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From the ’50s: Look Back in Anger (BBC and ITV, 1956)

Look Back in Anger programme cover

My Screen Plays reading over the past few weeks has been focussed on theatre and television in the 1950s, and this post is the first of a planned series to explore aspects of the subject in that decade. Both Amanda Wrigley and I have of course posted previously on broadcast productions in the 1950s, including Amanda’s recent posts about Arthur Miller plays from Granada here, here and here. I hope the posts I have planned can provide further context for those articles and perhaps also take the research in some new directions.

In this piece I focus on television’s broadcasts in 1956 of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger in the English Stage Company presentation at the Royal Court Theatre. Tony Richardson’s premiere production is widely seen as one of a small handful of defining productions for the post-war British theatre, but the story of television’s role in its success is still relatively little-known. Remarkably, before the end of 1956 the BBC had shown a substantial extract of the production in a live outside broadcast and Granada had mounted a full studio production for the ITV network.

Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court

John Osborne’s play opened on 8 May 1956 with Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure and Alan Bates in the cast. The date is one that many writers have taken as the border between, before, a trite commercial theatre dominated by West End entrepreneurs and, after, an urgent and relevant drama of social commitment. Dan Rebellato begins his important book challenging the myths that he believes to have accrued to the production with a deliberate caricature of its supposed impact on British theatre:

By 1956, British theatre was in a terrible state. The West End was dominated by a few philistine theatre managers, cranking out emotionally repressed, middle-class plays, all set in drawing rooms with French woindows, as vehicles for stars whose only talent was to wield a cigarette holder and a cocktail glass while wearing a dinner jacket…

But on 8 May 1956, everything changed. New youthful audiences flocked to the Royal Court to hear [Osborne’s anti-hero] Jimmy Porter express their own hopes and fears. At a stroke, the old well-made dramatists were shown up as stale and cobwebbed, and most of them left toply their trade in films. (1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama, London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 1-2; hereafter ‘Rebellato’)

Rebellato’s book is dedicated to challenging these myths, as is other recent writing, including Dominic Shellard’s edited collection The Golden Generation: New Light on Post-war British Theatre (London: The British Library, 2008). Nonetheless, the first production of Look Back in Anger retains a central position in modern theatre history. The reviews in the daily press were, as they say, ‘mixed’, but on the Sunday after the opening Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times hailed Osborne as ‘a writer of outstanding promise’ while the Observer‘s Kenneth Tynan penned a notice that has since become famous. In his peroration he wrote,

I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade. (‘The voice of the young’, 13 May 1956, p. 11)

Alison (Mary Ure), Cliff (Alan Bates) and Helena (Helena Hughes) and Jimmy (Kenneth Haigh) in Look Back in Anger, Royal Court, 1956; Tarn Bassett had replaced Mary Ure by the time of the BBC broadcast. Photo by Houston Rogers.

Alison (Mary Ure), Cliff (Alan Bates), Helena (Helena Hughes) and Jimmy (Kenneth Haigh) at the Royal Court, 1956; Tarn Bassett had replaced Mary Ure by the BBC broadcast. Photo by Houston Rogers.

The play was the third offering from the newly-established English Stage Company which had received a modest Arts Council grant of £7,000 to mount a repertory season that included new plays by Angus Wilson and Nigel Dennis as well as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Six weeks after the opening, The Stage reported that Look Back in Anger ‘is drawing crowds and causing vigorous discussion at the Royal Court’ (Anon., ‘Limelight’, 21 June 1956, p. 8). By late August the same magazine noted that

So great has been the success of the English Stage Company’s presentation of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, that it is to run solo [rather than in the repertory] at the Royal Court until October 27.’ (Anon., ‘Chit Chat’, 23 August 1956, p. 8)

Yet in his authoritative history of post-war British theatre, State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington repeats the further myth about the production that, ‘It was only when Lord Harewood introduced an eighteen-minute extract from the play on BBC Television [on 16 October] that a sluggish box office suddenly took off.’ (London: Faber and Faber, 2007, p. 97) Certainly the play was not a box-office smash and the BBC’s presentation was undoubtedly significant, but there is little evidence that it in some way ‘saved’ the fortunes of the production, not least because transmission came in the final fortnight of a six-month run.

