Gwen - A Juliet Remembered

Saffron's International EMMY award

One of the last radio broadcasts David had directed before leaving the BBC was a feature programme on the legendary classical stage actress, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies.

In a fascinating talk with the late Nigel Hawthorne, she held her listeners in awed attention as she told of her life in the theatre, illustrating it with excerpts from some of the great roles she had played, especially as Juliet in the memorable 1922 production of "ROMEO AND JULIET", playing opposite John Gielgud. The programme was a huge success, and widely praised by listeners and critics alike. It was therefore obvious that when Saffron Productions was formed, we suggested the idea as a documentary to BBC Television’s OMNIBUS arts series. The programme was bought, and was the first programme to be made by our fledgling company.

With David directing, and myself producing, "GWEN: A JULIET REMEMBERED", was shown on BBC1 in 1988. David had structured the programme in such a way that we were able to show Gwen, who at the time was 98 years old, giving a specially arranged MasterClass on playing Juliet to young drama students, a role she knew word perfect for the best part of her life. It was a riveting experience, both for students and viewers. With the Masterclass at the heart of the programme, there were cutaways to Gwen at her home in rural Essex, talking about her life to Nigel Hawthorne, and tributes from some of her many friends, great names of the theatre, film, and television world, who had not only worked with her over the years, but were in awe of her immense skill, talent, and foresight, and her warm, loving nature.

Those ‘names’ included Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Peter Hall, Sir Dirk Bogarde (‘When I first heard her reciting Juliet on that radio programme,’ he said, ‘I was convinced I was listening to a blazing new young talent’), Dame Wendy Hiller, Alan Bates, Anna Massey, and Alec McCowan. When the programme was transmitted, once again the newspaper reviews were so enthusiastic we could have written them ourselves, and the viewers’ ratings were some of the highest OMNIBUS had ever received, also judging by our postbag, the viewers themselves, from all walks of life, adored the programme.

In 1989, "GWEN: A JULIET REMEMBERED", won the International Emmy Award for Best Arts Documentary in New York, also the Silver Award in the New York Film Festival. Those were truly glittering – but nerve wracking occasions! However, when the Oscar winning actor F. Murray Abraham presented me with the award, the only person I forgot to thank was…. David Spenser, the Director! That omission has forever haunted and riddled me with guilt, for if ever anyone deserved that award it was truly David Spenser.

In 1990, at the age of 100 years, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies became a Dame of the British Empire. This was her 100th birthday party...

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