"BRITISH TELEFANTASY BEGAN IN 1963...." PART 1
by Nick Cooper © 1993-2021
For many fans of the genre, Telefantasy - on the BBC at least - did not "begin" until 22 November 1963, with the first episode of Doctor Who. Indeed, it is highly likely that if asked to name any pre-Who BBC Telefantasy productions, many readers would probably not get beyond a half-dozen. While later 1960s and 1970s series such as Adam Adamant Lives!, Doomwatch and (to a lesser extent) Out of the Unknown have become an increasing focus for the attentions of fans, programmes prior to November 1963 are still very much a closed book. Even for more aware fans, the "start" would probably be counted as the first episode of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment serial in 1953, but it was predated by other productions by fifteen years. This lack of awareness can be put down to may reasons, primarily the fact that hardly any of the pre-1963 productions have survived in the BBC Archives. The most well known - the Quatermass and Andromeda serials - have fared better than others, but this article is concerned with "The Forgotten."
Before Doctor Who... before Quatermass... the BBC was exploring the worlds of Fantasy and Science Fiction...
The BBC's "high-definition" 405-line television service began on 2 November 1936, with a line-up of programmes that would seem like a bad joke today. Recycled British Movietone newsreels and music hall acts were the order of the day, but the scope of the medium quickly expanded to encompass live drama. Well into the 1950s, this was essentially little more than "filmed" theatre and, in fact, is was common for an acting company to transfer a successful play to the TV studio as early as 24 hours after the stage run had ended. In the first few years of the BBC Television service, audiences could not be described as anything more than minuscule, with a mere 50,000 watching King George VI's coronation in May 1937, since at the time there was only the single London transmitter in operation. As the transmission network expanded during the next sixteen years (bar the years when the service was not operating during the Second World War), the number of TV sets in the country rose to around a million,and doubled again by the time of the coronation of our present monarch on 2 June 1953.
Initially, however, there was no practical way of routinely preserving broadcast material apart from pre-filmed documentaries and newsreels. Telerecording - which involved the use of a special transmission monitor permanently set up in front of a modified 35mm film camera (right: early-50's BBC equipment showing monitor and Mechau camera, from The Television Heritage by Steve Bryant [BFI, 1989]) - was not properly introduced until 1947 (although there had been experiments along the same lines in the thirties), and even then the quality of recordings was poor. At the time the BBC had no obligation to maintain an archive except for its own use, so telerecording was used sparingly, and the material most likely to be preserved was of newsworthy or historical importance, such as the 1953 coronation or interviews with major public figures. Since strict agreements with the talent unions dictated how television drama was made and transmitted, most programmes were not recorded because - theoretically - they could never be repeated. By the late-50s, when high-quality telerecording was used to pre-record programmes for transmission later, such agreements often required the recording to be destroyed afterwards (e.g. A for Andromeda). Videotape was introduced for pre-recording in the late-1950s (although telerecording was still used intermittently until the late-60s), thereby presenting a different problem in archiving terms. A pre-filmed programme could as easily be retained as disposed, but videotape was routinely recycled for subsequent productions, and in such cases the only hope for a programme's survival was that before wiping a telerecording was made, usually for overseas sale by BBC Enterprises.
It is against this developing historical background, then, that 11 February 1938 saw the first production which properly falls within the scope of the British Telefantasy canon. Ironically, it was not a British story at all, but rather an adaptation of Czech writer Karel Capek's sharply satirical 1923 play R.U.R., set in the island production centre for the Rossum's Universal Robots ("artificial people who can do any sort of work," the reviewer for The Times helpfully informed the readers). Within five years the manager is predicting no unemployment, since when the robots are doing all the work there will be no employment, and if it seems they may conspire to threaten humanity, they can be manufactured in different colours and speaking different languages so they will not fraternise with each other. Despite this, the robots - led by newer more advanced models - do rebel and begin to massacre the humans, surrounding the survivors in the factory before breaking in and dispatching them as well (chanting "Finished!" with each killing). Rather than ending there, and somewhat going against the grain of the piece, the robots realise that the formula for their creation has been lost in the conflagration, but luckily two of the newer robots fall in love after discovering that they are advanced enough to be able to reproduce. Although inevitably abridged for the new medium, John Bussell's production was judged by The Times to be "interesting throughout," although lacking the necessary tension during the scenes of the last humans trapped by the robots. The long speeches and close-ups of the former diverted attention from the mechanical hordes outside, and the two-camera superimposition trick used when they finally break in was deemed less than successful, although the acting was praised, with Cherry Cottrell's key performance as Helena Glory being deemed "outstanding." The robots themselves were presented as "rather more human than they appeared on the stage," with the actors wearing cumbersome metallic suits, open-faced helmets and heavy make-up. Nineteen months later, war broke out and the BBC Television service was abruptly closed down in the middle of a Mickey Mouse film (it was feared that the single London transmitter - pumping out a then-unique signal - could be used as a beacon to "guide in" German bombers).
