Friday, 17 June 2011
Twentieth Century Theatre - Colombe (1960)
The anthology series Twentieth Century Theatre (BBC, 1960) represents the Reithian approach to drama programming that prevailed at the BBC at the turn of the 1960s. In televising great plays of the previous 60 years, from the stages of the world, it aimed to educate its audience as much as to entertain it. Although many of its productions were artistically very successful and lauded by drama critics, the audience on the whole deserted them for the more populist schedules of the still new ITV.
'Colombe' is a good example of Twentieth Century Theatre, being well-made but - unsurprisingly, given the series' remit - very theatrical in presentation. Television drama of this vintage is sometimes, often unfairly, dismissed as "'photographed theatre"', but here the label is appropriate. Naomi Capon's production offers a straightforward staging of the play, without the ambition to expand on the theatre text. As such it is effective, but appears somewhat flat to a modern viewer.
This form of presentation does, though, foregrounds the characters and gives each actor in an impressive cast a chance to shine. Sean Connery, still two years away from James Bond but already an experienced television actor, makes a strong impression as the cuckolded husband Julien, high-minded and moralistic but naïve in his romantic belief in eternal love. French star Françoise Rosay, in her British television debut, makes the larger-than-life grande dame of the theatre Madame Alexander both domineering and ludicrous. The smaller roles are equally well cast, with Peter Sallis as the obsequious playwright and Patrick Wymark the resentful, downtrodden secretary.
Although undoubtedly entertaining, 'Colombe''s story about the Parisian theatre scene of 1900 can have had little resonance with the lives of the British television audience of 1960. This, as well as its theatricality, makes the recently recovered recording of the play - part of a trove of British material found in the archives of the Library of Congress - a good example of the sort of drama that would be swept away just a few years later by the incoming head of BBC drama Sydney Newman, who championed contemporary drama that was relevant to the lives of its audience.
'Colombe' was seen again on British television nine years later in a new production by John Gorrie for ITV (Playhouse, tx. 19/6/1969). Whereas the BBC recording was lost and now found, the ITV version is seemingly gone for good.