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Plays

‘Love from a Stranger’ (BBC, 1938)

More than two months have passed since either Amanda or I last posted here. Not that we have not been busy on the project. Our primary focus has been entering productions, credits and bibliographical references into the database of information about all television productions since 1930 of plays originally written for the theatre. Eventually – or rather early in 2015 – this open-access resource will be the key output from the research project, and we hope that it will be a stimulus for a great deal of further exploration in this field. We have also been finalising details for the publication of a collection of articles about the topic, and we hope to publicise news about this soon. We have both been preparing and presenting conference papers, including my keynote at the De Montfort University event From Theatre to Screen – and Back Again in mid-February, and we have both been writing journal articles. In addition, we have curated a forthcoming BFI Southbank series of screenings, for May, and details of this will be in my next post. But none of this activity is really an excuse for neglecting the blog.

We have become increasingly aware that early on we settled into a pattern for blog posts that were comparatively extensive. We remain pleased with many of these, and indeed we are drawing on them for our contributions to conference papers and articles. But there is a small sense in which we are now slightly intimidated by them, since we sometimes feel that every post has to aspire to 2,000-plus words and detailed research. When we began back in 2011, we were happy to post shorter pieces, with perhaps just a single reflection or observation, rather than feeling that each contribution had to be an exhaustive review. Now, and not least because of all of the other demands from the project, we want to try to recapture that simplicity – although we intend also to post other more extensive pieces as and when we can.

rawIn which spirit I want today simply to highlight a remarkable review by Grace Wyndham Goldie for The Listener at the end of 1938. Ms Goldie’s regular reviews for the magazine at this period are among the most insightful reflections on the new medium of television, and she had a particular interest in drama. She had previously written a history of the Liverpool Everyman theatre and she was married to the notable actor Wyndham Goldie. After the war she became a revered and, by some, feared executive in the Talks Department of BBC Television (this 1958 BBC photograph was taken when she was Assistant Head of Talks), and she is credited with developing current affairs programming and most especially the daily magazine Tonight (1957-1965).

In her column published on 15 December 1938, Grace Wyndham Goldie celebrated a television production of Frank Vosper’s stage thriller Love from a Stranger, which was itself adapted from the Agatha Christie short story Philomel Cottage. The story had been published in 1925 and Vosper’s play premiered in March 1936 at the New Theatre in London. (There was to be another BBC television production in December 1958.) The anonymous reviewer for The Times noted how, at least in part, the production had effectively built the tension as Edna Best’s character waited in a remote cottage for her lover, played by Henry Oscar, who she believed – correctly – was coming to murder her:

The tension was suggested more by devices in the production – a long flight of steps seen in perspective, the slow ticking of a clock as the appointed hour drew near, and by the actual angles at which the pictures were taken – than by the text itself. It was quite successful for more than half way, and then, human nature being what it is, we ceased to be frightened, because the tension had been kept up too long. (‘Televised plays: material from the theatre’, The Times, 5 December 1938, p. 8)

Henry Oscar and Edna Best in Love from a Stranger; a production still reproduced in The Listener.

Henry Oscar and Edna Best in Love from a Stranger; a production still reproduced in The Listener.

There is an intriguing suggestion here that George More O’Ferrall’s production employed some of the visual techniques of German expressionist cinema, although Grace Wyndham Goldie in her review of this ‘beautifully clear and quick’ presentation focussed more particularly on the performances:

The acting was masterly. Mr Henry Oscar’s murderer was terrifying because he was credible. And the casting of Miss Edna Best for the victim was a fine stroke. For Miss Best’s gift for being just like everybody’s sister gave the play a reality which doubled its effectiveness […] And the total result was that the play was almost unbearably exciting. (‘Television: love and murder’, The Listener, 15 December 1938, p. 1327)

Grace Wyndham Goldie extended her response in this review by developing a more general argument about theatre plays and television, and it is these reflections at a moment when the medium was only two years old that I find some interesting. She argued that it was ‘the intensity of suspense which made the play so good for television; which immediately raises an important general issue about television plays.’ She continued:

It must be recognised that television slows up the action of the ordinary stage piece. Why? Because we see things successively on television things that we see simultaneously […] We have to have close ups to give us the expression on the faces of the actors. This means that in a play with a group of characters who carry the story between them we get a slice of story and then a close-up of Miss Smith registering disappointment, then some more story, then a close-up of Mr Robinson registering concern for Miss Smith. and so on. […] The effect is to make the piece more tedious than it was in the theatre. […] This is what happens to all plays of gentle realism with somewhat thin plots.

And the moral of all this? I propose to draw two. First, that most of the trouble is caused by adapting stage plays to a new medium and one day television plays will have to be written specially for television. But heaven forfend that they should imitate the films. Second, that in the meantime plays chosen for television must be of the kind which makes us want to know what happens next. […] Or else, since laughter does instead of suspense, they should be comedies.

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