The Largest Theatre in the World: Heart to Heart by Terence Rattigan (6th December 1962)

Heart to Heart by Terence Rattigan was the first production in an intriguing venture – The Largest Theatre in the World. It was the brainchild of Sergio Pugliesle, director of television at the Italian broadcaster RAI. He outlined the project in the following way. “Let us overcome language by inviting the nations in turn to commission from a leading playwright a play which will be simultaneously produced in each country in its own language, so that on the chosen night the audience for the performance will represent the largest theatre in the world”.

Thirteen countries (including France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Norway) signed up for the venture, all of them receiving a modified version of the play from Rattigan and the UK director Alvin Rakoff.

Although not as enduring as Pugliesle’s other brainchild (the Eurovision Song Contest), the BBC screened a number of productions under the Largest Theatre in the World banner during the 1960’s. Some, like Harold Pinter’s The Tea Party in 1965 were well received, others such as Pitchi Poi in 1967 garnered only lukewarm notices (Angela Moreton in The Stage and Television Today complained that it contained “dubious cliches” and summed the venture up as a “mere European propaganda exercise”).

Returning to Heart to Heart, it aired on the BBC on the 6th of December 1962. Kenneth More and Ralph Richardson headed the cast, with Jean Marsh, Peter Sallis, Wendy Craig, Angela Baddeley and Megs Jenkins in support.

Although Kenneth More had been one of Britain’s top film stars during the 1950’s, at the start of the next decade there were signs that his star was slipping. Changing fashions meant that he would spend the majority of his career from this point on working in television, although given the quality of some of his later projects (The Forsyte Saga, Father Brown, An Englishman’s Castle) that shouldn’t be taken as a negative.

More, as television interviewer David Mann, dominates Heart to Heart (he’s onscreen for pretty much all of the play’s 115 minutes). Whilst it’s fair to say that Ralph Richardson (as Sir Stanley Johnson) steals most of the scenes he appears in, More is the glue which holds Heart to Heart together.

David Mann is a typical Rattigan creation – emotionally fragile, he’s trapped a loveless marriage with Peggy (Jean Marsh) with whom it’s taken years to even begin to articulate his dissatisfaction. Mann is infatuated with a colleague, Jessie Weston (Wendy Craig), but whilst her marriage is equally unsatisfying, Jessie can’t bring herself to leave her husband which means that all the characters seem doomed to remain in stasis.

Within the play, the programme Heart to Heart is a thinly disguised copy of Face to Face with David Mann cast in the John Freeman role. Rattigan opted not to set the play within the BBC, instead the television organisation is British Television (BTV), the country’s fifth television network. This feels somewhat unsatisfying, as the majority of the production was very clearly recorded in the Television Centre, but given the contentious part of the piece (corrupt politician Sir Stanley Johnson attempting to block the network from asking probing questions about his past) it’s not difficult to understand why this decision was taken.

Sir Ralph Richardson essays a Northern accent (which seems to come and go a bit) as Sir Stanley Johnson, a blunt, man of the people who has risen through the ranks to now hold a senior post in the government (and be tipped by some as a future prime minister). It’s an ideal role for Richardson, offering him some stand-out scenes (especially Johnson’s live on-air confession) and the way the cat and mouse clash between Mann and Johnson develops is fascinating to observe.

The supporting roles are uniformly strong. Jean Marsh might be forced to adopt a rather strange accent, but this sort of works as it fits Peggy’s unfathomable character. Wendy Craig and Peter Sallis, both dependable performers, are solid throughout whilst Megs Jenkins as Lady Johnson is both amusing and touching (by now nothing about her husband seems to shock Lady Johnson – at least on the surface). Angela Baddeley, as the whistleblower Miss Knott, dominates the screen for the short time (around seven minutes) that she’s onscreen. And in the quieter moments you can amuse yourself by spotting some future Coronation Street alumni (Jean Alexander and Stephen Hancock) in minor roles.

Heart to Heart is a play that still remains relevant today, indeed possibly even more now than it did then. A politician is confronted with proof of his corruption – initially he denies it completely, then attempts to rubbish the people supplying the information. But when it becomes obvious that the truth will have to come out, he takes command and spins his confession in such a way as to invite sympathy from the watching audience. Although Sir Stanley Johnson is initially contemptuous about the prospect of trial by television, he manages to manipulate the truth by using the medium in a very skillful way which belies his (clearly false) bumbling persona.

Apart from the obvious quality of the play and the performances, there’s another reason for watching Heart to Heart – it gives you a good insight into the BBC studio environment of the early 1960’s. This is especially apparent during the opening titles where Alvin Rakoff takes the camera on an impressive trip around the studio in a single take (given the bulk and immovability of the cameras he would have been working with, it’s especially noteworthy).

