By the time The Lover was broadcast by ITV on 28 March 1963, Pinter was, as his biographer Michael Billington puts it, ‘in contemporary jargon, “hot” ’ (The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, Faber, 2007, p. 142). So, too, was its producer Joan Kemp-Welch (1906-1999), at least within the television industry. The dramatic narrative itself, based on the erotic role-play of a suburban middle-class married couple (played by Vivien Merchant and Alan Badel), certainly got many reviewers rather warm under the collar.
In this blog post I’m going to suggest ways in which Joan Kemp-Welch’s papers, held by the Library of the British Film Institute (BFI), may be useful in exploring the communicative power of this production at the moment of first transmission and before it reached the stage some months later.
Joan Kemp-Welch, television producer
Kemp-Welch, one of the first women producers for the medium, moved to television in 1955 after three decades working as actor and director in theatre and film. Despite her theatrical background, she was not tasked to direct drama from the start (and in an oral history recording held by BECTU she attributes this to sexism). Instead, she developed her craft by taking responsibility for the live transmission on the first night of ITV, producing scores of editions of a women’s magazine-style programme, devising the pop-record release programme Cool for Cats (1956-61), for which she received a BAFTA Television Light Entertainment award in 1959, and directing many outside broadcasts from the Hammersmith Palais.
From 1959, she began to produce plays—both those from the theatre and those written for television. She was supportive of new writers such as Howard Schuman, Jim Hawkins and James Andrew Hall who contributed work for the Armchair Theatre and Armchair 30 series. Before The Lover, Kemp-Welch had, of course, in 1960 produced the landmark television production of The Birthday Party for Associated-Rediffusion (A-R) and, also for A-R, Night School later on in 1960 and The Collection in 1961. The esteem in which she was held across the industry is not only evident in the number of awards with which her work was honoured but it is also inscribed in the archival record. In response to her 1962 production of Sophocles’ Electra, for example, the Granada producer Peter Wildeblood wrote to her privately to say, ‘Whenever in the future I am tempted (as I undoubtedly shall be) to take a depressed view of the possibilities of television, I shall remember last night’s triumph and carry on refreshed’ (letter from Wildeblood to Kemp-Welch, 29 November 1962, Scrapbook 1, Joan Kemp-Welch Papers, BFI Library).
Sydney Newman, head of drama at the BBC, was impressed by her work on The Lover:
Once again it gives me tremendous pleasure to tell you that you are a marvellous director. I am referring to THE LOVER which both my wife and I enjoyed tremendously. It was a most interesting and fascinating play and beautiful performance. Not wanting to spoil this letter for you but there must be something radically wrong with the technical crew at A-R. Being a pro I have learnt how to disregard the odd boom shadow and so on, but last night[’]s technical errors infuriated me—there were so many of them. Anyway, Joan, you are terrific.
The word ‘infuriated’ is circled in Newman’s ink, and an arrow leads off to the handwritten words ‘no kidding! Do you want to join us?’—a light-hearted attempt to entice her over to the BBC (letter from Newman to Kemp-Welch, 29 March 1963, Scrapbook 1, Joan Kemp-Welch Papers, BFI Library). What Newman evidently didn’t know was that the technical problems that so bugged him may have resulted from particular problems on the day of transmission: a fire had broken out in the lighting control board, which meant that the technicians had to rewire the circuits to the board of another, smaller studio. It is remarkable that such an accomplished production resulted from twelve technically challenging and no doubt highly stressful hours spent on this transmission at Wembley studios (from where The Birthday Party, Night School and The Collection had also been transmitted).
Immediately after the production was transmitted on ITV in 1963, Pinter wrote in warm terms to Kemp-Welch. He was very pleased with the reception of the production generally and grateful to Kemp-Welch for her careful and creative understanding of his work, looking forward to future collaborations. (Letter from Pinter to Kemp-Welch, 1 April 1963, Scrapbook 1, Joan Kemp-Welch Papers, BFI Library).
National and regional newspaper reviews
Wit and sex are the keywords running through the reviews of The Lover’s first production on television in 1963—or, at least, through the thirty five or so review clippings pasted in a scrapbook amongst Kemp-Welch’s papers in the BFI Library’s Special Collections department. The fact that this scrapbook belonged to the producer means that it may not be the most perfectly balanced sample of press opinion, but it is nevertheless a rich haul of reviews including, helpfully, some newspapers whose archives may be difficult to access.