1948 - 1949
Transmission resumed in June 1946, but the next Telefantasy production did not appear until 4 March 1948, when a second production of R.U.R. was staged, with a live repeat the following day. This time around the robots looked even less mechanical, with the actors walking around bare-footed and bare-chested in shorts and metal skull-caps, which no doubt caused a stir, yet seemed in keeping with the neo-art deco set design. The year also featured a number of border-line Telefantasy play adaptations containing supernatural elements, notably James Bridie's Dr Angelus, starring George Cole and Alastair Sim, and J.B.Priestley's Jenny Villiers, with Leslie Banks and Daphne Arthur.
25 January 1949 saw the first Science Fiction play of British origin, fittingly an adaptation by Robert Barr of H.G.Wells's The Time Machine. Russell Napier played the (as in the book) unnamed Time Traveller, with Mary Donn as Weena, the young woman he meets in the year 802,701 AD, by which time humanity has evolved into two distinctly different species, the beautiful but effete Eloi, and the monstrous underground-dwelling Morlocks, who the Traveller discovers use the Eloi like cattle. Barr also produced the play, which was reasonably faithful to the original (e.g. Weena is eventually dragged off by the Morlocks, a stark contrast to her contrived survival in the big budget 1960 cinema version), and quite technically ambitious for the time. Barry Learoyd designed a wonderfully futuristic Time Machine (nicely echoing the design of Wells' 1936 film Things to Come) and effectively authentic sets, while back projection was utilised for the time travelling scenes. Judged a success, the play was remounted on 21 February. As with the previous versions of R.U.R., neither performance was recorded.
1951 - 1952
Stranger From Space was the first Telefantasy serial, shown once a fortnight (so that viewers could write in with plot suggestions!) from 20 October 1951 as part of the Whirligig children's strand. Scripted by Hazel Adair and Roland Marriott, the story followed the adventures of Bilaphodorous (Michael Newell), a Martian boy who has crashed his "Space Boat" on Earth and is befriended by Ian Spencer (Brian Smith). The eleven episode serial was successful enough to merit a six-part sequel, which was again screened fortnightly from 13 December 1952.
While the first series of Stranger From Space was still running, an adaptation of H.G.Wells's now largely unknown Swiftian satirical fantasy The Wonderful Visit was televised on 3 February 1952. A young Kenneth Williams played an angel who visits a small Sussex village, only to be treated with suspicion and contempt, while the bemused local vicar (Barry Jones) attempts to explain to him the complexities of English social nuances. Originally a delicately written fantasia on human behaviour confronted with an otherworldly visitor, and an allegory on the theme of intolerance, this production was deemed largely unsuccessful, with Philip Hope-Wallace noting in The Listener that it was, "the sort of thing which may delight us on paper, but seems laboured when it slowly takes shape before you, 'realised' in flesh and blood, and a cardboard countryside. A distinguished cast toiled angelically."
