1960s Actors BBC Events J.B Priestley Johnson Over Jordan Ralph Richardson Writers

Thursday Theatre: Johnson Over Jordan (BBC2, 4 February 1965)

The 1965 television adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s 1939 stage play Johnson over Jordan for the BBC2 anthology series of stage plays Thursday Theatre[i] (to be screened at BFI Southbank on February 15 as part of our ‘TV’s Forgotten Dramas’ season) raises interesting questions as to the suitability of experimental, non-naturalist, narrative forms for the theatre and television drama.


Johnson over Jordan attempts to dramatise the spiritual journey of a man crossing over from limbo into the afterlife. To achieve this ambition, the play required the use of the theatre’s resources to their fullest extent, culminating in the depiction of the afterlife as an illimitable spectral space, “the presentation of nothing less than infinity and eternity (…) (a) huge, utter emptiness of brightness and cold”.[ii] Priestley conceived his play in opposition to the realism of the cinema as a uniquely theatrical experience such as could not be found in any other medium, through the integrated use of masks, choreography, a musical score and a more sophisticated deployment of lighting than had previously been attempted in the West End.[iii]

The drama required exceptional reserves of stamina and power from its central performer, with Johnson appearing onstage for almost the entire duration of the play. As the character is continually being forced to accept that he has died, review and relive his life and then move on to an afterlife, the part allows little opportunity for the lead actor to relax his performance during the duration of the play. The Thursday Theatre adaptation provided continuity with the original production of 26 years earlier by casting Sir Ralph Richardson to reprise his stage role as Johnson.

Questions raised by this BBC adaptation of Johnson over Jordan include; How could television transpose a theatrical attempt to evoke the vast and cosmic into a smaller and more intimate medium?; Were these cosmic effects attempted in a similar fashion in the broadcast medium and, if so, could they have the same impact upon a television audience as on a theatrical one?; Or were they reworked and reconsidered for the television adaptation and, if so, did this alter the narrative and feel of the source play? The fortunate survival of a copy of this production, in addition to detailed BBC documentation of its production,[iv] allows me to attempt to answer these questions.

The 1939 London stage production.

 Johnson over Jordan was an unconventional new play to present in the London West End of 1939, particularly in terms of its narrative technique and staging. Priestley’s form for the play was largely devised from the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, attempting to depict the immediate state of his protagonist’s soul soon after his death, existing in “a prolonged dream-like state, in what might be called the fourth dimension of space, filled with hallucinatory visions directly resultant from the mental-content of the percipient”.[v] The play had to lead towards a cumulative moment of final decision when, at “the end, the complete four-dimensional Johnson would say goodbye to everyone familiar and of this life, and go out to a new adventure of living”,[vi] this final manifestation of the afterlife known in the Book of the Dead as Bardo. This moment needed to be realised in a greatly expansive and impressive symbolic stage picture showing “this man of our time, an ordinary citizen of the suburbs, a small but gallant picture against a huge background of blue space and glittering stars”.[vii] The demanding effect was achieved on stage through the use of two cycloramas, one behind the other and lit separately.[viii]

To achieve the ambition of showing this process of life entering the fourth dimension would require the full resources of the theatre, requiring “a large cast of actors, ballet dancers, an unusually good orchestra in the pit, a tremendous costume plot, and very elaborate lighting effects”.[ix] The production involved an unprecedented concentration upon the importance of lighting, using the innovative ideas of Edward Carrick, a specially appointed lighting designer:

At the time, lighting would usually only be considered by the director in the final week; here, Carrick designed an integrated pattern of reflected light throughout, giving a soft, numinous quality to the illumination, shaping atmosphere and mood, a development beyond the functionalism which dominated lighting in the thirties.[x]

An original continuous musical score for the play was composed by Benjamin Britten, which combined diverse musical styles “from the lyricism of Johnson’s passage into Bardo, to the angular jazz of the nightclub”.[xi] This form of theatre was much more expensive to produce than more conventionally realised plays, the costs being equivalent to those necessitated by musical comedy.

Priestley hoped that Johnson over Jordan would be seen as being a play concerned with the value and purpose of life, rather than as a play about death.[xii] The different frustrations, urges and achievements of Johnson’s life are shown through a dreamlike scrambling of consciousness, allowing the laws of chronology and sense to be crossed, with characters from all stages of Johnson’s life to appear to him at different stages, sometimes disguised, characters from his imagination (Don Quixote) to appear as if real, and Johnson to talk with the figure of his brother as a boy about the circumstances of the brothers’ death as a young man. Each of the three acts that show Johnson in the stages of his journey towards Bardo uses a different theatrical style to achieve its effects; the first act set in a monstrous purgatorial insurance office uses expressionist depictions of working life pioneered by dramatists such as Ernst Toller and Edgar Rice, music, dance and masks are continually integrated into the setting of the infernal night club in the second act, while the third act requires a less stylised manner of playing.

