Volume 3 presents four plays produced from 1959 to 1966. John Glennon’s The Bird, The Bear and the Actress (1959), directed by Ted Kotcheff, is about a chance meeting on the French Riviera of three New Yorkers – the Broadway producer P. Panghurst Shippers (Harry H. Corbett), theatre director Harris Glass (Lee Montague) and his actress wife Gertrude Glass (Kate Reid) – with the reclusive octogenarian English theatre designer ‘T.G.B’ (Barry Jones), whose character is a barely-disguised version of the visionary theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig.
The second play in the collection, Norman King’s The Fishing Match (1962), conforms more to the regional ethos of Armchair Theatre in its early days. Directed by Alan Cooke this comedy drama is set in a riverside pub in the English Midlands and features Kenneth Griffith, Peter Butterworth, Edward Evans and Colin Campbell as a group of fishermen who, on arriving at the pub, are met by the forceful landlady, played by Yootha Joyce. The play includes the earliest surviving performance of Derek Jacobi as a loud-mouthed layabout and bully, a role Sir Derek has rarely played since.
The Man Who Came to Die (1965) is a murder mystery written by its leading actor, Reginald Marsh. Marsh described the play as a ‘comedy whodunnit’, suggesting an amalgamation of the comedy of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1947), in which he made his first television appearance, and the murder mystery genre in which he frequently appeared on stage and screen. Much of the humour in the play arises from the performance of the housekeeper, played by Gretchen Franklin, whose career on stage and screen spanned a remarkable 80 years. Franklin had been appearing in television plays since 1948 and this was her fifth Armchair Theatre play, although she is best known for her long-running role as Ethel Skinner in EastEnders.
The final play on Volume 3 is Dead Silence (1966), a well-crafted ‘whodunnit’ by the South African writer Monte Doyle involving a police investigation into the murder of an attractive young woman (played by Joanne Dainton) living alone in a luxury block of flats. The chisel-jawed film and television actor Patrick Allen plays the role of Detective Chief-Inspector Newton with a convincing sense of determination and self-righteousness, endowing the character with the aura of moral ambivalence that the plot requires. The play was directed by the seasoned film and television director John Moxey who possessed a particular affinity for the thriller and horror film and brought a degree of visual sophistication to the play.
Volume Four in the series also presents four plays spanning the years 1959 to the mid ‘60s. James Brabazon’s The Thought of Tomorrow (1959) features Rupert Davies as the Sales Director of a cloth manufacturing company, whose health is suffering from the relentless pressure to achieve results in a competitive market. Directed by Alan Cooke, the play is about the ‘rat race’ – the ruthlessness of business and the price that must be paid for achieving success.
Robert Kemp’s Toff and Fingers (1960), features Roger Livesey and Harold Goodwin as the eponymous ‘Toff’ and ‘Fingers’, two robbers from London hiding up in a Scottish Highlands hotel. They pass themselves off to the locals as a gentleman and his valet, becoming beguiled by the way of life they discover in the village of Auchenlochan.
Alexander Baron’s Late Summer (1963) is about the stressful relationship between a middle-aged woman (Constance Cummings) and a much younger man (John Stride), set in a sparsely attended hotel in the South of France. Directed by Reginald Collin, the play has an elaborate multi-layered set by the prolific Armchair Theatre designer Voytek, providing an elegant environment in which the drama between the two central characters is played out. In his viewing notes Billy Smart describes Cummings’ ‘display of repressed and released emotion in the play’s final scene’ as ‘a master class of close-up television acting’.
Michael Harald wrote The Gong Game (1965), the final play on Volume 4, especially for Leslie Phillips, whose career up to this point had largely been defined by his roles as a suave charmer in the Carry On and Doctor films and in the BBC radio sitcom, The Navy Lark. The Gong Game is no comedy, however, but a poignant story about an ex-RAF war hero, now down on his luck, who faces a prison sentence for stealing some money to pay his daughter’s school fees. Like the other plays on these volumes, The Gong Game shows that Armchair Theatre was far more diverse, generically and regionally, than its reputation for producing Northern ‘kitchen-sink’ drama, like No Trams to Lime Street (1959) and Lena, O My Lena (1960), may suggest.
The four volumes in the Armchair Theatre Archive series contain short essays on each play, written by Lez Cooke, John Hill and Billy Smart. They are available to purchase at £10 each from Network.