Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2018.
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 dark 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, the company’s drama supervisor. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s 1955 novel Few Were Left. 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 Gareth Jones, from Lampeter in Wales. Accounts differ as to his age. Newspapers variously reported he was 34 or 35. However, fellow actors Peter Bowles (who appeared in Underground) and Richard Huggett put him in his twenties.1 Kotcheff has at different times reported Jones was 32 and 33, although both occasions were long after the events in question so his memory may not have been exact.2 In their obituary, The Stage newspaper called Jones “A good actor, a hard worker, a real ‘pro’ and a man of great personal charm”.3 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”.4 Jones’s agent, Joan Reddish, claimed he had been “all set to become a star” when he died.5 This may not be just an agent’s hyperbole, with leading television director Philip Saville, who had directed Jones in two earlier Armchair Theatre plays, recalling him as “a very exciting actor”.6 Saville felt Jones was “like a young Charles Laughton or Simon Russell Beale. He could have had an amazing career.”
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 theatre impresario ‘Binkie’ Beaumont.7 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.8 Jones 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.9 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.”10 His television roles included parts in three other Armchair Theatre plays earlier in 1958.
Underground follows a group of people who are waiting for a train at a London Underground station when a huge explosion on the surface collapses some of the tunnels, enclosing the railway network. The main characters were Art (played by Donald Houston), a music critic 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 businessman Carl Norman, who, in the final act, was to betray his fellow survivors, becoming a sycophantic supporter of Thornton. According to several press reports, Jones’s character suffered a weak heart in what would prove a tragic example of life imitating art.
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.11 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, 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.
Forsyth’s dramatisation 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 entombed survivors could only speculate as to the cause of the catastrophe above.12
The shattered London Underground setting was unusual 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.13 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.14 A pre-broadcast press report suggested the production’s opening scenes would involve five tonnes of debris falling onto the set.15 The same report claims that Transport for London, who run London’s underground railway, had refused to cooperate with the production. TFL were reportedly concerned that showing a cave-in of the ‘tube’ system would frighten its real-world users, and that depicting Art’s attempted suicide would lead to copycat acts. They declined to allow ABC to film in their stations, lobbied for the attempted suicide to be omitted and refused permission for their distinctive ‘roundel’ logo to be reproduced on set, leading to ABC substituting it with a triangular variant.
It wasn’t just TFL who proved troublesome to the production. Sydney Newman recalled years later that the play was “ill-fated from the start. While [story editor] Peter Luke and I were satisfied with Forsyth’s dramatization, Ted [Kotcheff] hated the script. It was necessary for me to force him to do it, which led to his being a brutal sonofabitch to the author during rehearsals.”16 This is likely the reason for a report in the industry press that the Underground script was “constantly being changed” during rehearsal.17
After rehearsals in London, the cast travelled to the ABC studios in Didsbury, Manchester, late on Friday 28 November. This gave them the whole of Saturday and most of Sunday, the day of transmission, for technical rehearsals in studio. The play was then broadcast live on Sunday at 10:05pm. An unnamed actor later told the Daily Express that Jones “did not look well before we began. He was quiet, but I thought he was concentrating on his part.”18 The Daily Mail reported that during rehearsals Jones had “complained of feeling unwell, but was determined to carry on.”19 The play began as planned and progressed well into the second of its three acts. According to 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.20
According to the Daily Mail, Jones “took a sip of brandy from a flask and told the make-up girl Miss Lee Halls: ‘I don’t feel well. Perhaps it’s just nerves.’ Then he collapsed in the chair.”21 Kotcheff picks up the story:
Halfway through act 2, in the background of one of the sets, I saw a body being carried by two men. I cried out to the assistant director to clear the set. The make-up girl came running into our control room where I was, crying out to me that while she was applying black smudges to Gareth Jones’s face, he had fainted and fallen face forward onto her makeup tray. He had been taken backstage, and a doctor was coming.
We were still live on the air. On camera, the five other survivors arrived at the mouth of a subway tunnel expecting to meet up with Gareth. Not finding him there and having no idea of what had occurred, there was a tense moment of indecision. Then the lead actor quick-wittedly ad-libbed as a cue to me: “Let’s go down this tunnel. Carl must be waiting for us further down.”
