Hobson’s choices: stage to screen

28th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Earlier this week I introduced the television reviews for The Listener written by Harold Hobson between May 1947 and September 1951. I want to dig into these further, today looking at a selection of the critic’s responses to theatre productions on television during these years. Hobson had been writing about the London stage for the Christian Science Monitor since 1931, and in 1945 he became deputy theatre critic, working under James Agate, at the Sunday Times. As Michael Billington wrote in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Hobson (who died in 1992);

The belated discovery by the Sunday Times‘s proprietor, Lord Kemsley, of Agate’s homosexuality led to Hobson, an approved family man, being appointed his successor in 1947. 

Hobson’s deep interest in the stage meant that in The Listener he wrote about both productions originally mounted in the theatre that were transferred to television and, more often, about television’s own productions of stage plays (which will be the focus of a future post). As a consequence, his columns are of particular interest to those of us who are engaged by the questions of translation from the stage to screens.

Although outside broadcasts from theatres had been pioneered before the war, in the late 1940s and early 1950s BBC television was hampered in developing this form by significant restrictions imposed by theatre owners in the Theatrical Management Association and by the actors’ union Equity. The stage establishment had decided that television was a threat to its survival and as a consequence banned the medium from all of the major West End houses. The BBC was forced to rely on relationships with small repertory theatres on the fringes of the capital, and most especially on relays of productions from the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green, London N13.

Live from the Intimate

I am fascinated by this relationship with the Intimate and have written previously about it here, here (where there is a full list of the BBC’s 14 Intimate broadcasts) and here for the AHRC-funded research project ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’. Since the Intimate was staging a new show every week – as well as rehearsing the one to come – he production quality was patchy, at best, and of the 1948 transmission of The Shop at Sly Corner the television producer Campbell Logan noted in an internal memo that ‘the performance itself was indifferent and there was some very bad miscasting’. 

Cameras at the Intimate Theatre, December 1946***

In his 29 January 1948 column Hobson was attracted by the transmission from the Intimate of a modest production of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. He began his remarks with a comparison, familiar from the writings of others, of the current state of television drama with early cinema:

Television, so far as the drama is concerned, seems to be uneasily in the position of the cinema thirty-five years ago. Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Herbert Tree used to make films by simply photographing stage plays… Similarly, from time to time, television presents us with what is in essence a talking film of a stage play.

Demonstrating a faintly dismissive attitude to the audience at the Intimate, Hobson compared the OBs from there to the productions that the fledgling television service was mounting in the studios at Alexandra Palace:

Throwing aside its experiments, its studio effects, [television] retires to the fastness of the Intimate Theatre in Palmer’s [sic] Green and shows us what the locals are getting for their three-and-six. On these occasions nothing is done – or seems to be done – to adapt the performance for television purposes; the dramatic beverage is served up as for the suburban cognoscenti, and the television camera drinks it neat. If television drama is itself an art, with its own laws, its own limitations and its own peculiar possibilities, the result ought to be disappointing. Often enough it is; but not more disappointing – this is the really disturbing thing – than most studio performances: Palmer’s Green and Alexandra Palace, Tweedledum and Tweedeldee.

On this occasion it appears that what most appealed to Hobson about the Intimate broadcast, hymned with the accolade ‘as entertaining as anything I have looked at recently’, was the performance of David Raven as the play’s lawyer Sir Robert Morton. (Between 1957 and 1968 Raven was to play Major Metcalf in a record-breaking 4,575 performances of the London production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.) Describing Raven’s characterisation as ‘a somewhat pompous porpoise,’ Hobson noted that

He did not walk into the room so much as loom into it, and he plainly felt that it was a privilege to have such a man as himself about the house.

Frustratingly, we’ll never be able to judge this for ourselves, since no recordings exist of any television drama from before early 1953.

From stage to studio

With no possibility of OBs of more prestigious theatre productions, the television service continued to develop its parallel practice, which was also common before the war, of importing stage shows into the studio and broadcasting them live. On 4 March 1948 Hobson wrote about a broadcast that in retrospect is perhaps more notable than it seemed to him at the time:

The Unity Theatre company came to the studio to give its much-boosted Winkles and Champagne performance. Like Solomon’s court, this performance has been greatly and widely spoken of. Had the Queen of Sheba seen it, however, I fear that she would have remarked that she had been told, not half, but twice, as much as it really warranted… the singers, though they made brave and commendable efforts, wanted accomplishment. Some indeed were hoarse and inaudible.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a stage production that has its place in theatre history. Founded in 1936, Unity Theatre was a radical theatre group that expressed its leftist politics in agit-prop shows and documentary-style ‘Living Newspapers’. Early on in the war it had produced revue-style entertainments explicitly critical of the Chamberlain government and it had won approval from performing to those sheltering from the blitz in the capital’s underground stations. Winkles and Champagne, first mounted in 1944, was the company’s popular history of the music-hall and celebrated the form as an authentic expression of working-class culture. The show had been revived early in 1948 (and it must have been this version shown by the BBC) when The Stage wrote:

With a wealth of enthusiasm, but without any outstanding talent or dominant personality, nearly fifty people contrive to keep things going with a swing.