Nigel Kneale's first Telefantasy script was a joint adaptation with George F.Kerr of Charles Irving's Number Three, televised on 1 February 1953. At a remote atomic research station, scientists working on a new form of nuclear power are horrified to discover that their leader plans its use as a weapon potentially more devastating than the H-bomb. Kneale was evidently still learning his craft, since The Listener remarked: "The theme - surely becoming a bore - of the play was love among the atom scientists; the start was uphill work, with love-sick researchers and high jinks in the canteen, but as the melodrama put on speed and we rushed toward the danger of an idealistic lady scientist sending the research station sky-high, the acting and dialogue began to seem adequate and even convincing." The play was produced by Stephen Harrison, and featured Philip Guard, Jack Watling, Ursula Howells and Terence Alexander. Peter Cushing appeared in a minor role, which may have a bearing on his lead casting in Kneale's later adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Five months later, Kneale's six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment began, receiving a far better reception and shattering many of the accepted rules of television drama in the process. Thus far, and with the possible exception of Number Three, BBC Telefantasy had owed more to European and British pre-war films like Metropolis and Things to Come, but across the Atlantic, fuelled by fears of the full destructive potential of the Atomic Age, audiences were starting to see a different facet of the genre. Invasions from space and rampaging monsters abounded, and The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels introduced these themes - albeit in a more intelligent manner - which would spread rapidly to other productions. The first two installments of Experiment still survive as 35mm telerecordings (the first of all the productions mentioned thus far), but while recent research by Time Screen has suggested that episodes 3 through 5 were recorded, no copies are known to exist.
Televised on 25 November 1953, Time Slip was a thirty-minute play by Charles Eric Maine, in which John Mallory (Jack Rodney) dies, but is brought back to life by an injection of adrenalin. Unfortunately, this results in his perception of time being 4.7 seconds ahead of everybody else's, to the extent that he is able to answer their questions before they are even asked. Somewhat drastically, his psychiatrist "cures" him by smothering him to death and then reviving him with a second, more carefully measured, dose of adrenalin! The cast - details of which were actually "lost" for some years (cf. Fulton's Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction) - included Harold Jamieson (Dr Lascelles), Robert Ayres (Dr Slade), Joan Warburton (Nurse), George Murcell (Policeman), and John Sullivan (The Doorman). Produced by Andrew Osborn, the play was not recorded. Maine subsequently heavily reworked the play into film script, which was released as Timeslip (a.k.a. The Atomic Man) in 1955, and also turned it into a novel as The Isotope Man, published in 1957.
Another fortnightly children's serial, the six-part The Lost Planet, began on 16 January 1954. Originally a radio production, Angus MacVicar's was a tale of a race to the planet Hesikos between Dr Lachlan McKinnon (John Stuart) and a rival, although the 'star' of the piece was McKinnon's 16-year-old nephew Jeremy Grant (Peter Kerr). McKinnon and his crew win the race, but he remains behind on Hesikos because the ship is too overloaded for the return journey. The cast also included Geoffrey Lumsden (Lars Bergman), John Springett (Spike Stranahan, Mary Law (Janet Campbell), Joan Allen (Madge Smith), and Van Boolen (Hermanoff).
In May 1954 The Times noted that despite their apparent advantages for the medium, television had not produced many one-act plays, an exception being 10 May's double-bill of Arthur Wing Pinero's A Private Room and William Wymark Jacob's supernatural tale The Monkey's Paw. The Times observed: "Throughout the ancient fable of the three fatal wishes (as it occurs in the working class Fulham of 1903), the atmosphere is one of macabre suspense. In spite of the two fantastic tales this mood, also, was convincingly taut. The sight of the eerie shrivelled paw itself, together with Henry Oscar's anxious portrait of the father distraughtly dropping it after he had wished, helped to suspend disbelief. Only the inherently farcical force of the sad news that the son is dead, uttered by a frock-coated gentleman out of Wilde, was not altogether avoided. But the final touch of the two tightly bolted doors when the same son (Terence Alexander) returns to life for the second wish and then dies again for the third was conveyed in all its full horror."
