20 new plays: ‘A Walk in the Desert’, 1960

10th December 2020

John Wyver writes the second of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.

Those of us with an interest in the history of television drama will see the irony of the scheduling of John Whiting’s play A Walk in the Desert, the first in the BBC’s much-vaunted series of original commissions. It was broadcast on Sunday evening 25 September 1960 directly opposite Alun Owen’s Lena, O My Lena in ABC’s Armchair Theatre strand. Whiting’s drama began at 8.45pm that evening, following an Eamonn Andrews-chaired edition of What’s My Line?, while Lena, O My Lena started at 9.05pm on the ITV network after Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium and a short news bulletin.

Lena, O My Lena, which is available on a Network DVD, is recognised as a keystone in the history of television drama. It has been the focus of extensive analysis, most notably by John Caughie in his foundational book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture (OUP, 2000), and is widely taught. Two newspaper reviews the day after transmission, one by Lyn Lockwood for the Daily Telegraph and one contributed anonymously to The Times, compared the two plays (of which more below), and both featured Whiting’s play ahead of Owen’s. But the recording of A Walk in the Desert appears to have been wiped at some point and the production is forgotten, absent even from critical discussions of Whiting’s plays that focus almost exclusively on his theatre plays. So what can we know about this elusive broadcast?

The playwright

Some background first on the richly interesting but somewhat elusive figure that is John Whiting. He was born in 1917 and trained in the mid-1930s at RADA, although his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, written by Eric Salmon, recognises that his career as ‘as a small-part actor was brief and undistinguished.’ During the war he first registered as a conscientious objector before signing on and serving with anti-aircraft batteries and then being invalided out in 1944.

He began to write stories and plays, first for radio and then for the stage, and 1951 saw London productions of Saints’ Day (about which Michael Billington’s short essay is fascinating) and A Penny for a Song, a comedy about the absurdity of war set in Napoleonic times, which won the Arts Theatre Festival of Britain competition. His most celebrated stage play is The Devils, a tale of religious fervour and sorcery set in Loudon, France in 1634. Commissioned by Peter Hall for his newly-established Royal Shakespeare Company, this premiered at London’s Aldwych in February 1961 and was a critical and commercial hit. Ken Russell’s later notorious film is inspired by the play and by the Aldous Huxley text from which it was developed.

Eric Salmon’s ODNB entry makes a convincing case for Whiting’s significance:

Whiting’s elegantly muscular prose goes back to Shaw, while his melancholy but steady contemplation of the intrinsic and inevitable chaos at the heart of things prophetically anticipates the work of such writers as Arden, Beckett, and Pinter. Whiting’s writing, moreover, represents a positive and recognizable stage in the modern English-speaking theatre’s conscious and continuing endeavour throughout the twentieth century to forge a new public speech that is at once free from the preciosity and pretentiousness of the verse dramatists of the first half of the century and the banality and triviality of much of the naturalistic writing of the second half.

Before A Walk in the Desert Whiting had also adapted his radio play Eye Witness for television, broadcast in a half-hour slot from the West of England studios in October 1957 and even less well-known. ‘Promises to be a real thriller,’ is all that Radio Times tells us. Somewhat unusually for a television play A Walk in the Desert has been published, in Plays 2 now available from Bloomsbury, but not the earlier production, of which there’s no mention even in the chronology of Simon Trussler’s authoritative critical study The Plays of John Whiting (Gollancz, 1972, accessible via Internet Archive).

In addition to these original television dramas, John Whiting had contributed stories to BBC radio from 1948 onwards, A Penny for a Song was broadcast by BBC Television in August 1953, produced by Barbara Burnham, and August in 1956 Royston Morley produced Marching Song, written for the stage in 1953. This tale of war and retribution set in an unnamed European capital was also produced for Associated-Rediffusion’s Play of the Week strand in February 1964. At the BBC in January 1954 Rudolph Cartier brought to television Whiting’s translation from the French of André Obey’s story of the Trojan wars Sacrifice to the Wind. He also contributed to the scripts of some nineteen British films during the 1950s, working on projects for Ealing and Rank, including being credited with the screenplay for the latter studio’s comedy The Captain’s Table (1959).

Just a few months after A Walk in the Desert was broadcast, the arts series Monitor broadcast a film made by Nancy Thomas alongside The Devils which took Whiting to Loudon to wander the streets of a town that seemingly had changed little since the mid-17th century. Wearing a sheepskin jacket and seated at a café table, Whiting speaks earnestly of the fascination with the devil espoused by his play’s hero Urbain Grandier. Delivering a lengthy and unremittingly gloomy address about good and evil, love and hate in the modern world, Whiting is the very image of an anguished, haunted artist. He was to die of testicular cancer just over two years later at the age of 39.

