Earlier this month in Oxford I contributed to the richly interesting conference Louis MacNeice: radio writer and producer. MacNeice (1907-1963) was a significant mid-century poet who worked for the BBC between 1941 and his death, and he is celebrated as a producer for his imaginative use of sound in plays like The Dark Tower (1946) and Persons from Porlock (1963), both of which he also scripted. The conference was co-organised by my Screen Plays colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley, and Amanda with the other organiser of the conference Professor Stephen Harrison has just published Louis MacNeice: The Classical Radio Plays (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Louis MacNeice worked briefly – and rather unhappily – in television, for which he produced two one-act Strindberg plays, as well as one of his own scripts that had originally been performed in the theatre, Another Part of the Sea (1960), which is the primary subject of this post. Drawing on his television experience, he also wrote the draft of the play One for the Grave (1958-59) which is set in a television studio and was produced posthumously in 1966.
MacNeice worked for much of his time at the BBC in the highly-regarded Features department of BBC radio, but in 1958 he was seconded to the Television service for six months. As Barbara Coulton details in Louis MacNeice in the BBC (London: Faber and Faber, 1980):
Laurence Gilliam had instituted a series of training courses for those Features producers whom he could persuade to go on them, but they generally felt out of place… MacNeice was on his course from April to October 1958, and the atmosphere he found is reflected in a letter to George MacCann [a friend and stage designer]. He would make enquiries about designing for television, ‘provided I can find someone to question about it who doesn’t, like many of them, regard me with dark suspicion as adangerous interloper from sound.’ (p. 166)
The only production that MacNeice directed to reach the air during this time was a double-bill of Strindberg one-act plays, Pariah and The Stronger, broadcast at 9.30pm on 22 August 1958. Both are two-handers, one about a revered archaeologist receiving a visit from a stranger, the other an encounter at lunchtime between a wife and her husband’s mistress. We know the casts of these dramas – Stephen Murray and John Dearth for the former, Yvonne Mitchell and Sheial Brennan for the latter – but, at present, almost nothing else about them. I have, for example, failed so far to find a newspaper review of their live transmission, and no recording seems to have been made.
Similarly lost is the 75-minute Another Part of the Sea. We have only written traces to help us partially reconstruct this more substantial production that was broadcast on 6 September 1960, two years after MacNeice’s television secondment. This script was first performed as Traitors in Our Way in Belfast in March 1957. It relates the tale of nuclear physicist Tom Carstairs (played by Russell Napier), who is on a cruise with his wife of just a year, Portia (Margaret Gordon). Joining the ship, in disguise, is Carstairs’ former friend Haffer (William Squire), a Guy Burgess-like figure who is a former lover of Portia’s and a defector to the Soviet Union.
Haffer has come to entrap Carstairs, and their drama plays out as the Suez war of 1956 forces the ship north into the Arctic Circle. Carstairs recognises Haffer and infroms the ship’s security officer Norton (John Dearth). Norton, however, is persuaded to turn traitor before, as Jon Stallworthy describes the climactic action,
… the ship’s siren sounds the approach of an iceberg (foreseen by Portia in a dream), and the play ends with the passengers singing like those on the deck of the doomed Titanic (Louis MacNeice, London: Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 424).
