The Wednesday Play Writer: Roger Manvell; Adapted from (novel) Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel; Producer: Peter Luke; Director: Rudolph Cartier
Broadcast in late 1964, The July Plot is an interesting example of a television play made during a formative moment in the history of British television drama.1 It was in production as the BBC’s drama strategy was being reformulated, resulting in the shake-up of the Corporation’s drama anthology output and the creation of the genre-defining The Wednesday Play (1964-70), as part of which it was ultimately transmitted. The July Plot is also an early example of drama documentary based around major events from within living memory, and a rare instance of its particular subject being tackled for a British audience. With this article, we aim to give an insight into the play’s production and an overview of its effect upon its audience.
The July Plot dramatises the conspiracy by Count von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking German officers to assassinate Hitler at his ‘Wolf’s Lair’ headquarters in 1944. It explains why the attempt failed, and depicts the fates of the main conspirators. The script was by Roger Manvell, based on the book he had co-written with Heinrich Fraenkel. It was produced by Peter Luke and directed by Rudolph Cartier, many of whose other works are covered on this site.
Throughout his television career, Cartier was drawn to work which dealt with the Second World War from the German perspective, a viewpoint rarely seen in Britain. Despite the suffering of his family at the hands of the Nazis, Cartier produced not only plays which depicted the horrors perpetrated during the war, such as the Holocaust dramas Doctor Korczak and the Children (1962) and The Joel Brand Story (1965), but also dramas which showed that not all Germans supported the Nazis.2 His first production for the BBC, in 1952, was Arrow to the Heart, a German war story about a padre, a deserter and a noble young officer.3 Later, Cross of Iron (1961) dramatised the conflict between hard-line Nazis and moderate Germans in a British POW camp, and Stalingrad (1963) depicted German soldiers of all ranks and qualities suffering on the eastern front.4 The July Plot continued this line of work.
It’s not clear from the BBC’s surviving production file when the project was initiated, but it was in development by December 1963, by which time Cartier was already involved, with the intention of the play being televised around the conspiracy’s twentieth anniversary in July 1964.5 While in Berlin, Cartier approached Claus Hubalek – whose Stalingrad he had recently produced – about providing the teleplay. Hubalek was apparently enthusiastic and also discussed the project with his superior, Hamburg Television’s Head of Drama Erich Monk. Monk suggested a joint German-English production, with separate casts to record versions in each language. Cartier was familiar with such projects, having produced plays and operas as co-productions between various European broadcasters in recent years. In raising the idea to BBC executives, Cartier specified that he would only be in favour of co-production if it was to be based in BBC studios, which he found “far superior” to those of Hamburg Television.6
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its technical complexity, this co-production idea did not proceed, although the exact reasons are not documented. Hubalek’s involvement also came to nothing, with Roger Manvell dramatising his book himself. The aim for a broadcast in July 1964 was seemingly abandoned, with budgets for the production still at estimate stage in that month.7 Full details of the casting process are not documented, but a surviving letter indicates that Patrick McGoohan was approached about playing Stauffenberg.8 McGoohan was unavailable and John Carson was cast instead. It appears that the play’s title was not always certain. Although nearly all the existing production paperwork refers to it as The July Plot, which was the name of Manvell and Fraenkel’s book, this was only confirmed in November 1964, a month before transmission, in a memo which noted the previous title was ‘The Attempt’.9 An undated publicity information document used the title ‘General Conspiracy’, and this was reflected in at least one press preview.10
Although it was primarily recorded in the electronic television studio, as was the usual method for television drama, The July Plot was allowed five days of filming in advance, which occurred across 19 to 23 October 1964. This was planned to comprise two days in parkland in Buckinghamshire, two days on the stages at the BBC’s Ealing film studios and one day and night on the lot at Ealing.11 The parkland would have been for the sequences of Carson as Stauffenberg passing through security checkpoints in the grounds of the Wolf’s Lair before and after planting his bomb, while scenes at Ealing included the interior of Hitler’s War Room, where the bomb is placed, and the night-time execution of the conspirators in the Berlin War Office’s courtyard. A later document also refers to one day’s filming on location at Pinewood studios, though it seems likely that this was the aforementioned Buckinghamshire shoot, which was presumably in the environs of Pinewood studios.12 Rehearsals for the rest of the play then took place across 2 to 17 November, with recording following over the three days of 18 to 20 November in the BBC’s Riverside studios.