The play

A Walk in the Desert is the only one of Whiting’s plays that has the conventional trappings of a domestic drama, and it has been straightforwardly adapted as a one-act play for the stage. An opening film sequence establishes the setting as an upper-middle neighbourhood in a Midlands town, but otherwise, at least until the very end, it takes place in a drawing-room, dining-room and hallway. The playwright suggested that it was a version of an earlier, unproduced script, Conditions of Agreement, but Simon Trussler (on whose writing my discussion draws) has determined that ‘the two plays have little in common… except that a practical joke played by a cripple is the mainspring of both their actions.’

Twenty-four year old Peter Sharpe was invalided out of his National Service having lost a leg in a ridiculous accident. He lives at home, constantly goading his parents and seemingly seeing only an older friend, Tony. As the actions begins, Peter’s parents leave for an evening out and Tony pays a visit. A young girl, Shirley, rings the doorbell, having mistaken the house for one that she had intended to call at for a job interview. Peter tricks Shirley into believing that Tony is the prospective employer, and in a hostile exchange he elicits from Shirley that she is the mother of an illegitimate child. After she has gone, Peter and Tony argue about the deception before Peter’s parents return with news that a body has been found in a nearby canal. Perhaps surprisingly, an unconcerned Shirley turns up to collect her handbag that she had accidentally left behind. For Trussler,

… the play is an elaborate game of consequences: but the consequences are merely those of practical jokes – or of other such arbitrary, purposeless accidents as Peter’s – and no more significant. Indeed, in this case even the effects are trivial and transient.

In an acute study of Whiting’s work as a whole, Marie-Hélène Larre understands the playwright’s intent as more direct: ‘according to Peter’s own words, Peter and Shirley are rejected because they disturb the comfortable, peaceful ignorance in which society wallows.’ (‘John Whiting: the tragic failure’, Caliban 15, 1978). She also notes another of the elements that links A Walk in the Desert to the better-known dramas:

In nearly all the plays, there seems to be a deliberate attempt by the author at mutilating his characters, not so much to justify their failure as to prepare the audience for it and thus impose this obsessive theme upon the spectators.

Trussler, however, identifies a crucial shift here from the earlier plays:

There is a more sustained attempt at psychological rationalisation, and in putting things into a semi-naturalistic context – in part, possibly, as a result of an adjustment to the medium of television, but in view of Whiting’s increasing concern in The Devils with the physical side of pain, more probably a deliberate change in dramatic emphasis. In all the earlier plays… there was relatively less interest in pain and death as a climax to human individuality than its dramatic function as the logical culmination of a sequence of events… In A Walk in the Desert, however, pain as such has become an important aspect of the human response.

All of which (and more – both Trussler and Larre are well worth reading at length) suggests that A Walk in the Desert is a substantial element in Whiting’s oeuvre, and makes the loss of the recorded production all the more regrettable.

The production

In retrospect the most notable aspect of the casting is Kenneth Haigh taking the role of Peter. Haigh was the original Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s landmark Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956 and had gone on to play the role on Broadway, although he was replaced by Richard Burton for the 1959 film. His appearance here must have carried echoes of Osborne’s drama, which can also be recognised in the central triangle of Peter, Tony and Shirley, as well as in the key themes of post-war disillusionment and ennui along with bitterness directed at the older generation. Just as a gay sub-text can be identified in the relationship between Jimmy and Cliff in the earlier play, so such a reading is also on offer in Whiting’s play. In the first act of Look Back in Anger also, Alison reveals to Cliff that she is pregnant, while the revelation of Shirley’s illegitimate child is significant here.

Tracey Lloyd appears to have a less notable career than Kenneth Haigh, or indeed Nigel Stock who played Tony. In the days before his portrayal of Dr Watson for the BBC, from 1964 onwards, Stock was known for a string of roles in films set during World War Two including The Dambusters (1955) and The Silent Enemy (1958), and his presence here (along with the knowledge that the father of Shirley’s child was a soldier) reinforces the military atmosphere from which Peter is seeking some form of escape. Laurence Hardy and Joyce Heron were television drama stalwarts of the late 1950s and early 1960s but brought no specific associations.

