Both my colleague Amanda Wrigley and I are deep in the stage of Screen Plays research that involves the repetitive entry of credits into our developing database. I have been working on plays transmitted just after the Second World War, in the months following the re-start of the BBC Television service in early June 1946. Inevitably, there is a host of productions of which I wish copies existed (there are no full-length recordings until 1953). One of the most intriguing is a drama called Exercise Bowler which was broadcast on 5 August in a television version produced by Jan Bussell. From the traces that survive in Radio Times and elsewhere in the press, it seems to have been interesting as a response to Britain re-adjusting to peacetime and also strikingly experimental in its use of the television studio.
Exercise Bowler began on the stage of the Arts Theatre in London in late April 1946, where it was presented by the Reunion Theatre Association. It later transferred to the Scala, where it was running when the cast went into the studio at Alexandra Palace. Reunion Theatre was formed by actors and actresses who had been released from the services, and according to a note in the Observer, it began in Baghdad in 1943 (Ivor Brown, Theatre and Life, 28 April 1946, p. 2). The company also produced a successful show called And No Birds Sing, but my initial research can discover nothing more.
The theatre production began with the presentation of a supposedly successful, sentimental West End drama about a boy going off to fight in the war. Cue an interruption by three ‘soldiers’ from the audience who expose the clichés and silence the first cast. But then a character called ‘the Manager’ comes on stage to say that all they have so far is a first act – what happens next? Which leads to a debate about the challenges of civilian life and the prospects for post-war Britain. The most prominent theatre critic of the time, James Agate, was impressed, even though he acknowledge that the ‘message’ was ‘a little too wooly and left-wing for my liking’:
This play has an immense amount to say, is inventive, brilliantly theatrical and magnificently laid out for actors. Best of all, it is not pretentious in the blank-verse manner beloved of the high-brow poetic dramatist. (‘Alas and Hurrah!’, The Sunday Times, 21 April 1946, p. 2)
Authorship of the script was credited to ‘T. Atkinson’, but of course ‘Tommy Atkins‘ was a slang name for the British soldier, especially during the First World War. The psuedonym hid the contributions of William Templeton, Peter Powell (who directed the stage production) and Alec Clunes. Clunes is particularly interesting, for as well as being the father of actor Martin Clunes, he was a theatrical producer, staging among other post-war dramas Christopher Fry’s verse drama The Lady’s Not for Burning, the director of the Arts Theatre, and an actor whose roles include that of Hastings in Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film Richard III. His Wikipedia entry also notes that he was a conscientious objector during the war. (For more about him, go here.)
For the television production, Jan Bussell not only brought together a largely new cast (drawn from members of the Reunion Theatre) but he also reimagined the show, as the Radio Times columnist known only as ‘The Scanner’ noted:
Those who have seen Exercise Bowler on the stage will remember that the action is interrupted by a commotion in the auditorium. To make this plausible in the new version, Jan Bussell is presenting the whole affair in a television studio. Viewers will probably get some incidental glimpses of the ‘works’, and Jan will be permitted, on this occasion only, the unpardonable sin of allowing cameras and microphones to come ‘in shot’. (‘Tele-Flashes’, 26 July 1946, p. 24)
The exposure of the studio in this way would later be associated with Brechtian techniques of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, as in Charles Jarrott’s 1964 BBC production of the playwright’s The Life of Galileo (on which, see Billy Smart’s excellent Spaces of Television post). I find it fascinating to discover that the idea is being experimented with at such an early stage in the development of television drama.
Jan Bussell, incidentally, is also a subject ripe for further research. According to Jane Phillips’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography joint entry on Bussell and his wife Ann Hogarth, he apprenticed as a puppeteer in the late 1920s with the London Marionette Theatre. Phillips writes that in 1931 he secured a booking for the company to perform Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth on John Logie Baird’s experimental television service in 1931, making this ‘one of the first puppet productions to be transmitted’. (‘Hogarth, Ann (1910–1993)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/52116, accessed 3 May 2014]
The company ran their own puppet company, but Bussell also worked as a television producer both before and after the war, and on 4 August 1946, the day before the transmission of Exercise Bowler, he and Hogarth premiered their new television show for children: Muffin the Mule, with Annette Mills. Bussell also wrote The Art of Television, published by Faber and Faber in 1952, which deserves its own blog post. Here, however, is a short extract from the Introduction, which may relate to the spirit of experiment that we can discern in what we know of Exercise Bowler:
In the earlier days [of television] the artists’ viewpoint was more often heard than now. At informal weekly meetings with the heads of television producers and designers were at liberty to air their opinions. But, with the growth of the service after the war, producers were banned from programme planning meetings…
Another post-war blow came with the deliberate lowering of the intellectual standard of programmes, to cater for a new viewing public. Many service gratuities were spent on the snobbery of a possessing a television set. Here was an opportunity to offer a new cultural standard to the masses, who at that time were shaken out of their normal rut by years of war, and were ready for imaginative entertainment. (The Art of Television, London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 12)