- Broadcast live on Wednesday, November 24th, 1959
- Character: Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky
‘I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my sitting room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up’. The Daily Sketch – Thursday, November 25th, 1959
PETER as the dashing Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky
Now billed as the “First explicitly gay drama ever to be broadcast on British television”, ‘South’ is positively tame compared to what we’re used to seeing now, but back in 1959, it was invariably labeled by TV critics as “strange” and “distasteful”.
The play, which is described by Simon McCallum, Curator of the British Film Institute (BFI) as, “A milestone in gay cultural history”, was based on Sűd’ – a work by Californian, Julien Green (1900-1998). It was one of three pieces written by the author in 1953, and was first performed as a play at the Théâtre de l’Athénée-Louis-Jouvet in March of that year.
Green latterly translated his story into English – with a view to bringing it to the British stage, but the Lord Chamberlain had other ideas, and banned it from being performed in a licensed theatre (it was, however, staged at the Art’s Theatre in London in 1955). This small screen version, which was adapted by Gerald Savory and directed by Canadian, Mario Prizek, tells the story of a Polish man who is exiled to the home of a wealthy family in the American ‘Deep South’, and is set on the eve of the American Civil War.
Setting: A cotton plantation just outside Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861.
It is the night before the Federal forces take Fort Sumter and the Confederate forces, under General Beauregarde, fired the first shots of the civil war.
The opening scene features two slaves – an elderly blind man, Uncle John (John Harrison), and his grandson, Charles (Randolph McKenzie), both of whom are listening to the sound of “the white folks” singing hymns in the church, indicating that the action is taking place on a Sunday. The old man insists that the boy lead him to the “big house”, to speak with Mr Brodrick, the plantation owner. The youngster, however, warns that it’s forbidden to approach the house, but his Grandpa insists, declaring that what he has to say has come from the Lord himself.
We’re now transported to the interior of the big house, where we see a woman – Regina (Helena Hughes), scurrying down the stairs and running from room to room, as if she’s looking for something… or someone. As she darts out onto the porch, we see the object of her quest – the dashing Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky (PETER WYNGARDE).
When she at last him, she does so in a manner which contradicts her eagerness to find him; indeed, she adopts a rather cool tone, as if to hide the fact that she’s really in love with him. When he asks why she’s been searching for him, she denies having done so – saying that she was, in fact, looking for her cousin, Angelina (Karal Gardner), who she thought had arrived back from church.
Regina is in love with Jan, but hasn’t dared tell him
Jan is not the least bit fooled by her story, and tells her that if she wishes to speak to him, now’s her chance, given that they’re alone in the house. Regina – persisting with the charade, claims that she has nothing at all to say to him, and feigns injury at such a suggestion. Declaring him impertinent, she storms into the house. The Lieutenant follows her inside, where they continue to bicker.
Regina asserts that while Wicziewsky has been in the United States for 12 years, he remains a stranger with no roots. He tells her that when his father was hanged by the Prussian’s during the Poznan Uprising of 1848 he, then just a child, had been severely beaten for being the son of his father. Fortunately, his grandfather had managed to spirit him away to America. The scars, he said, had faded with time.
In spite of his harrowing confession, Regina alleges not like the young Lieutenant, and that she feels angry that her uncle, Edward Brodrick (Alan Gifford), treats him like a son whilst she, as merely the niece, is regarded as less than blood.
“You see,” Wicziewsky observes, “you DID have something to say to me!”
Before she can respond, we hear the sound of the Master – Edward Brodrick, his sister, Evelyn, and daughter, Angelina, arriving home from church. They’re followed closely by Mr White** (Horace Sequeira) and Brodrick’s 12-year-old son, Jimmy (Karl Lanchbury), who pesters his father to allow him to go riding with the Lieutenant the following day.
(It is never explained who Mr White is, or what his connection is to the Brodrick family).
Evelyn walks into the lounge where she finds Jan, sitting alone. He rises then bows his head courteously as she passes him and takes a seat in a rocking chair. She begins fanning herself, and asks the young officer if he’d be so kind as to rock the chair a little for her.
