderella from 1938 to 1950 (offered in two posts, here and here) – I thought I’d glance back at the BBC Television offerings from the second half of the 1950s, part of the period for which I have been engaged in collecting data for the Screen Plays database.

In this period there is presented a strikingly rich mix of dramatic material written both for the stage and also especially for television, with – it seems – a gradually increasing number of multi-part series (whether of original television drama or dramatizations of novels) towards the end of the decade. The BBC Television viewer usually had a good choice between productions of stage plays which had a festive or seasonal connection and others which had not (but it is noticeable that these latter plays tended already to have an established reputation on the stage). There were also, of course, the usual sprinkling of pantomimes, some of which were televised from theatres with others presented especially for television; however, there do appear to be fewer pantomimes or other festive offerings televised in the new year period as the decade comes to a close.

The following survey may read like a catalogue, but it is far from a comprehensive document of seasonal transmissions by the BBC over these five years, nor does it limit itself entirely to works which fall within the Screen Plays methodological net; my aim has been, first, to satisfy my own curiosity and, thereby, perhaps to give readers a flavour of the different kinds of dramatic programme available through the BBC to viewers young and old in this brief period. Despite the lack of comprehensiveness this five-year survey has turned out to be quite long, thus Part 1 (covering 1955-56) is published today and Part 2 (1957-59) will follow in a couple of days time [now published here].

1955 was, of course, the first Christmas when there was not ‘the same old assurance that on Christmas Eve or Boxing Night all those who looked in were a society beholding the same image’ (Philip Hope-Wallace, ‘Last Time’, Radio Times, 30 December 1954, p. 1163), owing to the recent end of the BBC’s monopoly with the introduction of the commercial networks, and so a comparison with the offerings on independent television would also, at some future point, prove useful and necessary for a more comprehensive survey of televisual offerings at Christmas-time.


At 9.10pm on 20 December 1955, the viewer could get into a festive frame of mind by watching the first opera composed specifically for American television, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act nativity opera which had been commissioned by the commercial television network NBC (National Broadcasting Company). It had premiered in America in 1951 in a live transmission. Christian Simpson produced the BBC version and Stanford Robinson conducted the London Sinfonia for this production which was first shown in 1954 and repeated in 1955. The BBC revived the work in a new production, again by Simpson but this time with the Royal Philharmonic, in December 1959; the fact that this 1959 production would be the work’s fourth presentation on BBC Television is testament to its popularity (Radio Times, 18 December 1959, p. 7).

1955 The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy (The Listener, 29 December 1955, p. 1135)

At 8.45pm on Friday 23 December 1955, following a half-hour programme of carols from Canterbury Cathedral, Wynward Browne’s Christmas drama The Holly and the Ivy was transmitted (see adjacent image). Set in 1947, this play is full of the sadness and comedy of family tensions as the adult children and extended family of the aging and recently widowed Reverend Martin Gregory gather for the festive period. First produced in 1950 at the Lyric, Hammersmith (and soon transferring to London’s Duchess Theatre), the play is said to have been considered by Ivor Brown to be ‘the most acute play of middle-class manners since Priestley’s The Linden Tree’ (quoted in Mark Connelly, Christmas: A History, London: Tauris, 2012, p. 184). The play was in 1952 turned into a film directed by George More O’Ferrall and Connelly notes that the critical response to the film version seemed to treat it as if it was ‘little more than a grand television production’ (ibid.).

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the BBC should present it on television the following Christmas in a production by Barbara Burnham with William Devlin as Revd Gregory and other parts played by Pamela Alan, Jill Balcon, Terence Brook, Maureen Delany, Margaret Halstan, Robert Sansom and Robert Urquhart. In 1954 the BBC had presented a radio version of the production on the Home Service with almost the complete cast from the London stage; the largely new cast of the television production was considered by Philip Hope-Wallace in the Radio Times to offer ‘the really satisfying Christmas meal in the way of drama. […] It was like looking through a window at some family one knows well’ – a little like one of our present-day soaps, perhaps (Hope-Wallace, ‘While Shepherds Watched’, Radio Times, 29 December 1955, pp. 1134-35: p. 1135).

