articles vivien leigh

Vivien Leigh makes her debut on TV

Vivien Leigh and George Devine in The Skin of Our Teeth 1959

Making my bow on TV

by Vivien Leigh (as told to D.H. Cousins)
TV Times, March 13, 1959

Television is like a tinder-box that fires imagination, and to an actress this can only be a challenge.

Though, of course, it will never oust the theatre, television has the advantage of reach, and brings to acting the immediacy, the now or never, the win or lose inevitability of, say, the Wimbledon tennis finals, the Derby or the Cup Final.

Unlike film-making when, if a scene is not quite right the director orders a re-take, in a television performance the director can no more call “cut” than a tennis umpire can sponge out the score. In both tennis and television, the play goes on with all the excitement of immediate, concentrated effort.

Fortunately, the comparison with Wimbledon ends here – the actors are not (or should not be!) competing against one another.

There is no denying, though, that to an actress television is a challenge, and who could resist a challenge?

I know I have taken time over the final step, but there has been no play I particularly wanted to do. Although, of course, I have always known that I would like to have a shot at television eventually.

So when I was offered the part of Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth (“Play of the Week,” Tuesday), which I loved playing on the stage, I knew I would kick myself afterward if I missed trying it on television. The play has great originality, and is full of wit and charm.

I suppose the most alarming thing about the medium is that there is only one performance. In the theatre, one has subsequent performances in which to improve and, of course, the great advantage of the response of the audience. Certainly there is a lot for me to learn about the mysteries and technique of television and I look forward to it as an exciting new experience.

I am often asked what was the first milestone in my career, and I would say it was my first West End part in The Mask of Virtue. I was 19 then, ad though I made a big success in it, I have thought it was due more to luck than anything else, because, quite honestly, in those day knew very little about my job.

Success at a very early stage in one’s career can be a mixed blessing. It throws a responsibility on one’s shoulders for which one is not really prepared. But, of course, it is, at the same time, tremendously encouraging.

The theatre, I think, is te only training ground for actors. In fact, when I was offered my first film contract I made quite sure that I could have at least six months set aside each year to work on the stage.

Not that I would ever lightly advise anyone to take up the acting profession. I think it is important to be swept into it on one’s own enthusiasm. Every new part teaches me something, and the character one is playing at the moment should always become one’s favourite to get the best from it. But among the parts I have enjoyed most of all are Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Viola in Twelfth Night and Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth.

Naturally I have learnt a tremendous amount from acting with my husband or under his direction. And, of course, we work together whenever possible because we enjoy it, but just the same, we have never accepted plays, or parts, that were less than good in order to stay together in the theatre.

I do believe, though, that for an actor and actress to be married does allow them to develop and integrate their home and work lives to great advantage, and works as a powerful stimulus.

The theatre can teach one a lot in personal life, and the other way around – the discipline of the stage, for instance, is valuable, and when I am in a play the whole of my day is geared to the evening performance. Not that the day ever seems long enough for all there is to be done.

When I am not working I love going to the theatre, and to cinemas, as well as picture exhibitions. I try to do a little painting myself, too. The results, I hasten to add, are pretty bad, but I find it a wonderful relaxation.

I am happiest, though, when I am working, and particularly, of course, when it is something new.

Friends tell me that after a television play ends there is a tremendous feeling of relief and exhilaration. I look forward to testing this out. But just at the moment my emotions are mixed between alarm and excitement.

Watch Vivien Leigh in the first two acts of The Skin of Our Teeth

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Vivien was so upbeat to the challenge of television. Her performance in “Skin Of Our Teeth” certainly showed this, it is one of my favorites! Plus the bonus of a young, sexy David McCallum doesn’t hurt either!

    1. I agree that it seems that way in this article, but I imagine the process of tacking a new medium was probably stressful as well as educational (such was the case when she did Tovarich).

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