She asks why he hadn’t attended church, to which he responds that there are none of the Catholic persuasion in the area. “Oh, that’s right,” she retorts. “Protestant and Catholic. Black and white.” There were so many differences and divisions.
She next inquires what he thinks of her daughter, Regina. Jan reflects for a moment, as if trying to conjure up of something nice to say about her. When finally he breaks his silence, he mentions her pretty eyes. “But what do you think of the rest of her?” the old girl demands.
Before he can answer, Evelyn suggests that a match for her daughter will be found that very night. Jan tentatively asks if she has anyone in mind, to which the name an old family friend – Eric McClure, is referenced. At the mention of this name, Jan’s demeanour changes instantaneously, and with his mind suddenly elsewhere, his once gentle rocking becomes much more forceful.
Evelyn asks if he and McClure had met on the occasion of his last visit. Jan says not, as he’d been at Fort Sumter at the time. She goes on to reveal that McClure had been, at one time or other, interested in buying the Brodrick Plantation, but that her brother had refused – it having been a family estate. She pointedly adds that Jan probably wouldn’t understand such things – he being an outsider. As if to temper her rudeness, she adds that his being a foreigner made him attractive to women: “What more could they want but for a young Polish nobleman to carry them away to the land of Chopin!” And as if to reveal her own attraction to the Lieutenant, she drops her fan, obligating him to retrieve it for her. He kneels, picks it up and as he offers it to her, she brushes her hand suggestively across his.
Evelyn brushing Jan’s hand as he picks up her fan
“McClure’s ancestors were Scots”, she announces, breaking the silence. “And cattle thieves!” She admits that Regina has never met McClure, but is convinced that they’d make a wonderful couple. At that moment Evelyn’s niece, Angelina, breezes into the room. She curtseys to Wicziewsky, who bows his head politely in return, then announces that she’s looking for her cousin, Regina. Evelyn tells her that she should find her father first, and send her off to locate him.
We now find Edward in the library with Uncle John, who has something profound to say to his old Master. He warns Brodrick that God will pass amongst the inhabitants of the house that night, and would visit his wrath upon them. Brodrick is confused, saying that he’d never been a bad man – indeed, he was the first in the region to free his slaves.
Uncle John begs Brodrick not to allow Jimmy to go riding with Lieutenant Wicziewsky the following day, saying that there’s something wicked about him. He recounts an instance when he’d overheard Jan and Regina talking under the tress in the Great Avenue that leads from the house, and that he’d spoken to her in a way that no man should ever talk to a woman; “He has a cruel voice”, the old man adds dramatically.
At that moment, Angelina arrives and calls her father away, whilst Charles is summoned to help lead his grandfather home.
Back in the lounge, we now find Edward, Evelyn Jan and Regina – the latter of whom declares that, in the event of war, her sympathies would lie with the North; she wishes, therefore, to return to her home there. Edward is shocked at the revelation, as he’d always believed that his niece was content with life at the plantation.
Jan interjects, advocating that Regina would look rather foolish should she return home only for there to be no conflict. She snaps back – declaring that she’s not leaving exclusively because of the threat of war. She then stomps out like a scolded child her Uncle in pursuit. When Edward returns, Regina is not with him. Evelyn is convinced that, when she meets McClure later that evening, her daughter will resolve to stay.
Edward turns to Jan and asks his opinions on the current situation with regard to the impending war. He determines to say that soldiers are less attracted to politics than civilians and that for them, war is declared via speeches. Evelyn is incensed by his reply, which she considers cold, and wonders how he can remain so calm under such circumstances. He explains that coolness is part of his profession, which prompts Evelyn to flounce from the room in the same manner as her daughter. Edward, though, tells Jan that he for one is glad that he’s there, and that regardless of Regina and Evelyn’s reaction, he finds his presence of great comfort.
Up in Regina’s bedroom, Angelina is sobs on hearing of her cousin plan to leave. She confesses that her decision is based on the fact that Lieutenant Wicziewsky hates her so much, and as such, she has no other choice. Angelina is shocked to hear this – saying that she must be mistaken, given that Jan is so polite and agreeable. Regina shakes her head: “You don’t know him. His very smile turns me to ice”. She goes on to say that, even now, see can’t see him bow to her without feeling that he despises her.
She goes on to admit that she can’t understand why her Uncle should have such affection for Jan. Angelia explains that the Lieutenant’s grandfather had managed to smuggle a large amount of money out of Poland after the Uprising, and had loaned Edward a sum when he’d been in difficulty. Her father now considered Jan to be his son and the plantation his home.
Regina reacts angrily, and questions why women lose their heads so readily over this man. Angelina confused by her cousin’s statement, replies almost dreamily: “Yes, everyone adores him”. However, when asked if she “adores” him, the girl dismisses her own comment as merely a figure of speech, saying that Jan is not like other men. She adds that her cousin is being ridiculous by leaving because of him, since the Lieutenant “Couldn’t harm anyone”.
We now find Mr White, remonstrating with Edwards young son, Jimmy, on the porch. As Jan approaches, the older man tells him that the boy had struck a slave when he’d been too busy to clean the child’s saddle, and the White expected Jimmy to inform his father of this abuse himself.
As Mr White leaves, Jimmy begs Jan to help smooth things over with his father. However, at that very moment they’re interrupted by one of the staff who has a message for the Lieutenant. He reads it then goes into the lounge where we find Edward in deep contemplation.
Jan tells his friend that, regretfully, his leave has been curtailed and that he must leave for Fort Sumter at dawn. Edward asks, should war comes, which side the Lieutenant would choose to fight on; north or south. Diplomatically, Jan elects not to reply. Edward begs the young man not to leave, believing that if he does and war is declared, he will never see him again.
Meanwhile, Jimmy and Mr White enter the room, when the latter asks Edward if his son has spoken to him. When his farther learns what the boy had done, he becomes angry and asks Jan to take the lad out and punish him as he sees fit. Wicziewsky, though, says it’s not his place, but nevertheless, leaves with the boy.
On hearing what has transpired, Regina stops her Uncle in the hallway and begs him not to allow Jan anywhere near his son – saying that he has no idea what sort of man the Lieutenant is. She demands that the Officer be turned out of the house immediately. Distraught at the thought of Jan leaving, Edward proceeds as if he hasn’t heard a word she’d said.
Back in the bedroom, whilst Regina regales Angelina with tales of Jan’s supposed brutality, she inevitably breaks down and confesses that she’s actually in love with him though, she asserts, “He’s taken the joy of living from me.” Although she feels that the Lieutenant has only contempt for her, Angelina suggests that, perhaps, he really loves her in return. Regina, however, is adamant: “He loves no one!”
As Jan is returning from punishing Jimmy for his earlier transgression, he happens upon a visitor knocking at the front door of the house. It’s obvious that he recognises the gentleman as they introduce themselves to each other. We learn that Jan had previously met this man – Eric McClure (Graydon Gould), at a military ball some month previous, yet McClure denies ever attending such an event, given that he can’t dance.
Lieutenant Wicziewsky comes face-to-face with Eric McClure
Jan is obviously distracted by the appearance of this man – indeed, his entire demeanour changed the moment he set eyes on him. Nevertheless, he tells McClure that he’ll advise Edward of his arrival.
Up in the bedroom, Angelina is entertaining Regina with a story concerning her first meeting with McClure. How they’d talked and flirted, but then he’d departed without a word – leaving her forlorn and dejected. Nevertheless, several days later, a messenger had arrived with a letter from her beau, which she’d treasured. Her excitement at seeing him again was interminable.
Unbeknown to the two young women Jan, who’d been passing the bedroom door, had caught them talking and had stopped to listen. He becomes agitated at what he hears and exits hurriedly before he’s caught eavesdropping.
On the porch, we find Edward and Eric in conversation. The older man indicates that there’s something important that they need to discuss after supper, then enquires if he’s met Lieutenant Wicziewsky. Eric says he has, and found the young soldier courteous – perhaps even a little too courteous. However, he’s prepared to hear all that’s good about him.
Edward then asks if his fellow plantation owner might help Jan, given that his heart is in the south, but that his loyalty to the north has kept him in uniform. He confesses his fears that, should Wicziewsky leave as ordered, he might not survive the war.
Regina is alone in her room when Jan rushes in unannounced and grabs her roughly by the wrists. He demands to know where Angelina is, while all the time she begs to speak to him, but clearly he’s in any mood to listen. She finally reveals her love for him, and he acknowledges curtly that he’s known all along. With that, she immediately changes tack, saying that she hates him.
“Don’t you think I know that too!”, he answers, before storming from the room.
Down stairs in the Dining Room, the Brodrick Family, plus Jan, McClure and another female guest are seated at the table. The small talk concerning everyday issues soon turn to the subject of slavery and the possibility of war, and soon the cordial tone gives way to disagreement. It’s obvious that Jan is miles away; deep in his own thoughts, as Angelina suddenly storms from the table. The Lieutenant follows her out.
He finds the young woman in the lounge, where he announces that he has something important to tell her; something that will displease her very much. He reveals that he couldn’t help hearing her earlier conversation with Regina as he’d passed her bedroom door. This revelation angers Angelina who, losing her temper, admonishes the Officer for his prying. He tells her that he won’t tolerate McClure writing letters to her – insisting that any feeling she might have for him are merely the daydreams everyone one of us are prone to. She’s angered by his impertinence, but he declares that she wouldn’t be quite so harsh on him if she knew how much he was suffering.
Angelina demands to know how her feelings for McClure would affect him: “Because,” he replies, “it would go straight to my heart!”
In an act of desperation, he tries to convince her that he in love with her, but the young woman is having none of it. “What’s the point in lying?” she shrieks. “You know full well that you don’t love me!”
A desolate Jan returns to the table without Angelina who, he says, had left as she’d been upset by the talk of the war. Whilst the ladies retire to the lounge, and Eric McClure request that he be allowed to join Angelina on the porch, Jan and Edward remain to talk.
In probably one of the most poignant scenes in the play Edward, who has noticed Jan’s dramatic change of personality since McClure’s arrival, attempts to comfort his friend. Believing that his behaviour is a result of his concerns about the forthcoming conflict, Brodrick offers the young Officer a sympathetic ear – saying that they’d be no shame in his disobeying orders and refusing to return to Fort Sumter. Jan, though, tells him that his difficulties have nothing to do with war.
When Brodrick finally realises that Jan’s problem is with McClure himself, the Lieutenant expresses a desire never to see the man again; the reason for which he wishes to keep to himself. Although Edward has no desire to press the matter, he asks Jan whether it’s beyond reason that he might actually understand and be able to help.
Afraid even now of tell his old friend what is really troubling him, he decides instead to explain his troubles with McClure as simple rivalry; that the young visitor has taken his place in the heart of someone he himself holds dear. Mistakenly, Edward believes that he’s speaking of Regina, and points out that she and McClure hardly know each other, given that they’d only met briefly once before. The Lieutenant exclaims that it has nothing to do with Regina and that his affections are, in fact, for Angelina. He continues by asking Edward for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Edward, however, is not buying it, and tells Jan that he’s not in love with either of the girls. “No one escapes love’s fate”, he declares, “whoever it is with”. Unmoved by his friend’s words, the Lieutenant again asks for Angelina’s hand, but Brodrick categorically refuses – as much for Jan’s sake as for his daughter’s!
In the Lounge, Jan, McClure, Angelina and Regina are sitting in silence, until Jan walks out onto the porch just as Edward enters the room. Outside Jimmy, who’s clearly sneaked from bed, joins the Lieutenant, who asks the boy what he would think if someone were to tell him that he was in love with his sister, Angelina. The child laughs. “I’d find it funny”. It’s clear that Jan is desperate to talk to someone, but Jimmy seems more interested in the forthcoming war.
Lieutenant Wicziewsky tries to confide in Brodrick’s son, Jimmy
Jan asks the boy to sit with him, and announces that he has a secret which he asks Jimmy to keep for all his life. “You know, Jimmy, odd times, freedom of will is a crushing weight and it’s not always possible to choose. I’m in love Jimmy, as no human being was ever in love before. It’s better not to know what men are thinking, it’s almost always sad or shameful. I’m not ashamed, but I am alone. Hopelessly alone.”
Of course, Jimmy doesn’t understand what Jan is trying say to him – believing all the time that his friend is talking about Angelina, who the Lieutenant latterly admits might have been his salvation.