This unorthodoxy and unfamiliarity of storytelling would need to require a soulful response on the part of the audience, beyond theatrical curiosity:

The piece is not in the key to which their ears are accustomed. If they let go, or will not take hold, of the silken thread that leads them through the labyrinth, they are lost. What seems to others, more sympathetic or alert, to be unusually searching, solid, poignant, far nearer the stuff of our life than the ordinary run of dramatic entertainment, seems to these good folk all shapeless and pointless, a lot of pretentious nonsense.[xiii]

The economic and critical climate of the West End of 1939 did not favour the production of Johnson over Jordan.[xiv] Critics responded with enthusiasm to the performance of Ralph Richardson and to the concluding image of Johnson crossing over into the fourth dimension, but were confused by the tenor and methods of the play, Priestley noting that the more responsive critics were those of the younger generation.[xv] The play attracted significant audiences, but not the fashionable and more prosperous ones who helped to keep plays (especially ones as costly as Johnson over Jordan) running: cheaper seats would be sold out with playgoers, some of whom had seen previous performances. Once the closure of the play within two weeks was announced, it played to packed houses and the decision was made by the producers and company to transfer the production from the New Theatre to the smaller Saville Theatre,[xvi] with tickets at cheaper prices and Richardson on an experimental contract that relied upon his foregoing receiving wages until the run had started to make a profit. This arrangement was also unsatisfactory, and the production closed within two months of its opening.[xvii] In his essay concerning the writing of the play and the circumstances of its production that was included in the original published script, Priestley complained about the prohibitive rates of tax faced by ambitious serious plays such as Johnson over Jordan, attributing, in part, the timidity of the English theatre to these economic conditions.[xviii] The production of stage plays of the scale and ambition of Johnson over Jordan, which could be seen at comparatively cheap ticket prices, would eventually become a much more feasible occurrence with the creation of a subsidised theatre system several decades later.[xix] A television production of such an ambitious and experimental play would also be a means for bringing Johnson over Jordan to a wider audience, but to what extent could Priestley’s intentions for the drama survive the transition to a different medium a quarter of a century later?

The 1965 BBC television production.

Priestley conceived the play, in part, as a response to the new narrative possibilities of the cinema, questioning the continued reliance of the theatre upon naturalist conventions of realism and dialogue when the cinema had adopted these conventions with greater effectiveness. Unlike the stage, the film screen could show small-scale realism in intimate and revealing close-up. A turgid domestic theatrical scene could become more exciting once film “can show you the cup and saucer trembling in Mr Jones’s hand, or the dubious face of Agnes as she peers behind the teapot lid”. What the theatre could do better than the cinema lay in heightened speech, “revealing the very soul of Mr. Jones or Agnes”.[xx]

Twenty-three years later, Priestley altered this view to take into consideration the arrival of television as a medium for drama, which he considered to be an even more appropriate media for conveying the intimate than the cinema:

On the other hand, if I were starting to write now I think I would concentrate on TV drama, even though it is still poorly paid. I would master the technique, ready for the time when there would be a wider choice of programmes, possibly some pay-to-look drama. This could be subtle and fascinating, the most intimate drama the world has known. A writer of talent could have a wonderful time with it. The special scaled-down acting, which doesn’t need theatrical ‘projection’, is already here. I notice a lot of young TV players who are admirable. Indeed, at present the acting is far better than the writing. This may not be the fault of the writers, who may be compelled to deliver what are in effect scripts for tiny-budget films or bungalow problem pieces – Why won’t Dick ask Kate to marry him? – Has Sid lost his job? – What’s worrying Mum and Dad? The TV drama I have in mind would not try to compete with films – no crowd scenes, airliners crashing, chariot races, big effects. It would bring viewers close to a few characters, whose relationships would be explored to the last flicker of an eyelid. It might at times be completely subjective, showing how a certain situation appeared to this one, that one, the other one.[xxi] It would be adult, thoroughly civilised, and probably ruinous. Even so, I think that if I were even twenty years younger I would be experimenting with this new drama of people in close-up, of talk overheard and not thrown at an audience, of gestures and looks caught in quick glimpses, turning viewers for fifty minutes into recording angels. As I write this, I begin to feel the old stirring, I long to break off and put a few ideas into a notebook, to attempt creation in another form and place, committing myself all over again.[xxii]

 Johnson over Jordan bears little relation to the new close-up drama that Priestley saw television as being best suited for, although the scenes in which Johnson is given the opportunity to relive moments from his past life might be suitable for a drama of complete subjectivity.[xxiii] Characterisation of the office bureaucrats and seedy nightclub characters faced by Johnson is created on a bold and archetypal scale, and the play’s climax, depicting the illimitable, can only be seen as a big effect. Priestley did not adapt the play for the BBC himself, but gave his approval to the project, and to David Lyons’ script.