In his biography of Pinter, Michael Billington picks up Maurice Richardson’s review in The Observer, as does Michael Page in his File on Pinter book (Methuen, 1993). Richardson imagines the variety of viewer responses in ‘subtopia’, which Billington equates with ‘frenzied Home Counties reactions’ (p. 142). We cannot know what the actual responses of the many-headed audience across the fully geographical spread of viewers for The Lover were: even those twenty or so who phoned in on the night of transmission are variously described as being, variously, appalled, baffled and appreciative. What we do know—thanks to Kemp-Welch’s scrapbook—is what critics in a number of regional newspapers, as well as the national ones, thought about the production. (It is worth noting, however, that The Lover wasn’t seen everywhere: Border Television and one other regional network refused to transmit the production, on the basis of it being ‘unsuitable for family viewing’. Source: Richard Sear, ‘Such an Elegant Love Play’, Daily Mirror.)
The Yorkshire Post’s rather prosaic headline, ‘Bored Couple Start Affair’, offers no suggestion of the critic’s clear admiration for the production which was felt to ‘[radiate] an intenseness that was almost pornographic in its effect’: indeed, ‘Words throb with meaning and the confines of the small screen expand and envelop the viewer’. The writer in the Evening Echo, more plainly, thought the production ‘reeked of sex, probably too strongly and too blatantly for many viewers’ tastes. […] at times it was embarrassing to watch’. Dennis Potter, writing in the Daily Herald, more cordially agreed that scenes ‘sizzled with intimacy and fantasy’ and he was not the only one to note that it would have ‘earned an X certificate in the cinema’. The Birmingham Mail critic thought that ‘the television screen can rarely have been used to convey such a pitch of sensualism before’. Similarly, The Sunday Times reviewer considered it ‘the sexiest play I remember seeing on television’, ‘a quite daring exploration of the upper reaches of eroticism, and pretty hot stuff for the home screen’, but (ahem) ‘certainly not pornography’.
Several critics used the word ‘witty’ of the production: the Belfast Telegraph, for example, applauded ‘the sheer wit of the dialogue’, as did the writer in The Telegraph and Argus. The Daily Mail critic, too, noted that Mr Pinter developed the urbane wit which he had exhibited in The Collection’ but sharing the praise with the producer: ‘Miss Kemp-Welch added her colouring slowly and unobtrusively. If anyone has made a televisual language without imposing, it is she’. Although several critics name-checked Kemp-Welch and a few commented in passing on televisual technique, most do not address the communicative strategies of the medium. Television Today, doubtless because of its particular interest in television, stands out: for example, Kemp-Welch ‘extract[ed] the utmost in eroticism from some of her shots’. This echoes a few other reviews who comment on, e.g. close-ups of legs or the shadow-play of fingers dancing across a drum. The Bolton Evening News critic goes further, suggesting that the production was ‘witty, not only in the dialogue but in the acting (those tapping fingers and the seductions by the table)’ and, therefore, by implication, in the direction, too. Certainly, close attention to Kemp-Welch’s approach would help to explore how, for example, the mise-en-scène engaged with, reflected and, perhaps, even enhanced Pinter’s ‘wit’—the dialogue, the characterization, the silences.
The Croydon Times declared that ‘A new Pinter play is always an event on television, for no playwright has created so much controversy. Viewers either hate his stuff or go wild with delight about it.’ In broader terms, an unnamed writer in The Spectator considered that Pinter ‘has helped to make television important, and that, through Pinter, television has enlarged the life of our time’. On balance, although some of the reviewers represented in the large sample in Kemp-Welch’s scrapbook had reservations about Pinter generally or, for example, the sexiness of this production in particular, The Lover was held in high esteem by most of the critics writing in these national and regional newspapers.
It also attracted international acclaim, winning the 1963 Prix Italia for television drama, excelling amongst the 94 other entries from 26 countries. This was a notable achievement: it was British television’s first success at the festival and the very first time ITV had entered the competition—trumping, of course, the BBC, as well as drama entries from America, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and others.
The Lover won a raft of the annual awards of the Guild of Television Producers and Directors, too: Kemp-Welch received the prestigious Desmond Davis Award for the most outstanding creative work in television—the first time it had been given to a woman or an ITV person. Pinter himself won the award for the best original script for television, and Merchant and Badel got best male and female actor awards that year. (See the image at the top of this blog, showing Merchant, Pinter and Kemp-Welch at the awards ceremony.) As the South Wales Echo and Evening Express neatly summarized, The Lover was ‘tough stuff, well acted and cleverly directed’.