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.

Ralph Richardson in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1982)

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You wait decades for a new adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution and then two turn up at the same time …..

Both the BBC and Hollywood are mounting their own versions, although the BBC’s is an adaptation of Christie’s original short story (hence the reason why it’s referred to as The Witness for the Prosecution) whilst the American film looks set to be a remake of Billy Wilder’s 1957 film.

The Witness for the Prosecution was originally published in 1925.  Although it was a brief story, the dénouement clearly pleased Christie as she developed the concept into a full stage-play (dropping the The from the title) in 1953.  Four years later it was filmed by Billy Wilder, featuring an impressive cast (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton).  The film added the sub-plot of Sir Wilfred’s delicate health, but otherwise it was a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s play (including the ending, which she’d tweaked a little from the original short story).

Since the BBC are adapting the original short story, presumably they will reinstate that ending, which would be a good move as it carries much more of a punch than the later play/film conclusion.  Or will they decide to tinker with it?  Time will tell …..

The 1980’s saw a rash of American TV movie adaptations of Agatha Christie stories.  Peter Ustinov reprised his big-screen role as Hercule Poirot, Helen Hayes made several appearances as Miss Marple (although she was always on a hiding to nothing, as Joan Hickson’s definitive portrayal at around the same time wiped the floor with her).   There were also a few one-offs (in addition to Witness, Bill Bixby stumbled his way through Murder is Easy whilst Anthony Andrews headed the cast of Sparkling Cyanide).

The 1982 version of Witness is a slight oddity – as it’s very much a period piece (set in the 1950’s).  Most of the other 1980’s American Christie’s were firmly rooted in the present day, which gave us some incongruous moments, such as Poirot appearing on David Frost’s chat show!

Witness clearly had a very decent budget, as they were able to close down a few London streets (or maybe they simply ventured out very early in the morning) and sprinkle the roads with a number of vintage cars, which helps to sell the period illusion.  Although to be honest, since the main location of the story is a courtroom it wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference if the story had been updated to 1982.

John Gay’s adaptation of the original film screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz doesn’t deviate a great deal.  Sir Wilfred Robarts (Ralph Richardson) is still tetchy with everyone, but especially with the formidable Nurse Plimsoll (Deborah Kerr) who insists that, following his recent heart attack, he shouldn’t overexcite himself.

A juicy murder case, defending the personable Leonard Vole (Beau Bridges), is just the sort of thing she means, but Sir Wilfred ignores her and takes the case anyway, although he seems to be backing a loser.  There’s only circumstantial evidence which connects Vole to the murder of Emily French, but it’s still very damaging.  Vole’s wife Christie (Diana Rigg) provides her husband with a solid alibi, but then she changes her mind and becomes a witness for the prosecution ….

The casting of Beau Bridges as Leonard Vole is an interesting one.  Director Alan Gibson was clearly following the path taken by Wilder’s film which had also cast an American actor, Tyrone Power, as Vole.  It’s easy to see why the original film (and indeed the 1982 tv remake) did so – an American lead would help to sell it in the US – but Bridges seems a little incongruous as the sole American amongst the British cast.

Ralph Richardson might lack the bite of Charles Laughton (Richardson gives his usual vague performance) but he’s still very watchable.  The rest of the cast are comprised of fine British players – Deborah Kerr, Donald Pleasance, Wendy Hillier, Diana Rigg, Richard Vernon, David Langton, Michael Gough, Peter Sallis, Peter Copley, Frank Mills – who help to enliven proceedings no end.

Sallis has the small role of Sir Wilfred’s loyal clerk Carter, but still manages to make something of it whilst Hillier is fine as Emily French’s loyal housemaid Janet Mackenize (whose testimony Sir Wilfred is able to ruthlessly disassemble).  Donald Pleasance and Richard Vernon are rather wasted, but it’s always a pleasure to see them anyway.  Diana Rigg had the imposing shoes of Marlene Dietrich to fill, but she was more than capable.  Given the theatrical origins of the play, it’s no surprise that Christine is a role that requires an actress to demonstrate their full histrionic range – although Rigg has enough self-control to avoid soaring too far over the top.

If you’ve never seen Wilder’s film, then this production should be an entertaining 100 minutes.  If you have, then it’s hard not to compare the two and decide that the 1982 remake comes up a little short (despite the best efforts of the experienced cast).  But having said that, it’s still really rather good and is well worth your time.

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