The High Toby – J B Priestley

This is less of a review of the High Toby than a brief look at the history of the toy theatre in Britain and more specifically the end of an era with the collapse into administration of the most famous, and by then the only significant, toy theatre company in the country, that run by Benjamin Pollock. For those readers unfamiliar with toy theatres I will also look in some detail at The High Toby and what you got when you purchased the book.

Benjamin Pollock didn’t set out to be a toy theatre maker and retailer, he married into the trade in 1877 when he took Eliza Redington as his wife and effectively inherited the family business of print making, especially sheets for toy theatres, before that he had been a furrier like his father. But his name was to become synonymous with toy theatres which was already a declining business when he started in the trade. However he was in for a considerable stroke of luck, with the reduction in the popularity of the toy theatre had gone a significant reduction in the number of competitors as they had slowly gone out of business and then in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ about his love for toy theatres and specifically mentioning Pollock’s business, you can read it as chapter 13 of his later compilation of essays called Memories and Portraits available on Project Gutenberg. The title refers to the way the sheets were priced either a penny a sheet that you had to colour in yourself or two pence for pre-coloured, frankly half the fun of these was the colouring in as successfully performing a play on a toy theatre was actually quite difficult. This essay which originally appeared in The Magazine of Art drove interest in the subject and dramatically increased trade for Pollock’s.

Benjamin Pollock continued the business until he died in 1937, largely simply reprinting the sheets originally sold by John Redington with his name replacing Redington’s (just as Redington had done with his predecessor in the business) although he did introduce a handful of new plays in the six decades he was in charge. It was this careful use of the existing plates that kept his costs down and enabled the business to continue bringing in an income in the face of yet another downturn in demand for the products he was selling. Pollock’s daughters continued the shop for a short while but WWII intervened, the building was bombed and in 1944 they sold the plates and remaining stock to Alan Keen who ran an antiquarian bookshop. Keen may have understood book selling but the far more financially precarious world of toy theatres was all new to him and he set about expanding the new Benjamin Pollock Ltd company he created and that meant new plays and new designs of theatres to perform them in. Not content with new versions of classic pantomimes which didn’t require much or any royalties to be paid he commissioned completely new works including an adaption of the 1948 J Arthur Rank film of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier.

As the film was in black and white the backgrounds and wing dressings for this production was also in black and white although the characters were reproduced in full colour using photographs of the actual cast. The licencing for this could not have been cheap but was almost certainly eclipsed by the cost of the other 1948 publication of The High Toby. There would be one more new production from Benjamin Pollock Ltd. which was a version of the nativity story published in 1950 but by 1952 the company had gone into receivership, probably pushed over the edge by the two 1948 new productions.

As indicated above The High Toby should really have been called The High Cost. In 1948 when this book was published Priestley was at the height of his powers, his most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 and had reached the London stage the following year to excellent reviews so hiring him to write a play was a bold but extravagant choice for the Benjamin Pollock company. That they also got the well known artist and theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen to design the sets and figures may well have been a step too far, although getting Penguin Books to publish the book unlike than their self published Hamlet may well have offset some of the cost as Priestley could at least expect more royalties that way but as this was a commission he would have received a significant advance. The book is intended for use with the Benjamin Pollock Regency Theatre which cost 38 shillings and sixpence (the equivalent of £69 in 2021) so not a cheap toy, especially so soon after WWII, so this was only an option to wealthier families. Along with the short play there are backdrops, dressings for the wings and characters in various poses to fit the performance all of which need to be cut out and mounted on cardboard before attaching to rods so they can be moved on the stage.

Some of the backdrops included in the book can be seen below, there are a total of nine pages of backdrops

Wing dressings and a couple of carriages are on these pages again there are more wing dressings than I have included here.

and the designs for figures include these, there are two more pages of characters to be cut out. Not only did the lucky child with this toy need wealthy parents they also needed endless patience to cut out and mount all the various parts.

The text of the play indicates which version of each character is needed in that scene and as you can see this would have been a very colourful performance which is more than could be said for the largely black and white version of Hamlet printed by Benjamin Pollock at roughly the same time.

The play is actually quite good fun and the stage directions are clear and easy to follow there is even a section which indicates the type of voice to be used for each of the characters, but it would still need at least two children to perform it with any degree of success. There is a licencing note as well in the book that makes it clear that whilst toy theatre performances are royalty free, should anyone wish to perform the play on a real stage then there would be a licencing cost associated with it.

I’m glad to say that 1952 was not the final end of the Benjamin Pollock business, in the mid 1950’s Marguerite Fawdry needed some parts for the toy theatre that her children played with and tried to buy them from the receivers who refused. They did however suggest she could buy all the plates, printed sheets and theatres they held which she duly did and opened The Benjamin Pollock Toy Theatre museum, which also continued selling stock as the shop had. She even produced new plays but in a much more modest fashion than Alan Keen. The museum she created still exists and is still run by the Fawdry family in Fitzrovia, a district of London, and is now high on my list of places that I want to visit the next time I am in the city.

