Cedric Messina must be one of British television’s most prolific producers and directors of dramatic programmes, with at least 250 drama and opera productions to his name. He worked extensively in television for 25 years, always for the BBC as he was committed to the principle of public service broadcasting.
He was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Sicilian and Welsh immigrant parents on 14 December 1920. He was brought up and educated in Johannesburg while his father worked in the copper mines of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Messina joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1930s, initially working as a radio announcer and later as a producer. His broadcasting career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with both the British and American armies.
After the war, the SABC posted Messina to Durban to set up a drama unit, where he was responsible for producing a play each week and became the broadcaster’s head of drama. From around 1947 he spent a period on attachment with BBC radio in London, where he worked as both an announcer and producer before returning to South Africa. He had been promised a permanent position with BBC radio which he later returned to claim in 1958. As a BBC radio producer he produced a variety of programming, from popular series such as Mrs Dale’s Diary to adaptations of numerous classical stage plays.1
In 1962, Messina moved over to BBC television as a drama director, directing a number of episodes of the series Dr Finlay’s Casebook that year and the next. At the end of 1963 he also directed a 90 minute adaptation of Friedrich Düerrenmatt’s The Physicists, under producer Peter Luke, which better reflected his main interest in drama sourced from the stage.
With the arrival of the BBC’s second television channel in 1964, new posts and opportunities opened at the Corporation. The BBC’s head of television drama, Sydney Newman, invited Messina to become a producer for BBC2, or as Messina put it: “Sydney Newman hit me over the head and made me into a producer”.2 It seems he accepted the new post somewhat reluctantly but was rewarded with control of the channel’s premier drama anthology strand, Theatre 625, which began in May 1964.3
Theatre 625 was an attempt to bring “depth” to the drama schedule; to “explore dramatic themes rather more profoundly than has been possible up to now.”4 Productions were loosely grouped in twos or threes, each in some way dealing with the same theme, such as ‘belief’ and ‘women in crisis’. The series was to use as much original writing as possible but existing works were also accommodated where they helped explore the set theme, such as Albert Camus’s The Just and the theme of political assassination. “To me one of the most important people of all is the writer”, Messina commented at the time; “Making the writer known is what Theatre 625 has, I hope, been doing in a small way.”5
There was room for writers to experiment with the scope of television drama in Theatre 625, for example with Keith Dewhurst’s large-scale The Siege of Manchester, which Messina called “a revolution in the way of writing historical plays.”6 Although produced by his successor, Messina commissioned John Hopkins’s Talking to a Stranger, which explored the same themes and events from four different perspectives over a quartet of plays. It was a critical and popular success and came to be recognised as one of the decade’s greatest accomplishments in original television writing.
Soon another project came along, with Messina becoming producer of BBC2’s Thursday Theatre anthology in addition to Theatre 625. Thursday Theatre was announced as “a series of television versions of well-known stage successes” and included plays such as T S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party and J B Priestley’s When We Are Married.7
The series opened with Captain Carvallo, which left the critic of The Stage and Television Today highly impressed. He concluded: “this production proves that stage plays can be brought from the stage to television without losing anything.”8 As ever when considering the work of a producer, we must bear in mind that the director (in this case Charles Jarrott) is at least equally responsible for a production’s artistic quality. Messina produced Thursday Theatre’s first thirteen plays, which ran from October to the last day of 1964, before handing the reigns over to Bernard Hepton.
Messina continued to produce Theatre 625 with some success. His production of an adaptation of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, directed by Christopher Morahan, “reminded us what could be done with the medium” according to The Times.9 In early 1966 drama critic Michael Billington noted that the strand was “easily the most indispensable drama series that television currently has to offer … Under its producer, Cedric Messina, the standard of script-selection and performance is consistently high.”10
Although new writing continued to feature, adaptations of novels and, in particular, stage plays came to dominate Theatre 625 as it went along, with plays grouped by theme phased out. We can only speculate on the reason for these changes; perhaps after his Thursday Theatre work came to an end Messina felt the need for a new outlet for the production of the established stage plays that he so loved.
