I am writing a journal article about British television adaptations of specific Shakespeare stagings, the most recent of which is the BBC film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar in 2012. There are just under fifty such productions which, either from the theatre or from a studio or very occasionally, as with with Julius Caesar, from a location, present either substantial excerpts or a full version of a specific theatre production. For a long time I believed that the first such production was Scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1937). On 29 November 1937 excerpts from Andre van Gyseghem’s Embassy Theatre staging of the play were broadcast from Alexandra Palace (as I have written about here). But now I believe that there is a credible earlier candidate for this minor laurel.
On the evening of 12 March 1937 the BBC’s regular high-definition service, which was only four months old, broadcast what was listed in Radio Times and elsewhere as an episode of the strand Scenes from Shakespeare. Previous broadcasts had featured scenes from As You Like It with Margaretta Scott and Ion Finley, and Henry V with Henry Oscar and Yvonne Arnaud (both 5 February 1937), but, at least as far as my current research suggests, these were not drawn from specific theatrical stagings. This 12 March broadcast, however, promised the ‘letter scene’ (that is, Act II Scene 1) from The Merry Wives of Windsor presented by Robert Atkins’ Bankside Players. The featured players were Violet Vanbrugh as Mistress Ford and Irene Vanbrugh as Mistress Page.
Violet Vanbrugh (1867-1942) and Irene Vanbrugh (1872-1949), seen above with their mother around 1900, were sisters and true theatrical royalty. Violet was in her fiftieth year on stage, having acted with Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Herbert Beerbohm Tree as well as all the other greats of her time. Irene, however, was the more celebrated, and was particulrly known for roles that had been written for her by the likes of J. M. Barrie, Bernard Shaw and Somerset Maugham.
Robert Atkins (seen below playing in All’s Well That Ends Well in 1940) was an actor who had appeared with the legendary Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in his 1907 West End production of Hamlet. Between 1920 and 1925 he worked as a tireless director at the Old Vic with Lilian Baylis, staging every First Folio play apart from Cymbeline, although presenting Pericles as well.
In 1932 the critic and aspiring manager Sydney Carroll had the idea of producing plays in the open air in Regent’s Park and that summer there were four trial matinees. The following year Carroll was joined in the venture by Atkins, and Shakespeare ‘in the park’ became a regular summer offering, and of course the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre continues as a vibrant theatre today. In 1939 Robert Atkins subsequently assumed sole responsibility for the Regent’s Park theatre where he had established the Bankside Players as a loose company. The Vanbrugh sisters appeared there, as did Vivien Leigh, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr, albeit at early stages in their careers.
In the winter of 1936 Atkins found a disused boxing stadium in Blackfriars known as the Ring. Here he created a makeshift Elizabethan theatre and mounted Sunday evening performances, including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the Vanbrugh sisters in the cast. As the critic J. C. Trewin recalled the project,
His audience sat round three quarters of the building, and the platform (the ring itself) was backed by an imitation of the tiring-house, with inner stage and balcony. White light […] blazed upon the actors: The Times noted how, under glaring arcs, every flicker of an eyelid told. (Shakespeare on the English Stage 1900-1964, London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964, p. 171)
The anonymous reviewer for The Times was complimentary about the Vanbrugh sisters in the ring, and about the staging as a whole:
The wives, being Miss Irene Vanbrugh and Miss Violet Vanbrugh, conduct their mischief with a graciousness which puts even its victim in a pleasant light. Not that their performances, though free from malice, miss any facet of the fun. […] It is an extremely lively production, and Mr Robert Atkins, using the Elizabethan stage as to the manner born, has gained pace and a rare measure of intimacy. (‘Blackfriars Ring: The Merry Wives of Windsor’, 15 March 1937, p. 12)
The precise extent to which the Vanbrugh sisters playing on screen mirrored the specific staging from the Blackfriars Ring will remain forever lost. But it is clear that the television broadcast on 12 March 1937 had a strong connection with Robert Atkins’ production, even if it was not billed as such. This Scenes from Shakespeare, then, for the moment at least, should be celebrated as television’s first presentation of a specific Shakespeare theatre show.
With thanks, as ever, to the invaluable BUFVC Shakespeare database.
Images: the two main photographs are featured here using Getty Images’ new embedding tool which permits non-commercial use of images provided that an acknowledgement and link to Getty Images is included.