London Letter

Old charmer on stage, new champion on TV

BEVERLEY BAXTER March 15 1958
London Letter

Old charmer on stage, new champion on TV

BEVERLEY BAXTER March 15 1958

Old charmer on stage, new champion on TV

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

Something is happening in the vast organized industry of British entertainment. It may or may not prove significant but some of us are daring to hope. But perhaps my story should be put down in proper sequence.

In London we have two state opera houses. The senior one is Covent Garden, plushcd, Victorian and very superior, although it is set in a vegetable market which, indeed, gives the famous opera house its name. The second, or junior temple of opera, is Sadler’s Wells which is just sufficiently off the centre of things that it is quite a search to find it. Since grand opera cannot pay its way, both of these temples of music are subsidized by the Arts Council, which draws its funds from the taxpayers.

You can imagine, then, the surprise and shock to public taste when it was announced that Sadler’s Wells was to present no less a revival than The Merry Widow. Eyebrows were raised so high that it seemed they would never come down again. Here were state-subsidized singers and orchestral players descending to a musical com-

edy, even though a venerable one.

So the first night arrived and, wonder of wonders, there was a box-office queue that nearly stopped the traffic. Everybody was telling everybody else of those wondrous far-off days when the lovely Lily Elsie and the one and only Joe Coyne played The Widow until it seemed that the run would never end.

But who could possibly play the role today? The choice fell on Thomas Round, an ex-policeman, ex-airman and a very good chap with a fine tenor voice. He is a likeable fellow and we wished him well in spite of our misgivings. And what a night it proved to be!

Instead of gazing like dopes at animated figures and listening to microphoned voices on a television screen, we were actually hearing the human voice and looking on real people as God created them. Nor was that all. Here were pretty girls and handsome young fellows performing for us and only us who were lucky enough to get tickets.

The critics who had gone to patronize fell

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“The Merry Widow reminded us the relation of the sexes is spiritual as well as biological”

under the spell, and one of them was actually seen applauding at the end. cidentally, it was in keeping that the orchestral conductor was a handsome young fellow in his twenties. In fact, was a night to remember.

Next day there was a long queue of people trying to book seats. Even now if you can get tickets for The Merry Widow you enjoy a prestige almost equal to the New Yorker who has tickets for My Fair Lady.

It may seem an exaggeration but I am certain that the triumph of this charming old piece is a spontaneous reaction against the theatre of today and also against television. Under the impact of the Angry Young Men cult headed by John Osborne

there has been an ugly pessimism in the theatre. Osborne started it with Look Back in Anger and Sir Laurence Olivier lent his powerful prestige support when he agreed to play the lead of the drunken, dissolute, cheap vaudeville performer in Osborne’s The Entertainer. It was another drama set in the very dregs of hopelessness and despairing cynicism and it played to capacity. The fact that Olivier did it brilliantly must be taken into account but the genius behind it all was London's Angry Young Man No. 1—John Osborne.

But the story does not end there. Lord Bcaverbrook’s London Evening Standard always holds a gay and distinguished supper party at the Savoy to grant awards to the best author, actor, actress and most promising playwright of the London theatre year. Quite rightly, Olivier was the No. 1 actor and the other winners were equally deserving. I w;as given the pleasant task of proposing the health of the winning actor and actress, plus the author of the best play and also the most promising author. No doubt going beyond my brief, 1 pointed out that all four of them had earned their awards in plays dealing with human degradation.

A call from Vivien Leigh

Perhaps it was because I had come directly to the Savoy from The Merry Widow where the charm and humor of other days had reminded us that, unlike the animal kingdom, the relation of the sexes in human beings is spiritual as well as biological. Not content with that, I deplored the pessimism of the modern theatre in its choice of subjects. It was some satisfaction that Vivien Leigh called me on the telephone next morning and said that she agreed with every word.

In studying this curious trend in public taste one cannot leave out the overpowering impact of television. It is easy to condemn that remarkable invention, which brings into our homes the great personalities of the world, which shows Prime Minister Macmillan waving to acclaiming crowds and leaves us gazing at studio vaudeville performances that would have caused a riot if they had been presented to the sergeants’ mess in the 1914 war.

