Television’s first King Lear

12th October 2016

Tonight RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear with Antony Sher in the title role. If we can achieve something of what we got in the second camera rehearsal yesterday, then I think it will be very special – go here to find cinemas near you that are screening it.

Working on this production made me curious about the first full-length British screen version of the play, which was the live transmission by BBC Television in 1948. Sadly, we have no archive copy of this broadcast and nor do there seem to have been any reviews, but there are a few written and photographic traces, which I have started to gather here.

Although BBC television before World War Two featured numerous individual scenes from Shakespeare, as well as a number of full, albeit shortened, productions of certain plays, the only presence of King Lear prior to the 1939 closedown is in Ferenc Molnár’s one-act comedy Prologue to King Lear. Broadcast on 16 December 1937, this play features what a guide to Molnár’s work calls ‘a ham actor who plays Lear and has so much now lived himself into the part that he speaks in Shakespearian verse’.

There is vanishingly little information about this 38-minute broadcast produced by Eric Crozier, but the cast list in Radio Times features the eminent name of William Devlin. We do not know for certain what role Devlin took, but it seems likely that he was the lead. He had, after all, played Lear to acclaim on the London stage – and indeed was to play him again for the 1948 broadcast.


William Devlin first took the role of Lear at the age of just 22 in an October 1934 production at the Westminster Theatre. One of the youngest actors ever to attempt this Everest of acting, he returned to the ascent at the Old Vic in April 1936. Of his performance then, the critic identified only as ‘A.D.’ wrote inThe Manchester Guardian:

The actor has limitations of gesture, and is too much inclined to a mannerism of acutely flexing his elbows. But he has many of the necessities for this most exactly of parts. He has the endurance of youth and yet can look the age. His voice has power and range and can assume a dry, harrowing sadness very effectual in the later scenes, and he has a right notion of how the stricken king should appear to the eye.

(Although it’s not strictly relevant to the subject at hand, it’s hard to resist A.D.’s advice at the end of the review:

The second half begins with the removal of Gloucester’s eyes; the queasier sort of playgoer who cannot sup too full of horrors should sup a little more of this theatre’s excellent coffee and return to the play seven minutes late.

I might point out that while the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s coffee is similarly excellent, this option of disturbing the audience in such a way is not a choice available in Stratford.)

In the later 1930s Devlin made frequent appearances in television plays broadcast live from Alexandra Palace, including as the French statesman George Clemenceau in one of the very first drama transmissions, The Tiger. He was also in Scenes from Cymbeline shown in 1937 and produced by Royston Morley. So he must have been an obvious choice for Morley when he came to present King Lear just over two years after the television service had returned to the airwaves.


As is detailed by this beautiful Radio Times graphic (I don’t know the artist, but would be delighted if someone could tell me), King Lear was screened in two parts, on two consecutive Sunday evenings, with live ‘repeats’ (that is, second performances) on the following Thursdays. The total running time was around 3 hours 20 minutes, and the production cost was apparently £243. In an accompanying Radio Times article, J.C. Trewin enthused:

I hold [Devlin’s Lear] still to be one of the finest of our day. And this, moreover, in a period starred with eminent Lears: Olivier, Ayrton, Wolfit, Gielgud, Sofaer… We never lose with him the sense of awe and majesty. He can encompass the Promethean Lear of the storm; his voice holds the thunderbolts, the sulphurous and thought-executing fires. And he falls like a forest oak. Devlin has also much of Lear’s pathos; no crackling senility here.

Also in Radio Times, another short, anonymous article provided some fascinating detail about the production:

Royston Morley’s production of King Lear… uses two studios and at least seventeen different sets… [Designer] Barry Learoyd… has not only conceived the highly imaginative but realistic sets for King Lear but special costumes as well, notably for the three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. A most versatile designer, Learoyd was responsible for the settings in such television productions as Pygmalion (period), Toad of Toad Hall (impressionist), Edward II (using multiple shadows), and the revue Between Ourselves. Defining the period of King Lear has always been a difficulty. The King Lear of history is a more or less legendary figure, but with his usual disregard for anachronism Shakespeare brings in the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. In the television production the date will be left vague and the characters will wear costumes of what might be called a traditional Arthurian type.

Among the cast was Patrick Troughton, the father of the distingusihed actor David Troughton, who plays Gloucester in the current RSC production. And as can be seen in this splendid production photograph from The Listener, Robert Sansom took the part of Kent and Alan Wheatley was the Fool.


I would love to turn up a review or a description of the television production, but to date I have not been able to find one. There is, however, an eccentric and poignant coda to this tale. According to a brief AP obituary, ‘Devlin came into an inheritance and retired in 1957 to live the life of a minor country squire.’ But he was tempted before the cameras on several occasions in the following decade, including for episode 6 of the Kenneth Clark-hosted documentary series Civilisation, first shown in 1969. In this, he reprised his playing of a scene from Lear in what is a precious reminder of a style of acting from World War Two – he appears at around 41 minutes in.


  1. John Wyver says:

    In James Stourton’s new biography ‘Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”” there is a quote from a letter written in 1969 by K (as he was known) in which he reflects on the awkwardness of the ‘King Lear’ fragment.

    This, he believed, was because of the choice ‘of an old actor who had a great success in the part in the 1920s and very little success since.’

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