BOOK REVIEW / When dinosaurs ruled the stage

THE LOST SUMMER: THE HEYDAY OF THE WEST END THEATRE Charles Duff Nick Hern Books £18.99

Charles Duff's book is a counter-charge mounted against the popularly received opinion that there was no writing of any worth in the mid-century British theatre until 1956, when John Osborne stormed the stage. The forces Mr Duff marshals are perhaps not quite strong enough to demolish the citadel built on popular myth, but he has been canny in his choice of the general who spearheads his attack: the wise, witty, sensitive and literate Frith Banbury. Mr Banbury is an octogenarian plus three, the son of an admiral, a Rada graduate who acted in the Thirties and Forties, often in revue. Late in that decade, the actress Gwynne Whitby summoned him in an emergency to direct Rada students in a Pinero farce. He took to it immediately; and actors and authors took to him. His mother supplied some money, which gave him an unfair reputation as a rich dilettante. He had a keen eye for a script and a gift for tasteful tampering and shaping, often assisted surreptitiously by his protg Christopher Taylor. He greatly helped to nurture and reveal the talents of Wynyard Browne, N C Hunter, Rodney Ackland, John Whiting and Robert Bolt. He also sensitively realised middle-period Rattigan in The Deep Blue Sea, and in the book he disposes of the rumour that a gay version ever existed.

Had Mr Duff been launching a full- scale defence of pre-1956 West End theatre, he might also have enlisted the names of Peter Ustinov, Dennis Cannan, Christopher Fry, William Douglas-Home, T S Eliot, Priestley, the Christies, McDougall and others: but I suspect that what he really wanted to write about was Banbury's long and honourable career. He might have wondered if the director`s profile was high enough for the book to sell and thought that a new evaluation of his chosen playwrights through their relationship with their director - who was also, in some cases, their producer - would be more beckoning.

Mr Duff amusingly charts his subject's reaction to being studied. From a noncommittal, "Well, I won't stop you," it "suddenly became far too over-excited. I was bombarded with suggestions; who to see; what to focus on, even what opinions to hold. . . I took to switching on my answer machine to monitor all calls. Then after one Banbury message - the longest I have ever received from anyone - I disconnected the telephone. Then the letters started. . ." Charles Duff is too young to have seen the first productions of most of the plays he discusses; but he is a professional director and a teacher of theatre history and he has clearly considered the texts he discusses thoroughly and sympathetically. He is not given to indiscriminate praise and his picture of the West End revolving around the dominant management of Hugh Beaumont and his clever manipulation of two producing companies, one profit-making and one not, is as clear an impression as we could wish for of one period in British theatrical history. It was a very different era. After Wynyard Browne's first play, Dark Summer, Frith's mother, satisfied that at 35 her boy had settled in his career, gave him £10,000. Immediately he paid Browne £1,000 - one half non-returnable, the other in advance of royalties for his next four plays. The Holly And The Ivy earned the author comparisons with Chekhov. Such comparisons would dog N C Hunter, too. They wrote essentially very delicate British family plays, dealing "with a quite specific order." Robert Morley's verdict on The Holly is spot on: "A beautifully acted, oddly moving play, oddly because there doesn't seem to be, on the surface, anything very new either said or done, and yet I have seldom, if indeed ever, so completely forgotten I was in the theatre." This was often the effect of Banbury's play-spotting, play-doctoring and play-directing. Does a play have to survive decades, even centuries, to be a good play? Can it not just be a good play in its day? It would be interesting to see if Keith Baxter, who has lately provided riveting but unobtrusive re-examinations of two Patrick Hamilton and J B Priestley warhorses, could bring up N C Hunter and Wynyard Browne as spanking new.

Only a few months ago watching Wendy Wasserman's play, The Sisters Rosensweig, I was happily reminded of a well-heeled, star-studded, Fifties Tennent production at The Haymarket. Gentle, gracious, elegant and comfortable, it had many of the hallmarks of a Banbury production from his heyday.

No book constructed round the career of Frith Banbury can be devoid of anecdotes. Here are Binky Beaumont's feline machinations as well as his elevation of standards of acting production and design. Here are the classic encounters of Dame Sybil and Dame Edith during Waters Of The Moon. Edith, in tears about Sybil's over-acting. Edith, pacified, after six months, with a new Balmain gown ("and do give Sybil a new cardigan"). Binky removing a snowman from the set because it upset Dame Edith, and reducing the designer to tears: "The Dame's tears,'' came the response, "are more important than the designer's tears. Get rid of it."

Gladys Cooper's entrance on the first night of The Holly and the Ivy. She had forgotten to take out a Polo mint she was sucking. On her first line she spat it across the stage, past a bemused Paul Scofield. At the dress rehearsal, she had been fascinated by Act One - not being in it, she had not bothered to read it. Then there is Hermoine Baddeley. Ah! And here we have an immediate chance to see a play Frith Banbury sponsored and developed, Rodney Ackland's The Pink Room. It is about to re-emerge as Absolute Hell at the National Theatre with Judi Dench in the Baddeley role. At one rehearsal, Miss Baddeley was showing insufficient passion for the soldier after whom she supposedly lusts. Banbury asked her if she could throw herself at him with more vigour. "Oh, my dear!" she said, "it's difficult to do it first thing in the morning when one's been at it all night!" Careful, Judi! Best perhaps is the gentle N C Hunter's widow who turned to spiritualism after her husband's death. In the grave his determination appeared to stiffen. When, during a revival of The Waters Of The Moon in 1977, the management asked Mrs Hunter to accept a smaller author's royalty to keep down costs, she consulted her dead spouse. "Norman said no."

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago