1950s Audience Research BBC

Anastasia (1953)

Our TV’s Forgotten Dramas season at BFI Southbank continues on Tuesday 10 February with a screening of Sunday Night Theatre: Anastasia introduced by Lez Cooke, who discusses the programme’s history and archival survival here.

One of the reasons why we know so little about the early history of British television drama is the lack of recorded material. The process of telerecording programmes, by filming from a television monitor as the programme was transmitted live, was first demonstrated in 1947 but it was not until 1953 that the quality of telerecordings was considered suitable for recording drama and, even then, there was no guarantee that a telerecording would be kept. Four BBC Sunday Night Theatre plays were recorded in 1953 and they constitute the earliest surviving examples of television drama in the UK. When one realises that out of 255 Sunday Night Theatre plays broadcast from 1950-54 only seven survive we can begin to appreciate the extent of what has been lost. One of these surviving Sunday Night Theatre plays is Anastasia, adapted by Guy Bolton from a stage play by the French writer, Marcelle-Maurette.

First broadcast on Sunday 12 July 1953 it was repeated on Thursday 16 July 1953 when the cast reassembled in the studio for a second live performance. It was this second performance which was recorded. Even so the play was thought to have been destroyed when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to make their 1956 film version (starring Ingrid Bergman). However, recent research at the BBC Written Archives Centre has revealed that the Head of BBC Drama, Michael Barry, refused the request of an “American Film Company” to destroy Anastasia and the recording was kept in the BBC Film Library “for historic and archival interest”. There it remained, unseen and forgotten, as far as I am aware, until I discovered its existence in 2004, finally getting to view it in 2008 when the BBC provided the BFI with a DVD copy. Now it receives its first public screening in over 60 years at BFI Southbank on Tuesday 10 February 2015 as part of our Forgotten TV Drama season.

Marcelle-Maurette’s play was based on the rumour that the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, the youngest daughter of the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, had survived when her family were shot and killed by Bolshevik Red Guards in 1918. In the play a group of Russian exiles living in Berlin, including Prince Bounine (played in the television adaptation by Anthony Ireland) and the artist Piotr Petrovsky (Peter Cushing), exploit the rumour by forming a syndicate to raise money among the exiled White Russian community to support Anastasia, the rumour of whose survival they have encouraged. When the subscribers become impatient to see their long-lost Princess the conspirators are forced to find someone who bears a striking resemblance to Anastasia in order to impersonate her. All goes well until the conspirators begin to realise that the mysterious person they have recruited for the task may actually be authentic. The unravelling of this plot is given credence by fine performances from the cast, especially Mary Kerridge as Anna/Anastasia and Helen Haye as the Dowager Empress of Russia. The BBC Audience Research Report records how audiences found the play ‘gripping and intensely dramatic’ and the Reaction Index of 82 was well above average for Sunday Night Theatre plays. The play was voted Best Play of the Year in the Daily Mail National Television Awards for 1953-4 and Peter Cushing was voted Outstanding Actor of the Year.

4 replies on “Anastasia (1953)”

Interesting stuff. I wish I could have made the screening, but I’m looking forward to Sunday’s a lot. I have a question re the assertion above that “Four BBC Sunday Night Theatre plays were recorded in 1953”. Has your research confirmed that *only* four were recorded in 1953, or do you just mean that only four recordings from that year now exist, which is the case? If the latter it becomes much harder to say how many were actually recorded given the likelihood that some recordings would not have been kept long-term.
Another question: you refer to the 1950s run of Sunday night plays as a strand known as ‘Sunday Night Theatre’. Does your research indicate that this title was used (consistently) by the BBC for these plays prior to 1956 (when it starts being used in Radio Times)? My, admittedly limited, research at the WAC into a few of these plays from around 1954-55, makes me think they were without a collective title at that time. I suspect we now refer to the whole 1950s run of Sunday plays by that title for convenience and because they were all first (to my knowledge) documented by Kaleidoscope grouped under that generic title. I’m not trying to be pedantic, I’m genuinely interested in when otherwise unconnected television plays first became formally ‘branded’ with strand names.

Thanks for your comments Oliver. I think had I been writing an academic article I might have added footnotes to elaborate on the points you raise, but in a short blog it doesn’t seem appropriate. It could be that more than four plays were recorded in 1953 and I should perhaps have said that we know that four plays survive from 1953. I’m inclined to think that the plays that were telerecorded were probably all kept, but I don’t know for certain that only four plays were telerecorded.
To the best of my knowledge the ‘Sunday Night Theatre’ title was not used at all before 1956, certainly not in the Radio Times, as you say, and it’s only retrospectively that the title has been applied. It may be significant that the title ‘Sunday Night Theatre’ only started to be used in the Radio Times after the Thursday ‘repeat’ performance was dropped, i.e. when the plays were only shown on Sundays.

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