Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff
When people talk about live television drama, and in particular the disasters that can befall live productions, actors forgetting their lines and technical faults loom large. Sometimes mention will be made of the incident in which a leading actor died during a performance. It sounds like it could be a black joke or an industry myth, but it’s true. It’s a morbid story but a fascinating one.
The production in question was Underground, transmitted on Sunday 30 November 1958 as part of ITV company ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology. It was directed by William (known as Ted) Kotcheff, one of ABC’s regular directors, then aged only 27, and produced by Sydney Newman, who had recently been given responsibility for all the company’s drama. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s novel Few Were Left, which had been published in 1955. No recording of the play exists, so this account is based on various interviews and media reports about the play. There are several accounts of what happened which, though largely consistent on the main events, differ notably on the smaller details. In this essay I’ll try to separate the reality from the myth and distortion as far as is possible at this remove from the event itself.
The ill-fated actor was Welshman Gareth Jones. Accounts differ as to his age, with The Times, The Manchester Guardian, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and The Stage newspaper all reporting he was 35, whereas fellow actors Peter Bowles (who appeared in Underground) and Richard Huggett (who, to the best of our information, did not1 ) put him in his twenties.2 Kotcheff reported he was 32.3 In their obituary, The Stage called Jones “A good actor, a hard worker, a real “pro” and a man of great personal charm”.4 Decades later, Huggett, who reported he had been Jones’s friend and contemporary at drama school, recalled him as “a fat, flabby, lazy, likable, oversexed, boozy, moderately talented actor”.5
According to Huggett, Jones had graduated from the Central School of Dramatic Art in the summer of 1953 and, apparently without much effort, was rapidly able to join a West End company formed by ‘Binkie’ Beaumont.6 He played Marcellus in Hamlet and when this production was staged in Moscow in 1955 he reportedly became the first English actor to speak on a Russian stage since the 1917 revolution.7 He subsequently appeared in a number of roles at theatres across Britain and on television, including playing in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood on both stage and television.8 Of his television work, The Stage reported that he was “always in constant demand and he loved working in the medium although he thought it was very hectic and terrifying.”9 His television roles included parts in three other Armchair Theatre plays earlier in 1958.
Underground followed a group of people who had been waiting for a train at a London Underground station when they are plunged into darkness by a huge explosion on the surface which encloses the railway network, collapsing some of the tunnels. The adaptation changed a number of elements from Rein’s novel. Most obviously, the story was relocated from New York’s subway system to the London Underground. In the novel, the cause of the disaster on the surface remains unspecified. For the play, it seems the cause was strongly implied to be the use of an atomic bomb, as a number of reviews and interviews in relation to the play refer to this cause, although the TV Times’s publicity article noted that the underground survivors could only speculate as to the cause of the catastrophe above.10
The main characters were Art (played by Donald Houston), who, when the disaster occurred, had been about to throw himself in front of a train in despair at humanity’s self-destructive urge; Bob (Ian Curry), an injured and scared American serviceman; and Cassie (Patricia Jessel), a quick-witted nurse. The ‘villain’ is the ruthless Thornton (Andrew Cruickshank), who plans to install himself as dictator of what’s left of the world above. Jones played Carl Norman who, Huggett explains, was “a stupid, cowardly, neurotic, terrified business man who becomes the focal point of the hysteria and panic which gave the play its dramatic substance.”11 The character had a weak heart and, according to Huggett, was to have died of a heart attack later in the play.
Equipped with only one hurricane lamp, salvaged from a maintenance store, Art, Bob and Cassie make their way down the railway tunnel from their station, digging their way through collapsed sections, to the next station. There their party is swelled by two further survivors. It’s not clear who these characters were; the TV Times lists four other characters – Stan (Warren Mitchell), Elliot (Edward Dentith), Simpson (Peter Bowles) and one simply called “Old man” (Laurence Maraschal) – but it seems likely one of the pair was Jones’s character as he is widely reported to have been one of those involved in crawling through tunnels.12 Sustained only by the sweets and nuts they find in station vending machines, they make their way down further tunnels, eventually arriving, exhausted, days later, at the next station (possibly Piccadilly Circus), where they find a group of nearly 100 survivors gathered under Thornton’s self-imposed leadership. Having had the decision to kill himself taken away from him at the start of the play, Art regains the will to survive and ultimately leads the survivors to revolt, becoming the new leader.