This spirit of total and integrated theatricality would appear to make Johnson over Jordan an unlikely play for successful adaptation, but publicity for the 1965 production promotes the play’s expressionist style as being particularly appropriate for television. It states that “now pure expressionism hardly exists, but many expressionist devices have entered the normal currency of dramatic writing and production, especially on television. All of these make Johnson eminently suitable for a television production in 1965”.[xxiv] The form of television drama pioneered by Rudolph Cartier[xxv] in 1984 (BBC Television, 1954) (predating easy postproduction of video tape, vision-mixers or easy lens-changes on television cameras) was characterised by representational characterisation, stark lighting and setting, and drawing awareness to the movement of the camera around the studio, could be seen to be sympathetic towards expressionist forms of characterisation and narrative. Worsley’s confident assessment, in his Financial Times review of Johnson over Jordan, that “the expressionist form is one that television can deal with very comfortably and successfully: the camera is up to all the expressionist tricks”[xxvi] suggests that the expressionist techniques introduced by Cartier had been assimilated and understood as suitable for television drama by attentive viewers by the mid-1960s.

The amount of time allowed for rehearsal and filming, and the average budget allocated for Johnson over Jordan, made the production a particularly difficult one to achieve. The major coup for the series was obtaining the service of Sir Ralph Richardson to recreate his performance of 1939, the BBC press release for the play describing the critical selling point of the programme as “A big production of what was one of Priestley’s most notable plays, with a big star recreating his original role of 25 years ago”.[xxvii] Richardson’s experience came at a substantial price, his fee of £1,837/10/- (the second-highest paid performer was Rachael Gurney, receiving £374/17/-) a large proportion of the play’s total budget of £9,384/6/5. The expense of the production led to some economies being enforced; an embargo on the use of overtime or extras[xxviii] and the abandonment of some costly proposed effects and properties.[xxix]

Managing to get one of the world’s most prestigious actors meant that the amount of time available for rehearsal was particularly limited. Richardson was filming Doctor Zhivago in Spain in the early months of 1965, and could only be called away from the set for a fortnight’s rehearsal and two days recording.[xxx] For an actor in his mid-sixties to play an exceptionally demanding role (which required him to be performing for almost the entire play, featuring many long speeches and soliloquies) such a concentrated schedule was asking a great deal. The difficulty of the task that faced Richardson became apparent during the two and a half hours of studio time allocated for recording all of Johnson’s scenes on the evening of the 26th of January 1965, the allocated time for all of Johnson’s scenes. The session overran. Bernard Hepton, the producer, explained the circumstances in a letter to the Head of Plays:

 It is difficult to know where to start when considering reasons for the extra time asked for and the final overrun. The main one was unfortunately Sir Ralph Richardson. Lionel Harris, the director, and his P.A, John Glennister, rightly felt that it would be wrong to hustle Sir Ralph. When one is lucky enough to have an actor of his calibre one has to go – within reasonable limits – at his pace. He was nearly fifteen minutes late on the set; he dried – not fluffed – twice, requiring fairly lengthy retakes. He was tired after two long days in the studio, but his performance is a great one.[xxxi]

Hepton’s letter also mentions a serious problem with the elaborate lighting required by the production, mistakes in the planning of which necessitated a re-rig on the first day in the studio. As stage hands could not work on set while the lights were being re-set, and camera rehearsals were difficult in such circumstances, work had already been delayed before recording started. This overrun meant that an exceptional amount of editing and dubbing in post-production was necessary, Hepton praising the dubbing work of the sound editor as a “rescue operation”.[xxxii] This great amount of post-production work used in Johnson over Jordan makes the play, in some ways, a dry run for future productions made by the BBC once more sophisticated editing and dubbing technology became available.[xxxiii]

The expressionist technique of the play’s first act serves to integrate the extensive post-production. While a realistic play that had been cut and dubbed to the extent of Johnson over Jordan might seem to have a jerky and spliced rhythm, the shifts from nightmarish expressionist office to Johnson’s unheard stream of consciousness deathbed monologues allow for sudden lurches of style and design. An example of how dubbed sound allows a change of mood to be achieved occurs in the first cut from an interior monologue of Johnson to an office scene in Act One. Johnson’s soliloquy is delivered straight to camera, with only Richardson’s face illuminated against a background of darkness. On the point of transition the office set is suddenly illuminated and Johnson looks around him. This sudden change is marked by the overdubbed pinging of a counter service bell, formally establishing a change of mood and perception for the audience. The sound effect is continued throughout the act, and is an innovation of the television adaptation rather than the source stage play.

