BBC Sunday-Night Theatre: The Legend of Pepito (June 1955)

A clipping from the Montreal Gazette and, below, a piece from The Stage on this television play by Ted Allan, adapted from a story by the enigmatic B Traven.

Interesting historical note: it seems that an earlier attempt to televise the play, in Canada in 1954, had been blocked owing to anti-Communist paranoia. A 1992 Toronto Star feature* looking back at the blacklist era says this:

"Canadian author and screenwriter Ted Allan, a member of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, told me he was fired from the announcing staff of CBC Radio. "Some RCMP zealots went to the CBC brass and said I was a Communist," says Allan.

Later, in 1954, while he was a freelance television writer, Allan suffered because of a blatant act of censorship brought about by the "Red scare." The CBC abruptly cancelled one of his TV plays (The Legend Of Pepito), an innocent comedy, a short time before it was to go on the air.

In the midst of final rehearsal, the performers and production staff were suddenly told to go home."

The BBC production a year later seems to have had a really interesting cast. Sam Wanamaker, of course, we all know about (I'm listening to a radio programme about his work on the Globe Theatre restoration as I type); Wolfe Morris I hadn't heard of, but his obituary here makes it clear he’s worth reading up on. Roger Delgado was famously the first Master much later on, and Margot Van der Burgh was admired by many classic Doctor Who fans for her role as Cameca in 1964's The Aztecs, a serial which was also a highlight of Jacqueline Hill's Who career. See links below to info on other actors mentioned.

LOOKING IN (The Stage, 9 June 1955>

Sense and sensitivity

Ted Allen [sic] has been responsible for several interesting but unsuccessful plays, both on television and on the stage. Now he has given us The Legend of Pepito, a folk-tale with a moral, and with it 90 minutes of delightful and memorable viewing.

In a Mexican village co-operative men live without the comforts of civilisation, but they are happy men and civilised men. Here, too, lives Pepe the basket-maker. The simple story tells how the attempts of the big landowner, Gonzales, to take out the co-operative and of the American businessman to build profit and industry out of Pepe's baskets are frustrated by the character of the people. On this bare skeleton, Ted Allen has contrived some very fetching flesh.

Last Sunday night's production was handled brilliantly by Alvin Rakoff, whose choice of camera angles, lighting and players almost overcame the barrier between black-and-white and colour.

Sam Wanamaker, as Pepe, played with great sympathy and sincerity to bring out every facet of the simple basket-maker for whom every basket he weaves is a song. Wolfe Morris gave a clever and infinitely subtle characterisation as Emilio; the balladeer may be a figure of fun, but there is an underlying vein of despair in the man which was sensitively drawn in.

Indeed, sensitivity was the keynote of the whole production, and performances of the highest order were given by John Sharplin as the revolutionary schoolmaster, Roger Delgado as the priest, and Olivia Irving as the basket-maker’s wife, Angelica. Harold Kasket made the village chieftain a delightful buffoon and Margot van der Burgh aided and abetted charmingly at his downfall.

Harry Towb's American businessman was perhaps a little too flamboyant and too brash to be quite in tune with the mood of the play, despite the sincerity with which it was played. Alexander Gauge, a satisfactorily villainous landlord, Jacqueline Hill and Ralph Nossek completed a very fine cast.

The Television Drama Department is to be congratulated on presenting this play to us. This is the quality of production and acting for which we hope, usually in vain. Let us hope that the good sense shown by the selection of this piece will continue to prevail in the counsels at Lime Grove.

*LEN SCHER, 1992: Broadcasters lived in fear in blacklist era: Political meddling not new to CBC. Toronto Star, p. K11.

Wikipedia article on Ted Allan

Wikipedia article on B Traven... if that really is his name (it's not)

IMDB page on John Sharplin

Wikipedia article on good ol Roger Delgado (very nice chap)

IMDB page on Olivia Irving

Wikipedia page on the insterestingly-named Harold Kasket

IMDB page on Margot van der Burgh

BBC News article on Harry Towb's death

Wikipedia article on Alexander Gauge

IMDB page on Ralph Nossek