Friday, 18 December 2015

Practical Cats

Well I never!
Was there ever
A Cat so clever
As Magical Mr Mistoffelees!

T. S. Eliot's collection of feline-based poetry gets another airing this Christmas when Jeremy Irons reads Old Possum's Bookof Practical Cats on Radio 4. The BBC publicity tells us that they first appeared on the radio on Christmas Day 1937. Sure enough tucked away in the afternoon on the Regional Programme is Practical Cats. The billing tells us: "For some time past Mr. Eliot has been amusing and instructing the offspring of some of his friends in verse on the subject of cats. These poems are not of the kind that have been usually associated with his name, and they have not yet been published. With his permission, some of them have been arranged into a programme, and they will be read by Geoffrey Tandy ".

The collection was published two years later and they would soon find a young audience as they cropped up in Children's Hour and programmes For the Schools from 1940 through to the late 50s. I dare say they continued to be featured in English programmes for schools but these billings have so far fallen through the Genome net.

The Cats only put in occasional TV appearances; the first in 1952 on Children's Television when actor Anthony Jacobs read a couple of the poems. In 1971 they got the full Omnibus treatment as part of an appreciation of Eliot's work.

In 1954 Alan Rawsthorne set six of the poems in a work for speaker and orchestra, the studio recorded version featured the voice of Robert Donat. This has made several appearances on Radio 3  - it is first billed on Network Three in 1965 - right into the noughties.  A similar idea by Humphrey Searle only seems to get the one billing, in 1985.

Straight readings of the poems are heard on the Home Service in 1962, read by Val Gielgud and Hugh David. In November 1974 BBC2 closes down each evening with a poem read by either Sian Phillips or Richard Bebb; The Naming of Cats appears on the 27th.

Radio 4 broadcast the reading of all 15 poems in a five-minute slot just before the 9 am news during September and October 1988. It offers a starry line-up of readers: Alec McCowen, Anna Massey, Roger Daltrey, Richard Briers, Fenella Fielding, Wendy Hiller, Maurice Denham, Penelope Keith, Derek Jacobi, Michael Bryant, Max Wall, Charles Gray, Alan Bennett, Ian McKellen and Bernard Cribbins.  These are so successful that they get a repeat in 1989 and in 1994, though they have not, to my knowledge, been heard since. 

Here are five of those readings:

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