As Barbara Coulton observes,
Images of cold and darkness, and icebergs, suggest other levels of meaning… It is comparable to [MacNeice’s] radio plays, like Prisoner’s Progress [(1954)], which combine naturalism and symbolism and which have powerful images of doom and death. (Louis MacNeice in the BBC, p. 178)
The play was first produced by Harold Goldblatt for the Group Theatre in Belfast, with designs by George MacCann. After the first night on 23 March 1957, there were respectful notices in The Times and the Times Literary Supplement. In the latter, John Boyd described the production as
a subtle and complex drama about treason in the face of Communist threat: a drama which, in spite of an unsatisfactory third act, dealt memorably with a major theme.’ (‘Divided loyalties in Northern Ireland’, 16 August 1957, p. 500)
‘Respectful’ might also be the appropriate note for the reviews of the television version shown at 8.40pm on 6 September 1960, of which Barbara Coulton notes,
One cannot judge it unseen as a piece of television drama, but MacNeice was ‘quite pleased’ with the revised version of the stage play with which he had become ‘very dissatisfied’. (Louis MacNeice in the BBC, p. 178)
For the anonymous critic in The Times, the production was a
strange drama of conflicting loyalties […] holding the spectator gripped as though this tale of the sea was told by the ancient mariner himself. One’s absorption in last night’s BBC production was also more than a little unwilling, for like many poet’s plays this reached further, tried more, and on occasions fell more conspicuously short, than most simpler, more prosaic works. (‘Tale of conflicting loyalties’, 7 September 1960, p. 16)
In The Observer, Jenny Nasmyth was rather less positive, writing that
Mr MacNeice condemns his three main characters and four subsidiary ones to remain for one hour at a high pitch of intellectual activity in the flattest of flat prose and within the unphotogenic confine of a ship’s bar. The play was a perversion of Mr MacNeice’s great talents, and for no purpose. In 1960, this kind of motionless play about motives seems curiously dated. (‘Into the shooting season’, 11 September 1960, p. 25)
From the television studio to the Afterlife
One for the Grave is the other significant trace of MacNeice’s encounter with television. The play was given its only professional production (which is perhaps the only production ever) by Frank Dermody at the Abbey Theatre in October 1966 three years after MacNeice’s death. Jon Stallworthy in his biography of MacNeice says that the staging was very successful, but the critics were not kind. In the Guardian, Benedict Nightingale described it as a ‘solemn rehash of an old theme’ and ‘forbidding’. (4 October 1966, p. 9). Ronald Bryden in The Observer was no kinder, calling the play ‘rambling and garrulous’ (9 October 1966, p.24). Despite this reception, the text was published the Massaschusetts Review in winter 1967, by Faber in January the following year and it is included in the 1993 edition of his Selected Plays, published by OUP.
The drama is a very loose adaptation of the medieval morality play Everyman. This allegorical drama written in the early sixteenth century has Death, acting on God’s orders, greeting the character of Everyman to guide him to his grave. After trying to bargain his way out of this, Everyman summons up those who knew in the world, such as Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, only to find that each of them abandons him. Later, he comes across Good Deeds lying on the ground (he has not done enough such to give her the power to walk) and with her sister Knowledge, he is helped through the sacraments of the Catholic faith to his death.
Everyman as a play was given a television production by George More O’Ferrall in April 1947 with Andre Morell as Everyman and Sir Ralph Richardson providing the voice of God. (As with all television drama before 1953, this production was not recorded.) It was given again on television under Michael Hayes’ direction in May 1964, in a modern dress version with Alan Dobie as Everyman and a jazz score by Tubby Hayes. (This appears to exist and is sufficiently intriguing for me to request a viewing copy, so watch for a future post about it.) ‘Perfectly permissible yet somehow egregious’, was Maurice Richardson’s verdict on this updating in The Observer (‘Sherlock shows them how’, 24 May 1964, p. 25). ‘Death’s first appearance in dark glasses and Rocker’s leather coat was perhaps the most successful of his metamorphoses.’
One for the Grave also draws on the television format of This is Your Life which had been running on BBC Television with Eamonn Andrews as its host since 1955. When the play opens we are in a television studio. There is a camera and a boom microphone, and upstage three small and for the moment blacked-out sets, above which is a production gallery in which sit shadowy figures. A floor manager who we soon learn is called Morty (Death, of course) is addressed from above by the voice of the Director – who we never see. Everyman appears, thinking he is to appear ‘in some sort of a quiz programme’ whereas in fact he is to be faced with troubles and trails of mankind.
The second half of the play there contains rather a lot of (rather heavy-handed) satirical commentary on the influences on our lives of Freud, Marx and the scientific mind. But it builds to a seemingly hopeful climax with a Christian promise of a new life, or rather Afterlife. One for the Grave is enlivened by adapted versions of traditional music hall songs and skits, which both echo the way MacNeice uses music in many of his radio plays but also suggest the influence of television variety shows. There is a strong sense here of his enjoyment in being able to introduce ‘turns’ in the manner of a television variety show.
One for the Grave is set in the kind of multi-camera electronic studio in which MacNeice would have mounted his Strindbergs and Another Part of the Sea. By the late 1950s, most drama was being produced in the studios at Lime Grove, although the set-up of the studio with a control box above physically overlooking the floor is more reminiscent of the pre-war studios at Alexandra Palace, which were still in use and where MacNeice may have done his initial studio training. All drama at the time, and almost all of the output as a whole, excepting outside broadcasts and a few film documentaries, were produced in this way, and even if many of the jokes, such as the designer named Julian, rely on stereotypes, the play has a strong sense of the now-lost culture of the television studio.