John Wyver writes the sixth of a series of posts about BBC Television’s 1960-61 strand of original dramas – his introduction is here.
I’m going to break from chronology with this post to consider the fourteenth offering in the 20 new plays collection that was broadcast on Christmas Day 1960. Obviously the 60th anniversary tomorrow is a factor, but so too is the fact that this is the first of the group that I have actually been able to watch. I am obliged to report that I found the drama largely unremarkable and really a touch tedious, as did critics at the time, but the people involved are interesting and intriguingly the play can be understood as engaged with television’s definition of itself against theatre and cinema.
On Christmas Day sixty years ago the families that elected to spend time with BBC Television watched The Queen at 1pm, went to Billy Smart’s Circus at 3.30pm, and then an hour later thrilled to What’s My Line? from London’s Hammersmith Hospital with, among others, Isobel Barnett and Lord Boothby (can this really be only six decades ago?). Christmas Night with the Stars at 6pm was introduced by David Nixon and featured Sid James, Harry Worth, Stanley Baxter, Kenneth McKellar and Nina and Frederik. For 95 minutes from 7.15pm the schedule was taken over by Hollywood’s The Prisoner of Zenda, but not the 1952 version with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. Rather, this was the 1937 outing with Ronald Coleman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr. What’s that you were saying about the Golden Age of Television?
Over on ITV, in London at least, the Queen spoke at 3pm, there was a circus from the Kelvin Hall Glasgow and an ‘ice pantomime spectacular’ of Sleeping Beauty from Brighton Palladium. A defiantly unseasonal Danger Man episode kicked off the evening at 7.30pm, followed by ATV’s The Tommy Steele Show at 8pm, and this led into Armchair Theatre with Donald Wolfit and James Booth. The Great Gold Bullion Robbery, based on a play by Gerald Sparrow and adapted for television by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, was ‘an exciting reconstruction of the first and most famous British railway robbery, when a small but daring gang raided the Continental mail train from London in 1855.’ Maverick at 10.10pm also seems not to have had much connection to the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
Back on the BBC (no third channel as an option then) at 8.50pm the main attraction was The Sunday Night Play, Michael Voysey’s original drama Tuppence in the Gods.
On the screen
A nostalgic comedy about the theatre, the play has sprung from [its writer’s] early love of the stage. He recalls how, as a boy, he stood on the bare stage of a theatre watching the seats and fitments being auctioned, and the emolition squads moving in to destroy the theatre. He says, ‘this play is an attempt, if you like, to build a theatre, if only in the imagination, in the place of those that have been destroyed over the years.’
That’s how the 20 new plays pamphlet sets the scene for the drama, and indeed its short opening sequence realises this in a vivid film sequence. A nineteenth-century theatre is being demolished, and amongst the rubble we see posters, first for the film Doctor in the House, then a Rudolph Valentino feature and finally Marie Lloyd topping a music hall bill. Via a transitional shot outside a stage door we enter the auditorium of a theatre in what we come to learn is a rather undefined early 1900s.
The camera sits first watching a male singer rehearse with the band before following a character into the dressing room of the formidable owner of the Hoxton Music Hall, Sarah Victoria Marryot (Fay Compton). (Note, in keeping with the ‘posh Cockney’ accents throughout, everyone calls it the ‘Oxton, as well as saying ‘ain’t’ a lot.) The real-life inspiration was likely Sara Lane who ran the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton for nearly thirty years.
The drama involves Sarah Victoria, her estranged daughter Rosie (Dandy Nichols) and hapless husband Herbert (Hugh Lloyd), and Sarah’s beloved granddaughter Fanny (Vivienne Nichols). Wheeling and dealing in love and loot between the three is agent Walter Murray (Frederick Bartman), and the plot interweaves the questions of who will take over the theatre, if Walter will marry Fanny, and whether the ‘Bioscope’, which Murray is convinced is the future of entertainment, will bring about the end of music hall. Spoiler alert, but the play determines the answers as Fanny, yes, and pretty much.