If you want to check this out, then it’s available on the Terence Rattigan at the BBC DVD boxset.

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Three

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Henry is dead – he was shot three times and a sign saying “delator” was hung around his neck.  With one of Peter’s sons now dead there’s a sense that his real life is turning into a soap operaOne example of this is when Peter’s wife is told of her son’s death.  She tells her husband that she won’t cry – instead she’ll behave as bravely as Peter’s fictional family.

Peter finds himself the prime suspect for Henry’s murder and is taken away by the special police for questioning.  The Inspector (Philip Bond) is initially affable, telling Peter it’s nothing more than an informal chat, but the mood darkens very quickly.  Kenneth More and Philip Bond share an excellent two-handed scene – like the rest of the serial it’s incredibly powerful, but very understated.

The Inspector occupies a room that’s virtually bare, and there’s never even the threat of violence, but he’s still able to inexorably pressurise Peter.  So Peter is forced to reveal that Henry told Harmer he was an informer – which gets Peter off the hook but spells trouble for Harmer.

As events get darker and darker, Kenneth More remains the solid centre of the story.  Now promoted to programme controller, Peter has the ultimate responsibility for initiating the revolution – a code-word inserted into the next episode of his soap opera will be the call to arms.

Philip Mackie’s three scripts are taut, with little or no padding.  It’s easy to imagine that the serial could have been developed into a series, as in one way we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this world.  It would have been fascinating to see Peter’s soap-opera, which at times offers a meta-textual commentary on real-world events, expanded over more episodes.

Anybody looking for big-budget action scenes will be disappointed.  The revolution does begin in the last few minutes of this episode, but it happens off-screen (via sound effects).  The fates of some characters, including Peter, are clear at the end – but with others it’s left to the viewer’s own imagination to decide what may have happened to them.  It’s also notable that certain people’s motivations are very much open to interpretation – Harmer is a prime example.  In the first two episodes he was portrayed firmly as a man in sympathy with the German establishment, but in the final episode we’re asked to consider him in a different light.  Nothing is ever proven either way, so we’re not spoon-fed “facts” – the viewer is invited to weigh up the evidence and decide.

It’s a downbeat ending, but there’s also a possible glimmer of hope.  We’re left not knowing whether the revolution will succeed or fail, but whatever happens we’ve seen characters who have been personally redeemed, Peter amongst them.

At times this feels like a stage play (not a criticism, by the way).  People die off-screen, for example,  and other events are described but not seen.  Some may find this frustrating, but this style of storytelling ensures that the focus remains inexorably on the characters,  which is a major plus point when the cast is so strong.

This is first-rate drama and comes highly recommended.  Heading a very strong cast are Kenneth More, Isla Blair and Anthony Bate, all of whom dominate the screen.  Simply Media should be applauded for continuing to dip into the BBC archives and for anybody who enjoys classic British television, An Englishman’s Castle should be on your to-watch list.

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Two

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Part two opens with another excellent two-handed scene between Kenneth More and Anthony Bate.  Peter has come to tell Harmer whether he’s decided to change the name of Rosenthal to something less Jewish-sounding.  Harmer pretends to have completely forgotten about this request, but we’ve seen enough of him to know that he forgets nothing.  To Harmer’s undisguised annoyance, Peter is insistent that the name must remain and when pressed for a reason he states that he wants to send a message of hope and friendship to the Jews watching.

Harmer is incredulous and tells him that there aren’t any Jews watching the programme.  Those that are alive are in places where there aren’t any television sets.  With a series like An Englishman’s Castle, which is completely dialogue driven, it’s throwaway moments like this which help to paint a fuller picture of their alternative world.  In part one it was mentioned that there were still labour camps for some Jews (although most had already perished in the gas chambers) so the number who still exist in Britain must be small.  We know of at least one, Jill, so it could be that there are others.

Although Peter doesn’t back down, Harmer gets many of the most telling lines, especially when Peter tells him that he simply wants to show the public that the Jews are like them.  But, as Harmer responds, they aren’t.  “We are wealthy and comfortable and alive.”

In part one it was mentioned that Peter’s soap opera is drawn directly from his own wartime memories.  This theme is now developed further as one of the two sons – Frank – is set to be killed off.  The actor playing Frank is highly dismayed when he receives the latest script and learns that he perishes at the hands of the Germans.  In a scene that no doubt has echos with many real-life soap operas, when the actor realises that he’s not coming back next week his mood quickly darkens.  He protests that he’s been with the series since the beginning and is one of the most popular characters, but all to no avail.