I rushed a camera, fortunately nearby, to the far end of the tunnel and photographed them as they made their way down it. They finally arrived at another large subway station, filled with survivors, where a dictatorial fanatic was organizing them into a neo-fascist society. Somehow, we stumbled to the end of act 2.
As we were fading to black, I yelled at the floor manager, “Get all the actors together!” The make-up girl rushed into the control room. “It’s Gareth … The doctor declared him dead … heart attack,” she whispered.22
Kotcheff’s account suggests Jones was attended by a doctor almost impossibly rapidly. The Evening Chronicle noted that it was “pure chance that there happened to be a doctor visiting the studio when Mr. Jones collapsed”, with the Daily Mail specifying that the doctor had been in the “studio audience”, although Armchair Theatre is not known to have been transmitted in front of a studio audience.23 An alternative explanation is given by Peter Bowles’s 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.24
Although make-up would normally be applied in a dedicated make-up department, in this case that would not have been possible, with the brevity of Jones’s planned absence from screen necessitating this being done to the side of the set, or on an adjacent piece of set, for speed. Bowles recalled witnessing Jones’s collapse from the set itself: “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.”25
Bowles is the only one to suggest Jones was actually on his way back to the set when he collapsed, with all 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.26
All reports concur that Jones died within a very few minutes of his collapse. The Times reported that Jones died in his dressing room, which is presumably where he was taken immediately after his collapse to be tended by a doctor.27 This suggestion is also consistent with The Manchester Guardian’s report that Jones had a lay down before then dying.28
The play filled a 65-minute slot and was divided by advertising breaks into three acts of approximately 19 minutes each. Jones collapsed 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.’29
Despite this disaster, the production team followed the traditional theatrical imperative that ‘the show must go on’. Newman did consider whether to cancel the show but, he recalled later, “hearing Ted firing out instructions to the actors, I decided to go ahead.”30 Verity Lambert, the production assistant, recalled: “It was one of these things where nobody knew what to do. Nobody could prepare for it. You had to think on your feet. I don’t know, rightly or wrongly, we just ploughed on with it.”31
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.”32 Even so, he instructed transmission control to “have a Charlie Chaplin two-reeler standing by”, in case the production ground to halt.33 Bowles later suggested that had Houston, a close friend of Jones, 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.34
During the break, Kotcheff hastily modified the play’s dialogue. He later recalled how he “had to re-assign his [Jones’s] character and all his many lines to one of the other actors – in just three minutes.”35 Presumably only the most essential dialogue was retained and reassigned, with some being omitted altogether. 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 where the studio output was controlled, and went down onto the studio floor to organise the movements of the four cameras ‘on the fly’ (although the various accounts we have are unclear on whether he remained there throughout the third act or returned to the gallery). 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.
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.36 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.”37
Dialogue also had to be improvised to cover the omission of Jones’s character. Newman reports one example of how this was done:
The actors were incredible, especially Andrew Cruickshank, who played the dictator. His main speech to the survivors depended upon leading questions thrown at him by the now absent actor such as, “How are you going to lead us?” Cruickshank, paraphrasing Gareth’s question, ad-libbed, “Now, you might ask, how am I going to lead you?” and then followed it with his own set speech.38
“The whole thing was a feverish dream with me yelling at the cameras as they improvised shot after shot, as the actors improvised line after line”, recalled Kotcheff.39 In this manner, the play was completed. It was touch-and-go, with Kotcheff later reporting that “we could easily have ground to a halt. [Jones] was the antagonist; it’s like having ‘The Last Supper’ without Judas.” 40 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.41 However, perhaps paradoxically, another piece of advanced publicity billed Jones above actors Mitchell and Currey, with the rest of the cast omitted.42
With the actors now learning of Jones’s death, the studio at the conclusion of the performance was a sombre, still place, rather than the usual hubbub of activity. “It was total silence”, recalled Kotcheff, “broken only by the deep, gasping sobs coming from the star of the show, Donald Houston, who was Gareth’s dear friend. The other actors stood immobile, disbelieving.”43 Houston told the Daily Mail that night: “I’m simply stunned. I can hardly believe it.”44 Kotcheff learned that Jones had a fiancée in London and it fell to him to make the devastating telephone call to give her the terrible news. Several news reports commented on this human side of the tragic story, with Jones’s fiancée reported to have been surprised by his disappearance from the drama, which she watched at home. The cast had earlier bought a crate of beer to enliven their train journey back to London. In the event, the journey was wake-like and Jones’s share of the beer was left untouched.45
Newspapers carried the story of Jones’s death the following day, some reporting that the audience 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.”46 Even Jones’s agent reported failing to spot that anything was wrong while watching the play.47 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.48 Conversely, Newman suggested it was “either a testimonial to Kotcheff’s genius or it is a reflection on popular criticism.”49
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.”50 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 the report quoted earlier of last-minute script changes during rehearsals.
