6. Dance and Drama

It is clear that Wilf was able to transend the class structure that dominated British life in the early twentieth century.  He was equally happy in the company of the Boosbeck miners or the aristocratic friends of Jim and Ruth Pennyman.  Wilf performed in Ruth’s production of A Winters Tail as a Summer Masque which was staged on the West Lawn at Ormesby Hall in June 1933. 1

He played Filch in Tippett’s production of The Beggar’s Opera and Fryer Tuck in his production of Robin Hood at the Boosbeck Work Camps.  In 1935 Tippett’s revolutionary anti-war play War Ramp was performed in Labour Party halls around London. According to Bryan Fisher’s memoir Wilf played the lead soldier in this production:

Wilfred Franks, known as ‘Wilf’, had acted as the leading soldier in the play War Ramp.  He was avowedly working class, had trained at the Bauhaus in Germany for a period and was by repute an impecunious painter, now attached to the Trotskyist movement…to me Wilf was friendly and kind; he did not hold me accountable for my class.  He had the aura of being a character.

A 1934 review of the play “The Mulberry Bush” in The Stage newspaper praised Wilf for his “excellent, colourful” performance at the Century Theatre in London.

IMG_20170902_184531

During the late 1930’s Wilf was a regular performer in some of the world’s first television shows which were Broadcast by the BBC, live from Alexandra Palace. He performed alongside some notable names, particularly from the world of dance, including Maude Lloyd2, Wendy Toye3 and Robert Helpmann4.  The performances of The Insect Play (1939) and The Pilgrims Progress(1939) are listed on IMDb. He also played Damon in the BBC production of Acis and Galatea (1938). These Radio Times listings are shown below:

Wilfred Franks as
Wilfred Franks as “Damon” in “Asis and Galatea”. April 29th 1938
Wilfred Franks as
Wilfred Franks as “Juror” in “The Pilgrims Progress”. April 7th 1939.
Wilfred Franks as
Wilfred Franks as “The Blind Ant Keeper” in “The Insect Play”. 2nd June 1939.

More of Wilf’s performances in these early television productions are listed in the BBC ‘programme as broadcast’ records, provided by the Alexandra Palace Television Society, including:

  •  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2nd Dec. 1937),
  • From Aesop’s Fables (30th Dec. 1937),
  • The Pardoner’s Tale (5th March 1938),
  • Everyman (15th April 1938),
  • The Wife of Bath’s Tale (17th May 1938),
  • Arlecchino (12th Feb. 1939).

The technology did not exist to enable these shows to be recorded for repeat broadcast so they were performed on a daily basis and broadcast live to air.

Wilf’s burgeoning television career ended abruptly when, on 1st September 1939, all BBC television broadcasts were suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War.

Dancer-choreographer Margaret Barr, Michael Tippett and Alan Bush worked on 1930’s leftist modern dance pageants and left-wing theatre performances. Wilf was a member of Margaret Barr’s Dance-Drama Group  and performed in many of her productions. The Video below shows Teda De Moor, one of Margaret Barr’s dancers, performing in 1934 and gives an idea of the groups dance style.

In her book, Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest, and Identities, Stacey Prickett wrote about Margaret Barr’s Dance-Drama Group:

Between 1934 and 1938, Barr’s Dance-Drama Group appeared in diverse venues – town halls, small theatres and studios – in dances chosen from an equally diverse range of themes. Support came from political groups and avant-garde theatre…5

The Dance-Drama Group practised a modern style of dance influenced by Martha Graham (who Barr had trained under in America):

Barr’s dancers avoided the spins and beats of classical ballet, they used the top half of their bodies with exceptional flexibility; instead of seeking to defy gravity, their movements were often directed down to the ground.  6

Wilf and Tippett worked together on various musical-dance productions during the 1930’s including The Symphony of Youth in Brockwell Park, South London, and the Towards To-morrow Pageant at Wembley Stadium. In a 1988 interview Wilf recalled:

I used to go to the different Co-operative Society children’s groups and rehearse them, you see, and then we’d put them all together and we’d link up – we did a display at Wembley Stadium on one occasion and we used to do a yearly play and Mike used to write the plays…7

It was a very interesting time in the British arts’ world; many people from the world of music, dance, drama and the visual arts were actively engaged in politics through organisations such as the Royal Arsenal Co-operative society, the Artists International Association the Workers Music association and the Unity Theatre. Wilf and his circle of friends were very much involved in this movement. They believed that the arts could play a part in uniting and educating working class people and help to create a fairer, socialist society.


References

  1. Mark Whyman. The Last Pennymans of Ormesby: The Lives of Jim and Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall Near Middlesbrough. Bargate Publications. 2008. P116.
  2. Radio Times. April 29th 1938.
  3. Radio Times. june 2nd 1939.
  4. ‘Arlecchino’ BBC programme-as-broadcast records for Sunday 12th February 1939.
  5. Stacey Prickett. Embodied Politics Dance, Protest and Identities. Dance Books. 2013. p71.
  6.  Stacey Prickett. Embodied Politics Dance, Protest and Identities. Dance Books. 2013. p71.
  7. Malcolm Chase. Audio Interview held at the Teesside archives,     Middlesbrough. 1988. catalogue reference US/1516

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