The Ring – Stephen Fay & Roger Wood

Subtitled ‘Anatomy of an Opera’ this tells the story of the 1983 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the theatre the composer had built for performances of his operas in Bayreuth in southern Germany and which is still run by his descendants. It starts with the 1980 announcement that Sir Peter Hall was to direct the four operas with Sir Georg Solti conducting, journalist Stephen Fay and photographer Roger Wood become involved right at the beginning and this gives a fascinating glimpse into how the production grew. The book isn’t the story of the Ring Cycle operas but rather a backstage look as to how they came to be performed in 1983, from initial meetings, through set and costume designs, rehearsals and ultimately the appearance on stage in front of an audience and it is lavishly illustrated with Woods excellent photographs. Frankly reading this book makes it amazing that start to finish it was managed in just three years. Bayreuth is unique amongst the worlds opera houses for many reasons but one particular feature is that whilst almost every other house starts with operas one and two in the first year and then introduces numbers three and four over the next one or two seasons Bayreuth always has all four from the start which is a massive undertaking.

Because this book is about the production effort you don’t need to know anything about The Ring Cycle to appreciate the book but it does help to understand the flow of the parts and the overall structure of what is going on. For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with just how daunting a job this is I’ll just use this paragraph to summarise the task in hand. The cycle consists of four operas performed in sequence over four days/evenings and then repeated during the season, this would be a lot even with ‘normal’ operas but these are huge with large casts and long running times. Solti noted that a Beethoven symphony would have a score of roughly one hundred pages, his combined score for the four operas ran to well over two thousand pages, I have Solti’s famous recording of the cycle from 1958 on nineteen vinyl albums and the DVD recording I also have of Daniel Barenboim’s 1991 Bayreuth production has running times for the actual performances of Das Rheingold – 154 minutes, Die Walkure – 237 minutes, Siegfried – 244 minutes and Gotterdammerung – 270 minutes, a grand total of 15 hours and 5 minutes. Truly a musical marathon for all concerned, even the audience.

With so much needing to be done along with thirty six principal parts (several of which appear in more than one of the operas), a large chorus and numerous non-singing extras, a scratch orchestra put together for the season (the Festspeilehaus doesn’t have it’s own orchestra but draws players from various German orchestras who probably haven’t played together before) and limited time for rehearsals due to the need to do all of it in one go it is clear that this has lots of potential for disaster. Add in the conflicts between the various people involved along with all the back stage issues it’s remarkable it continues to happen and it’s this continuing rising tension that makes this book such a great read.

The spectacular set used for the start of Das Rheingold is depicted on the rear cover of the book as Alberich comes to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Along with the writing of Stephen Fay the book is adorned with beautiful photographs by Roger Wood, probably one of the finest theatrical photographers of all time although my reproductions here don’t do justice to his work as they are quite glossy and difficult to re-photograph. To really appreciate them you need to read the book but as they make up such a significant part I felt I wanted to give some idea of what he did. There is a very good reason why the two men share the credits.

The fascination of the book comes from the quite often difficult relationships between the various protagonists, Solti had terrible problems with some members of the orchestra but also one principal singer in particular. Reiner Goldberg had been cast as Siegfried despite never having sung the role in the past and whilst he had promised to learn the part it rapidly became clear that on arrival for rehearsals he hadn’t done so, he also would not take stage direction and simply went off on his own way so causing tension with Hall as well. Nevertheless the two of them persevered with him far longer that they should have before eventually giving up when they had reached the dress rehearsals so just before the first proper performance. Manfred Jung was asked to replace him at almost no notice and could only do so because he had sung the part many times including the previous seasons of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. This however was only in the last few months before audiences would see what had been produced, the stressed relationship between Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandson, who was running the theatre at the time and Sir Peter Hall had gone on for three years by now ever since Hall was chosen to direct. Hall was directing what would turn out to be easily the most expensive production of the cycle up to then and Wagner was having to pay for it. Wagner had also directed at least two complete cycles in his own right and had firm ideas as to how it should, and more importantly to him at least how it should not, be done. On top of this Wagner’s temper and Hall’s apparent calmness in face of it just wound Wagner up more exacerbated by the fact Wagner spoke no English and Hall hadn’t managed to learn any German so they had to use interpreters made the relationship particularly difficult altough highly entertaining to read about.

Solti did recognise that one of Hall’s particular troubles was Wagner. He took Hall aside one day in July nd asked if he could possibly say something pleasant to Wagner, to improve their relationship. Hall replied that he could think of nothing pleasant to say.

I was first properly introduced the The Ring via a TV version broadcast in May 1985 which was of the 1980 production which preceded the Solti/Hall version and was conducted by Pierre Boulez directed by Patrice Chereau, Introduced by Humphrey Burton broadcast on BBC 2 television and BBC Radio 3 over four consecutive Saturday evenings and I was amazed at the breadth of the concept. Reading this volume which gives just a hint of the three years work that goes into producing a cycle I am even more astonished by ‘the biggest work of art in the world’.