Messina’s producership of Theatre 625 came to a close around April 1966 (although his productions were screened until the end of that July) when Michael Bakewell took the role over, having relinquished his executive head of plays position on medical advice.11 Messina was moved over to produce Play of the Month for BBC1. Play of the Month had begun in October 1965 to showcase “The play as an event, as a special occasion. The play as a major statement on a big theme. The play specially mounted, spectacularly staged.”12
Messina had previously produced the debut Play of the Month, Luther, and February 1966’s instalment, Where Angels Fear to Tread, before becoming the series’ regular producer. His selection of plays for Play of the Month followed a similar trajectory to Theatre 625. Whereas it had previously included original writing, adaptations of novels and stage plays, the latter dominated under Messina’s producership. Indeed, the 1968 season was announced in the industry press as being “devoted to a series of classic plays with star casts”.13
The series drew from the European and American stage predominantly, with work by all the major dramatists: Terence Rattigan, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Sophocles and many others. Inevitably, the British tradition was most commonly represented, with the works of William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde being regularly seen. Adaptations of novels also occasionally featured, usually those of the British literary canon, such as works by CP Snow, W Somerset Maugham, EM Forster, Daniel Defoe and Virginia Woolf. Messina’s Play of the Month productions came to be recognised for their lavish production quality and star-studded casts, as befitted a series defined by its infrequence.
Messina’s assignment of Play of the Month confirms his professional reputation as a safe pair of hands for significant productions. This is further reflected by a comment from television critic James Thomas a few years later: “When you see the name Cedric Messina as producer you can be 90 per cent sure that there will be an exceptional piece of television, well worth watching for its own sake, whatever your tastes.”14 No doubt it was this reputation which resulted in Messina being allocated to produce the BBC’s January 1967 entry into the Eurovision play-making project ‘The Largest Theatre in the World’. Fritz Hochwälder’s The Order concerned a crime under the German occupation of the Netherlands returning to haunt an Austrian police inspector in the present. The production, directed by Basil Coleman, drew high praise from The Times, which noted that: “One has rarely seen a television play more intensely enthralling.”15
The following year, Messina’s name was one of those reportedly mentioned within the BBC in connection with the head of drama position being vacated by Newman. It is not known whether Messina formally applied for the post or how seriously he may have been considered, and the role was won by Shaun Sutton.16
As well as drama, Messina had a passion for opera. He had produced Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep at Christmas 1964 and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in January 1966, and quite possibly others in these early years of his television career. (Whereas catalogues of drama productions are in the public domain, enabling us to be cover these comprehensively, no such record is available for opera, making it harder to assess the number of these productions with any confidence of accuracy. We have provided a list of Messina credits including his known opera work here.)17 In April 1966 it was announced that he was being put in charge of all BBC television’s studio opera productions, resulting in a major season of opera running across both BBC television channels in 1966-67.18 “Our intention is to win wider audiences for opera by presenting imaginative productions of high quality”, Messina said at the time, noting also that it was “the first time a television organisation has undertaken opera on such an enormous scale.”19
The season commenced in November 1966 with The Mines of Sulphur and ran intermittently for a year. It included a mix of established works, such as Faust and PI Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and new commissions for television, such as Some Place of Darkness, which had a libretto by John Hopkins. Messina reported that his selection of operas for television was governed by “a kind of instinct that tells you whether or not something will work on the screen.”20 Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, directed by Basil Coleman, was particularly successful, with The Times noting that it “must have made many converts to opera on television”, and was entered into the Hors Concours category at 1967’s Prague International Television festival. Messina continued to produce occasional operas and musical plays over the following years.
Messina’s ongoing work on Play of the Month was supplemented with the series Solo in 1970 and Stage 2 in the next two years, both for BBC2. Solo was a series of short one-person shows in which a leading actor of the time played a famous writer or artist, such as Margaret Tyzack as Mrs Beeton and Michael Jayston as Wilfred Owen. Stage 2 was another anthology of theatre plays translated to television and its productions seem indistinguishable from those of Play of the Month (any many were later repeated in Play of the Month, confirming their interchangability).21 A particular Stage 2 success was The Duchess of Malfi, which was unusual in being recorded entirely on location by director James MacTaggart, and was nominated for an International Emmy award.
Although primarily working as a producer from the mid-1960s until the end of his BBC career, Messina did occasionally return to directing also, mainly for Play of the Month. His version of The Three Sisters (which he produced as well as directed) was lavishly praised in The Guardian: “It was extravagantly cast, brilliantly designed, and splendidly detailed. Cedric Messina, the director, achieved feats of space; the sets were deep and cool, and in the ensemble playing the small screen never seemed a disadvantage.”22 Messina’s direction of The Merchant of Venice was “unobtrusive and always sympathetic to changes in pace and mood” according to The Stage and Television Today, and his version of The Apple Cart was felt to be “positively sparkling” by Peter Fiddick in The Guardian.23
Messina was not himself an innovator in terms of televisual style. Leah Panos reports that his “approach to studio productions was generally considered to be rather conventional, as he was interested in cultivating a ‘decorative aesthetic’ based on a showman’s instinct for beautiful sets and costumes, and star casts”, as some of the comments above attest.24 Billy Smart has noted that Messina had a “‘house style’ of casting familiar television performers and [when directing] relaying performances through conventional shot selection.”25 Yet, as producer he enthusiastically exploited new television technologies to expand the scope of this ‘decorative aesthetic’ into the extremes of the realistic and the fantastical.
