John Wyver writes the third of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.
After my rather lengthy discussion of John Whiting’s A Walk in the Desert, the opening drama of the 20 new plays strand, this exploration of the second broadcast is – of necessity – somewhat shorter. We have no recording and no script of The Unplayed Part (at least until we can explore the microfiche niches of the BBC Written Archives Centre) and next-to-no information about its author, Leopold Louth, whose only play, whether for stage or screen, this appears to have been. Nonetheless, we can reconstruct just a little about this production and its seemingly pseudonymous author.
The pamphlet detailing the plans for 20 new plays (see the first post in this series) tells us the following:
Now in his early forties, Leopold Louth has had four novels published: Old Men Have Grey Beards, Cabbage in the Grass, The Lopsider and Rudolph. He has described himself as ‘estate agent, farmer, produce merchant, liner steward, civil servant, factory hand, taxi-driver, and anything that comes to hand’. He is married, has twin sons, and lives in Worthing.
These four novels were welcomed with respect by the literary reviewers of the 1950s. Of Old Men Have Grey Beards, no less an authority than John Betjeman wrote that it was
short and written from the point of view of a country gentleman hanging on by hooks of class distinction to an expiring landed aristocracy… There is no doubt that Leopold Louth can be an amusing writer and he knows the country… The plot about the visit of an arts festival to a country town is cheap fun of a Philistine and undergraduate kind. (Daily Telegraph, 28 May 1954)
Idris Parry for The Listener (10 June 1954) was significantly more enthusiastic:
The book would not be so funny were the author not so savagely serious. And it is funny, intensely funny, a great cloud of ridicule directed at aspects of our society, in particular the foolishness that pervades the arts. It is contemptuous about those who mistake vague artistic leanings for the true stuff of art, scathing about the publicity-soaked society which worships personality and has no time for solid human worth.
Seán O’faoláin was equally positive in The Listener about Leopold Louth’s follow-up, The Lopsider, describing the author as ‘our most arresting humorist since Mr Kingsley Amis and of infinitely wider range and, I think, of keener intelligence.’ (19 August 1956). But when an anonymous reviewer for The Times comes to read The Lopsider, something of a backlash has begun:
The fun is fast and farcical, the pages scattered with jolly punctuation marks, but Mr Louth’s pace hardly keeps pace with all this, nor with the fashion that has done to death all the Lucky Jims. (3 September 1959)
Anthony Cronin for Times Literary Supplement was kinder, and his review suggests a link via violins with The Unplayed Part:
lt is not, unfortunately, all as good as its best bits. lt is too long. The humour is in the episodes, not in the plot, which is about a fabulous swindler called Gustave Ap Jenkyn who takes Nat Cecil up and involves him in frauds concerning false violins and Shakespeare manuscripts. yet Mr. Louth keeps his plot on the boil a little too assiduously. (4 September 1959)
And Daniel George for the Daily Telegraph indicates why the BBC’s drama department might have been keen to work with Louth, especially given the reputation for gloominess of so much television drama of the time:
This farrago of delicious nonsense is more easily enjoyed than reduced to a synopsis. Its breath-taking audacity admits no protest against its utter improbability. It will be read rapidly and with increasing relish. (4 September 1959)
But John Davenport for The Observer dismissed The Lopsider as a ‘laborious little satire… an unsatisfactory book’ (6 September 1959), and I have yet to turn up any considered responses to Rudolph, which appears to have been published in 1960 ahead of The Unplayed Part.
The brief synopsis of The Unplayed Part in the 20 new plays pamphlet is as follows:
It is about a major violinist, a German married to an Englishwoman who, though he has retrieved his precious violin from the Nazis cannot bring himself now to perform on it.
What I find especially interesting about this, and about indications in the two reviews of the production that I have been able to uncover, is that The Unplayed Part is one of what I sense are numerous BBC plays about World War Two which were produced in the 15 or so years after 1946. Yet in large part because they no longer exist as recordings, these plays have no place in the present cultural histories. I have yet to try to attempt to itemise these, but I am convinced that the war and its aftermath was a persistent presence in early television drama. So there’s yet one more research project to add to an already unfeasibly long list.
