Alexandra Palace

This tag is associated with 16 posts

BBC television’s first drama: Murder in the Cathedral (1936)

I have been pleased to discover recently that we can add a new “first” to the early productions of theatre plays for television. According to a short report in the Manchester Guardian the BBC television service mounted scenes from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral on 19 October 1936. A test broadcast some three weeks before official transmissions began, this production should, I think, be recognised as BBC television’s first identifiable drama. Not only that, it was apparently also the first studio broadcast in which scenery was used. Continue reading


We are now in the final weeks of Screen Plays as a formal research project, and while we feel that we have achieved much of what we set out to do, inevitably there is still a lot to do. Perhaps you have noticed that our posts here have become rarer than hen’s teeth, and that has a great deal to do with the time that Dr Amanda Wrigley and I have been spending on populating our database. But we thought it might be useful to come back to the blog to provide an update of what we have been doing – and what we still have to complete. Continue reading

Bookshelf: Starlight Days: The Memoirs of Cecil Madden (2007), edited by Jennifer Lewis

I recently contributed a post about the two television presentations in 1956 of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The play was premiered in May that year by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and on 16 October BBC Television transmitted a sixteen-minute excerpt as an outside broadcast. Just over a month later, Granada mounted a studio adaptation of the full play. Since then I have discovered an account of the BBC production in the memoirs of the executive who organised it, Cecil Madden. Madden died in 1987 but his grand-daughter Jennifer Lewis edited his recollections and these were published privately as Starlight Days in 2007. The book as a whole is a rich source of gossip and insight about television between 1936 and the late 1950s, and several pages are devoted to the BBC showing of Look Back in Anger Continue reading

Bookshelf: From the Palace to the Grove (1992) by Michael Barry

It has been a while since we contributed a volume to the Screen Plays virtual bookshelf, although previous reviews can be found here, here, here, here and here. I want to remedy the lack with a brief response to a fascinating memoir written in 1987 by Michael Barry who was BBC Head of Drama from 1952 to 1961. There is an excellent summary of his career at the British Television Drama website, including an outline of why he left the corporation in 1961 after disagreements over the direction of his department. From the Palace to the Grove, however, chronicles his years in television before he took up the executive position and covers his work as a producer from 1938 to 1951. Continue reading

A tale of six Cinders, part 2: Cinderella (BBC, 1938, 1948, 1950)

The first instalment of this two-part post highlighted a studio production and an OB of different Cinderellas in the first two years of the BBC’s television service after the war. This continuation discusses two post-war studio Cinderellas as well as another that was also considered for a revival, having initially been televised in 1938. (As an opera, if we are being strict, this final Cinderella falls outside the corpus of work being explored by Screen Plays, but its tale is nonetheless interesting.) Continue reading

A tale of six Cinders, part 1: Cinderella (BBC, 1946, 1947)

Perhaps the rags-to-riches theme of Cinderella was felt to have a particular resonance for austerity Britain in the late 1940s. Whatever the reason, in the post-war years BBC Television does seem to have been remarkably keen on the fairy story. There was a studio presentation of a Players’ Theatre version in early January 1947 and an outside broadcast of a different staging in December that year. Another OB Cinderella was planned for January 1948, although this was cancelled, and then at Christmas later in 1948 there was a further studio production. That makes four versions, to which can be added a comic opera Cinderella first presented on television in 1938 and considered for revival just after the war, plus yet another OB version that may or may not have been broadcast in December 1946. The tales of these various Cinders suggest some of the problems of producing stage plays on television in those pioneering days. Continue reading

Entente cordiale: a French Othello (BBC, 1950)

I can think of only two occasions on which a substantial part of a theatre play has been broadcast in a language other than English (excluding for the moment broadcasting in Welsh). Amanda has written a fascinating post about one of these: the primetime transmission by Associated-Rediffusion of Sophocles’ Electra in modern Greek in November 1962. This post is about the other, which was the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello (Act V, Scene 2) given in French by the Com├ędie Francaise in March 1950. Continue reading

Comparing scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1937 and 1956)

This long-promised post complements two previous ones in which I sketched the background to two early television presentations of scenes from William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. A November 1937 live broadcast from a studio at Alexandra Palace featured extracts from Andre van Gyseghem’s production at the Embassy Theatre. Nineteen years later, in October 1956, two scenes from the recently opened Old Vic production by Michael Benthall were transmitted live from the Lime Grove studios. Remarkably, detailed camera scripts for both productions have been preserved and these permit a detailed comparison to be made between the basic language of studio drama just a year after the start of the BBC Television Service and the relative sophistication of that language two decades on. Continue reading

In the beginning: scenes from Cymbeline (BBC, 1937)

In 1937 scenes from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline were presented by the BBC from a production running at the Embassy Theatre, London. On 29 November 1937 nine actors from the company assembled at Alexandra Palace for rehearsals at 10am and performed scenes from their production for roughly thirty minutes at 3.30 and at 9.30pm. As with all pre-war television, no recording was made, but there is a production file in the BBC Written Archive Centre which contains, along with other documents, a script with camera directions. Nearly twenty years later, on 30 October 1956, scenes from Cymbeline were once again given on BBC Television, this time from an Old Vic production with Barbara Jefford and Derek Godfrey that was re-staged in the studio at Lime Grove. Again, no recording exists of the production, but a camera script does – and this can facilitate a detailed technical comparison. Continue reading

From the theatre: Coliseum Night (BBC, 1939)

In the recent post From the theatre 1938-1939 I detailed the BBC’s outside broadcasts from London’s theatres in the year leading up to the outbreak of war. The first of these transmissions was a presentation of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married from the St Martin’s Theatre in November 1938; others included a series of variety shows from the London Coliseum. In strict terms, ‘variety’ falls outside the brief of Screen Plays as a research project, but I hope you will tolerate my stretching of that brief a little in this post. Relationships with theatre managements were immensely important to the fledgling television service and the exchanges between the BBC and the Coliseum’s management for these variety presentations are a revealing strand of this story. Continue reading

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace