At Home with James Hayter

This fascinating interview with James Hayter and his young family was kindly sent to me a while ago by Geoff Waite. It was published in the October 3rd 1953/4? edition of TV Mirror Magazine and gives an interesting insight into his family life at that time. As Geoff said, it seems that the argument over how much television children should be allowed to view was prevalent even back then! And they only had the one BBC channel in those days!

"The Twentieth- Century Mr Pickwick is a TV fan-both as an Actor and as a Viewer.

By Ian Purvis

“I wonder, old boy, if you’d mind bringing down with you a gin bottle full of petrol? With what we’ve got, that should see us through the evening fairly happy.”

The voice at the end of the telephone was that of actor James Hayter. He had invited me to tea and dinner at ‘Tall Trees,’ the house he has recently purchased just outside Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire.

What could be the meaning of his extraordinary request? Was it his intention to serve Molotov Cocktails before dinner? Anyhow, on my arrival, Jimmy greeted me warmly and thanked me for remembering the petrol-which he proceeded to pour into the bowels of a small light generator housed in a shed at the bottom of his garden.

Only way to see father!

“You see,” explained this twentieth century Pickwick, “if you hadn’t brought the petrol we just might have run short in the middle of the TV play this evening-which would have been a pity, as it promises to be a good one.”

The Electricity Board have not yet braved the steep ascent to the hilltop upon which the Hayters’ house is built; and gas operated TV being still a development of the future, a special generator has been installed to provide the current for the sets.

They have two: one in the living room and the other in the nursery. Wisecracks Jimmy: “Actually, it was to keep the kids happy that we bought our first model. I was doing so much television acting at that time that my wife assured me that if I didn’t give our children the opportunity of seeing me on the screen occasionally; they would soon forget what their old dad looked like!”

Here, indeed, is a family who are unanimous in their approval of TV entertainment-particularly the children. I noticed that five year old Timothy was proudly sporting a new pullover on which were prominently displayed woven images of “Hank.” Plucking at my sleeve he urged me into the playroom, explaining, bright-eyed, that Children’s Hour was just about to begin.

With all the withering scorn at the command of a twelve-year -old, brother Michael countered this suggestion with the words: “You don’t want to see that kids’ stuff, I’m sure. I like grown-up programmes such as What’s My Line?” Later, he confided to me that his own favourite TV personality is Cafe Continental’s Helene Cordet : “She’s smashing, isn’t she ?”

Sister Elizabeth, rising six-and-a-half, tells me that Muffin, formerly number one on her hit parade, has of late lost much of his former appeal because “he’s a bit too young for me now”- something of a Peter Pan that Mule! Principal heart throb of Caroline, aged four, is Humpty-Dumpty”- “’Cos he tells us stories.”

Paid for not looking

Despite the provision of an extra TV set for the benefit of their children, it would be wrong to suppose that the Hayter’s believe in allowing them to indulge in indiscriminate viewing. They argue that many programmes are quite unsuitable for youngsters, and that in every home where there is television, parents have a moral duty to act as ‘Lord Chamberlains’ to their children.

Naturally, Children’s Hour is un-censored at “Tall Trees,” but in order to teach the youngsters to be selective in their viewing, even of this highly suitable programme, Jimmy has devised an ingenious system whereby each may claim from him a penny for every day on which he or she does not watch television.

As a busy mother, Mary Hayter is fulsome in her praises of TV. “It keeps the children happy and off my hands for at least part of the day and it is especially helpful in winter when they can’t go outside to play.” As a housewife, too, she finds the hints given on her screen to be of constant value, and admits that she would be a very disappointed woman if Philip Harben’s programmes were ever to be discontinued.

Sincerity wins

The TV Chef has extensively increased her repertoire of dishes – and incidentally influenced her to purchase a gas cooker of the type used for his demonstrations.

Just how much credit should be allowed Philip Harben-or his cooker, and how much to Mary herself for the dinner served that evening at her table, I cannot judge. For even as I was about to enquire the recipe of the delectable sweet, Jimmy insisted that we carry our coffee into the drawing room so that we should not miss the beginning of the play.

When it was over we naturally talked about it as a production, and I was anxious to hear an actor’s views.

Hayter thought that the best moments had been those in close-up when the players had been able to convey real sincerity. He thought that long-shots in TV drama should be kept down to a minimum.

Hayter maintains that it is well-nigh impossible for the artiste, when shot at long-range; to make the character portrayed convincing to the audience because subtleties of expression became lost on the tiny screen.

In common with most others of his profession, he feels that whilst embodying all the difficulties experienced in both stage and screen acting, the new medium offers but little in compensation.

“One feels,” he says, “None of the encouragement known to the stage actor resulting from the tangible response of his audience, nor the reassurance that filming provides when he is aware that if at any given ‘take’ anything goes wrong, that scene may be shot again and again until it is perfect.”

Nevertheless he admits that he finds TV acting fascinating for the very reason that it does present a bigger challenge to the actor. He claims that the years spent workings in repertory before he became established are now standing him in good stead.

How the “Reps” help

“In rep,” he says, “You have to learn that despite limited rehearsals-more limited by far than those given to a TV production-you must somehow be able to give of your best at the first performance. That experience is of great assistance when first you face the television cameras.”

At that point Michael, whose seniority to the other children allowed him still to be up, wearied of our theorising and requested that the set be switched on for the last half hour of Music Hall. Jimmy agreed. But alas, after only five minutes the screen flickered and went blank. It was evident that my host had under estimated the thirst of his petrol engine and should have insisted that I bring with me an extra half-bottle!"

Ian Purvis (TV Mirror)

(Special thanks to Geoff Waite)

                       James Hayter as Friar Tuck in the 'Story of Robin Hood'


Clement Glen said...

"At Home with James Hayter"
TV Mirror Magazine

Special Thanks to Geoff Waite

Neil said...

Best Friar Tuck ever and also the best Mr. Pickwick - and in the same year too.
Didnt know he lived Near Hemel Hempstead - wonder if he remained there. Fascinating insight into life as it then was and also the early days of TV - in those days just BBC on the one channel. I remember Hank, Muffin and Philip Harben the Chef who was brother to Robert Harben the Magician. Interesting item which I have never seen before.

Mike Giddens said...

The wonderful roly poly friar Tuck, as Neil says "The best ever" as children we adored James as Tuck, those wondeful close ups of him singing and the gentle strole through the forest with Elton Hayes singing are scenes that linger in the mind, i remember we would all giggle in the cinema at the face he made when Marin kisses Robin at the stream, he was loverble and a fine actor, he was quite menacing too in The Blue Lagoon. happy memories.

Neil said...

He was in The Blue Lagoon - one of my earliest cinema memories. His latter days saw him for one season on Are You Being Served working at Grace Brothers. Also the unmistakeable voice of Mr. Kipling in the Kipling Cakes advertisement.
He was also Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps. Great character actor.

Clement Glen said...

It is not only interesting to discover something about the ordinary lives of fascinating people like James Hayter, but we also get from these articles an incredible snapshot of life all those years ago.

Almost a different world to the one we live in now.

Mike Giddens said...

A much much better world clement oh for a time machine

Anonymous said...

My Aunt used to live next door to James Hayter. When I was very small I used to go and stay with her and we spent many happy hours playing with the Hayter children. I remember I was facinated by the pianola in the playroom and many happy times spent catching frogs and tadpoles in the seemingly very large pond in their garden. Happy days. I suspect all the land round there has now been redeveloped.

Clement Glen said...

Many thanks for getting in touch. I don't know the area . But I suspect much has changed. If you have any other memories of those days please get in touch.

Unknown said...

He certainly was marvelous as good Friar Tuck--IN FACT HE WAS MY FIRST FRIAR TUCK!
I feel hexwas actuslly just as marvelous as The Verger on a film of several Somerset Maughn? short stories.

petero said...

Without a doubt the best friar tuck. And it looks like his granddaughter Charity Wakefield has followed him in an acting career.