Conversation at Night (1969)


Thirty-Minute Theatre Writer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Translated by: Robert David MacDonald; Producer: Innes Lloyd; Director: Rudolph Cartier

Thirty-Minute Theatre was a drama strand instigated by the BBC to return shorter plays, transmitted live, to the television schedules.1 It began in October 1965 with a version of Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure, and ultimately produced over 250 dramas, although by the end of 1968 the live element was had been entirely dropped. 1969’s Conversation at Night was director Rudolph Cartier’s fourth entry into the BBC2 anthology, following Brainscrew in 1966, The News-Benders in 1968, and the Hitler segment of the These Men Are Dangerous trilogy from earlier in 1969.2 It was Cartier’s last production under BBC contract as he returned to freelance work thereafter.3

The short play was written by leading post-war Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who is best known for his full-length satirical stage dramas The Visit and The Physicists. Conversation at Night started out as a German radio play in 1952 and transferred to the Munich stage the same year. It came to Britain as a radio play first, translated and produced by Christopher Holme for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1963.4 The stage version premiered in London in 1966. For television, the play was translated by Robert David MacDonald and produced by Innes Lloyd.

The play is a duologue between a prominent liberal writer in an unnamed European dictatorship and the state assassin. Confronted in his own study, the writer attempts to defend his freedom of expression in the face of the assassin’s advocacy of the status quo. The play is more than a Platonic dialogue however, also discussing “what the executioner calls ‘the art of dying’, of accepting death without rebellion, bitterness or terror”, as The Times reported, with the writer ultimately able to accept his demise with a quiet dignity.5

When it came to casting, Cartier secured the coup of engaging both John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, with the latter giving his first full television performance. Gielgud played the writer and Guinness the assassin. Charles Castle, Cartier’s assistant at the time, gave an insight into the play’s casting upon Cartier’s death in 1994:

In 1969 Cartier was offered the script of Conversation at Night, a 30-minute play by Friedrich Durrenmatt about the assassination of a political figure. I suggested asking John Gielgud to play the part of the assassin [sic]. Cartier said he would be frightened to direct Gielgud, but Gielgud rang immediately on receiving the script to express interest in the project, and suggested that Alec Guinness should play the other part.

Rudy was petrified at the prospect of directing two of Britain’s greatest actors and stage directors. Gielgud and Guinness, attracted by the prospect of working with Rudy, were performing drama on television for the first time [sic], and were likewise filled with trepidation at this new and vital medium.

On the first day of rehearsal both actors arrived at the studio absolutely word perfect; and Rudy was slightly shaken by the fact that they would not be holding scripts in early rehearsals. But the three men worked well together and the production was a great success.6

The Radio Times promoted the play on its cover and mused on the drama’s contemporary relevance, suggesting Gielgud’s character “could be prominent in any country today – though at the moment Czechoslovakia readily springs to mind.”7 The writer concluded that “Although Dürrenmatt wrote this play over a decade ago, it emerges as a very timely piece at a moment when man’s basic freedoms are being challenged more than ever before.”8

The drama was broadcast on BBC2 on Thursday, 8 July 1969. Television critics were impressed by the economical, focused play and its star actors. The reviewer for The Times, Henry Raynor, heaped praised upon the production, particularly the great performances at its core:

It was directed so gently by Rudolf [sic] Cartier, that its principal fascination was its marriage of two different but equally moving acting styles… Sir Alec turned the executioner into a personification of death. He was humbly gentle: the idea that he would not fulfil his task did not arise. Death was a thickly-built, white-moustached, old working man.9

Gielgud also received plaudits for the precision of his performance: “Minute changes of expression, speech, and at one point the speed of almost silent breathing, conveyed defiance, scorn, fear, integrity and, at last, resignation. We watched a man master the difficult art which is the play’s theme.”10 Sylvia Clayton of The Daily Telegraph was also much taken with the performances, noting that the “sombre morality play” was “acted with deep eloquence” by both Gielgud and Guinness.11

Ann Purser of The Stage and Television Today found the play “something of a television event” and praised the way the two actors

made characters of mouthpieces, and put Dürrenmatt’s ideas about dying in a convincing and moving way. Alec Guinness especially brought a strange, paradoxical humanity to the whole barbarous business of taking another man’s life. His performance was remarkable – the quiet calm of a man able to stand outside his hideous job and be a detached observer of the behaviour of his victims.12

