Early TV Adaptations: Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags

IMDB recently updated the archival information in its database relating to two little-known BBC TV adaptations of Waugh’s works from 1970. These are Vile Bodies  and Put Out More Flags. Both were 90-minute productions on BBC2, but some archival information is still incomplete.

Vile Bodies (9 December 1970): adapted by John and Michael Ashe, directed by Alan Cooke; it was produced by the BBC but the name of the producer is unavailable. Only five cast members are listed (although your correspondent just submitted to IMDB updated information on that point from the BBC’s archives). Among those listed, the most notable is Vivian Pickles as Lottie Crump. The program was not reviewed in either The Times or Daily Telegraph but was reviewed by Thomas Gribble in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter 5.1 (Spring 1971, pp. 5-6). According to Gribble, the production was difficult to follow because an industrial dispute with the electrical workers caused some scenes to be omitted or curtailed. This may explain why the London papers did not review it. Gribble thought the adaptation put more emphasis on the humor at the expense of the book’s underlying seriousness. He also noted that the most effective scene was Simon Balcairn’s last report to his paper.

Put Out More Flags (16 December 1970): name of adapter withheld by BBC due to contractual reasons, according to Sunday Telegraph (13 December 1970); directed by Mark Cullingham and produced by Mark Shivas for the BBC. The cast and crew list appear to be complete. It was reviewed by The Times (Stanley Reynolds) and the Daily Telegraph (Sean Day-Lewis) in their 17 December editions, as well as by Thomas Gribble in the EWN as noted above. The Times reviewer thought that the adaptation made good work of the comedy, praising especially the performance of Sheraton Blount as Marlene Connolly (which Mr Gribble also singled out for approval). Both also thought that the performance of Basil Seal by Anthony Valentine was weak and that the adaptation suffered from the lack of attention to characters such as Cedric Lyne and Alastair Tumpington. But both thought the production worked well over all. The Telegraph’s critic was less kind and thought the adaptation was playing up to those who were already familiar with the book:

All efforts were made toward letting the original jokes do the work and pulling any extra punches, or punch lines, that might have distracted. The result was a sluggish pace and an air of 1939-45 gloom, as faded as it was visually precise…[I]n this careful production, too many of the lines were spoken with an awed and therefore misplaced reverence.

The Times reviewer saw the two 1970 productions as a “little season” devoted to Waugh’s works and hoped for more.  These early TV dramatizations are notable because they came at was probably the lowest point of Waugh’s literary reputation, before the publication of his Diaries (1976) and Letters (1980), several biographies and the 1981 ITV/PBS broadcast of the Granada TV version of Brideshead Revisited. Whether copies of these productions  survive is not known. From Thomas Gribble’s description of Vile Bodies, they may have been live broadcasts. And if they were in color (which would probably have been the case in 1970), any tapes may have been wiped and reused after the agreed number of repeat broadcasts.

A later film adaptation of Vile Bodies by Steven Fry was released in 2003 under the title Bright Young Things.   The IMDB also records a 1939 BBC TV series called Table d’Hote in which one episode was entitled “Doubting Hall”. The information on this is sketchy but several characters listed also appear in Vile Bodies.  There was also a stage version of that novel in the early 1930s which Waugh mentions. But this 1970 BBC TV production may be the only film version of Put Out More Flags ever made.

During the period following Waugh’s death in 1966 up to the 1981 broadcast of the Granada Brideshead series on ITV, the BBC offered several other adaptations. Prior to the two in 1970, there was an adaptation by Giles Cooper of Sword of Honour in early 1967 covering three 90-minute episodes. Waugh himself played a minor role in that adaptation, meeting with the writers and offering comments on the scriptThis is listed on IMDB under Theatre 625 which was an ongoing series of BBC dramatic productions in which it was included. BFI has a copy of this adaptation which is available to view at several of its “Mediatheque” locations in the UK. There was also an adaptation of Waugh’s 1936 story “Winner Take All”, written by Peter Nichols and broadcast on 26 November 1968 as part of a BBC series of 14 independent dramas called The Jazz Age, which is where IMDB has it filed. And in 1972 there was a series of seven 30-minute episodes of Scoop. This was adapted by Barry Took, best known for his collaboration with Marty Feldman on the radio series Round the Horne. It broadcast on the BBC between 8 October and 19 November 1972, and the reviews in the Spectator and The Times were between negative and hesitant. IMDB comments that this one has apparently been lost, so it was presumably wiped.

During this same “post-Waugh/pre-Brideshead” period, London Weekend Television produced a one-off  53-minute adaptation of Waugh’s 1935 story “Mr Loveday’s Little Outing.” This was written by Willis Hall and directed by Donald McWhinnie (who also directed the BBC’s earlier Sword of Honour). It was broadcast on 1 June 1973 by ITV as part of a series of dramas called Between the Wars. There were also two film adaptations of Waugh’s works in this period: The Loved One (1965) and Decline and Fall (entitled Decline and Fall… of a Birdwatcher) in 1968, about both of which the less said, the better.


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