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.