The characters in Alex Atkinson’s classic thriller Design for Murder are the cast and creatives of a forthcoming West End production who have gathered in the designer’s flat to talk about the play. Enter Detective Inspector Hughes to discuss an anonymous and life-threatening letter which the designer has received from one of the others present. Tensions mount and someone is murdered – but not, as we might anticipate, the recipient of the death-threat.
Atkinson’s ‘whodunnit’ has been produced at least twice on television, and both of these times by the BBC. These two known productions were made intriguingly close together — the first time in 1958 and again in 1961. It is clear from the Radio Times listing for the first production, which was transmitted in the Saturday Playhouse slot on 15 March 1958, that someone (presumably the adaptor of the script, who is not listed by name) thought ‘Where better to set a television adaptation of this play than in an actual theatre?’ Indeed, both the 1958 BBC production by Michael Elliott and the 1961 BBC production by Patrick Dromgoole adapted the play such that the gathering takes place in a deserted theatre rather than in the theatre designer’s flat.
We also know that the 1961 production, at least, which was transmitted on Thursday 6 July, was also shot in a theatre space rather than in the studio. This later production, from the West Region, made use of the BBC’s own theatre in Bristol – the former Empire Theatre in Old Market Street, which was mainly used for recordings and broadcasts by the BBC’s regional orchestra, the West of England Players (see the image above from the Radio Times, 29 June 1961, p. 47). Dromgoole, however, is said to have ‘made little use of the special atmosphere, off shadows and echoing caverns of an unused stage or the peculiar desolation of an untenanted auditorium’, and only ‘some long glimpses of the centre gangway and a few shots of characters distantly isolated across the stage’ (Anon., ‘A Thriller in the Classical Design’, The Times, 7 July 1961, p. 15). Dromgoole therefore seems to have missed a trick: with this television adaptation of a stage play, which moved the setting of the action from a flat to a deserted theatre, the camera had the potential to capture something of the thrilling atmosphere of the dramatic situation which would not have been possible when it was played, in its original domestic setting, on stage before a theatre audience.