Look Back in Anger on BBC Television

In an important article Kate Harris has explored the background to the BBC presentation in October 1956 of an excerpt from Look Back in Anger. In her chapter in Dominic Shellard’s collection The Golden Generation (noted above), ‘Evolutionary stages: theatre and television 1946-56′, she considers the relationship between BBC television drama and theatre during the decade before Osborne’s play. She outlines the resistance to the new medium by established theatre owners and managers in the immediate post-war years and records that it was only in January 1954 that an agreement was reached to permit outside broadcasts of excerpts from West End houses. It was in this context that the BBC broadcast an excerpt of Nigel Dennis’ play Cards of Identity as what it billed as a Theatre Flash from the Royal Court on 22 July 1956.

On 2 September the manager of the English Stage Company George Devine wrote to Cecil Madden, who was then Assistant to the Controller of Programmes, Television, suggesting that the BBC might pay a repeat visit to the Court for a second live extract, this time from Osborne’s play. He admitted that the production ‘is not doing quite as well as we would like’ and that ‘a T.V. excerpt, judiciously chosen, might help us a lot.’ He continued,

The play is supposed to be a ‘conversational must’ these days so I don’t think it is an unexciting suggestion. (BBC WAC T14/1002, the source of all BBC documents here)

Cecil MaddenA pioneering producer at Alexandra Palace before the war, Madden was a great advocate for the theatre on television. He was enthusiastic about this idea, recommending it up the management chain with the comment, ‘Frankly I think we should reflect current theatre and would like to try this’ (5 September 1956). Madden was, however, cautious about the suitability of some of the play’s language, and he appended to his memo the hand-written comment that ‘I am studying the script carefully’. The following day he was satisfied that Act II Scene 2, which ran sixteen minutes, ‘is perfectly presentable on our general policy’ (Cecil Madden memo, 6 September 1956). As things turned out, this selection was preceded in the broadcast by the closing six minutes of Act II Scene 1 as well as by a forty-second scene change.

Within a fortnight Madden had a date, 16 October, all of the theatre’s tickets on that night, and a presenter, who was to be the eminently respectable Lord Harewood. The 3 minute 42 second introduction was duly filmed five days before the live broadcast. Harewood’s script concluded, as a lead-in to the extract, ‘I hope when you’ve seen it you’ll agree it has been justified in winning the reputation it already has’ (‘Transmission script’, 16 October 1956).

On the day of transmission the BBC outside broadcast unit under producer John Vernon installed three cameras, as was standard for such programmes, in the Royal Court. The cameras were all situated in Row J, on either side of the stalls and in the centre. Rehearsals took place between 2pm and 5pm with transmission scheduled for 9.30pm (John Vernon, ‘Programme requirements’, 8 October 1956). The budget, which did not include the charges of the OB unit totalled £370 and 5 shillings, of which £250 was a facility fee to the Royal Court, 15 guineas was Lord Harewood’s fee and £27 was paid to John Osborne.

Nearly a fortnight after the broadcast, George Devine wrote once again to Cecil Madden, observing that

I hope you will have heard that [the broadcast] has made an enormous difference to our takings in the last two weeks, and I am immensely grateful to you. It has been a real service. (Letter from George Devine to Cecil Madden, 29 October 1956)

On the same day, Tony Richardson, who as well as being the play’s director was a partner in the English Stage Company with Devine, also wrote to Madden, confirming that the broadcast ‘had a miraculous effect on business.’ And in the new year The Stage magazine confirmed the impact of the broadcast, when an anonymous contributor wrote

Before the end of the BBC excerpt of Look Back in Anger from the Royal Court people were ringing the theatre to ask questions about the play and the price of seats. As a direct result of this transmission, the play was transferred to the Lyric, Hammersmith, and later Granada TV considered it worthy of televising in full. (‘TV theatre tonic’, 28 February 1957, p. 8)

When Madden learned that less than a month later Granada planned to present the whole play in a studio presentation by Richardson he was somewhat dismayed and at the same time surprised. ‘It is pretty strong stuff,’ he wrote of the script on 22 November 1956 to the Deputy Director of Television Bookings, ‘fascinating but unsuitable for a family audience. We could only find twenty clean minutes when we relayed it.’

