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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Twelve Angry Men
US Television 1954 and YouTube   September 2021

There can be few who are not aware of Reginald Rose's courtroom drama, probably from the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, possibly from one of the several stage versions that have become staples of the school and community theatre repertories.

You might not know that it began life as a 1954 television play, but here that original version is, languishing in the YouTube vaults to be watched by only a few hundred people.

And it is good very good.

Rose depicts the jury in the trial of a teenager accused of killing his father. Their first vote is 11-1 to convict, the hold-out not convinced of the boy's innocence but just feeling that respect for him and for the system obliges them to some serious discussion.

And then the more they discuss, the more holes they find in the prosecution case.

Compared to the film, this first version is weakened by its brevity (one hour, minus adverts), which results in half the jury never being really individualised, not even to the level of the film's jargon-spouting ad executive.

And it feels a bit rushed while the film gives the sense of hours passing, the TV version seems almost to operate in real time.

But in several ways this version is actually stronger than the film. Foremost is the casting of Robert Cummings as the hold-out.

A lightweight actor best known for Hitchcock's Saboteur (the one that ends on the Statue Of Liberty) and a 1950s American TV sitcom, Cummings brings an Ordinary Guy quality to the character that Henry Fonda lacks in the film.

His character doesn't know from the start that he's right, as the self-satisfied schoolteacherish Fonda does, but believably discovers his argument as he goes along, which makes the man much more attractive and relatable to.

Elsewhere a general underplaying shows a mix of Reginald Rose not having fully developed the characters yet and director Franklin Schaffner deliberately toning performances down for television.

Emblematic of the differences is the fact that the juror most impatient to finish is an otherwise faceless businessman with theatre tickets rather than the film's coarser baseball fan eager to get to a game.

The racist played here by Edward Arnold is more surprised and chastened by his self-exposure than in the film, while Franchot Tone plays the last hold-out for guilty as a snob (as symbolised by his cigarette holder) whose alienation from his own son is mentioned but not made the key to his eventual capitulation.

Along the way there are passing and unforced references to the American legal and cultural ideals underlying the jury system, reminding us that this play was written in a time when patriotism was a consensus and not a political position.

Indeed, the whole play is a celebration of the classical liberal assumption that honourable men can honourably disagree without demonising each other, and perhaps find their way to agreement.

And it's good.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Twelve Angry Men - Studio One 1954 - 2021