Purser concluded that the play was “half an hour of worthwhile television – acting, directing, design – and Guinness and Gielgud, both men of the theatre, used all the concentrated techniques needed for the small screen with apparent ease.”13

Nancy Banks-Smith, writing for The Sun, was also enthusiastic, stating that the play was “One of those performances which leave you in that stunned and monosyllabic state in which you tend to snap at the first person who asks you if you’ve enjoyed yourself”.14 The Television Mail sounded a lone note of dissent, accusing Gielgud of “hamming” and asserting that the production would have worked better on radio.15 The production was successful enough to be repeated twice. It was seen again on BBC2 later in 1969 and transferred to BBC1 the following year.16

Small-cast plays tackling such weighty themes as Conversation at Night were not quite as rare on the television of this period as might be expected, perhaps because of the topical concerns mentioned in the Radio Times. A little over a year after Conversation at Night, Cartier directed The Year of the Crow, again for Thirty-Minute Theatre.17 Set in Florence in 1513, Lida Winiewicz’s play concerned the imprisonment and torture of the ex-Secretary of State Niccolò Machiavelli following his drafting of The Prince. 1971 saw another two-handed Platonic dialogue on BBC2, Don Taylor’s Prisoners, in which a writer and his gaoler debate the nature of freedom and individual expression.18

Cartier himself produced a raft of dramas, primarily during the 1960s, which concerned real cases of persecution. He had previously written of his pride in staging his 1954 version of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as “a serious warning, outspoken propaganda against totalitarianism in all its forms such as Fascism, Nazism, Communism or McCarthyism”.19 Having himself fled persecution in Nazi Germany, it is tempting to suggest that Cartier was drawn to plays about freedom and repression due to both a close sympathy with those he left behind and his staunch ideological convictions.

Like the vast majority of the Thirty-Minute Theatre strand, the master videotape of Conversation at Night was wiped at some point after broadcast. It is another sad loss of a fascinating television play; one which communicates something of the spirit of its age and features two giants of the acting world giving what were, by nearly all accounts, towering performances.20

© Oliver Wake, 2011

Originally posted: 23 May 2011.
30 August 2013: rewritten Machiavelli sentence.
3 August 2021: corrected essay title: an incorrect plural had crept into the title, presumably when the editor amended all essays’ headings and bylines in 2015. The title was given correctly in the essay itself.

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  1. Tony Aspler, ‘Thirty-Minute Theatre’, Radio Times, 30 September 1965, p. 54. []
  2. Brainscrew, tx. BBC2, 12 December 1966; The News-Benders, tx. BBC2, 10 January 1968; These Men Are Dangerous: Hitler, tx. BBC2, 27 January 1969. []
  3. Anon, ‘Guinness and Gielgud in BBC-2 play’, The Stage and Television Today, 20 March 1969, p. 10. []
  4. Conversation at Night, tx. Third Programme, 29 November 1963. []
  5. Henry Raynor, ‘A gentle executioner’, The Times, 9 May 1969, p. 16. []
  6. Charles Castle, ‘Obituary: Rudolph Cartier’, The Independent, 14 June 1994, p. 14. []
  7. Czechoslovakia was suffering repressive Soviet occupation at this time, following the invasion of the previous September. []
  8. Anon, ‘Cover Story’, Radio Times, 1 May 1969, p. 3. []
  9. Henry Raynor, ‘A gentle executioner’. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Sylvia Clayton, ‘Guinness and Gielgud in a sombre play’, The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 9 May 1969, page number unknown. []
  12. Ann Purser, ‘These men of the theatre brought quality with them’, The Stage and Television Today, 15 May 1969, p. 11. []
  13. Ibid. []
  14. Nancy Banks-Smith, ‘The stunning effect of Gielgud and Guinness’, The Sun, 9 May 1969, p. 14. []
  15. Cyclops, ‘Professional Eye on Programmes’, Television Mail, 16 May 1969, p. 22. []
  16. 29 November 1969 and 5 June 1970. []
  17. The Year of the Crow, 2 October 1970. []
  18. Prisoners, tx. BBC2, 7 April 1971. []
  19. Rudolph Cartier, ‘Repentant? No, I am PROUD!’, Daily Express, 14 December 1954, page number unknown. Nineteen Eighty-Four, tx. BBC, 12 December 1954. []
  20. Guinness and Gielgud worked together in the theatre early in Guinness’s career, but only sporadically in later life. See their respective biographies, autobiographies and letters for more on this intriguing relationship. []