The anonymous critic for The Times expanded on the pamphlet’s single sentence description (3 October 1960):
Arthur Lessing. once a violinist of renown, spends years in a concentration camp. Living in London after the war, he struggles to regain the skill and nerve that his experiences. have shattered. His wife’s salary keeps him, and. he returns to composition, once a secondary interest, completes a symphony in which he believes and dies; his return to work has made him supremely happy in a realm he cannot share with his adoring wife…
Mr. Louth creates a diversion by allowing Lessing’s daughter, newly conscious of the demands of sex, to develop a jealous suspicion of her mother’s relationship with her devoted patron and employer, but it is not,, one feels, by Mr. Louth’s design that this develops a keener dramatic power than the play’s main business.
Both Anthony Cookman, writing in The Listener, and The Times critic, saw the play as essentially an attempt to present and analyse what the latter called ‘the artistic character’. For Cookman, the drama was ‘another attempt to explain the artist’s dilemma in relation to the society in which he works.’ (6 October 1960). It would be fair to say that both critics (and I have yet to identify other responses) were respectful of the drama but far from enthusiastic about (and this is The Times) its ‘steady interest in well-drawn characters [but with] no particular point of climax or cumulative inevitability.’
Studio production of the play was entrusted to George R. Foa, a figure who was best known at the BBC for his opera presentations, including Madame Butterfly (1957) and Rigoletto (1958). Presumably it was the classical music link that got him the gig. The year before The Unplayed Part he had produced Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding for the BBC’s studiedly intellectual World Theatre strand, and which included the great Greek actor Katina Paxinou in the role of the Mother. The critic for The Times noted only that Foa’s production ‘succumbed to no temptations to emphasize minor but dramatically flamboyant issues.’
‘The acting was good,’ The Times critic acknowledged:
Miss. Pauline Jameson’s relationship with her violinist husband had the dedication that makes such a marriage, as people commonly say, successful, despite the artist’s egocentric isolation. Mr. George Pravda realized, one feels, all the author intended his hero to be, the slightly sentimental warmth and friendliness, the care for others switched off by the demands of art, the uncertainties in mundane affairs.
And Anthony Cookman agreed: ‘Mr. George Pravda fulfilled, I thought, as well as anyone could the half-realized figure of the musician, and Miss Pauline Jameson well suggested the tense, matriarchal figure of the wife.’
After The Unplayed Part, Leopold Louth seems to have disappeared entirely, or at least I can find next-to-no traces in the online records I can consult. There are no later television dramas, and no more novels. But there is this intriguing 2012 comment from Stefan Bremner-Morris responding to the posting on My Brighton and Hove of historical photographs of Brighton’s Jubilee Street:
The small shop, Ben Davis/Gillard, was in fact rented by my aunt and her partner, who lived in Wykeham Terrace at the time. They sold a variety of musical instruments from there, but mainly violins… Ben had been a successful novelist in the 50s under the exotic and alliterative pen-name, Leopold Louth, but had gone into flower sales, which was how he met my aunt, who had a shop nearly opposite the town hall in Hove, selling vegetables and cut flowers… I don’t believe the musical outlet lasted too long however, and may even have moved before ceasing to trade.
And there is yet one more archival trace, this time from a February 2008 post on the Catholic Media Review blog. ‘March Hare’ reviewed Paul Collins’ autobiographical Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books and noted that the author
finds a book by Leopold Louth, which includes a review lauding him as ‘our most arresting humorist since Kingsley Amis. [This is the Seán O’faoláin Listener article noted above.] Louth wrote three books during the 1950’s and then disappeared. Paul reads one, Cabbage in the Grass, which he deems a very good book, yet when he tries to track down the publisher to reprint the book, he comes to a dead end.
On 22 May 2009, an anonymous commentator responded:
My Uncle Leopold Louth wrote Cabbage in the Grass. I have the original book from 1956 Published by Camelot Press Ltd. Southhampton.
Uncle died about 12 years ago aged 81.
Other posts in the series: