Broadcast: November 8th, 1955
- Character – Arich
In the mid Fifties, Independent Television was still in its infancy, and the threat that this rival to the “old guard” of the BBC was here to stay was met with a peculiar mixture of groans and cheers – according to personal taste. The highlight of ITV’s programming on Tuesday, November 8th, 1955, however, was a play lasting 90 minutes… and a news flash of about as many seconds! The play was Peter Shaffer’s ‘The Salt Land’ – the land in question being Israel.
⇐ PETER (background) with David Peel, who played his brother.
It opened on a boat carrying immigrants into mandated Palestine. Within minutes, viewers were introduced to most of the cast, and had received an uncomfortable impression that they were about to be led on a guided tour of the Jewish people; from the aged Rabbi, come to die in the land of his faith to the arch-rouge who has made his fortune through deals with the Nazis, and whose only interest in the homeland is to make himself even richer.
There is the simple old man with his two sons: the older a wastrel and a petty criminal – the younger, played by PETER WYNGARDE, who is a selfless idealist stirred by fierce, fanatical passions of the Old Testament. There is the ship’s captain, intent only on doing his job and getting the boat to the proper place at the proper time, and the good and faithful girl who loves the idealist and will follow him wherever he goes. And with them is an assortment of other “Jewish types”, most of them made of cardboard.
Long before they arrive, they are quarrelling – personally and politically, and with a brilliant touch of irony (perhaps unintended?) – they are at each other’s throats when the “promised land” homes into view over the horizon.
Once there, the feeling of dramatic compression dissolves to some extent in the stresses of the war for independence, in which the bad brother tempts Peter’s good one with the offer of arms, and the even greater stresses of the following peace, in which the bad brother then tempts the good one with offers of agricultural machinery. Eventually, in the paradoxical twist, it is “Able” who kills “Caine”.
As a play, ‘The Salt Land’ was never one of Shaffer’s best. The great flood of tediously pedantic messages which rolled off the screen must have become wearisome before long to all but the most passionate supporters of the authors cause. They must’ve been asking themselves, how many more times must we have proof that sincerity and righteousness are not of the slightest use in the construction of a work of good television?
Of all the characters, only the two brothers had and real depth, and this was in no small part to the burning sincerity of David Peel’s “Abel”, and the studied casualness of PETER’s “Caine”. Otherwise, the dialogue had a flatness about it that was unfortunately emphasised by the contrast with the endless quotations from the Old Testament that was scattered throughout.
Regardless of its shortcomings, ‘The Salt Land’ was exactly suited to the medium: it could not have been done so stirringly on radio or so vividly in print. It could not have been done in the theatre, or indeed on the big screen without losing a great deal. The production and direction were designed to make the maximum possible effect in the medium that had been chosen, and at that rate, it unquestionably succeeded.
Suitability for television then, but something else, too. I suggest it was a sense of purpose. There was a point – I feel it mattered: somebody was saying something, and meaning it. The play, then, was an exercise in sincerity rather than a work of real dramatic value. It might also be noted that the opening, closing and linked narration in the play was spoken, not by a filtered-voiced announcer, but by the director himself – John Clements. His clipped tones set the play afire, and this couple with PETER’s masterful performance, made what might’ve been a failure into a worthwhile experience.
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/