Up in the bedroom, Angelina confesses to Regina that she’d lied about the letter from McClure. She also discloses that Lieutenant Wicziewsky had proposed to her earlier that evening, but that she’d made it clear to him that she didn’t believe he was being sincere. On learning this, Regina is distraught.
Back in the lounge, Edward and McClure are discussing the Lieutenant, with the younger man pointing out that, come the war, Jan might not wish to fight at all and could choose to desert. Edward is upset by this comment, but as McClure points out, he had been asked for his honest opinion.
Meanwhile, Jan has sought to find Regina in her room. He apologises for his earlier behaviour and begs her forgiveness. He tells her that he is suffering just as she is, and that even the faintest whisper from her lips would allow him to have peace with himself, but she refuses to respond.
When Edward is summoned to the kitchen, McClure is alone in the lounge when Jan arrives. The Lieutenant tells the young plantation owner that he’s compelled to confide in him, but McClure, just like Brodrick, assumes that Wicziewsky’s melancholy is a symptom of his anxiety over the war.
The tone of their conversation takes a menacing tone, as the two argue at cross-purposes about love and conflict. When both men admit to loving a person that neither has been able to tell, McClure mistakenly supposes that they might both be in love with the same person. Eventually, Eric admits that the object of his affections is Angelina, but that it’s too late to confess his feelings to her, given that he intends to join the Confederate Army and expects to be killed.
Whilst Jan is unable to stand before his love and say “I love you”, McClure had wasted numerous opportunities to do just that – a fact that causes the Lieutenant to lose his temper. In his angst, Jan drags McClure to the hallway mirror to show him the face of a coward. As Edwards arrives to see what all the commotion is about, Wicziewsky strikes Eric across the face with his glove and challenges him to a duel. He requests that Edward and Mr White act as their Seconds.
While Brodrick begs the two men to pause and reflect, Evelyn excitedly instructs Angelina to gather the family. Meanwhile, the men; Jan, McClure, Edward, Mr White and one of the Slaves have taken themselves off to a clearing in the wood, where swords are drawn.
Jan and Eric McClure fight to the death
In spite of Edward’s desperate pleas, the two men engage in combat until Jan, as he’d always planned, yields and allows McClure to pierce him through the heart with his sword. Mr White immediately commands the Slave to bring a doctor and a clergyman, before turning to Eric, “God forgive you both!”
As Brodrick covers Jan with his coat Eric, who is clearly in shock, tries to explain that the Lieutenant hadn’t even tried to fend off his finally blow. Gazing down on his friend, Edward asks God, “Why would you want the disfigured body of a boy?”
At that moment, Regina arrives – still in her nightclothes. Though her Uncle tells her to go back to the house, she begs if she can stay with Jan for a while. Edward quietly asks her if she really did love him so deeply? “Yes,” she answers mournfully. “Even though I knew everything.”
Now alone with Jan, Regina is finally able to tell him how she really feels:
“If, as I believe, you’re still here Jan, I won’t disturb you with my tears. Listen how gently I’m speaking. A little while ago, you came close to me and begged my pardon. I didn’t say a word, but my heart was bursting. You understand, Jan; God will wipe away all tears – he said so himself. He will wipe away your tears, and mine.”
Throwing herself on his lifeless body, she cries into the night: “Come back!”
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
‘I wish I had more space to write about this play, but needless to say, PETER WYNGARDE as Jan, the man who couldn’t talk of his love like other men, gave a stunningly brilliant performance; controlled and deliberately pitched’. The Daily Mirror
The BFI’s Simon McCallum, while praising Granada for producing the play, insists that its leading man deserved particular praise. “I think you have to give WYNGARDE a massive pat on the back in terms of the bravery in taking this role. There were quite bad reactions from some of the press.” Indeed there was.
Although the moguls of Fleet Street afforded PETER great acclaim for his performance as the young army officer, they lurched between disgust and irritation over the play itself. And whilst Green’s dialogue was filled with compassion and sensitivity, the best most critics could muster was to accuse ITV of being scandalmongers and peddlers of cheap sexual titillation!