Johnson is given two different states of interior monologue in this first act. His deathbed thoughts on earth are signified by direct speech to camera and darkened background, while his attempts to make sense of his new surroundings are delivered as a man talking to himself, looking about him in confusion. This second form of speech is shown in the harsh interior lighting of the office. While a stage production would be able to achieve the two switching states of darkness, the intimacy of the interior monologues to camera could not be realised in the same way in the theatre where the performer can address the audience, but cannot look directly into the gaze (as if talking to himself in a mirror) of more than one spectator at any one moment.

This ability of the television adaptation to show Johnson’s inner thoughts in close-up intimacy changes the balance of Act One away from the large-scale group choreography specified in the stage text. Although a choreographer was used for the Thursday Theatre production, choreographic elements are only used for scenes of actual dancing in the adaptation; the nightclub and strippers of Act Two and the Company Ball in Act Three where Johnson revisits the moment when he first met his wife. The only exceptions to this pattern are the four secretaries whom Johnson attempts to address in his first words in the office, figures who crowd around him in the four corners of the screen and then scatter away. This motif is then dispensed with, having been used to establish a nightmarish aura for the workplace. To have attempted larger scale group choreography in these scenes would have required greater resources of more time to rehearse and record. Some of the effects of Johnson’s concentration being broken that would have been created by group movement in the theatre are evoked by other, smaller-scale, visual and aural means in the adaptation of this act; sudden close-ups of the Tannoy on the ceiling that barks out instructions and deadlines, the repeated ping of the bell that summoned Johnson into the nightmare office, and a radiophonic howl that causes Johnson to cover his ears. This combination of sudden close-ups and accentuated and abnormal sound had cinematic resonances for T. C. Worsley: Johnson’s “ordeal at the hands of the Examiners who expose the deficiencies of this inept twentieth-century man were illuminated with all the surgical horror devices of the German inter-war cinema, the sound effects by BBC Radiophonic Workshop greatly contributing”.[xxxiv]

The greatest discrepancy between theatrical and televisual effect occurs in Act Two. In the 1939 production all of the characters (apart from Johnson himself) in these nightclub scenes are seen in grotesque masks throughout. This device has several effects. The masks prevent an audience from paying attention to these performers as individual characters, instead establishing the people in the nightclub as archetypes; obsequious bartenders and waiters, ostentatious spendthrifts and plutocrats, painted dancers of loose morality. The boldness of the characterisation of these caricatured figures leads the audience to focus upon Johnson’s reactions to the temptations that they place in his journey through the act as he gets more and more drunk; greed for wealth and rich foods, lasciviousness and murderous wrath.

The decision to not use masks may have been taken for the reason of expense and the difficulty of staging such a difficult scene, but it seems likely that part of the decision may have been a perception that twenty five minutes of television drama with all bar the central character masked would have been an experience that would alienate many viewers. As with the reduction of choreographic movement in the adaptation of Act One, the television version of Act Two achieves its effects of evocation of a nightmare world through smaller, visual and aural, motifs of disorientating camera angles, unorthodox lighting, overdubbed sound and montage. The lighting scheme for the club is lit from the dance-floors upwards, rather than down from overhead: while this may be a realistic recreation of the actual lighting of nightclubs, the contrast between the harsh lighting of the office (and total darkness in which Johnson gives voice to his dying thoughts) of Act One, and the luminescent natural light of the Inn of Happiness of Act Three is pronounced, thematically making the middle act the point of the play’s greatest disorder as much visually as through dialogue. The sense of the order of things being turned around is reinforced by the climatic scene of Johnson in a club bedroom being introduced by showing Johnson entering the room upside-down through his reflection in a ceiling mirror.

The point where a drunken Johnson gets onto the club floor, makes an exhibition of himself, and is pelted with rubbish, achieves its effects in the adaptation through extensive post-production and dubbing. Looming close-ups of judgemental and disapproving faces are cut in, while sudden bursts of mocking laughter are faded quickly in and out. These shots (of alarming faces) are likely to have been shot on the second day in Television Centre (when Richardson was not available) and then edited in manually, a painstaking operation. If this was one of the points where Richardson dried, the cutting of Johnson’s monologue with these interpolations, masking different takes, proved to be dramatically effective, substituting the fluency of continuous speech with an effect of a kaleidoscopic montage of humiliation and disapproval. A further nightmarish detail is created by a contrast of shooting styles, as amongst the nightclub audience is a hated schoolmaster from Johnson’s childhood (introduced in Act One). This incongruous figure in gown and mortar board is shown naturalistically in this scene, signifying his frightening presence to the audience slowly through a long shot, rather than immediately through editing, mixing up the stylistic rhythm of the scene.