Producer Naomi Capon was one of the first women drama directors for television, and by the time of A Walk in the Desert she had been overseeing studio productions for a decade, including a recent classic serial adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1959). The published script includes descriptions, presumably detailed by Whiting, of the opening and closing film sequences of A Walk in the Desert – the rest would have been recorded with multiple cameras in a Lime Grove studio. The conclusion is especially striking, as Shirley is seen walking through the town: ‘Lights from shops fall on her. She looks ahead. Her movements are definite and hurried. The rain has made her hair ugly to look at.’ Over these shots, Peter’s voice is heard:

The moment I set eyes on her I knew she was an enemy. She believes in the good land. I don’t anymore. Not the chance of reaching it, anyway. So I tried to stop her.

His final words are spoken against an image of the town square ‘swept with rain’:

But it has been some kind of encounter. It’s made a landmark, something to catch the eye, like litter on the hills. Something to occupy my mind as I go – forward? – in this labyrinth without walls. Something to remember. Something…

The very last shot might almost be a pre-echo of the Antonioni of L’Eclisse of two years later:

A bypass road, lit by sodium lamps and deserted, goes straight into the distance.

Just one other intriguing aspect of the production: the music credit to the influential guitarist Bert Weedon. Earlier in 1960 Weedon had recorded a version of Jerry Lordon’s instrumental composition ‘Apache’. The Shadows released their version of this as well [link: a wonderful fragment of film], topping the charts for five weeks, while Weedon’s slower-paced recording (which Lordon apparently hated) could only make it to number 24.

The critical response

The morning after, the anonymous critic of The Times was enthusiastic:

If the BBC’s series of new Sunday plays continues to offer work as disturbing as Mr John Whiting’s A Walk in the Desert, with which it opened last night, it should make a deep mark… Miss Naomi Capon, with a room, corridor and rain-splashed windows to create Peter’s isolation produced the play with an intensity that made its silences almost as meaningful as the author’s always exciting speeches.

By contrast, Lyn Lockwood for the Telegraph was not won over:

The character [of Peter]… was over-familiar and even Kenneth Haigh (the original angry young man, of course) was unable to interest us in him once again. Yes, a gloomy Sunday, and not, I hope, a forerunner of many.

The following weekend, Maurice Wiggin for The Sunday Times was sympathetic to the strengths of the drama:

It was all deeply depressing. But not boring. True, I could think of several arguments against the young man’s despair and fecklessness — and stronger ones against his selfish habit of puncturing everyone’s little bubble of illusion, his mean determination (the only determination he showed) to bring them down to his own level of misery. One should keep despair to one’s self. However, a man is entitled to his insights, however grim; and if that is how Mr Whiting sees the British, so be it.

Doubtless deep in the files of the BBC’s Written Archives Centre there is an Audience Research Report with a discussion of what viewers made of this Sunday night slice of gloom, despair and disturbance, but that will have to wait until we can return there safely — unless, of course, Billy Smart or another astute scholar has already copied it.

As for the clash with Lena, O My Lena both of the critics who wrote about the pair of productions (one of which at least they must have seen as a preview recording) were exceptionally positive. Lyn Lockwood praised playwright Alun Owen’s ‘deeply imaginative talent, compassionate, understanding and totally uncensorious’, and the writer for The Times enthused about director Ted Kotcheff who they suggested,

has an unrivalled feeling for the recreation of everyday reality – the pauses, the hesitations, the complete abandonment of both conventional stage neatness of putting over dialogue and of the predictable succession of text-book cuts and camera movements which go to make up television’s own brand of academicism.

How fortunate then that at least this one of the pair of clashing Sunday night dramas from 25 September 1960 has survived.

Comments

  1. Billy Smart says:

    Alas I haven’t got an Audience Research Report, but I can draw your attention to one interesting later manifestation of ‘A Walk In The Desert’.

    Although the script doesn’t appear to have been published until the 1969 Heinemann Collected Plays, there was a theatrical revival in 1965. The production was performed at the Salisbury Playhouse, with a young Robin Ellis as Peter and Stephanie Cole as Laura – https://theatricalia.com/play/ee3/a-walk-in-the-desert/production/x7f

  2. Nick Stanton says:

    The script for the television version of Eyewitness appears to survive at the V&A https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/97a0b57c-5c4c-3c66-abbf-cfa5ed593f1a?component=1dd3a349-ba3b-3467-a6ab-9cac42518d28&terms=%22actor%20dramatist%20and%20criticJohn%20Whiting%20English%22

    (The same collection also includes the rehearsal and camera scripts for A Walk in the Desert and notes it was originally titled The Pastime)

  3. John Wyver says:

    Terrific, Nick – thanks so much. Excellent news, and definitely an archive visit to arrange for the future.

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