The Survivors

The Survivors

1957 - United Kingdom

Shown on the BBC on 16 May 1957, The Survivors was a 90-minute live production and something of a departure from the cosy type of plays that the Beeb were offering its viewers in the 1950s. As a live production which is not believed to have been recorded, any review can only be based on contemporary 1950s critical reaction. 

The Radio Times magazine that week (10 - 17 May), published an extensive article by Peter Forster in which wrote:

"On the face of it Thursday's play is what film critics call a 'neo-Western', set as it is in the bar-room of the Court Hotel of Decker City, in Missouri, one day early in the summer of 1865, a few months after the end of the American Civil War.

It is a time when, as the authors explain, 'the armies are being disbanded, the men are straggling back to towns and cities, still dazed by a mixture of passion, grief, relief, triumph and weariness.' Here, in Decker City, founded by old Jodine Decker years before, the men whose return is most eagerly awaited are the Decker brothers, Steve and Morgan, who were captured early in the fighting under ignominious circumstances (they were in jail, awaiting court-martial for a disciplinary offence) and have spent long years as prisoners-of-war, looking forward to the day when they will be free to revenge themselves on the officer who, in their view, left them in jail to be captured.

The two brothers (Anthony Jacobs and James Maxwell) have returned from war. George A. Cooper (centre) is the barman.

That man, Tom Cameron, a rival local farmer to the Deckers, has been back home for some time; a quarrel has also been blowing up, over a watering place for cattle, with the other Decker brother, the crippled Finlay, who stayed at home. It is an explosive situation, needing only the return of Steve and Morgan to ignite it.

Yet the authors, Peter Viertel and Irwin Shaw have given more than usual substance to this story of feuding families. This is not the sort of clear-cut tale of gun law in which there are good men and bad; there is much to be said, both for and against, the Decker and Cameron; and beyond the excitement, the authors manage to convey with some depth the complicated situation of these bitter, angry, war-weary people, trying to face up to the problems of peace which cannot be solved by a bluster of bullets."

In reviewing the play, the television critic in the Birmingham Daily Post wrote - "The B.B.C.'s long play by Peter Viertel and Irwin Shaw 'The Survivors' with a theme of the futility of violence, had some moving scenes, notably a bitter condemnation by a long-suffering mother (played by Jean Anderson) of senseless shooting and killing." The paper summed up the play by commenting: "The play was so crowded with violence and rough characters that it almost burst from its dramatic frame. It would have been better as a novel." The London Daily News thought the play was 'a powerful B.B.C. drama production' and advised viewers that "It was decidedly not the drawing-room sort of play J.B. Priestly thinks right for television, but this tale of hate in a small American town was most moving."

The review noted that "The largely British cast struggled a little to re-create the atmosphere of Missouri in the 1860's. But striking arguments got them through." Two actors were singled out for praise. "James Maxwell had a good cut at the leading part of a muddled soldier, sick of war, landed into the middle of a family feud", whilst "Wilfred Lawson spoke with terrible power a long speech of an old man remembering every detail of a gun battle except why it was fought."

Published on September 4th, 2022. Various sources compiled by Mar Saul.

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