Sunday 12 December 1954 witnessed what is surely the greatest and most controversial television production of the 1950s, if not the entire monochrome era. Impressed with the success of The Quatermass Experiment, Assistant Controller of BBC Television Cecil Madden asked its producer, Rudolph Cartier, if he would next like to do George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Interviewed in 1990, Cartier recalled the complexity of the production: "[It] was particularly difficult because it had so many sets - twenty-eight sets - and five or six film sequences which couldn't be shown in the studio. So we arranged that the film sequences would come between the main sequences to give us time to move the artists from one set to another; and as we were doing this we also had to move the cameras!" The budget was high by the standards of the day at £3,000, but even this was not enough for Cartier, who insisted on extra funding for a specially written score by John Hodgkis, who conducted the orchestra live from a second studio during the play, so the final budget stood at £3,249. Peter Cushing was cast as Winston Smith, with Yvonne Mitchell (later to appear in the classic Out of the Unknown episode The Machine Stops) and André Morell (who four years later played the third and best Professor Quatermass) in the supporting röles of Julia and O'Brien. Other notable cast members were Donald Pleasance (Syme), Campbell Gray (Parsons), Leonard Sachs (Mr Charrington), and Wilfred Brambell (later old man Steptoe) in two small cameos. The production was designed by Barry Learoyd (who had worked on The Time Machine in 1949), with special effects provided by Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine.
Although necessarily condensing the story to fit the two-hour timeslot, Kneale did not hesitate from retaining the power and brutality of Orwell's novel. The play was a critical success, with The Times remarking that whilst the ideological explanation was so drastically cut that is was, "not such much Orwell's vision as a pictorial simplification of it," but that, "the vividness with which the many parts of it came through would, perhaps, have please the author. The two-minutes' Hate was, for instance, a wonderfully riotous orgy of vindictiveness." There was also praise for the cast: "Mr Peter Cushing made a touching broken hero of Winston Smith, and Miss Yvonne Mitchell did well in bringing to life the girl whom the sight of the torturer's rats forces him to deny. Mr André Morell as O'Brien, who manipulates Winston's long remedial 'cure,' had just the right tone of controlled fanaticism."
The reaction of others, however, was not so academic. The following Tuesday, a motion was tabled in the House of Commons by five Tory MPs deploring, "the tendency, evident in recent BBC television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes." An amendment, by five Labour members and one Conservative would make the motion deplore, "the tendency of honourable members to attack the courage and enterprise of the BBC in presenting plays capable of appreciation by adult minds, on Sunday evenings and other occasions." A second amendment would have added to the original motion: "but is thankful that freedom of the individual still permits viewers to switch off and, due to the foresight of Her Majesty's Government, will soon permit a switch-over to be made to more appropriate programmes" (a reference to the impending launch of ITV). Finally, a second motion, tabled by six Conservatives, applauded, "the sincere attempts of the BBC to bring home to the British people the logical and soul-destroying consequences of the surrender of their freedom," and calling attention to the fact that, "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play are already in common use under totalitarian regimes."
The BBC received hundreds of telephone complaints after the broadcast and were under pressure to cancel the planned Thursday repeat, but in the end the furore died down when Prince Philip came to its defence in a speech at the Royal Society of Arts. "The Queen and I watched the play and thoroughly enjoyed it," he said. On the Thursday morning, a Times editorial stated: "The BBC alone should be responsible for its programmes. It is hoped that as a result of all the fuss in the newspapers and elsewhere there will be an even larger audience for tonight's repeat than might otherwise have been gathered. If anything had been needed to underline the tremendous possibilities of television, the reactions of the last few days have provided it." Further, one crucial aspect of the transmission - hardly ever realised today - was noted: "Orwell's novel has been in circulation for five years. It has been widely read and made many thinking people uncomfortable. Yet until last Sunday's broadcast it could be said that the impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the British public had been only marginal. Despite their use hundreds of times in newspapers, such phrases as 'totalitarianism,' 'brain-washing,' 'dangerous thoughts,' and the Communist practice of making words stand on the heads have for millions of people taken on new meaning. The BBC is to be congratulated."
The second performance went ahead as planned and attracted the highest television audience since the Coronation, although despite Prince Philip's favourable comments, Cartier at one point needed the protection of, "two tough guys hired by the BBC, because there were some very threatening 'phone calls." A telerecording was made of the second performance for posterity, and was rescreened as part of BBC2's Festival 77 celebrations to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and again after Rudolph Cartier's death in 1994.