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1950s, BBC, Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Forgotten Television Drama, Michael Barry

The Passionate Pilgrim (1953)

“I believe that I am right in saying that the first complete recording of a play that may be regarded as a waymark of drama in the fifties, was that of Rudolph Cartier’s production of 1984.” (Michael Barry, From the Palace to the Grove, Royal Television Society, 1992, p.84)

It has become almost a truism to suggest that Rudolph Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (to give it its correct title) was the first landmark (or ‘waymark’ as Michael Barry puts it) of British television drama, the first canonic drama produced by the new medium. Writing his memoirs in the mid-1980s, shortly before his death in 1988, Barry contributed to the canonisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was wrong to say that it was ‘the first complete recording of a play’ in the 1950s.

Although the process of ‘telerecording’ (filming the live broadcast of a television programme as it was transmitted) had first been demonstrated in 1947, problems with synchronising film with the electronic image meant that it was not successfully used until 1953. Even then, Barry suggested that “The remnant scraps of the earliest telerecording suggest a poor quality, that is in no way truly representative of the results that D R Campbell and his lieutenants achieved upon the screen. We have accordingly an absence of visual record from the earliest days, followed by insignificant telerecordings from the next period.” (From the Palace to the Grove, 1992, p.84)

The earliest extant telerecording of a complete play is Rudolph Cartier’s production of It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer, the second performance of which was recorded on 26 February 1953. (In his book on pre-war television, Here’s Looking at You (BBC/RTS, 1984), Bruce Norman suggests that an adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel was filmed in 1939 and subsequently destroyed at the request of Alexandra Korda, who owned the rights. If this is true this may have been the first attempt at telerecording. However, the evidence is anecdotal and if such an attempt was made it must have been of a production that was never transmitted as there is no record of The Scarlet Pimpernel being broadcast on television until 1950).

Following the recording of It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer Harold Clayton’s production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea was telerecorded on 10 May 1953. This telerecording also survives in the BBC archive. The third extant telerecording of a complete play is Michael Barry’s production, three weeks later, of The Passionate Pilgrim (31 May 1953), adapted by Michael Barry and Charles Terrot from Terrot’s novel, Miss Nightingale’s Ladies. I’ve written about the fourth extant telerecording, Guy Bolton’s adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s Anastasia (16 July 1953), here, but The Passionate Pilgrim has not previously been written about, apart from a passing reference in Oliver Wake’s excellent article on Michael Barry on the British Television Drama website.

The Passionate Pilgrim was first produced for television by Michael Barry on 7 August 1949 and Barry wrote about this (but not about the 1953 production) in From the Palace to the Grove. Charles Terrot’s novel was based on the diaries of his ancestor, Sarah Anne Terrot, who was one of the nurses who travelled with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea in 1854. Barry had worked with Charles Terrot in 1946 when he produced Terrot’s play Adventure Story (first performance 29 July 1946), shortly after the television service had resumed following World War II. Terrot sent Barry a proof copy of his novel and Barry immediately saw the potential for a television play: “a very gripping story” he wrote in From the Palace to the Grove (p.107).

The play opens with a woman’s voice setting the scene, over an image of a hand-drawn map of the Crimea:

“In the autumn of 1854 we were at war in the Crimea … it was then, in this the reign of our Queen, that a woman rose up to lead women and to claim that thereafter women should, in heart and mind and will, stand beside their men in times of peril. I was privileged to be one of those women …”

The voice belongs to Sarah Anne Terrot (Rachel Gurney) and the woman to whom she refers is Florence Nightingale (Betty Cooper). One might assume that the ‘passionate pilgrim’ of the title is Florence Nightingale, but during the course of the narrative the ‘passionate pilgrim’ is revealed to be one of the nurses, Elizabeth Wheeler (Maureen Pryor), a dedicated but impetuous nurse who sends a letter back home to her aunt describing the difficult conditions under which the nurses are working in the military hospital at Scutari and the lack of food and medical supplies available to treat the hundreds of wounded soldiers.

Elizabeth Wheeler’s aunt passes the letter to a Times journalist and an MP raises the matter in parliament, attacking the government for not doing enough to support British soldiers in the Crimea. This leads to Sister Wheeler being called before a commission of enquiry and when she refuses to retract the contents of the letter she is dismissed and forced to leave the hospital. Recognising that the purpose of the commission is to discredit Florence Nightingale’s mission the latter has no option but to agree to Sister Wheeler’s dismissal.

The heart of the drama is a relationship which Elizabeth Wheeler develops with a skilled and enlightened doctor, Dr MacLean (John Gregson), who gives the soldiers the will to live despite the adverse conditions in the hospital. When a soldier is admitted to the hospital with Asiatic cholera Dr MacLean recognises that he needs an intravenous injection, which is not yet possible. MacLean himself gets sick shortly before Sister Wheeler is called before the commission and when she is dismissed she vows to leave rather than see his reputation besmirched by association with her.

At the end of the play Sarah Anne Terrot’s voiceover states that this is ‘a true story’: “All in fact did occur between October and December 1954 … In time Dr MacLean became Surgeon General MacLean and saw the reforms he had advocated put into practice.” When Sarah Anne Terrot returned to England she tried to find her friend, Elizabeth Wheeler, but was unsuccessful. Barry added a footnote informing the audience that Elizabeth Wheeler ‘was later thought to have served in the American Civil War as a nurse.’

The Passionate Pilgrim is an early example of historical television drama, a genre in which the BBC was to become accomplished. As Barry noted in his memoirs, the play “represented an aspect of drama’s association with documentary – and The Passionate Pilgrim was an early example of the historical kind – which would be contended for years, until indeed the division was made into the big historical series like Elizabeth on the one hand and the fictionalized reality of Z Cars on the other” (From the Palace to the Grove, p.110). It also showed Michael Barry’s willingness to experiment – an inclination for which he is not especially remembered – when, after the soldier with Asiatic cholera arrives at the hospital, there is an expressionist sequence comprising a montage of voices and music.

While its broadcast came a year before the centenary anniversary of the events depicted in the play it seems significant that The Passionate Pilgrim, as a play which had already proved its worth in 1949, was chosen for production in the week of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an event which marked the beginning of a new ‘reign of our Queen’. As Oliver Wake notes, ‘sales of television sets rocketed’ as people bought sets for the first time in order to watch the coronation on television. It is therefore likely that The Passionate Pilgrim, which received its first broadcast two days before the coronation and its second two days after it, was the first television play many viewers saw, a fact which makes its significance in the history of British television drama perhaps greater than the two extant telerecordings which precede it.

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