“No doubt ITV felt proud of itself as a purveyor of culture in putting on ‘South’, a play about homosexuality”, shrieked the Daily Mail. “But if it hoped to give us a cheap and popular thrill, it lost out”.
Phil Diack of The Times went one step further by suggesting that the viewing public were not mature enough for such things, saying: ‘This was a play that would bore and mystify the great mass of viewers who are ready enough for thin sexual excitement in disguise, but who are thoroughly underequipped to cope with the terrible realities of life. Here, therefore, was a play to baffle and bewilder and annoy nearly every one of the ordinary ITV public who set eyes on it.’
Even The Daily Express – though impressed by PETER, couldn’t quite make their mind up whether to feel compassion or revulsion: ‘I found the dialogue that revealed the homosexuality of the hero, Jan, played to perfection by PETER WYNGARDE, immensely, powerfully and thoroughly distasteful. It made me sweat. It made my flesh creep. But it moved me to pity, too – and nearly to tears’.
In 2013 the BFI announced that an original recording of the play had only just been unearthed in the dusty recesses of their archives. The Guardian ran an article about the ‘find’ in its Saturday March 16, 2013 edition:
‘The discovery of South was made as part of the BFI’s continuing research into the history of gay representation on screen. Researchers are not able to watch everything in the archive and are often alerted by listings in the Radio Times  which will hint at something interesting, that there may be a subtext. In this case there was a hint that there was something not quite right about the main character and the fact that he was played by WYNGARDE also set bells ringing because we now know he was in a long-term relationship with the actor Alan Bates’.
I find the above segment perplexing, given the fact that I’ve had a copy of it the play since 2002, and I know for a FACT that it’d been shown at various events prior to 2013. I’m also puzzled, although not entirely surprised, as to why the author of this article should suggest that “alarm bells” rang when this play was supposedly unearthed by the Institute, and they found PETER had played the lead role. By the time he played Jan Wicziewsky in ‘South’, he’d already appeared in approximately 140 theatre, TV and radio plays, portraying all manner of characters – including several murderers, a wife-beater, a Macedonian General and a 12th Century knight. Obviously, some people aren’t capable of separating fact from fiction!
The article goes on…
‘None of that was known at the time, with WYNGARDE going on to be a star and housewives’ favourite from 1969 as Jason King, an agent in the secretive Department S. With his handlebar moustache, enormous hair and largely unbuttoned shirt, King was the ultimate ladies’ man and was one of the inspirations for Mike Myers’s Austin Powers nearly 30 years later.
Although it was well-known in the acting world that WYNGARDE was gay – he had the nickname Petunia Winegum – it was a closely guarded secret to the general public. “Watching it does remind you how brave he was at the time to take this role and the way the subject is dealt with is incredibly brave,” said (Simon) McCallum’.
(Please see separate article on the Blog entitled ‘Sex, Lies and Red Tape’ regarding Donald Spoto and the inaccuracy of the ‘Petunia Winegum’ reference).
The “discovery” of ‘South’ was said to be “very exciting”, since it is now believed to be the earliest known British TV play focusing on the subject of homosexuality. Whether or not it actually is the first is hard to say, since many television programmes produced in the 1950’s and 60’s were either shown live, or have been wiped. Given these facts, we’re actually very lucky that the play survived intact.
Bearing in mind that ‘South’ was broadcast live, it’s absolutely extraordinary how well drilled the actors and technicians were. There were actually only two minor mistakes with lines throughout the play, and just the slightest glimpse of stagehand trying to dodge out of the way of the camera.
WYNGARDE’S performance as the tortured Jan is extraordinary, by turns theatrical and reflective. Though producers were unable to mention homosexuality explicitly, the bravery involved in accepting such a role cannot be overstated. The wonderful supporting cast includes Hollywood veteran Bessie Love as a worldly Southern matriarch, and pioneering black British actor Johnny Sekka (South has much to say on race as well as sexuality). The British Film Institute
. The French actor, Louis Jouvet, was PETER’s uncle
. Quite why the play wouldn’t have been listed in the Radio Times is anyone’s guess, given that it was both produced and broadcast on Granada. At that time, only the TV Times would’ve published ITV schedules.
. There was never any mention in any of its 28 episodes that Department S was a “secretive” organisation.
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/