The decision to not use masks in Act Two causes the most notable alteration to the play’s narrative in the bedroom scene at the act’s climax. In the stage version the drunken Johnson attempts to seduce an unresponsive masked girl that he has procured. Annoyed by her crying, he appears to be on the point of forcing himself upon her when a masked youth enters the scene. The youth gets into a fight with Johnson, who picks up a knife and then kills him. It is at this point that the masks of the girl and the youth fall away, revealing themselves to be Johnson’s son and daughter, causing the father to reel away in Sophoclean horror and agony.[xxxv]

The absence of masks in the Thursday Theatre version of the play prevents this scene from having the full force of revelation of the stage version. Here, Johnson appears not to recognise his daughter as he seduces her, an implausibility that Harris’ production attempts to cover by avoiding eye contact between the two. This does create a striking image of Johnson seen over Freda’s shoulder in the bedroom, Hannah Gordon’s face impassive and dummy-like, while Richardson’s is animated by lust. The composition of this scene is mirrored moments later at the climax of Act Two, where Johnson’s face is this time seen in the foreground, while the skeletal figure of death looms behind him. The culmination of the scene with Johnson and his children is further altered in the adaptation through the inclusion of a short chase sequence, where the two run away from their father, only (through trick shots created by editing) to find him blocking the part of every exit. This new sequence shies away from the most horrifying implications of the stage play, though the complaint of one viewer (“a Teacher”) in the BBC’s Audience Research Report of finding the play to be “weird, unpleasant and morbid” would indicate that disagreeable inferences could still be drawn from the amended scene.[xxxvi] Worsley’s review of this scene considers the directorial decisions helped the production to skate over Priestley’s deficient ability to convey horrific eroticism successfully: “The slight naivety of the author’s Vision of Evil was well covered up by some bravura pieces of direction in the period style”.[xxxvii]

The adaptation’s faithful following of the source text of Johnson over Jordan‘s chronology made the recreation of the rhythm of the play’s intervals problematic. In the stage production both Act One and Act Two build towards a climax of Johnson encountering the death-like figure of the stranger, leading him towards another part of his journey through the afterlife, at which point the curtain would fall. When the play recommences at the beginning of Acts Two and Three, the audience are presented with short naturalistic scenes in Johnson’s house of his widow and children adjusting to life without him, and speculating as to what kind of life after death he may be experiencing. To a theatre audience, who would probably been away from their seats for fifteen or twenty minutes, these scenes would act as a means of refocusing their attention towards the possible nature of an afterlife and what sort of a man Johnson might have been when alive, before they see him in the forth dimension again. To a television audience, who could only see the play in one continual movement, their effect may have been more disruptive, the conventional naturalist style of their realistic staging and familiar picture composition of dialogue in two-shot seeming minor in comparison with the imaginative afterlife scenes which had immediately preceded them. The Thursday Theatre production attempted to create mini-intervals between the theatrical acts, by repeating the abstract pixellated images and radiophonic winds used for the opening credits of the play, though the juncture between these scenes still appears abrupt.

The final act of the adaptation is much less abstract in design and lighting than the two preceding ones, attempting to reflect the state of calm acceptance of his passage to the afterlife (and the events of his life) that Johnson reaches during this section of the play. The action is concentrated upon a single location, the Inn of Happiness. A memo from Lionel [xxxviii]Harris to Mr Gordon, the House Services Assistant for Television Centre requesting an expensive property of a working fireplace indicates the thinking that went into the design and realisation of this setting:  “The reason is our scene is an inn which must have the appearance of the most comfortable, relaxing place in the world and we wish to help convey this by the appearance of a genuine, lazy coal fire”.

To achieve this impression of comfort and safety, the most alarmingly illogical elements of the Act occur outside the sanctity of the Inn itself. The Inn’s shifting location to various remembered places in Johnson’s life is indicated by shots of Richardson looking out of a windowpane onto various scenes. The viewer is not shown what Johnson can see, encouraging an imaginative response to the images suggested by Johnson’s spoken memories, and encouraging subjective understanding of the unreality of his situation by concentrating upon his responses as he tries to make sense of what is occurring to him. Through the use of a particular radiophonic drone that becomes louder as he approaches it, the window is demonstrated spatially as being the place in the room which carries a special power and significance for Johnson. The consistency of this sound, and the power that Johnson has to make it louder or quieter by walking towards or away from the window, make this fantastical element less implicitly frightening than the fantastic elements of the preceding two acts, which were shown to be visited upon Johnson without his having the power to make them appear or disappear.