Let me be honest as well as frank. I would not be without my TV set if its cost were fifty times what it is at present. It brings companionship to the lonely, it mingles the first class with items of no class at all, it amuses and abuses, but with its magic it brings great events before our eyes. One might as well try to stem the rush of waters at Niagara as to try to limit the impact of TV.

Yet we would be guilty of irresponsibility if we did not count the intangible spiritual cost. Imagine for a moment that the Messiah is being performed at the Albert Hall, or, better still, at Massey Hall. Supposing that when the tenor had finished the solo “Every valley shall be exalted” a man with an unctuous voice came on the platform and informed us that the tenor always took a dose of Pariline—-forty-five cents a bottle at all drugstores—before going on the platform. “Take a teaspoon of Pariline with water three times a day and you will soon get rid of that nasty cough."

1 would like to think that there would be a riot in Massey Hall or the Albert Hall if such an incident took place: but that is exactly what we accept on com-

ntercial television. Well, docs it matter?

1 think that it does matter. Therefore, let me boast with some pride that in my constituency of Southgate, which is a lovely borough with parks and artificial lakes left over from the spacious days of the past, we have more amateur theatre companies and even opera companies than any other borough in England.

These young people meet for rehearsal for many weeks and then move on to Church House, which has an excellent stage as well as dressing rooms, where they perform plays and operas. Incidentally, these activities often result in the young people marrying each other, for it is still true that people marry whom they meet. One of these amateur societies is so courageous that it is going to revive my play, which was such a sensational Hop at St. James’s Theatre in 1942.

These young people refuse to become prisoners of the television screen. But alas! they are a tiny minority, even in Southgate.

But to return to my main theme—the all-conquering TV monster is no longer without its hero. A Sir Galahad has appeared on the scene, a gallant fellow whose name is Sidney Bernstein. You will be certain to hear a lot about him so let me, in a paragraph or two, introduce him to you.

Sidney Bernstein was a young man who made quite a bit of money by buying small suburban cinemas in the days when everyone went to films. His system of buying was as unusual as it was successful. The owner would take him to the cinema in the morning and Bernstein would say, “But what a lovely theatre! And how well it is situated. It is a charming place.”

Inevitably, the owner would raise the price in his own mind, when suddenly Bernstein would offer him a sum so low that the poor fellow reeled from the shock. Then they would haggle and eventually Bernstein w'ould do the deal having got the theatre at a price lower than the owner ever contemplated.

When television came along Bernstein studied it until parliament decreed that there should be commercial TV as well as the BBC. He waited until the early pioneers had burned their fingers and then he bought time on commercial TV and called his company Granada, after his early chain of theatres.

At first he confined his programs to the Manchester area and learned by trial and error. Then he decided to invade London and take a peak time on commercial television. With a courage and audacity beyond praise he decided that there was a public for the first-class even on TV. So he began a program called Chelsea at Nine, with the costly and popular Douglas Fairbanks as compere. It has been a brilliant success even

though, inevitably, there have been stars that failed to twinkle from time to time. He has even engaged singers who can really sing, and pianists who can really play, but behind it all has been superb showmanship.

Faced with this challenge and indeed the growing popularity of commercial TV, the state-controlled BBC felt that it must do something desperate. And it did. A solemn announcement was issued that a new governor-chairman had been appointed. And who was this champion chosen to lead the mighty corporation

against the forces of commercial television? Believe it or not it was no less a person than Sir Arthur fforde, headmaster of Rugby, where the famous if fictional Tom Brown was educated.

You might ask why such a man should be chosen as the state's principal supplier of TV and broadcasting entertainment. Believe me. Sir Arthur is much more than a schoolmaster. He is a member of the Council of Law Society: in the Hitler war he was under-secretary of the Ministry of Supply: in the last year of the war he was under-secretary of the Treas-

ury and became chairman of the Cement Costs Committee at the Ministry of Works. Could there possibly be a man better equipped to direct the BBC in its grim struggle with the commercials? It only remains for some comedian from the Palladium to be appointed headmaster of Rugby, and the circle would be complete.

Well, there we are. I began with the statement that something is happening in the vast organized industry of British entertainment. I hope that you will agree. ★