Peter explains that the two sons in the show – Frank and Bert – are both based on him.  Frank is his romantic side and Bert is his realistic side.  When the Germans invaded in 1940, Peter’s romantic side died, so Frank has to die as well.  Since then Peter’s lived as a realist, as he’s seen no other way, but events are now changing.

Peter has two sons in the real world as well.  Henry (David Meyer) works on the show with Peter whilst Mark (Nigel Havers) despises his father and everything he stands for.  Mark appeared briefly in part one, where he denounced his father’s politics vigorously, and in part two he’s arrested by the police on suspicion of being a terrorist.  Havers performance isn’t particularly subtle (Mark’s manic radicalism seems rather overblown) but there may be a reason for this (he’s a radical, but not a member of the true underground resistance).

When Peter returns home, he finds Mark in the custody of the polite, but clearly ddangerous, Inspector (Philip Bond).  It’s probably the fact that he’s so very reasonable which is the most unsettling thing about Bond’s Inspector.  He’s not brutal or brusque, Bond gives the Inspector a casual air as if he’s just taking Mark away for a few simple questions.  The reality – as even Peter knows – is quite different.  Mark will be tortured and die, unless Peter can pull some strings.

The only man who has the influence to save Peter is Harmer, and this leads us to another absorbing scene with More and Bate.  Harmer is enjoying a candlelit dinner with his social secretary Anja (Suzanne Roquette) but once he learns of Mark’s plight he’s keen to help.  He rushes off to the phone, leaving Peter to talk to Anja – the only problem is that Anja only speaks German and Peter knows only a few words (surprisingly so, you’d have assumed everybody would have learnt the language by now).

Harmer tells the police that he doesn’t care whether Mark’s innocent or guilty, he just wants him released – which he is.  It’s another fascinating part of the story – both for the way that a television executive like Harmer is able to intercede in police matters and also for the casual confirmation that the evidence planted on Mark was faked.

Peter had come to Harmer ready to offer a quid pro quo – if Harmer can get Mark released then he’ll agree to change Rosenthal’s name to something less provocative.  It’s interesting that Harmer only learns of Peter’s decision after he’s made the call, but as ever with Harmer, he wasn’t acting out of friendship (he’s well aware just how important Peter’s programme is to the government and he’ll do anything he can to ensure his star writer is kept happy).

Peter later muses with Jill about whether Harmer orchestrated the whole thing – arranged to have Mark arrested in order to force him to back down over Rosenthal’s name.  It’s an intriguing thought – which turns out not to be true – but somebody is manipulating Peter.

It turns out to be Jill, who’s a member of the underground movement dedicated to the overthrow of the government.  She’s dismissive of the actions of people like Mark, who it’s implied are simply playing at being resistance fighters.  They throw a few bombs around and hit the headlines, but the real struggle is done deep underground – by people like her.

Peter’s realisation that Jill only became his mistress in order to recruit him is nicely played by More.  He agrees to join, but it’s not clear why.  Is it because he agrees with the aims of the organisation or is it just out of his love for her?  One thing that concerns him is her insistence that anyone who is suspected of being a delator (informer) has to be killed.  Peter might have fought in the war, but that was a long time ago.

We end this episode, as we began, with a two-handed scene between More and Bate set in Harmer’s office.  It’s another few moments which zing with tension as Harmer tells Peter that his son Henry has been promoted to director.  This is good news, but the ominous way in which Harmer goes to say just how loyal Henry is to the state indicates trouble ahead.  It was Henry who informed on his brother and this leaves Peter with some impossible decisions to make.


An Englishman’s Castle – Part One

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The 1970’s were a fertile time for British television dramas which portrayed the country toiling under totalitarian dictatorships.  Apart from An Englishman’s Castle, broadcast in 1978, there was also The Guardians (LWT 1971) and 1990 (BBC 1977).  It’s probably not too hard to understand the reason why – strikes, power cuts, the three-day week, inflation running at 30% and a humiliating bail-out by the IMF had all conspired to dent the nation’s pride.

In some ways, the 1970’s was the decade of paranoia.  Rumours of impending right-wing coups and mutterings that MI5 were planning to oust Harold Wilson and his government abounded.  So it’s no surprise to find several television dramas had tapped into this mood to produce nightmarish visions about what might happen.

But whilst The Guardians was set in the aftermath of a coup and 1990 was set a decade or so in the future, An Englishman’s Castle takes a different tack.  In this serial, the Germans won WW2 and Britain has been a subjugated nation ever since.  Coincidentally, Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB had the same basic premise of a Nazi-subjugated Britain and was published a few months after An Englishman’s Castle was broadcast.