Hoddinott thought the play “neither convinced or interested. It was dull, shapeless and lifeless.”51 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. The critic of The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post found Underground “a gloomy little hour”, with the climactic conflict between Thornton and Art coming too late.52 However, they felt: “the production was in fact a triumph for producer, cameramen and scenic designer”. Philip Purser, writing in the News Chronicle and Daily Dispatch, found the play “uneasy in execution.”53 He thought Cruickshank was “splendid” but that following “a generally exciting climax, the ending was off-hand to the point of rudeness.”
The Evening Chronicle’s William Hornby did suggest Jones’s death had marred the production but it’s possible he was allowing hindsight to play a part in his review, particularly as he suggested the cast were visibly affected by the news, whereas we know they were not made aware of Jones’s death until the performance was over (though Jones’s sudden absence in itself would surely have unsettled them at least).54 Hornby wrote:
Nevertheless, warmest congratulations must be extended to them and to the producers for the excellence of their work.
They escaped from the studio atmosphere and gave us one of the most gripping hours in following the fortunes of a group of survivors trapped in a London tube after “The Bomb.”
True, the ingredients of success in Donald Houston, Patricia Jessell and Andrew Cruickshank were there, but the greatest triumphs were achieved by the effects and camera teams.
They produced the “explosion,” crashing wreckage and some rather macabre scenes with startling success.
Noting Jones’s death, the critic of the Manchester Evening News felt the play “was, nevertheless, excellent television with vivid shots of wreckage.”55 The Daily Express suggested an audience of eight to 12 million had watched Underground, with The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post specifying nine million.56
One viewer who claims to have recognised the disruption to the production while watching at home was director Christopher Morahan, who recalled: “Every time someone went to a door, there was a camera there. So I said, ‘I think we’re watching a live disaster!’”57 However, minor on-air mishaps such as a camera briefly appearing in shot weren’t uncommon on Armchair Theatre in this period even when productions were proceeding as planned, so other viewers may not have taken such blunders in Underground as anything unusual.
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, though we know Jones was certainly spared this indignity. Contrary to one myth, the incident had no bearing on the move to prerecording for television drama.58 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 at least some Armchair Theatre productions since 1957, from transmission), and the fact that they did not do so also suggests no change in policy as a result of Jones’s death. In reality, the low probability of a repetition of such a calamity surely meant that no new (and expensive) procedures were felt necessary, and indeed there has been no recurrence since in live drama, although similar scenarios have occurred in other genres.
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 an excellent job given the terrible circumstances.
© Oliver Wake, 2018
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.
25 November 2018: replaced with revised version with additional material, and amendments to existing material, as a result of new findings from recent and contemporaneous material. Substantially reduced the coverage from one source, whose reliability is commented upon in a new endnote. A few hours after posting, further changes were made to correct the editor’s coding errors and thereby reinstate a paragraph, reinstate two endnotes, restore a section inadvertently moved to endnote and tidy blockquote spacing.
12 November 2019: added image of the cover of the novel Few Were Left.
This is a heavily updated and revised version of an article which originally appeared at the This Way Up blog.