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Kemp-Welch, Joan (1906-1999)

Director, Producer, Actor

Main image of Kemp-Welch, Joan (1906-1999)

One of the first women directors to work in television in the 1950s, Joan Kemp-Welch (born Glory Vincent Green, she took the name Joan and adopted her mother's maiden name, Kemp-Welch) enjoyed a remarkably versatile career in theatre, cinema, and television for a period of over 50 years.

Born in Wimbledon, London, on 23 September 1906, and educated at Roedean, she embarked on a career as an actress, making her professional debut in 1927 at the Gate Theatre, London, and became something of a fixture in the West End seasons, appearing in works by Ibsen, Arthur Wimperis, Arnold Ridley, and Bruno Frank.

Among her film appearances during the 1930s and 1940s were Sixty Glorious Years (d. Herbert Wilcox, 1938), The Citadel (US/UK, d. King Vidor, 1938), Goodbye Mr. Chips (US/UK, d. Sam Wood, 1939), "Pimpernel" Smith (d. Leslie Howard, 1941), and They Flew Alone (d. Wilcox, 1942).

Turning to stage direction at the beginning of the 1940s, she worked at the Buxton repertory theatre and then ran the Colchester rep for three years. In 1948, she took over the Wilson Barrett company in Scotland and went on to stage more than 250 plays. It was during this period that she met Peter Moffatt, then a young actor, who would become her second husband; he later became a successful television director (All Creatures Great and Small in the 1970s and 1980s; Doctor Who in the mid-1980s).

With the formation of Independent Television in 1955, and the setting up of the first ITV company, Associated Rediffusion, Kemp-Welch's television career as a director of distinction began. Among the first to realise the vast potential of teenage audiences, she devised for A-R the pop record-release showcase Cool for Cats (ITV, 1956-61), a fast-moving series crammed with snatches from new singles, novel dance routines, and guest spot interviews.

It was, however, for her outstanding work as a director of television plays that she was honoured. For the sparkling adaptation of Wilde's 'A Woman of No Importance' for Play of the Week (ITV, tx. 9/2/1960), Kemp-Welch delivered a crisply stylised production with plenty of pace, abetted by Athene Seyler's Lady Hunstanton, a performance of both tranquillity and edge. Her two Pinter plays, the enigmatic 'The Birthday Party' (Play of the Week; ITV, tx. 22/3/1960) and the sex fantasy The Lover (ITV, tx. 28/3/1963), were forceful constructions that kept the Pinter mystique churning provocatively. For the latter she was awarded the Prix Italia. Also in the same year she became the first woman to receive the Desmond Davis Award for creative work in television.

The ambitious Laudes Evangelii (ITV, tx. 31/3/1961), a compelling television version of LĂ©onide Massine's dance-and-mime story of the Crucifixion, and Electra (ITV, tx. 28/11/1962), a brave and thoughtful attempt to translate Sophocles into television terms with actors of the Greek Piraikon Theatre, were justly praised by the critics, but for the most part went unnoticed by the viewers.

Her large-scale presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (ITV, tx. 24/6/1964) for Rediffusion drew one of the biggest audiences up to that time for a television production of Shakespeare in Britain, largely for the appearance of Benny Hill as Bottom. Jill Bennett (as Helena), Patrick Allen (Theseus), Anna Massey (Titania) and Peter Wyngarde (Oberon) led the prestigious cast.

Popular British screen star of the 1940s, Margaret Lockwood, in her first major television role for some years, featured as a feisty English barrister (up against a hostile Scottish courtroom) in Kemp-Welch's single drama Justice is a Woman (ITV, tx. 4/9/1969). The powerful play, produced by Yorkshire Television, inspired the later Lockwood-starring legal drama series Justice (ITV, 1971-74). In 1973 she produced a series of remarkable short plays for Thames TV, Armchair 30 (ITV), that provided a much-needed opening for new writers (Howard Schuman, Jim Hawkins, James Andrew Hall) to showcase their craft.

For the classy Granada TV historic crime trials anthology Lady Killers (later Ladykillers; ITV, 1980-81), Kemp-Welch directed what would be her last two productions for television: the captivating story of 1850s poisoner 'Miss Madeleine Smith' (tx. 24/8/1980) and 'A Smile is Sometimes Worth a Million Dollars' (tx. 31/7/1981), concerning the 1922 prostitute murderer Ronald True. She died in London on 5 July 1999.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Lover, The (1963)Lover, The (1963)

Tense Harold Pinter drama about an unusual middle-class marriage

Thumbnail image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

ITV adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Benny Hill as Bottom

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Shakespeare on ITVShakespeare on ITV

How Britain's leading commercial channel tackled the Bard

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Associated Rediffusion / Rediffusion TelevisionAssociated Rediffusion / Rediffusion Television

Broadcaster, Production Company