Sunday, February 06, 2022

Starlight Days, by Cecil Madden

Cecil Madden was "the world's first television producer", according to the cover of this memoir edited by his granddaughter, Jennifer Lewis and published in 2007, 20 years after his death. Madden begins with that first broadcast: having been in BBC Radio since 1932, in 1936 he was given nine days' notice to put together the very first television programme, made at Alexandra Palace and seen on TV sets demonstrated at the Radio Show at Radiolympia from 26 August.

“I decided to put on a variety show, and there was no time to waste. I phoned a songwriter, Ronald Hill, and commissioned a new song. He came up at once with ‘Here’s Looking at You!’ a title that was an inspiration. Titles are very important and I decided that our whole show should be called ‘Here’s Looking at You’. This move intrigued the press and cheered the radio industry.” (p. 8)

There were 20 performances of this show, running until 5 September. Madden then produced the magazine programme Picture Post, broadcast on 8 October. Television began officially on 2 November, though Madden recalls of that opening night,

“Frankly, it was pretty dull.” (p. 72)

What follows is a not always chronological memoir of those early days, battling to make the new medium exciting and inventive. Staff swapped roles, taking turns to direct as,

“it brought endless new ideas and trained everybody” (p. 71)

There's lots here I'd already gleaned from The Intimate Screen about the intimacy that TV provided between programme maker and viewer, but this is a first-hand account, much of it listing productions and the people involved, some of it not listed on IMDB. Madden says that,

“Planning the television schedule there was never any doubt in my mind that the emphasis should be on drama.” (p. 74)

‘A play a day’ was the target we set ourselves at the outset, and so it turned out. The process nearly killed everyone. But this was something I was particularly proud of.” (p. 104)

He says the first TV drama was Marigold (featuring John Bailey), and the first whole play - rather than just an excerpt - was Priestly's When We Were Married in 1938. The regular Sunday-Night Play began that same year and was still running in 1963. The first weekly drama was Ann and Harold.  

There's a little on what makes a good drama, such as this observation from GK Chesterton in a letter he wrote to Madden:

“Those who despise detective stories are so stupid they do no even see what is wrong with detective stories. There is no reason why a shocker should not deal with the highest spiritual problem; where it will always, perhaps, fall short of the first rank is in this, that in a great story the characters make the story: in a detective story the story makes the characters. It is made up backwards. Many police novels are quite good, the characters real, the conversation convincing. But the characters have been created to do something, preferably something atrocious, and the convincing talk leads up up to a conviction.” (p. 63)

By the time war started - and the television service stopped - there were 30,000 sets in viewers' homes (p. 117). During the war, Madden returned to radio, broadcasting to the world from the underground Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, where he was also air-raid warden. There, Madden discovered 10 year-old Petula Clark (p. 158), discovered and named the Beverley Sisters (p. 232) and was the last civilian to see Glenn Miller alive (p. 236). (In other firsts, he was also responsible for the first signature tune used on radio, which he devised as a way to hide the cough with which an unnamed presenter always started (p. 57)).

There are plenty of insights about wartime London: the social mix of people in the shelters, the poor laying down beside those in fur coats (p. 145); the stables near the Windmill Theatre in the centre of town, with horses that needed rescuing during a raid (p. 169); the incongruous image of Vera Lynn bedding down on a mattress in the makeshift underground studio for a nap ahead of a 2am broadcast (p. 155).

Madden tells his own "bomb story", of being caught in a raid in south London where, with hat, umbrella and gas mask, he hurled himself over a garden fence and thus survived. But, he says, everyone had such bomb stories - and he collected them from people he worked with and shares them here. It's a remarkable collection of first-hand accounts of strange, scary moments - but it occurs to me that people looking up family history or doing other research wouldn't think to check a memoir of TV production, which doesn't have an index. So here is a list of those people whose bomb stories Madden gives from p. 165 onwards, in the hope this blog post then turns up in searches:

Margaret McGrath (showgirl and actress); Charmian Innes (comedienne); Joan Jay (soubrette and dancer); Valerie Tandy (dancer and comedienne); Bob Lecardo (acrobat); Frank Dei (organist); Alan Bixter (pianist and accompanist); Sandy Rowan (comedian); Nick Tanner and Norah Crawford (veterans of wartime entertainment touring with BEF); Fred Wildon (“old-timer” and concert party manager); Gaby Rogers (composer, arranger, pianist); Vicki Powell (actress, dancer, singer); Penniston Miles (musician); Jack May (comedian); Nat Allen (band leader, accordion and bass player); Mary Barlow (revue singer); Jack Warman (character comedian).

After the war, Madden returned to TV. He had a short stint on children's television, working at the newly acquired Lime Grove Studios, and was then from 1951 Assistant to the Controller of Television Programmes - he describes this as being "kicked upstairs". He was still talent spotting: it's not listed here, but I know from other research that he got Delphi Lawrence her first work in TV. His memoir says he was the first person to suggest that TV should cover sport, leading to Sportsview (p. 283); he was also directly involved in the televising of an excerpt from Look Back in Anger, despite the trepidation of the play's writer and director, and this was just one of a number of stage productions that were "made" by TV. For more on this, see John Wyver's piece on Cecil Madden's memoir for Screen Plays - Theatre Plays on British Television.

Sadly, Madden's account rather tails off towards the end. There's alas no assessment of his achievements or the changes in television - or culture more generally - which I'd hoped for. There's little on the transformation in the medium brought by ITV (though it does get a mention), or in BBC drama under Sydney Newman (who is not mentioned at all). I'd hoped for something on how the old guard responded to or felt about these seismic shifts. Oh well.

Madden left the BBC in late 1964 at the same time as controller Stuart Hood. An obituary included as a coda says he then set up BAFTA. A postscript from Madden's daughter adds that the Beverley Sisters continued to visit him in old age - and that they always dressed the same.

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