The script is, frankly, clichéd, the performances are largely undistinguished, and much of the drama consists of unremarkable multi-camera studio presentation. There are, however, two distinctive sequences that have a somewhat different image quality and which I think were produced separately, perhaps on location, as tele-recordings. The sound mix is especially irritating at times, since the musical numbers played on stage bleed across loudly into Sarah’s backstage office and the adjacent bar, where much of the drama plays out. The cast have to shout and we have to strain to hear.
The script offers plenty of scope for music hall turns on stage, including songs from Fanny and her friend Rosie, a soubrette who is going to marry an aristo before he goes off to ‘the war’ — presumably the Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902. We are also treated to reconstructions of parts of the acts of singer-comedians Gus Elen (brought to life by Tony Sympson) and Dan Leno (Chris Carlsen). Indeed, Leno’s mental health issues feature at the margins of the plot, which suggests a date of early 1903.
Before and behind the cameras
‘The atmosphere of the period and the performers’ little world was nicely created,’ opined the anonymous critic for The Times (28 December 1960). But I’m afraid the theatre profession’s trade journal The Stage (29 December 1960) headlined its review, ‘Slow moving and repetitive – as well as too long!’
Yet like many productions from this period that have so far received no subsequent critical attention, Tuppence in the Gods brought together a host of interesting characters.
Michael Voysey: Voysey was a prolific writer of original television scripts as well as the adapter of numerous works. His earliest television credit in BBC Genome is The Dance Dress (21 June 1955), which was produced by Chloe Gibson who five years later was also calling the shots on Tuppence in the Gods. He collaborated with Donald Wilson on an early television serial, The Royalty (1957-58), about a London hotel, but he was most often employed adapting the works of others, those by Somerset Maugham, Arnold Bennett and Dickens. His 13-part version of Barnaby Rudge had finished just two nights before Tuppence in the Gods was broadcast. A version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion followed in 1961, and his swansongs appear to have been serials in 1973 of Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Colette’s Chéri, for BBC1 and BBC2 respectively, and then Father Brown for ITV in 1974.
Chloe Gibson: I knew nothing about Chloe Gibson before embarking on this post, but she’s clearly a very interesting figure, in part because she was one of the first women BBC television drama producers. But she also staged open-air pageants with Cyril Maude in the 1930s and directed Dirk Bogarde and Kenneth More in Power Without Glory in London in 1947. This production was presented on television in June 1947, with Bogarde, More and Dandy Nichols, who also appears in Tuppence…
Gibson was directing for television by 1954, and her presentation of Family Portrait by Lenore Coffee and W. Joyce Cowen, about the Passion of Jesus and which she had first staged in 1947, caused a minor furore on its broadcast on Easter Day in 1955. Gibson moved to Dublin in 1961 to work for the newly established television service RTE, where her former boss, BBC head of drama Michael Barry, also moved for a short time.
Barry Learoyd: Learoyd is another really interesting figure from early television drama. He was one of the earliest production designers at Alexandra Palace with his first credits in 1939. He was responsible for the visual style of numerous plays from 1946 through to the mid-1970s, including the famous 1954 broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet like all of the first generations of studio designers – another fascinating figure is Natasha Kroll – his work remains entirely disregarded by historians. One day I’ll do my best to remedy that.
Fay Compton (Sarah Victoria Marryot): born in a theatrical family in 1894, and with author Compton Mackenzie as a brother, Fay Compton began her professional stage life in 1911. She played Ophelia to both John Barrymore’s Hamlet in the 1920s and John Gielgud’s at Elsinore in 1930. She was a regular at the Old Vic in the late 1940s and 1950s, and in 1962 she played opposite Laurence Olivier in the first Chichester Festival Theatre season. Her television roles were fewer, although she had a telling cameo as Aunt Ann in the BBC’s 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga.
Dandy Nichols (Rosie): the peerless Else Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75) would be Dandy Nichols’ signature role, but she began in rep before the war and she was a stalwart in British films through the 1940s and ’50s. I am also particularly fond of her performance as the housekeeper, along with Alastair Sim in William Trevor’s Play for Today: The General’s Day (1972). Hugh Lloyd supports as her hapless husband, Herbert.