The shattered London Underground setting was quite a departure for Armchair Theatre, whose designers were more accustomed to domestic, historical or industrial settings. By all accounts set designer George Haslam surpassed himself, filling ABC’s Manchester studio with smashed tunnels, railway lines and platforms. As set photographs indicate, he made good use of forced perspective backdrops, giving the impression that the sets extended much further than they really did.13
Huggett reports that Jones had arrived late for the camera rehearsal, complaining of feeling ill and having not slept well. After the rehearsal, he slept in his dressing room until the transmission, when he cheerfully reported: “I feel all right now, much better”.14 An unnamed actor told the Daily Express that Jones “did not look well before began. He was quiet, but I thought he was concentrating on his part.”15 The play began as planned. The story is continued by Sydney Newman:
Part of the action centres on these people crawling through the rubble to get out, and we had to illustrate them crawling for a period of three days.
The way we did it was to photograph three people crawling, then had the camera move in for a two-shot whilst the third actor went off and someone put ‘dirt’ on his face. He then crawled back in and the camera resumed on a three-shot. You then did a two-shot again whilst another actor went off and got all dirtied up. This was all done within a period of forty seconds.
Gareth took his turn to be made-up, and whilst the girl was slapping on the make-up, he said that he felt sick.16
The Manchester Guardian reported that after Jones complained of feeling unwell, “he lay down to rest and died shortly after.”17 All sources agree that Jones died of a heart attack. Kotcheff reported being advised initially only that Jones had passed out, and then shortly afterwards being told that he had died.18 The Daily Mirror noted that Jones was attended by a doctor visiting the studio, but to no avail.19 This latter detail is explained by Peter Bowles’s later recollection that a doctor and nurse were on hand in case of accidents caused by the large amount of rubble strewn across the studio as part of the set.20 The extent of the interval between Jones’s collapse and his death is unclear but indications are that it must have been brief.
Although Huggett refers to Jones dying while sat in the make-up room and The Times states that he was in his dressing room, other accounts suggest he collapsed while standing on or close to the set and these seem the more likely.21 In a piece entitled ‘Actor Dies on Set in TV Play’, the Daily Express reported he died at the feet of the play’s ‘extras’, while he was being made-up off-camera, and had to be carried off the set.22 The Daily Mirror report states that he collapsed while being “made-up behind the scenes”.23 If Newman is roughly accurate in estimating a period potentially as short as forty seconds for characters going off-camera for the application of make-up, it seems likely this would indeed have been done to the side of the set, or on an adjacent piece of set, for speed, rather than more usually in a make-up room. The Times’s reference to Jones’s dressing room may simply be the journalist’s assumption as to where make-up would be applied.
Bowles provides further compelling testimony: “During transmission a little group of us was talking on camera while awaiting the arrival of Gareth Jones’s character, who had some information for us. We could see him coming up towards us and he was going to arrive on cue, but we saw him drop, we saw him fall… We could see people tending to him.”24 This seems to confirm that Jones was indeed only a short distance from the continuing action on set when he collapsed. Bowles is the only one to suggest Jones was actually on his way back to the set when he collapsed, with other accounts reporting that this occurred during the application of the make-up itself, although none of those making the latter assertion were direct witnesses, leaving room for inexactness with such details as this. On the other hand, Bowles could simply have misremembered slightly; his account was provided over four decades after the event and the fallibility of memory is illustrated by his substitution of Birmingham for Manchester elsewhere in his recollection.25
We must bear in mind also that the place of Jones’s death is not necessarily the same as where he collapsed. The Times’s reference to Jones’s dying in his dressing room may simply be the journalist’s assumption as to where make-up would be applied, or it may be that after his collapse by the set Jones was moved to his dressing room where he then died. The latter seems most likely as Jones surely wouldn’t have been left on the studio floor in full view of the actors and production team, particularly when there was already a doctor and nurse on hand to assist. This suggestion would also be consistent with The Manchester Guardian’s report that he had a lay down before then dying.26
The play filled a 65 minute slot and was divided by advertising breaks into three ‘acts’ of approximately 19 minutes each. Jones collapsed at some point during the second act. Newman recalled:
I was in an office about two doors away, watching the show as it was going out on the air. Suddenly I was aware that something had gone wrong. Gareth was not there and the action was not the way it had been planned. The moment the Act ended, I got up and ran into the control room. Before I could say anything, Ted Kotcheff, the director, said, ‘Sydney, Gareth’s dead! He’s died – what do I do?’ And I said something stupid like, ‘Shoot it like a football game – just follow the actors.’27
Despite this disaster, the production team followed the traditional theatrical imperative that “the show must go on”. Kotcheff kept the news of Jones’s death from the other actors until after the play, telling them during the break: “Gareth is ill and I’m afraid he’s incapable of carrying on, and we’ll have to somehow manage without him.”28 Even so, he instructed transmission control to “have a Charlie Chaplin two-reeler standing by”, in case the production ground to halt.29 It was decided that the script could be hastily rewritten to remove Jones’s character, with his lines (presumably only the important ones) being redistributed to other characters. Bowles later suggested that had Houston, a close friend of Jones’s, been informed during that second commercial break that Jones had died, he “would not have been able to continue”, with Houston in a “terrible state” when he later learnt of his death.30
According to Huggett, during the break Kotcheff had the cast vote on whether to continue with the play or cancel it, with continuation being supported unanimously.31 However, it may be worth taking some of Huggett’s comments with a pinch of salt as it’s not clear how he gained such a detailed insight into the production and, as we’ll come to later, significant errors elsewhere in his account put its reliability in doubt. He also suggests that Kotcheff had actually told the cast during the break that Jones had died, which is directly contradicted by Kotcheff himself and Bowles, who seem by far the most credible witnesses.
Meanwhile, the camera script – which, in conjunction with dialogue and stage directions, detailed individual camera shots, technical requirements, etc – was discarded. Kotcheff left the gallery, from which the studio output was controlled, which would normally be unthinkable for a director during a live transmission, and went down onto the studio floor to organise the movements of the four cameras ‘on the fly’. Each camera trailed a thick, heavy cable behind it, restricting its movement around sets and potentially blocking other cameras’ movements, which must have been particularly troublesome in this case given the amount of rubble on set. At one point, Kotcheff ordered a camera to zoom in to an extreme close-up on its subject, so that their face filled the whole shot, to enable another camera to pass behind the actor to reach its position in time for the next shot without being seen on air.32 He recalled: “I had cameras hiding behind piles of rubble that would come out, take a shot, then go back to hiding because the next shot would be on that same pile of rubble.”33
The production assistant, Verity Lambert, remained in the gallery to vision mix (ie switch from one camera shot to another for the broadcast output) as best she could. Vision mixing was usually a precise art based on a detailed camera script and thorough technical rehearsal, but Lambert had to improvise, choosing whatever shots Kotcheff could arrange. In this manner, the play was completed. It was touch-and-go, with Kotcheff later recalling that “we could easily have ground to a halt. [Jones] was the antagonist; it’s like having ‘The Last Supper’ without Judas.”34 However, it’s unclear how important Jones’s role was actually supposed to be in the second half of the play. The fact that it was possible to complete the play at all without his character could be taken as suggestive of his role not being major. In the TV Times’s article about the play, several cast members and their characters were referred to, but not Jones and his.35 However, perhaps paradoxically, another piece of advanced publicity billed Jones above actors Mitchell and Currey, with the rest of the cast omitted.36
Another area of ambiguity is the exact timing of Jones’s collapse and death. The Manchester Guardian put his death at 45 minutes into the play (i.e. very close to the three-quarter mark).37 The report in the Daily Express that the last 20 minutes of the drama were affected is consistent with this, assuming there was only a brief interval between Jones’s collapse, death and the point he had been due back on screen, as seems likely.38 However, other accounts give the impression that Jones’s collapse and/or death occurred nearer the half-way point. Ultimately, the exact timing of the events is largely academic, the only impact of it being just how much of the drama had to be adjusted in consequence and how early the second commercial break was called (it would already have been overdue by the 45th minute if the three acts were planned to be of roughly the same duration, but we do not know that they were).
