Researching old television drama is often an archaeological process. When programmes don’t survive, a trained historian and theorist can sometimes pick up (and hopefully convey) some idea of what they might have been like through secondary sources.The most helpful source of all is usually a script, especially camera scripts when you can work out the tempo and visual style through specific instructions of the number of cameras that covered a scene and the shots that they recorded (Jason Jacob’s masterly study of early television drama The Intimate Screen (2000) provides the exemplary model of how this sort of textual analysis can work). Insightful research and analysis can also be constructed from off-air telesnaps, promotional still photos, production documents, publicity in the Radio and TV Times, and contemporary reviews.
The archaeological analogy is especially pertinent when working with an orphaned clip from an otherwise lost programme. Just as the archaeologist works to reconstruct the whole pot from the fragment, so the television historian labours to extrapolate an idea of the missing whole programme from what he or she can learn about design, performance and tone from the surviving extract.
Discovering that the last seven minutes of a 1972 Play of the Month production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Victorian comedy The Magistate (1885) have managed to survive (unnoticed) in the BBC Archives presents a good opportunity to test the methodology of reconstruction-by-fragment, and consider what can be discerned and what remains unknowable from getting to see a substantial extract. The clip was transferred to a digital recording in 1999, when it was originally found at the end of a BBC Viewing Library VHS tape of an unrelated gardening programme.
Pinero’s play is often considered to be the genesis of a distinctly British form of farce and been regularly revived ever since its first production (most recently at the National Theatre in 2012). Whereas the French farcical model concerned protagonists who attempt to hide their wrongdoing, Pinero’s comedy derived from the wholly innocent and respectable figure of Mr Poskett (the Magistrate) becoming inadvertently drawn into ever more scandalous and incriminating circumstances.
In a sense, it is unfortunate that it is the last seven minutes of The Magistrate that survive, as they aren’t the most representative of the play’s comic merits. Coming too late in the drama to show any of the most celebrated moments of escalating comedy (such as the Act Two police raid on the dining club or Poskett’s dishevelled Magistrate’s Court appearance in Act Three), the play’s dramatic resolution features sudden reversal of circumstances through Agatha Poskett’s revelation that she lied about her age by five years when she was remarried, meaning that her son Cis is actually 19 and not 14. This discovery means that Cis has not been acting inappropriately, leading to him and Beatie Tomlinson announcing their engagement.
Watching this scene ‘blind’ is fraught with problems that wouldn’t exist if it was the first seven minutes of the play that survived. Without a comic register being established or the chance to build up empathy for the characters and their predicament over four acts, artificialities and implausibilites of plot and performance are accentuated. Without the supporting context, it is easier to see the dishevelled and harried Magistrate (Michael Horden) as simply a foolish man, rather than an unfortunate man driven towards mania.
This selectivity and lack of introduction particularly affects interpretation one of the production’s chief sources of interest, Leonard Rossiter’s performance as Colonel Lukyn, only seen in a fleeting moment of expostulation that it is hard to make much sense of without prior knowledge.
The great virtue of the extract is what it shows of Geraldine McEwan’s performance of Agatha Poskett. Her character has the most interesting dramatic material to work with in this scene, and she is generally still while others fluster and bound. Turning from controlled fury with her husband, to confession of her subterfuge about her age and reconciliation, Agatha is afforded the scene’s most epigrammatic lines:
Aenias: men always think they are marrying angels, and women would be angels if they never had to grow old. That warps their dispositions. I have deceived you, Aenias. (Pinero 1985: 73)
The camera favours McEwan’s performance, often shown in close up and framed by a striking plumed hat. This concentration provides the viewer with space to appreciate facial and vocal details of McEwan’s interpretation; her withdrawal of eye contact, precision of speech and emphases on individual words.
Even though – as a historian – I understand all of the sensible institutional and technological reasons why so much old television was not preserved, The Magistrate is a good example of the sort of production that makes me exclaim “For God’s sake, couldn’t you at least have keep that?” when I collate filmographies. The most recent (and first colour) production of a much-loved evergreen of the classical repertory, well-received at the time of broadcast and featuring performances from some of the best regarded and most popular comic actors of their day, The Magistrate was a programme with more evident claims to commercial and artistic posterity than much of the BBC programming that was retained from this time. The discovery of this fragment – with its glittering reminder of Geraldine McEwan’s unique qualities as an actress – is both a blessing and a frustration.
Jacobs, Jason. The Intimate Screen. Oxford: Oxford 2000.
Pinero, Arthur Wing. Three Plays. London: Methuen 1985.