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (January 1956)At 8.30pm on Christmas Eve the programmers returned to the ever-popular Cinderella story in Pantomania; or, It Was Never Like This and on Boxing Day in the Children’s Television slot a play on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by Rex Tucker was offered. Later the same evening, Ken Dodd and Mrs Shufflewick appeared in excerpts from John Beaumont’s pantomime Red Riding-Hood which was televised from the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. On 1 January 1956 Children’s Television welcomed in the new year with a one-hour production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (see adjacent image), an adaptation of Herbert M. Prentice’s play, itself adapted from the Lewis Carroll story. (The theatre director and designer Prentice had earlier dramatized the story for a little known production in the 1947-48 season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford.)

Christmas Day had also seen a production of John Drinkwater’s ‘perennial, clean as a whistle’ comedy Bird in Hand (1928), a play without any ostensible connection with the season (Maurice Richardson, ‘Scrooge’s Screen’, The Observer, 25 December 1955, p. 6). No doubt its inclusion in the day’s programming satisfied those looking for some relief from the otherwise solidly Christmas fare – it was, for example, situated between the pot-pourri ‘television Christmas party’ Christmas Box and the film Today in Bethlehem (Radio Times, 23 December 1955, p. 17).


In 1956, festive programming for younger viewers seems to have begun at 5pm on 18 December with a repeat of the previous year’s dramatization of the fairy tale The Sleeping Beauty, produced by Rex Tucker.

Christmas in the Market-Place (1956)

Christmas in the Market-Place (1956)

At 5.15pm on 23 December, Dorothea Brooking produced for Children’s Television Henri Ghéon’s 1935 nativity play Christmas in the Market-Place, translated from the French by Eric Crozier. Ghéon’s play concerns a family of travellers who gather in the market-place of a village one Christmas Eve. Crozier transferred the action ‘to a small English country-town’, making the travellers ‘Irish tinkers’ (Eric Crozier, ‘A Seasonal Play: Christmas in the Market-Place’, Radio Times, 21 December 1956, p. 17). One of these is a direct descendant of one of the three Magi and after supper one evening the group decide to perform their own version of the Nativity story for a local audience, after which the church bells summon them all to midnight mass. ‘This looks like being one of the most original and interesting features of Christmas television’, considered The Guardian (‘Music and Drama at Christmas: BBC TV Programmes’, 12 December 1956, p. 14), although reviews for the production are regrettably rather thin on the ground.

Reluctant Heroes (1956)

Reluctant Heroes (1956)

This seasonal play for children was followed at 8.30pm by Colin Morris’ Reluctant Heroes, a farce of army recruits in training directed by Brian Rix, in the Sunday-Night Theatre slot. As my colleague John Wyver has noted (in his blog piece here), the regular productions of comedies and farces from the Whitehall Theatre in London were often transmitted on public holidays or at Christmas-time. In 1956 Reluctant Heroes was the fifth full Whitehall farce, although the first act, which John writes about in detail above, had already been transmitted on BBC Television in 1952.

At 11pm on Christmas Eve viewers were treated to another screening of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. On Christmas Day younger viewers enjoyed a twenty-minute film version of Puss in Boots; later, at 7pm, there was another Pantomania offering, under the title Pantomania; or, Dick Whittington, written by Eric Sykes and featuring Jean Kent as Dick Whittington, Sylvia Peters as Alice Fitzwarren, Billy Cotton as Alderman Fitzwarren, Frankie Howerd as Idle Jack, Hattie Jacques as The Good Fairy and Sam Kydd as King Rat. (A couple of weeks later, on 13 January 1957, George Formby featured in a 45-minute excerpt from Emile Littler’s pantomime Dick Whittington televised from the Palace Theatre, London: see image below.) Later still Home is the Sailor, a comedy specially written for television by Arthur Macrae, had a Christmas Day setting.

1957 Dick WhittingtonChildren’s Television on Boxing Day offered Shaun Sutton’s one-hour production of The Goose Girl, a fairy tale written by Clifford Williams and Donald Johnson based on the story by the brothers Grimm. Later the same evening, Beauty and the Beast, a ‘musical play’ adapted from the fairy tale and ‘specially written for television’ (Radio Times, 21 December 1956, pp. 34-35) and The Light of Heart by the Welsh dramatist Emlyn Williams (first produced at the Apollo Theatre, London, 1940), were transmitted.

The Light of Heart, produced by David J. Thomas, concerns a once-great actor who is now a drunkard (played by John Longden) whose performances now consist of the seasonal role of Father Christmas in a department store. Beyond this connection with Christmas, however, the play is firmly a family affair with some echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The actor has one last chance of stage success, as Lear at Covent Garden: initially he rises well to the challenge but quickly goes downhill before his stage debut on learning that his daughter Cattrin (Maxine Audley) will shortly stop caring for him in order to marry her lover. Cattrin dismisses her lover, but her father commits suicide. This is not one of Williams’ best plays, considered The Guardian, but the performances by Longden and Audley are said to have been ‘striking’ (‘A Second Viewing Desirable: Christmas Programmes’, The Manchester Guardian, 27 December 1956, p. 2).

The following day, 27 December, saw a production of Dodie Smith’s light comedy Call It a Day (1935) in which the mother and daughter characters Dorothy and Ann Hilton were played by real-life mother and daughter team Margaret and Julia Lockwood; and on 28 December the first episode of a six-part dramatization of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair was transmitted.

1956 Clive of IndiaOn the evening of 30 December the Sunday-Night Theatre slot was devoted to W. P. Lipscomb and R. J. Minney’s play Clive of India, produced by Rudolph Cartier (see image adjacent). The play had been produced on the London stage in 1934 by Campbell Gullan and in the year following been made into a film directed by Richard Boleslawski. Set in mid-18th-century India and England, the play tells the story of how Robert Clive excels in the military arm of the East India Company, making both wealth and enemies along the way.

The Radio Times promises ‘a fantastic story’ of ‘high romance, love, and adventure’ (Radio Times, 28 December 1956, p. 15) yet Trewin in The Listener found the writing ‘flat’: although Marius Goring in the title role ‘carefully indicated the ravages of a quarter of a century’, the character remained ‘static’ with ‘a limited range of emotion to express’ and Jeanette Sterke as his wife Margaret Maskelyne ‘had little to do but suffer in silence’ (J. C. Trewin, ‘Indian Ink’, The Listener, 3 January 1957, pp. 34-35). The Radio Times promised that ‘Scenes which on the stage could only be hinted at are here made fully visual’ (Radio Times, 28 December 1956, p. 15) but one television critic at least considered that the television production failed to ‘give an impression of opening out a more spacious view. Indeed it achieved a number of extraordinarily crowded, theatrical, and cramped-looking sets’ (‘Clive of India: Fine Performance by Marius Goring’, The Manchester Guardian, 31 December 1956, p. 2).

1957 Mrs Gibbons' BoysThe new year brought yet more wide-ranging drama: for the Sunday-Night Theatre slot on 6 January 1957 Barbara Burnham produced Denis Constanduros’ stage play The End of the Summer, a play based on the love-life of the Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev (played by Ferdy Mayne); the following evening a 45-minute excerpt from Will Glickman and Joseph Stein’s comedy Mrs Gibbons’ Boys (see adjacent image) was transmitted from the Westminster Theatre, London; and on 10 January R. F. Delderfield’s television play No Shepherd’s Watched has a family of burglars lease a shop next to a jewellers in order to rob it during its Christmas Day and Boxing Day closure.

Perhaps the holiday season can account for this, at least to some extent, but it is striking quite how much drama – of different types and origins – there was on offer to BBC viewers across the festive weeks and, as noted above, the titles presented here offer far from a comprehensive list.

Part 2 of this survey, covering the years 1957-59 will follow in a couple of days time [now published here].


One thought on “Christmas past at the BBC: the second half of the 1950s. Part 1

  1. Would love to see a new edition play for Clive of India reopened in esher where Clive of India lived.

    Posted by Michelle Bennett | 6 November 2013, 8:32 pm

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