Casting Kenneth More in the central role was a conscious statement of intent.  More had built a career playing a certain type of Englishman (exemplified by classic war films such as Reach for the Sky).  Following the gradual decline of the British film industry More moved into television (The Forsythe Saga, Father Brown) but he still tended to play upright, decent characters.  Peter Ingram also seems to be a decent man – but as the serial opens we see that he’s totally reconciled to living under German rule.  Is he simply being rational or has he been living a lie all these years?  That’s one thing that we’ll discover over the following three episodes.

An Englishman’s Castle is the name of Peter Ingram’s popular soap opera.  Set in 1940, just prior to the German invasion, it’s the story of an everyday British family.  Not only is it a success in Britain, it’s also sold all over Europe (or as Ingram says, “all over German Europe”).  Programme controller Harmer (Anthony Bate) is intrigued as to how Ingram will present the invasion.  Ingram tells him that “I can’t rewrite history. I mean, the Germans invaded us, and we got beaten.”  Harmer’s response strikes the first discordant note. “I look back on it now as a victory. A victory for common sense, and decency, and humanity. The triumph of peace-loving people everywhere.”

Jill (Isla Blair) plays Sally in the show.  She’s young, beautiful and Peter desperately wants to take her to bed.  Jill’s also interested in Peter, but has a mocking and questioning nature which indicates that nothing’s going to happen straightaway.  To begin with, she’s more interested in finding out about the young Peter and what happened to him in 1940.

JILL: Were you in the resistance?
PETER: Yes, of course.
JILL: And then?
PETER: And then there was Black Friday, the day that Churchill was killed.
JILL: And then?
PETER: A lot of us were killed.
JILL: One way or another.
PETER: The survivors took to the hills, and lived like ancient Britons. Had a bad time of it. Then they proclaimed a general amnesty. And I suppose we were getting older and more peace loving and we wanted to see our wives again, our girlfriends … so we came down from the hills and handed over our weapons, or at least most of us did.
JILL: You?
PETER: I couldn’t see that we would ever win.
JILL: No .
PETER: What was the point of it all? What was the use?

It’s notable that we never see any Germans and there’s no outward signs that Britain is an occupied country. All the dialogue strongly indicates that following the invasion, the British were left to govern themselves (but with the ultimate decision-making taking place in Germany). Peter has come to accept this as normal – they might be a subjugated race, but when the authorities are British it’s easy to forget this (or at least push it to the back of your mind).

When the restaurant that Peter and Jill are eating in is attacked by resistance terrorists, Jill is convinced that the terrorists will be taken away and tortured.  Peter doesn’t believe that the British police would do such a thing (“they have a long tradition of not doing things like that”).  “Had a long tradition” counters Jill.  This clearly indicates that they think in totally different ways.  It’s partly an age thing (Peter is much older) but there are other reasons why Jill is much more suspicious, as we’ll discover later.

The scenes we see of Peter’s soap opera are particularly instructive.  He hasn’t been told to write propaganda, but that’s what he seems to have done anyway.  Jill later puts this point to him very clearly.  Although it’s set in 1940, it reflects contemporary attitudes and seems to have been designed (either consciously or unconsciously) to keep the masses docile.  “What they’re saying is now. Be sensible, make peace. We don’t want to die. Nobody does. Survival, that’s all that matters. In every programme you have this keynote speech, your message for now, and your viewers think ‘he’s right, you know’, telling us we’re right. We’re right to go on as we are. Not making any fuss, obeying orders. Just content to work hard, fall in love, have children, give them a good start in life, and retire on a pension when we’re old. Eh lad, it’s not a bad life under the Germans, is it?”

It should go without saying that More is excellent here, but he’s matched step-for-step by Blair.  Another top-notch performance comes from Anthony Bate as Harmer, who is insistent that he doesn’t want to censor Peter’s script, just edit it.  Bate is at his most chilling when Harmer tells Peter that it’s impossible for him to introduce a character called Rosenthal.  The Jewish problem (courtesy of the gas chambers) was dealt with a long time ago, but there’s no way that a sympathetic Jewish character could appear on British television.

This is not a request from the Germans – Harmer is simply anticipating their concerns.  He dangles the possibility that by aggravating them over such a trivial matter they run the risk of inviting German interference in every aspect of their broadcasts.  Is this another example of the subjugated British being more rabid than the Germans would be?  In the first sign of stubbornness from Peter, he refuses to change the name straightaway and asks if he can sleep on it.  Harmer doesn’t spell out what will happen if he doesn’t, but then he doesn’t need to – by now it should be pretty clear.

When Jill reveals that she’s Jewish, Peter’s squabble with Harmer pales into insignificance.  If it’s discovered that she’s Jewish and that Peter’s slept with her then under the racial purity laws they’ll both face death.  An excellent hook to end part one with.

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