The other adjustment to the spatial realism of the setting of the Inn is the existence of an adjoining room, where the scene of Johnson’s meeting his wife for the first time is recreated. The existence of this additional space means that Johnson and his wife are presented with the opportunity to watch themselves as young people, by being seated at a table in their room and looking through the door into the anteroom. The effect of this past experience occurring in a separate space and being surveyed by Johnson with tenderness gives the scene a sense of finality, and of Johnson’s becoming prepared to bid farewell to his life. This creates a different effect to the flashback sequences of the previous two acts, where either characters from the past appear in a disembodied state (such as Charlie, the embezzler whom Johnson’s reporting of sent to gaol, in Act One who appears through prison bars in a cutaway location, the temporal impossibility of which is signified by being blurred around the edges), or walk into Johnson’s world and directly address him (the Schoolmaster in Act One).

Act Three of the adaptation features the only substantial cut from the source stage play. Johnson gets to meet characters from his childhood whom he remembers with a sense of security and affection; a pantomime comedian, a County cricketer and a favourite teacher. Omitted from this sequence is Don Quixote, Johnson having read Cervantes with delight as a boy. The omission rebalances the act away from the totally fantastical as, within the reality of the world of the play, Quixote is the only totally fictive character. The adapted version chooses to concentrate only upon the actual experiences of Johnson’s life.

In addition to the omission of much of the choreography and the masks, the adaptation omits a third element of the original production’s staging, Benjamin Britten’s original score. There were presumably several reasons for this decision; the use of a continual score (still in copyright) by a leading composer would have been expensive, there does not appear to have been a recording of the score in existence and it would have had to have been recorded, and the original score was designed to be played in the theatre in synchronicity with the play, a circumstance very difficult to achieve in the television studio, and difficult to overdub onto a television adaptation which would reconfigure or edit out aspects of the play.

The Thursday Theatre production attempted to replace Britten’s original score with three separate approaches at different points in the play, with varying degrees of effectiveness. For the most fantastical and otherworldly happenings in the play, howls and reverberations are used, created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. These aural effects were listed in the play’s Radio Times billing as being special sound, rather than music. [xxxix] The effect of these noises is to evoke an atmosphere that is cold and inhuman, made apparent by showing Richardson being able to hear them and either covering his ears (when he is being distracted from filling in his insurance form in Act One) or flinching (as he approaches the window in Act Three). The nightclub of the second act is marked by familiar Latin dance records, performed by Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, being played in the background. These tunes are clearly plausible music for such a location, though the dance music used in the original Britten score would have been able to have included motifs and arrangements from other scenes in the play. More problematic is the use of stock music, especially in the final scene as Johnson assesses his life and crosses over into the afterlife. The piece chosen for this climactic moment[xl] does not entirely correspond to the mood evoked by Priestley’s words or Richardson’s delivery, not allowing for a sense of the strange (as the use of radiophonic sound at this point would have done) but the predominant string section sounding rather sentimental, unlike Johnson’s final speech which it underscores. An important element in understanding why the use of this music seems jarring at this crucial point is that this is the first time that non-diegetic incidental music appears in the play, and it bears little relation to what has been heard before.

The effect of the end of the play is somewhat different in this adaptation to how it must have appeared on stage. The intention of the theatrical production, with its luminescent lighting through two cycloramas and field of stars, was to appear cosmically expansive. A television play, recorded in a few hours, could not use the complete studio in the same way that a theatrical production of Johnson over Jordan could use the entire extent of the stage, nor would a 1965 production be able to replicate the dazzling effect of the use of colour (blue) upon the theatrical audience. The television production attempts to create an effect upon its audience through iconography rather than through vast expansiveness. The passing over into the afterlife comes to Johnson suddenly; dry ice appears in the corner of the Inn and envelopes the whole of the screen, the Inn, now totally subsumed in mist is cut away from to another misty, empty, landscape, Johnson, visible only in silhouette, appears in the centre of this scene wearing a bowler hat and holding an umbrella as if in preparation for a long journey, the mist then envelopes the figure and totally fills the screen once again. This most important scene serves to encapsulate the approach that has been adopted by the whole of the production in attempting to reconstruct the play’s theatrical effects for television. Expansive effects that would encompass the scale of the theatrical stage and the audience’s distance from the stage, such as extensive choreography, the use of masks, a live orchestra, the entire stage becoming transformed into an otherworldly state, even the inclusion of a larger than life figure like Quixote, are eschewed in favour of the smaller intimate detail of the close-up (and the isolated sound), especially the close-up that concentrates upon the reactions and expressions of the leading man.