With the exteriors and Wolf’s Lair interior all shot in advance on film, only sets for the interiors of the German War Office were required in the television studio. With the relatively short film sequences concentrated at each end of the play, the vast bulk of the drama occurred in this one, relatively confined, location, creating an impression of claustrophobia and seclusion. In television journal Contrast, John Russell Taylor noted that this restriction of settings initially “seemed wantonly constricting. But before long the point and justification of the device emerged: it mirrored the complete isolation of the plotters in their little dream word of plans and no action.”13 This isolation fuels the drama, with fatal uncertainty amongst the conspirators and, crucially, those not yet sure with which side to ally themselves, who are cut-off from both the Nazi leadership and the reactions of more sympathetic parties elsewhere in Germany.
The July Plot had been commissioned as part of the self-consciously ‘high-brow’ Festival (1963-64) drama anthology produced by Peter Luke. However, the underperforming series was cancelled, along with the more populist First Night (1963-64), by Kenneth Adam, the BBC’s Director of Television, in July 1964, while several of its plays were in various stages of production.14 These plays, including The July Plot, were transmitted as part of The Wednesday Play, along with several plays imported from overseas, forming an unlikely first series for a anthology intended by the BBC’s Head of Drama Sydney Newman to promote new plays with contemporary subjects.15 On transmission, The July Plot was introduced by controversial Labour MP Tom Driberg, who assured viewers that it was a true story. It’s not known if this was performed ‘live’ or pre-recorded, but in either case it is not included on the surviving film print of the play. This is unsurprising as this film was prepared for foreign sales and non-British audiences would not have been expected to recognise, nor likely take much interest in, a British MP.
A filmed epilogue was added in which three of the more junior members of the conspiracy talked about how they escaped reprisal in a segment filmed in Germany. This had been shot in advance of the rest of the play, with the Germans also providing Cartier with information to aid the accuracy of his production, in particular enable the faithful reproduction of Hitler’s War Room.16 This part of the programme was retained for overseas sales and exists on the surviving film print.
With an audience of just over four million, The July Plot was the ninth most watched drama for the four weeks ending 20 December 1964.17 The BBC’s Audience Research Report on The July Plot estimated that the play attracted 19% of the potential adult audience, ahead of 16% for ITV, which showed a variety of non-networked programmes in its different regions during the play’s broadcast.18 The July Plot scored a Reaction Index of 75, which was significantly higher than The Wednesday Play’s average of 63 up to that point.19 The audience sample surveyed were largely very pleased with the play, its true story making it particularly fascinating, although as was often the case with programmes relating to the Second World War, a minority expressed the preference for the subject not to be revived on screen.20 It was noted to be “an extremely exciting and gripping drama” and three-quarters of the sample found themselves “enthralled by every minute” of it. Its apparent authenticity was praised and several of the sample considered it the best BBC television play they had seen. Some found reassurance in the play that “sane and reasonable men” had existed amid the “madness” of Nazi Germany.
The report went on to note that a minority of the sample were less satisfied, disliking the subject, finding themselves tired of war plays, or disliking watching violence or “agony of mind or body”. Others found the play’s theme morbid or depressing and some reported that it failed to grip them because of the feebleness and indecision of the conspirators. A teacher perceptively noted that: “in endeavouring to give the characters a more noble trait (i.e. less ruthless than their Nazi counterparts), strength was sacrificed and the men appeared just weak rather than brave and noble.”21 The cast was highly praised by the bulk of the sample, with the report noting that aside from “occasional criticism of individual actors, there seemed no reason to fault the work of a first-rate cast.” The quality of Cartier’s production similarly found widespread approval amongst the sample, with only isolated criticisms. Driberg’s introduction was more divisive, with some considering it unnecessary and superficial, whilst others welcomed it as “a helpful, authoritative and interesting way of setting the scene”.