Look Back in Anger from Granada for ITV

Both the BBC excerpt and the Granada production from the company’s studios in Manchester on 28 November 1956 were broadcast live and no recording exists of either. Production records for Granada’s presentation have also so far eluded me (although if anyone can point me in the direction of these I would be hugely grateful). I know only that Alan Bates remained from the initial cast, with Richard Pasco replacing Kenneth Haigh. As a consequence of the inaccessible records one of the few ways of recovering something of the broadcast is from the television reviews, and it is interesting that two writers at the time had strikingly different responses. (I am also surprised that neither reviewer mentions the BBC’s broadcast of what we know to be a substantial excerpt of the play from the Royal Court just six weeks before.)

For The Manchester Guardian, ‘our television critic’ was full of praise for Granada’s initiative. ‘When television can give people at large a view of a new play which has roused a lot of interest, it is doing its job properly…’ There were, however, significant qualifications on the way, as ‘our television critic’ continued ‘… and this remains true even though the play itself, which has caused quite a sensation, is a poor thing.’ There was little sense that ‘our television critic’ could recognise a modern classic, for the review continued

It is difficult to account for the serious reactions to this play, which on television would appear to be about nothing more than the squabbles and horseplay of a few illiterate young men and women. Tired, old, and dull – all of it… it was as flat as a damp squib. (‘Granada does TV’s proper job’, 29 November 1956, p. 5)

Three days later, writing in the Observer, Bernard Levin could hardly have been more positive, as he enthused

Mr Osborne’s scream of rage, frustration and bitterness, the most discussed play for years, made tremendous television… His tough, savage prose crackled and popped until I thought the television set would catch fire under its scorching urgency. Though the cuts were many and mighty in order to get the play into ninety minutes, it came across hot and strong…

For almost the first time on independent television a stage production has shown evidence of having been redesigned entirely for television. It may look back with pride on Wednesday’s achievement. (‘Truth duller than fiction’, 1 December 1956, p. 5)

Granada claimed that an audience of 4,387,400 people watched the broadcast. Reporting this remarkably precise total, a writer for The Manchester Guardian reflected that

If the figure were absolutely correct this audience would be equivalent to a run of 25 years if six performances plus a matinée were given in a theatre holding 500. (‘Our London correspondence’, 10 December 1956, p. 6)

At the close of 1956 Maurice Richardson in the Observer chose Granada’s Look Back in Anger as one of his two candidates for ‘Play of the Year’, along with a BBC production of A Doll’s House (‘Optimistic gleams’, 30 December 1956, p. 8). The production was clearly seen at the time as highly prestigious and Granada derived a good deal of kudos from the presentation, highlighting it along with other significant programmes in newspaper display advertisements early in 1957. And in a profile of the company written nearly five years later by Mary Crozier for the Guardian, she highlighted Look Back in Anger and An Enemy of the People (an Arthur Miller adaptation of Ibsen’s play), as ‘two memorable productions’ (‘Heart of Granadaland’, 27 June 1961, p. 7).



2 thoughts on “From the ’50s: Look Back in Anger (BBC and ITV, 1956)

  1. Fascinating stuff, John. As you’ll have seen, the Radio Times (12 October 1956, p. 7) set the audience up for the BBC excerpt with a short article entitled ‘Controversial Play’ which presents the ESC as ‘One of the most active and ambitious movements in London’s theatreland in the post-war years’ and Look Back in Anger as the ‘most controversial play’ in its repertory so far; there follow some comments on the setting of the play and its mood. I haven’t looked up the pre-transmission publicity for the Granada production in the TVTimes yet, but it would be very interesting to see how the production of the entire play, with its more ‘controversial’ bits, was presented in advance.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 3 July 2013, 9:58 am


  1. Pingback: JOHN OSBORNE | British Television Drama - 30 October 2013

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