During the 1970s, new lightweight Outside Broadcast video equipment enabled drama to be recorded on location using the economic multi-camera method of studio work, rather than the more expensive and inflexible single-camera film method usually employed on location. Messina seized on this to record whole productions in appropriate period settings. Smart has noted how this move “can in part be attributed to his strong theatrical impresario/showman’s instincts; historical locations such as castles and stately homes, set in landscaped gardens and verdant countryside, offered great opportunities for arresting spectacle and decorative detail.”26 Messina produced at least ten plays wholly on OB video across the 1970s, including The Duchess of Malfi (directed by James MacTaggart) in the appropriately Jacobean Chastleton House in 1972, and Love’s Labour’s Lost (directed by Basil Coleman) at Glyndebourne House in 1975. These productions were not all wholly successful (for example, sound could be less controllable on location than in studio) but their impressive locations certainly lent their narratives a greater degree of verisimilitude and grandeur than studio settings offered.27
Messina was also an advocate of the Colour Separation Overlay image mixing technique (essentially the original formulation of today’s ‘green screen’), using it most extensively in primarily fantasy contexts. Notably, CSO was used to good effect in the 1973 storybook-style production of Candide (directed by James MacTaggart), in the 1976 production of The Chester Mystery Plays (directed by Piers Haggard), which used abstract visuals and backdrops reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, both for Play of the Month, and, somewhat later, in 1981 for a fantastical, Arabic art-inspired production of Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (directed by Michael Hayes). The results were mixed but Messina remained enthusiastic about the possibilities of such techniques in drama.28
Messina’s regular producership of Play of the Month concluded in 1977, after eleven years. He moved on to a new and ambitious project, the idea for which had come to him while OB recording for the Play of the Month production The Little Minister on location at Glamis Castle in 1975. He realised that it would be the perfect setting for a location production of As You Like It and the idea quickly expanded into a plan for the BBC to produce all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays as a permanent record of the bard’s dramatic works in performance.29 There were numerous hurdles to overcome before production could begin, including negotiating special arrangements with talent unions and the raising of significant sums of co-production finance from America
After a lengthy production period, the first batch of plays were transmitted from the end of 1978, starting with Romeo and Juliet. The critical reaction was mixed. Messina had insisted that all the plays be made in “the style true to the period in which they were set”, free of any “eccentric interpretations”.30This led to some critics finding his productions unimaginative and uninvolving, with American backers reportedly demanding “more liveliness”.31
Although it was without public reference to such criticism, Messina was replaced by Jonathan Miller as producer of the series in 1980. Messina’s production of Much Ado About Nothing was scrapped for reasons which remain murky, with a new version later made by Shaun Sutton, who had been the BBC’s head of drama during the project’s early years and later succeeded Miller as its producer. This production aside, Messina had been responsible for the first twelve instalments of the series and was present with Sutton to receive the Royal Television Society’s Judges Award for the series upon its conclusion in 1985.32 The series has proved one of the BBC’s greatest exports, with sales to around fifty countries.
Messina returned to producing (and occasionally directing) plays for BBC drama strands including Playhouse and Theatre Night, but by this point the single play and, in particular, the play drawn from the stage, were in decline on British television. In 1979 Messina had produced Ian Curteis’s epic documentary drama Suez 1956 and was set to produced the author’s similar The Falklands Play in 1986 until it was cancelled in contentious circumstances, becoming a media cause célèbre.
Messina’s last BBC production was 1987’s The Happy Valley, which had a personal connection for him. It concerned the murder of Lord Erroll in Kenya in 1941 and was told from the point of view of Erroll’s neighbour Juanita Carberry. “The play is an idea of mine”, Messina said, “I knew the Carberry family in Johannesburg in 1940, though I only met Juanita 18 months ago.”33
Thereafter although retired from the BBC, Messina continued to work, often in America, and was active in his support for the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. He didn’t live to see the completed recreation, passing away on 30 April 1993. Messina left behind a vast body of high quality television drama and opera, including new works for the medium and definitive recorded productions of many of the world’s greatest plays.
© Oliver Wake, 2012
Our list of Messina credits including his opera work: here. As ever, we welcome additions and corrections.
Originally posted: 24 June 2012.
27 September 2013: added Thomas quotation and modified Sutton sentence.
16 March 2022: added three new paragraphs (three successive paragraphs starting at “Messina was not himself”) and accompanying new endnotes; one letter typographical correction; amended “more extensively” to “most extensively”; amended “recording” to “OB recording”.