An interesting aspect of the production to be commended by the BBC’s Viewing Panel is its “admirably restrained” realisation, indicating that had the choreography, masks and score been included, the audience might have responded less warmly. Although the publicity for the play emphasised its expressionist qualities as being especially suited to television, the aspect of the production of which the audience expressed the most approval was the humane quality of Richardson’s performance. Although precise detail about what aspects of Richardson’s acting the audience especially responded to is not considered in the Audience Research Report, his is acclaimed as “a most moving and sensitive portrayal of the bewildered Mr. Johnson, brought face to face with the failures of his life on earth”.[xli] Worsley attempts to articulate the detail of Richardson’s performance and how the production allowed it to be presented to its full effect:

 The director, Lionel Harris, showed something more than merely an apt and congruous sense of period in his treatment of Ralph Richardson. This was a typical fine Richardson performance, with that weird disassociated voice raising the temperature of cool language several degrees. Mr. Harris had his cameras in brazen close-up exploring every crevice and cranny in that plain but somehow moonstruck countenance. Only a fine performance by an actor whom experience has dented and blistered could stand up to such a relentless scrutiny. The television treatment of this performance served to remind us that most acting on television is more or less efficient impersonation but that, when a really fine actor is on view, he depends almost wholly on director and cameraman to bring out the full quality of his performance.[xlii]

Worsley suggests that the decision to emphasise the opportunities that Priestley’s play presented for the close-up and intimate gave Richardson’s performance a greater depth and ability to move the audience, while taking away some of the actor’s power to manipulate his performance by relying upon Harris’ directorial decisions. The approval shown towards this approach shows that the close-up subjectivity that Priestley saw as being the greatest potential of television drama could still be affecting when applied to works of a vast and cosmic conception, provided that they also provided parts for actors who could display characters with subjective interior insight.

The case of Johnson over Jordan demonstrates several things about the production of British television drama in the mid-1960s. That the casting of star actors had its handicaps as well as its benefits: Ralph Richardson was expensive to procure and his busy schedule meant that he had less time to give to rehearsals than would have been ideal, culminating in the problems with his eventual performance during recording. This trouble with Richardson’s performance then had serendipitous, if expensive, consequences, in requiring the programme to then undergo much more extensive postproduction than was customary, the editing and dubbing creating sophisticated results. Without replicating the experience of its theatrical production, the BBC Johnson over Jordan realised much of J. B. Priestley’s intentions for his soulful drama through reimaging his play for the smaller, intimate scale of 1965 television; through inference, and the integrated use of space and sound.

[i] Thursday Theatre (1964-65) was one of two series that featured theatrical adaptations created for the new channel of BBC2. BBC Annual Report 1964-5 describes its remit as Thbeing to present “Plays by well-known authors which have enjoyed West End success” (p.25). The other series, Theatre 625 (1964-68) regularly produced adaptations of foreign, experimental or classical, plays such as (in 1964-65) those by Camus, Anouilh, Goethe, Strindberg and Ibsen. Johnson over Jordan appears to have been by far the most experimental play attempted by Thursday Theatre, its place in the more conservative series presumably due to Priestley’s status as a popular dramatist.

[ii] Harold Hobson, Theatre in Britain: A Personal View, Oxford: Phaidon, 1984, p.112.

[iii] J. B. Priestley, Johnson over Jordan, Kingswood: Heinemann, 1939, p.131.

[iv] BBC WAC T5/1,536/1. The 1965 transmission of Johnson over Jordan attracted a minimal audience, with BBC2 reception unavailable in most parts of the UK and requiring the purchase of a new television (Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kindom: Volume V: Competition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.413). Contemporary publicity was also muted, the broadcast overshadowed by coverage of Winston Churchill’s funeral in the same week.

[v] Priestley, 1939, pp.120-1.

[vi] Ibid, p.122.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] John Miller, Ralph Richardson: The Authorised Biography, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1995, p.74.

[ix] Priestley, 1939, p.129.

[x] Dan Rebellato, 1956 and all that: the making of modern British drama, London: Routledge, 1999, p.74.

[xi] Ibid, p.72.

[xii] Priestley, 1939 p.120.

[xiii] Ibid, p.127.

[xiv] Both Priestley (1939) and Gareth Lloyd Evans, (‘Johnson over Jordan’. Radio Times, 26 January 1965, p.43) suggest that the impending Second World War left audiences in an unreceptive frame of mind for such a play, preferring either plays that directly referred to their situation or those that purely entertained.

[xv] Priestley, 1939 pp.127-8, Rebellato, 1999, pp.72-3.

[xvi] The New Theatre was renamed the Albery Theatre in 1973, and then the Noel Coward Theatre in 2006. The Saville Theatre was converted into the Odeon Cinema, Covent Garden, in 1970.

[xvii] Priestley, 1939, pp.137-40, 144.

[xviii] Ibid, pp.135, 138-9.

[xix] Johnson over Jordan achieved its first professional revival in Britain in such a production in September 2001, performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, starring Patrick Stewart as Robert Johnson.

[xx] Priestley, 1939, p.131.

[xxi] A format that was later used by John Hopkins in the four part series Talking to a Stranger (BBC2, 1966).