The play left television critics conflicted, with few wholly for or against the drama. The Observer’s Maurice Richardson wrote that The July Plot had “made a satisfyingly compulsive view. The form, midway between straight play and documentary reconstruction, wasn’t quite unified. Some of the opening scenes were a bit stiff; but tension accumulated as the doom set in.”22 He felt that the roles of certain conspirators had been “over-emphasised by hindsight” and that Stauffenberg was “too naively boyish, and insufficiently war shattered”, but praised the conclusion with the “totally convincing shootings in the yard.” He felt Barry Keegan, playing Count von Helldorf, and Joseph Furst, as General Fromm, gave the best performances.
The Times found it “a remarkable story of courage, honesty, unbridled optimism, inefficiency and tragic misfortune”, but noted that, due to the procrastination of the plotters, the play “seemed more notable for its honest recreation of events than for its qualities as drama.”23 In his Contrast review, John Russell Taylor similarly noted how “a lot of the play’s interest came from its documentary side” but he also reported that he had found it “quite gripping”.24 The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post thought the play an “uneasy blend of fact and fiction” that was “haunted by an air of unreality”, although the reviewer also felt that it was successful in showing how the plot had foundered.25 Giving the play its most favourable review, the Daily Mirror’s Richard Sear found it “intensely exciting” and “first and last good television entertainment” as a result of its acting, direction and research.26
Regional newspapers also had mixed opinions. In a brief notice, the Belfast Telegraph noted how “the historical background, the stark tragedy and the underlying sadness in the dialogue assured the success of [the play]”.27 However, Laurence Shelley, critic for The [Crewe] Chronicle, thought The July Plot padded and that it “lacked the conviction of a straight forward documentary treatment”, although Shelley liked the (documentary) epilogue.28 Meanwhile, a reader was moved to write to the Sunday Mirror to commend the play’s “magnificent” acting and request more such “True life stories” in plays.29 These varied reactions all make reference to the documentary nature of the play and, in some cases, to a perception that fact and drama made an uneasy mix. This was still a relatively early period for the drama-documentary genre and these concerns would come to characterise the dialogue around such programmes for decades to come.
Producer Peter Luke had the chance to pass comment on the play and Cartier’s work on it at Cartier’s annual review in 1965. Referring to The July Plot in combination with another play, he reported that production had not been “unduly hazardous” and was completed within budget – which was not always a given for Cartier, who was known to be over-ambitious at times.30 Luke seemed somewhat disappointed with the overall effect, however, suggesting that both plays, and indeed Cartier’s work in general, “fail to penetrate in depth and reveal little more than that which is on the printed page of the script.” Cartier is noted to have disagreed.
At some point after transmission, The July Plot’s master videotape was wiped for reuse, in accordance with standard practice. However, it had previously been telerecorded to film for a more durable record and for marketing to overseas broadcasters (it was amongst a package sold to the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1965, for example).31 A clip of around five minutes’ duration was also duplicated for educational lectures about television technique given by Manvell in 1965.32 Undated Film Retention Forms (presumably from close to the transmission date) show that Cartier submitted a request for the telerecording to be retained by the BBC’s film library until further notice for the purpose of potential repeats, with Luke making his own request for permanent retention for both repeat and archival purposes.33 Despite this, the telerecording was subsequently destroyed, although it’s not known when. The resulting gap in the BBC’s archive was filled in 2005 when an overseas sales print was returned by a Belgian broadcaster.
Count von Stauffenberg’s conspiracy was given the Hollywood treatment in 2008 with Bryan Singer’s feature film Valkyrie, which garnered credit for tackling the subject for a mainstream, English-speaking audience. But as is often the case, British television had done it first.
© Oliver Wake, 2013
Thanks to the BBC Written Archives Centre for making research materials available.
Originally posted: 1 February 2011.
16 April 2013: Added quotations from Contrast review.
27 September 2013: Added Sear quotation; minor typographical revisions.
15 January 2014: Replaced 2011 post with new version, with substantial revisions to existing material and the addition of substantial new material including audience research.
11 March 2022: Added new paragraph (the paragraph that begins “Regional newspapers also”).
13 June 2022: Added a short new statement after ‘General Conspiracy’ and an accompanying Jewish Chronicle endnote.
[This piece first appeared in the Programme Notes for the BFI Southbank’s screening of this drama in 2009. It is reproduced here in much expanded form with extra material and corrections.]