Newspapers carried the story of Jones’s death the following day, some noting that the audience at home had noticed nothing amiss. “The viewers never guessed what had happened”, said an ABC official quoted by the Daily Mirror, “We haven’t had a single enquiry from them.”39 Even Jones’s agent reported failing to spot that anything was wrong while watching the play.40 It was a measure of the production team’s success that the drama critics, unaware of the news at the time of writing their reviews, also failed to notice anything significantly unusual about the production’s later scenes. Looking back on it, Kotcheff wondered wryly whether this could be taken as a comment on the quality of the work they usually managed.41
The Stage’s television critic took exception to the quality of the play and its grim tone. In an article entitled ‘Morbid! Depressing! Pointless!’, Derek Hoddinott called it a “play without hope. It has nothing new to say about war, tyrants, peace or humanity.”42 He also found the conclusion lacking in reassurance following Art’s deposing of Thornton, asking: “how are we to know that Art will not turn into exactly the same kind of man through sheer necessity?” He went on to lambast the “shallow” script, which, in the only sign that he had noticed anything amiss during the broadcast, he felt was “obviously messed about with”. However, the latter comment may not necessarily be attributable to the ad hoc changes made after Jones died in view of another report that the script was “constantly being changed” during rehearsal.43
Hoddinott thought the play “neither convinced or interested. It was dull, shapeless and lifeless.”44 He did however praise the “brilliant production of Ted Kotcheff which fortunately overpowered the script. His panning and tracking cameras tried desperately to give life to the characters.” He was also full of praise for Haslam’s set design. Jones was not one of the actors singled out for comment, only being mentioned in a late footnote explaining the shock news of his death and commending the cast and crew for carrying on under this strain. The Daily Express suggested an audience of eight to 12 million had watched Underground, though Huggett put it at only five million.45
Huggett’s account states, rather improbably, that Jones’s agent arranged massive publicity in the national press following his death so that his family in Wales (who, he suggests, would not have seen the broadcast as ABC was not networked there) would learn of the tragedy.46 This seems a very unlikely and insensitive method of conveying the news of a bereavement. More credibly, Kotcheff reported that he had telephoned Jones’s fiancée, whom he was to have married in a week’s time, to break the news that evening.47 Huggett states that Jones was “cremated in Manchester; the make-up girl brought the ashes back to London and everyone went to Wales for the funeral.”48 However, the date he gives these events is six months prior to Jones’s death and he is wrong to state that ABC did not network to Wales (it did and Armchair Theatre was seen right across the UK), so again we should perhaps be wary about some aspects of this account.
Since the tragic event, some of its details have become obscured, distorted or exaggerated. Some retellings, for example, can be read as suggesting Jones died while acting on air, through the omission of details. Although, as noted above, some points of ambiguity remain, Jones was certainly spared this indignity. Contrary to one myth, the incident had no bearing on the move to prerecording for television drama programmes.49 This only occurred wholesale in the British television industry over the next five years or so, with plenty of examples of live drama continuing many years beyond that. Any correlation between ITV’s early videotaping and Jones’s death are coincidental only, as it was around that time that the earliest practical form of videotape became available. In fact, there was still a ten month gap between Underground and the introduction of videotaping for Armchair Theatre, with a further 40 live plays being transmitted in that series alone. Even if the videotape facility was not yet available, ABC could have immediately transferred to pre-recording drama production via the method of telerecording the studio output to film (much as they recorded live broadcasts, including Armchair Theatre, from transmission), and the fact that they did not do so also suggests no change in policy as a result of Jones’s death.
It’s not known for sure if Underground was one of the Armchair Theatre plays recorded from transmission but, if so, it has not been retained in any archive. Whilst it would undoubtedly be a rather macabre record, a recording would also have been a fascinating document of live television drama pressing on against great adversity. Although we’ll never be able to evaluate for ourselves quite how well the production team managed, all accounts indicate they did a good job given the terrible circumstances.
© Oliver Wake, 2013
Originally posted: 18 December 2013.
22 December 2013: added new material including Cathcart quotations.
25 August 2014: added two new paragraphs (“We must bear in mind” and “Another area of ambiguity”); added Manchester Guardian quotations; minor corrections.
This is a heavily updated and revised version of an article which originally appeared at the This Way Up blog.