Vivienne Martin (Fanny): the New Zealand-born actor would go on to play Yvonne Bannister in Keep It in the Family (1971), Miss Petting in Please Sir! (1968-72) and Elsie Longstaff in the 1981 ITV adaptation of The Good Companions.
Patsy Rowlands (Daisy): Patsy became a regular in the Carry On films, appearing in nine in all, and played Betty in Bless This House (1971-76)
Frederick Bartman (Walter Murray): easily the most extraordinary afterlife of any amongst the cast was that of the actor who would become well-known two years later in the role of Dr Simon Forrester in Emergency-Ward 10. He also played Perkhotin in The Brothers Karamazov (1964) and Victor Anderson in The Gold Robbers (1969). In 1976 he opened an antiques shop in Pimlico, and it was there that in 1991 he was alleged to have murdered Lady Brenda Cross, an employee at the time.
The court at his trial heard that Lady Cross, 73, wife of the retired Air Chief Marshall Sir Kenneth Cross, was beaten between 30 and 40 times with fists, feet and a set of heavy fire irons. The victim was found alive by her husband when he came to collect her from the shop, but she died of a heart attack in the ambulance. Yet as the Independent further reported (online this is dated 22 October 2011, but the trial was in February 1993),
Judge Brian Smedley directed an Old Bailey jury to acquit Frederick Bartman, 67, at the end of the prosecution case because the evidence showed it was ‘inherently improbable’ he was Lady Cross’s killer. David Calvert-Smith, for the prosecution, had said Lady Cross was planning to leave the shop but had promised to stay until a replacement was found. He alleged that on the day of the murder in September 1991, Mr Bartman was in a bad mood. He had not found a replacement for Lady Cross, he had just had to pay more than £40,000 in back rent and new lease arrangements and the business was not doing well. However, Mr Calvert-Smith told the jury he could put forward no motive for why Mr Bartman or anyone else would want to murder Lady Cross.
Seemingly no one else was ever charged with the murder. Frederick Bartman died in 2014.
‘It’s like magic, isn’t it?’
Towards the end of Tuppence… Walter is still trying to persuade Fanny that ‘the Bioscope’ is the future of entertainment. This theme, and Walter’s rhetoric about how films can help preserve the acts of performers, as well as make them a fortune, runs through the play, and chimes with television’s fascination of the time with the legacy of music hall. See, for example, my recent post about This is Music Hall (1955) and note the extraordinary longevity of the BBC series The Good Old Days (1953-83), broadcast from the Leeds City Varieties.
But there’s something more going on here. Walter has brought to Fanny’s dressing-room a film projector (loaned, so the end titles tell us, by the Kodak Museum Harrow) and he shows her a film of Dan Leno performing ‘The Tower of London‘ [links to a remarkable 1901 audio recording of the star’s performance]. This, we know, Leno is performing on the ‘Oxton stage below at that very moment…
… and then Walter goes over to intercom that relays the stage sound to the dressing room, switches it on, and – like magic, as Fanny says, – picture and sound are perfectly synchronised. Walter has invented live television! Within moments,, Fanny has agreed to run the theatre, to marry Walter and to include the Bioscope in future bills. In real life the model for ‘Oxton, the Britannia Theatre, became a Gaumont cinema in 1913.
For all the absurdity of the scene, there’s something very revealing here about television’s uncertainty about its identity at the moment when it was more or less finally established as the dominant mass medium. Television here is paying its respects to its precursors in the music hall and the cinema but at the same time demonstrating its distance and its difference.
Look, I think the medium is asserting, television can reveal this origin story and, by effortlessly relaying it without the need for projector and intercom, can show how superior it is as a medium. Dan Leno in front of a painted backdrop with scratchy sound might have been the good old days, but television today can broadcast an expensive and elaborate musical comedy about all this simultaneously to every home in the land on Christmas night. Even as it pays tribute to its forebears, television shows just how superior it is.