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Bookshelf: Starlight Days: The Memoirs of Cecil Madden (2007), edited by Jennifer Lewis

Just before my recent holiday in China, I contributed a post about the two television presentations in 1956 of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The play was premiered in May that year by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and on 16 October BBC Television transmitted a sixteen-minute excerpt as an outside broadcast. Just over a month later, Granada mounted a studio adaptation of the full play. Neither broadcast was recorded and for the research for my post I was restricted largely to archival sources at the BBC Written Archives Centre. Since then, however, I have discovered an account of the BBC production in the memoirs of the executive who organised it, Cecil Madden. Madden died in 1987 but his grand-daughter Jennifer Lewis edited his recollections and these were published privately as Starlight Days in 2007.

Cecil MaddenThe book as a whole is a rich source of gossip and insight about television between 1936 and the late 1950s (Madden retired in 1964), and also about BBC radio where Madden worked during the war. Several pages are devoted to the BBC showing of Look Back in Anger, but in relation to the interests of Screen Plays more generally it also includes material about producing plays and variety shows at Alexandra Palace before and just after the war and about other outside broadcasts from the West End in the 1940s and ’50s.

Born in Morocco in 1902, Cecil Madden was the son of a consulate official who as a boy developed a love of the theatre. Having adapted and written a number of plays in his twenties he joined the BBC in 1933 and was a key member of the team that got BBC Television on air from Alexandra Palace in November 1936. His title in the pre-war years was Planner, Television Service, but he also produced the popular magazine show Picture Page.

After the television service returned in 1946 Madden continued as its Planner until he was asked to oversee the start of children’s television in 1950. After less than a year, he was ‘kicked upstairs’ as Starlight Days recalls to become Assistant to the Controller of Television Programmes, Cecil McGivern. It was in this role that he responded to an approach from the English Stage Company about Look Back in Anger.

Looking Back

As Madden recalls events, the idea of broadcasting part of Look Back in Anger from the Royal Court was initially rejected by the producer of for the regular series of theatre extracts that the BBC broadcast in the mid-1950s. ‘The producer then responsible for outside relays thought [the play] unsatisfactory,’ Madden writes, ‘and said it would not make good television.’ (p. 299; all page references are from Starlight Days). Committed to helping the theatre, Madden, as documents in the archive at Caversham support, identified in the script a 15-minute section ‘then considered suitable for a family audience.’ What the Caversham record does not contain, however, is that Madden was able to commandeer an Outside Broadcast unit that was on call for a current political story and ‘steal’ twenty minutes from the weekly Picture Parade series to squeeze the extract from Look Back in Anger into the schedule.

Cecil Madden was clearly underwhelmed by what outside broadcast producer John Vernon contributed on the night:

It was not the producer’s best effort, he had no heart in it and far too much was in long shots. In the BBC marking system he estimated it would get a low [audience appreciation] rating of 43. He was right. Anything under 50% was considered disastrous. People in the [theatre] audience could even be seen rising, going to the lavatory one presumes. (p. 300)

Nonetheless, Madden is happy to take credit for a turnaround in the fortunes of the play and the English Stage Company. He recounts as direct speech his memory of a phone call from ESC Chairman Neville Blond:

‘Cecil, thanks to you a miracle has happened. There isn’t a seat to be had for the rest of the run. I’ve taken the Lyric Hammersmith for three weeks to take care of the overflow and then we’ll bring it back.’ (p. 300)

As my previous post indicates, the BBC broadcast does seem to have been the prompt for the transfer to the Lyric, but Madden is perhaps guilty of a degree of hyperbole when he writes, ‘The rest is history… The newest medium came to the rescue of the oldest.’ (pp. 300-301)

Outside broadcasts from the theatre

Starlight Days details a broad range of commercial plays that were shown in part on television in the 1950s. Looking back on this time in Starlight Days, Madden writes:

Televising whole plays from theatres [as was done in the 1930s] is no longer possible or practicable. When there were thirty thousand sets it was a talking point, but no manager could afford to broadcast his play to thirty million. So a compromise was reached to televise excerpts, never including the last act, which would be inviolate. This has worked well. Some say it is a tease, some say it is a taste. Many West End plays have flourished after showing an excerpt. (p. 301)

Madden estimates that between 1946 and 1964 when he left the BBC some one hundred and fifty excerpts from current West End productions were shown by the BBC. Among these was Lindsay Anderson’s 1960 production of Billy Liar adapted from his novel by Keith Waterhouse with Willis Hall. Madden recalls that the language of this was regarded as challenging in a way comparable to Osborne’s drama.

