In this piece I focus on television’s broadcasts in 1956 of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger in the English Stage Company presentation at the Royal Court Theatre. Tony Richardson’s premiere production is widely seen as one of a small handful of defining productions for the post-war British theatre, but the story of television’s role in its success is still relatively little-known. Remarkably, before the end of 1956 the BBC had shown a substantial extract of the production in a live outside broadcast and Granada had mounted a full studio production for the ITV network.
I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade. (‘The voice of the young’, 13 May 1956, p. 11)
In an important article Kate Harris has explored the background to the BBC presentation in October 1956 of an excerpt from Look Back in Anger. In her chapter in Dominic Shellard’s collection The Golden Generation (noted above), ‘Evolutionary stages: theatre and television 1946-56′, she considers the relationship between BBC television drama and theatre during the decade before Osborne’s play. She outlines the resistance to the new medium by established theatre owners and managers in the immediate post-war years and records that it was only in January 1954 that an agreement was reached to permit outside broadcasts of excerpts from West End houses. It was in this context that the BBC broadcast an excerpt of Nigel Dennis’ play Cards of Identity as what it billed as a Theatre Flash from the Royal Court on 22 July 1956.
Look Back in Anger was the third play put on by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court. At a time when British theatre was dominated by ‘safe’, commercial plays, it shocked with its political energy and blunt portrayal of post-war concerns. Now widely considered to mark the beginning of modern drama, it went on to spark a new writing movement throughout the 1950s and beyond. Look Back in Anger transferred to Broadway in 1957 and was made into a film in 1958, directed by Tony Richardson.