London Letter

Why Britain’s biggest stars flopped on TV

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 23 1959
London Letter

Why Britain’s biggest stars flopped on TV

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 23 1959

Why Britain’s biggest stars flopped on TV

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

If you had happened to be in Pall Mall on a recent night at about eleven o'clock you would have seen the emergence, from a famous club, of one hundred or so men deep in discussion. And you would have seen them break up into little groups and continue their talk as if reluctant to go home.

Also if you had looked carefully you would have seen among them famous personalities of the London stage, mixed with a politician or two, and men from the provinces with the unmistakable mannerisms of the theatrical fraternity.

They had met in private to dine and to discuss the health of the living theatre not merely in London but in the provinces as well. And from the loquacity of the men emerging from the club it was evident that the debate had been a lively one.

The accepted legend is that the theatre is dying but. like Charles II, it is taking an unconscionable time about it. Ever since "flicker pictures” burst upon the entertainment world the theatre has fought a battle of survival. And when TV arrived it was feared that the living drama would be reduced to little more than a memory of past years.

One by one the theatres of Lon-

don went down before the ruthless axe of the demolitionist. You will remember that a number of us got together to try to save that most beautiful of all theatres, St.

James’s, while Vivien Leigh risked imprisonment in the Tower by

making a protest in the sacred chamber of the House of Lords. But it was to no avail.

Down and out went Stoll's

Opera House, built by Oscar Hammerstein's grandfather. The famous old Gaiety had already closed its doors, and at the Lyceum, where Henry Irving ruled so long, “the rest is silence.” It was difficult enough for the living theatre to survive the onslaught of the film but when TV came into being it seemed certain that the theatre could be little more than a surviving memory.

No one can deny that television has won its place, not merely as a medium of entertainment and information, but as a companion. It has annihilated loneliness. It allows the human voice to break the silence of the empty house. It brings the poet, the poseur and the politician to one's living room.

In fact as we studied this new era in entertainment it seemed evident that the

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London Letter

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“TV’s stooge audiences are too self-conscious to produce the effect you find in the theatre”

living theatre would only survive in a metropolis such as Paris, London, New York or Moscow. And even so the actors would be drawn away by money to the silver screen of the cinema.

And then a strange thing happened. The suppliers of TV's high-class programs in Britain had quite rightly planned to engage such artists as Sir Laurence Olivier. Sir John Gielgud and Vivien lei eh to bring the drama to the screen.

Sir Laurence is the most gifted actor of our age, an actor whose triumph in the living theatre was brilliantly repeated on the screen. "Quote your own price." said the commercial television companies. Perhaps to his credit, let it herewith be set down that Sir Laurence was a flop, a real, undeniable Hop on TV.

Did he go above the intelligence of his mass audience? Not at all. He acted with the same vitality, intelligence and skill as in the living theatre. And the result? It was almost embarrassing.

An actor must move or else he is no more than a politician or one of Madame Tussaud's waxworks endowed with a mechanically reproduced voice. As for Olivier's fascinating feline wife. Vivien Lcisjh. she was a problem to herself and the TV audience.

Why? The answer is quite simple. They moved like actors. They spoke like actors. And in the process they burst the seams of television decorum.

It is true that the problem of movement on the IV screen did not ailed such activities as soccer or that annual sporting slaughter of horses known as the Grand National Steeplechase. But even then we could only get the picture of the horses at an angle since even cameramen do not want to die befoie their time. As for that solemn ntual known as cricket, it is impossible for TV to create the cathedral atmosphere of the most solemn game ever invented.

Let us now return to the studio to carry our argument still further. 1 have contended that actors must move in the I V production of a play unless they are to appear as mere automatons. Yet there was recently on the BBC a brilliant production of an Oscar Wilde play in which the actors hardly moved at all but merely spoke the classical nonsense of that incomparable wit and stylist. But the fact remains that Gielgud. Olivier, Vivien Leigh. Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike have faded out from the television hierarchy.

And then like the first rays of a rising sun the surviving theatres in the province began to experience a steady increase of patrons. It was the Little T heatre movement that led the revival. T he instinct of companionship took them away from their fireplaces and they mingled with their kind to enjoy the acting of real flesh - and - blood creatures. T heatres that had closed down came to life again.

In London the same phenomenon was observed. Let us give praise where it is due: I do not doubt that the impact of My Fair Lady drew thousands of people back fo the theatre. There was the thrill of applause, the brilliant dancing on the vast stage of Drury Lane, the roars of laughter and above all those indefinable things known as audience unity and audience reaction.

Only an expert can judge a play by seeing it performed in an empty theatre.

but the mass coherency of an audience can recognize genius or brilliance at once. Television tries to achieve that effect by using a stooge audience but the response is seldom genuine, for the simple reason that the selected audience is conscious

that they are part of the show.

What brought about the revival of the theatre in the provinces? Man is a social animal and the herd instinct is strong. Mrs. Smith noticed in the theatre that Mrs. Jones had a new hat. Mrs. Green

gave Mrs. Brown all the news about her daughter’s engagement. And when the curtain went up they were carried away from their little world to islands of imagination.

As for Stratford - on - Avon, which

threatens to be known in Canada as that other Stratford, the Memorial Theatre is packed to the gills even though many pilgrims go there as a duty. But look what the pilgrimage gives you: the lovely River Avon, a wonderful theatre and the quaint old town of Stratford with its endless supply of Shakespeare relics— manufactured, it is said, in Birmingham.

But in these days one must be careful to indicate clearly which Stratford is meant. I understand that in the gathering at the club in London, which I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, a West End impresario cited Canada’s Stratford as a mighty achievement that gave inspiration to the whole theatre world. I hope that the ghost of Shakespeare walks sometimes as his words in Canada's Stratford add glory to the summer's night.

Though it is true that in London and in New York there has been a striking revival in the theatre it does not necessarily mean that television will shrink like a faded violet. The unchallengeable appeal of television is its power to bring the outstanding personalities of the moment before the vast jury of the people. No longer is a prime minister a mere legend—he is a demonstrable fact. Yet if he orated on the silver screen he would be faintly ridiculous. If Abraham Lincoln had delivered his Gettysburg address on TV it would not have survived the centuries. If Churchill had proclaimed on TV that we would fight on the beaches and in the hills it would have been a visual and vocal performance robbed of immortality.

In my youth in Toronto Í saw the great actors of my time and felt that I was in the presence of immortality. Science with all its ingenuity cannot give us the man himself.

The truth is that television, despite its undoubted power to forestall the newspapers in spot news, is limited by the condensation of space which is forced on it by the size of the screen. It cannot take the place of the theatre where the audience and the players achieve the essential unity that drama demands. Nor can it give us grand opera which requires the vastness of the stage and the compelling surge of a great orchestra.

Yet let us in all sincerity give gratitude to television for its lively companionship, for its projection of political leaders at moments of crisis, for its glimpse of swirling hockey players and thudding football stars, and for the intimate spectacle of Prime Minister Diefenbaker addressing the spellbound crowds from the mountain top.

But the theatre is alive—long live the theatre! That is really all that I intended to tell you in this letter from London, -fc