The TV producer got alarmed at the ruggedness of the language as Billy’s father seemed to use the word ‘bloody’ every time he opened his mouth. It was proposed to cut this word everywhere, which would have watered it down buyt made it acceptable for ‘family viewing’ and almost impossible for the actor to remember.

The theatre manager Emile Littler resisted the idea and said that the broadcast could not go ahead, at which the BBC caved in so that, as Madden writes, ‘the bloodys came over in startling style [and] the bookings at once jumped to over £4,000 a week’ (p. 302). There were occasions, however, when television could do little to help a failing show, as with the 1957 Hollywood satire Olive Ogilvy with John Justin and Yolande Dolan. ‘I phoned the theatre [after the broadcast],’ Madden remembers, ‘fully expecting to be told business was booming. Instead I heard that some seats had actually been cancelled.’

Stage plays from Alexandra Palace

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Cecil Madden’s recollections of the television service at Alexandra Palace between 1936 and 1939 are particularly valuable for the historian. He stresses how important drama was to be for the new medium.

Planning the television schedule there was never any doubt in my mind that the emphasis should be on drama… The writer would be the trend-setter, the taste maker. ‘A play a day’ was our aim.’ (p. 75)

In contrast to the far more protective attitude of theatre managers after the war, in the 1930s many of those who ran the West End were intrigued by the new medium and were keen to collaborate. As Madden details these impresarios included

… such men as F.R. Pryor, who owned the old Kingsway Theatre and who wrote most of Marigold, a hit in his own theatre [and the first play to be broadcast by television on 5 November 1936]; Anmer Hall, really A. B. Horne the insurance financier, who owned the Westminster Theatre and occasionally acted there; and Henry Sherek, both an agent and impresario. And most of all Lilian Baylis, that blithe spirit from the Waterloo Road [where she ran the Old Vic], was always ready to play, but always insisted on the words ‘By permission of Lilian Baylis’ in the billing. (p. 105)

Among the Old Vic productions presented in whole or in part by the early BBC was Macbeth with Laurence Olivier. shown just a week after Ms Baylis died on 25 November 1957. As with all such pre-war broadcasts no recording exists.

One important theatrical relationship from these years (and which I have not seen discussed elsewhere in the literature) was with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Madden details how for a time the theatre brought a production to Alexandra Palace on the third Sunday in every month.

Our television producer studied the play in the theatre, went to Birmingham for some time in advance, rehearsing his new moves for the cameras with the artists on their own stage, then on a Sunday at crack of dawn a coach started for London from Birmingham’s Station Street. The scenery had been reconstructed in advance in our workshops. The actors rehearsed all day in the studio, performed the play about 9.30pm and then, late at night, the coach rolled back to Birmingham. (p. 108)

The centrality of the theatre to early television is also underlined when Madden writes about the development of production techniques in the earliest months.

The only technique I knew was of the stage, so I divided up the studio into three stages behind one another, separated by curtains. The three cameras were placed roughly in line but at different heights. They were light and could be lifted off the stands and held in the arms, but the image in the viewfinders was upside down and focusing could only be done by hand. For a close-up the camera had to go in close…

We played an act on stage one, then the curtains parted and cameras moved on to stage two, and then again to stage three. It worked quite well, saved time, was continuous, since cameras could not cut as in films and as television can cut today. Only fades could take one camera picture to another. It was affectionately known as the Madden processional technique. (p. 15)

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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