[xxii] J. B. Priestley, Margin Released, Kingswood, Book Club, 1963, p.220-1. Priestley had written several plays for television in the 1950s and went on to write two more; Anyone for Tennis? (The Wednesday Play, BBC1, 1968) and The Other Window (Shadows, Thames, 1975). Priestley’s conception as television drama offering unique merits of closely-observed, subjective performance and characterisation has parallels with much contemporary discourse as to television drama being an intimate art form (Jason Jacobs, The Intimate Screen. Oxford: Oxford, 2000, pp.117-20).

[xxiii]Priestley’s view of this ‘intimate’ naturalist drama as being a form to which television was particularly well-suited forms an unacknowledged contribution to a contemporaneous “Nats Go Home’ debate about the naturalist tradition in television drama (Troy Kennedy Martin, ‘Nats Go Home’, Encore, 48, 1964, pp.21-33). Kennedy Martin argued that the dominant mode of naturalist, closely-observed psychological realism was inappropriate for the medium of television, and was a convention that had been established by accident. Kennedy Martin saw the practice of naturalism as one that still carried value in the theatre, but as being inherently unsuited for television. Naturalist story-telling was centred on revelation of character through dialogue, and through the revelation of plot through continuous linear time. He saw the existing mode of television drama as being an inherently objective one, allowing the audience to observe characters’ behaviour, rather than enter their inner lives. The new drama proposed by Kennedy Martin would be based around “story not plot”. Although Priestley celebrated the ‘nat’ virtues of television drama Johnson over Jordan, with its abstract and non-linear storytelling, used to tell the story of one man’s spiritual identity rather than a naturalist plotted drama, would appear to bear some affinities to the new drama advocated by Kennedy Martin. For a contemporary response to Kennedy Martin see Don Taylor, ‘The Gorboduc Stage’, Contrast, 3/3, 1964, p.153. The historical significance of ‘Nats Go Home’ is discussed by, amongst others, John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism & British Culture. Oxford: Oxford, 2000, Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History, London: BFI, 2003, and John Hill, ‘A ‘new drama for television’?: Diary of a Young Man’, in Experimental British Television, Laura Mulvey and Jamie Sexton (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, pp.48-69.

[xxiv] Anon, Radio Times, 5 August 1965.

[xxv] Defined as “expansive” by Jacobs, p.117.

[xxvi] T. C. Worsley, Television: The Ephemeral Art, London: Alan Ross, 1970, p.102),

[xxvii] BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxviii] Memo from Angela Heathcote, Artist’s booking department, 12 January 1965, BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxix] Memo from the director Lionel Harris to Heathcote, 18 January 1965, BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxx] Schedule in BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxxi] 27 January 1965, BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxxii] Letter to Hugh Barker, 5 February 1965, BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxxiii] See Jacobs, 2000, p.24, for a description of the new possibilities in post-production that were created by the introduction of time coded editing technology.

[xxxiv]Worsley, 1970, p.102. The scene of the examiners, who stand either side of Johnson barking out complex technical questions that Johnson that he is given no chance to adequately answer, is also strikingly similar to Stanley’s brutal interrogation at the hands of Goldberg and McCann in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958), a much-revived and discussed recent play during the 1960s.

[xxxv] Priestley, 1939, pp.70-2.

[xxxvi] BBC WAC VR/65/64.

[xxxvii] Worsley, 1970, p.102.

[xxxviii]12 January 1965, BBC WAC T5/1,536/1.

[xxxix] Radio Times, 25 January 1965, p.45.

[xl] Ein Helden Leben (A Hero’s Life) Op.40 by Richard Strauss, performed by the LSO.

[xli] BBC WAC VR/65/64.

[xlii] Worsley, 1970, p.102.

3 replies on “Thursday Theatre: Johnson Over Jordan (BBC2, 4 February 1965)”

A version of this piece was the first academic article that I had published. Thinking that he might like to read about his achievements from a less well-known period of his career, I sent a copy of the article to Johnson Over Jordan’s producer, Bernard Hepton. I got a lovely letter back from him, in which he reflected that:

“Coming from a theatre background, TV was not only new to me – and to many others – but it had its many production mysteries which, together with working inside a very big organisation for the first time, I never solved. I hope I made life a little easier for everyone involved, which I slowly learned was a large part of a producer’s job.

Johnson Over Jordan was one in a series of television theatre plays with which I was involved and the most challenging, and considering the lack of technical wizardry we today take forgranted and the restrictions of time and money – as you rightly point out – it was successful for its time. This was due mainly to the director, Lionel Harris, and of course to Sir Ralph. After so many years and so many actors I cannot think of another actor to play Johnson. But then Sir Ralph was a great actor with a unique, magical talent.”

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