(For more on the Unity Theatre’s fascinating history, see the website for the Unity Theatre Trust; the company’s archived records are held by the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. There is work to be done on Unity’s relationship with post-war television, since it was run for a while by playwright Ted Willis, a key figure in original writing for television in the 1950s, and it nurtured the talents of a number of leading actors including Warren Mitchell and Bob Hoskins.)

There were times when Harold Hobson was keen to show off the breadth of his theatre-going knowledge, as for example when he praised the star of a 1948 broadcast of Shaw’s Arms and the Man:

Miss Margaret Leighton repeated the Raina she gave for Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson in the Old Vic version… Or rather she improved it. It seems to me that in the interval that has elapsed since she appeared on the Old Vic stage her Raina has greatly increased its subtlety and delicacy of effect. (1 July 1948)

Clement McCallin (Sergius), Margaret Leighton (Raina), and Cyril Raymond (Bluntschli) in Arms and the Man (tx. 20 June 1948).


Yet there were occasions when Hobson considered the emerging form of television more rigorously than simply by a comparison of performances. On 3 February 1949 he wrote,

The television production of [James] Bridie’s The Anatomist [23 January 1949; ‘adapted for television by Joel O’Brien] came as close to the Westminster Theatre production as any television performance can to any theatrical presentation. It was acted by the same company no more than twenty-four hours after they had finished their last stage appearance. Yet there were innumerable details in which the performances differed, and the details were different because of the medium of presentation.

On the stage there were no close-ups of Mr Alastair Sim preparing to play the flute, nor was he ever bisected at the waist. No slender, sinister shadow flitted across the walls as he moved from pne part of the room to the other… No, a stage play by television is different from a stage play by the stage. That is its justification.

Hobson returned to questions of medium specificity – of the differences between theatre and television – in his column of 9 February 1950. Writing of the television production of Emlyn Williams’ Trespass (29 January 1950), the critic thought to mention the broadcast’s producer, John Glyn-Jones. He praised the transmission as ‘the only television version of a stage play I have seen that has been better than the original’, although he qualified his praise by lamenting a number of the performances. He continued,

It was better than the stage production [seen at the Globe Theatre two years before] simply because it was clearer. The greater mobility of television caused us to know at every moment during the last act precisely what was happening. We not only saw the terrified investigators cowering in their castle, but also the inexorable ghost marching up to their room… The increased clarity, though it added to the play’s pleasure highlighted its philosophic insufficiency.

Yet in precisely the capabilities of television unavailable to the theatre, Hobson saw a danger. To realise its ghost, Trespass employed special effects superimposing one studio camera image on another:

Double photography is so fascinating and its effects so striking that there is considerable risk that television will concentrate on the supernatural. This would be a pity. I can think of few things so discouraging as the possibility that television should become a sort of spooks’ corner. Television is a family entertainment, and far too often the engaging [presentation announcer] MacDonald Hobley has to begin the evening’s proceedings with the advice to pack the children off to bed.

Television as ‘a sort of spooks’ corner’? Perish the thought.

*** The image and caption of the BBC cameramen at the 2 December 1946 broadcast of George and Margaret comes from The Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette, 6 December 1946, as reproduced in Geoff Bowden’s book Intimate memories: The history of the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green (Westbury: The Badger Press, 2006).

The header image is from the programme listings of Radio Times, 6 February 1948.


  1. Billy Smart says:

    Its very interesting to learn of Hobson’s forgotten tenure as television critic – I don’t recall him ever referring to it in any of his autobiographical writings (or, unlike Tynan, say, expressing much interest in broadcasting of any sort).

    I often think of the period after the war and before the Coronation as being the real dark age of British television. Curiously, the 1936-39 period feels a lot more celebrated and better documented. Both the repertory and the players of the Intimate Theatre always sound very ordinary – a far cry from the familiar “Best of British talent” of decades of subsequent BBC publicity.

  2. John Wyver says:

    Many thanks, Billy – and I entirely agree that 1946-53 is the ‘lost continent’ of British television, a period that I hope one day to contribute to illuminating further. And I’m certain that if we had one of the Intimate Theatre recordings it would be fairly excruciating to sit through. Stay well.

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