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'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of 'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)
BBC, tx. 22/2/1953
100 minutes, black & white
ProducerRudolph Cartier
AdaptationRudolph Cartier
Original PlayGilbert Cesbron
Organ RecordingsDr Albert Schweitzer

Cast: André Morell (Dr Albert Schweitzer); Greta Gynt (Sister Marie); Douglas Wilmer (Father Charles De Ferrier); Tom Fleming (Commandant Lieuvin); Reginald Tate (Leblanc)

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August 1914. Dr Schweitzer runs a beleagured hospital in a remote corner of the French colony of Gabon. As war is announced in Europe, the fate of the hospital hangs in the balance.

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Although a smattering of non-fiction television exists from as far back as the 1930s, It Is Midnight, Doctor Schweitzer is, by a quirk of fate, the earliest complete surviving example of a British television play, and as such stands as a fascinating and unique document of its period.

In many ways, the drama is indicative of the norm for the early 1950s, hailing from the theatre and being largely theatrical in presentation. The bulk of the play takes place on one main set and the cast, particularly André Morrell as Schweitzer, project their voices as if to an audience beyond a proscenium arch. It opens with static captions and a piece of stock film footage to set the African scene. The play is divided in half by an 'interval', as in the theatre, not by a cinema-style 'intermission'.

In other ways, however, It Is Midnight, Doctor Schweitzer signposts the changes just then beginning in television drama. It is produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, who makes good use of pre-filmed inserts into the otherwise live production. The film sequences of the tribesmen's attack on Father Charles and Schweitzer's later tour of his hospital are both highly effective, with lighting and direction that compares well with British cinema of the period.

The use of film inserts in television drama was not new in 1953, but it was uncommon for them to be used for more than brief establishing shots or to bridge live studio sequences. Here, Cartier uses them to open out the drama, expanding the narrative into the jungle around the main hospital setting and giving the play life beyond the obvious confines of the studio. It was only Cartier's fourth television production, but it signals his ambition to expand the scope and technical standards of television drama, a project that would be continued over the coming years with such successes as Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954) and the three Quatermass (BBC, 1953-59) serials.

There was always some unpredictability in live broadcasts and on its initial Sunday night transmission, It Is Midnight, Doctor Schweitzer over-ran by a full 20 minutes. By the time the cast and crew reconvened for the customary Thursday repeat performance, Cartier had made drastic cuts to bring the play in at the scheduled length and it was this second, shorter version which was 'telerecorded' from transmission.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Opening (2:55)
2. Father Charles attacked (2:43)
3. The stores ransacked (1:21)
4. The doctor's final tour (3:46)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
The Television Play