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.