Fred O’Donovan: not just Knocknagow



Charles Barr examines the career of Fred O’Donovan, the director of the Film Company of Ireland’s ambitious feature-length adaptation (1918) of Charles Kickham’s novel Knocknagow.

O’Donovan’s career began as an Abbey Theatre actor from 1908, and then director, after which he was a freelance actor in theatre, film and radio, before going on to become prolific pioneer director of live drama for BBC Television, in 1938-39, and again, after the wartime closedown, from 1946 till his death in 1952. He was celebrated for his long-take one-camera style, of which there are fascinating anticipations in Knocknagow.

This article derives from an all-day event organised by Ruth Barton at TCD in May 2016, in honour of Professor Kevin Rockett on his retirement. Fifteen papers were presented by a range of Kevin’s associates and admirers. This one is given topical interest by the approaching centenary in 2018 of the landmark film of Knocknagow.



I owe my interest in Fred O’Donovan to two notable scholars. One is, appropriately, Kevin Rockett, the other is John Wyver.


Sometime in the early 1980s I heard Kevin give a pioneering film history talk in Dublin, and became aware for the first time of a pre-Independence Irish cinema; in 1987 came the Cinema in Ireland book, after which I watched the British archival print of Knocknagow (1918). That interest lay dormant for 25 years until the film acquired a sudden new prominence, as subject of an issue of the Australian online journal Screening the Past. Even that made little reference to O’Donovan as the film’s director, but the omission was soon rectified, for me, by encountering John Wyver’s work-in-progress on his career as a director of live drama in the early days of BBC Television, in the late 1930s and, after the wartime closedown, for another six years up to his death in 1952. Wyver’s initial online essay begins thus: ‘Among major creative figures in British television drama, there are few who are as forgotten, as lost and as neglected as Fred O’Donovan.’ A main reason for this obscurity is the fact that no example of his work survives, since recording of the electronic image did not become seriously feasible until the year after his death. But to call him ‘a major creative figure’ in TV may be no exaggeration.


Could this really be the same Fred O’Donovan? There is more than one media figure of that name, as a Google search at once confirms. But the director of Knocknagow did indeed go on to become a pioneer television director. He had been a central figure at the Abbey Theatre for a decade from 1908: as an actor in Dublin and frequently on tour, and latterly as director of plays and, for a short time, of the theatre overall, before he left in early 1919. Nearly two decades later he began his equally intensive association, either side of the war years, with BBC TV. How can these two distinct phases be linked, in personal career terms and also in cultural and aesthetic terms?  Wyver had established that he stayed active in the interim, in a much less settled way, as a freelance actor and director, mainly in England, for theatre and, increasingly, radio, and playing occasional small parts in films; and he traces his TV career assiduously through BBC files and through printed records, mainly the weekly Radio Times and intermittent press reviews. These show O’Donovan quickly becoming noted for a distinctive TV-studio strategy. He preferred ‘to use just a single camera to shoot very lengthy scenes, often lasting 20 minutes or more’.  A contemporary commentator on his work noted that  ‘One-camera production demands the highest degree of precision, and when perfect co-ordination is achieved between cast, cameraman and producer the result is often a smoother and more polished presentation than the more complicated many-angle technique.’


Already in Knocknagow there are striking anticipations of this strategy. The print we have is a bit of mess, uneven in visual quality and with evident gaps that at times make the narrative hard to follow. Even allowing for this, there are ways in which the film seems ‘primitive’. With Ireland offering no access to a film studio, interiors had to be open to the elements in order to get adequate light, and tablecloths are seen to flutter in the breeze. There is an absence of point-of-view shots when we might expect them, and more generally of shot-reverse-shot constructions. Typically of its Hollywood-centric viewpoint, Variety, when it eventually got to review the film, was ready to patronise it, seeing it as stylistically backward for 1921. It had of course had been shot four years earlier, in 1917, the precise year which historians have seen as a decisive transitional point into the mature ‘classical’ system: the standard 1985 book on Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson carries the subtitle ‘Film Style and Production from 1917’. It is not surprising if Ireland, with its lack of a studio and of any kind of solid native industry, in some ways lagged behind. But the standard Hollywood way is not the only one, and many scenes in Knocknagow embody an attractive alternative. For much of the film’s length, O’Donovan focuses on conveying maximum information and affect without cutting within scenes, or moving the camera, rather in the manner of the early work of D.W. Griffith (ahead of Birth of a Nation) or of Victor Sjostrom in Sweden, both of whom had, like him, long experience in theatre. Whether or not he would have gone on, like them, to develop a more fragmented style we cannot tell, since he directed no further films; the evidence of his TV work suggests that he would have done so in a limited way at most, and that he could indeed have gone on, given improved resources and support, to become a distinctive stylistic presence within cinema, as he later became in early television.


I shall focus on three early scenes and one late one.


Knocknagow opens with a slow pan in long shot across the Tipperary landscape. Then a title: ‘They speak friendly greetings one day in old Kilthubber, not seeing the  cloud in their sky, which as yet lies low on their horizon.’ A street scene then illustrates the title. A lot of care has gone in to the staging of this simple functional one-shot introduction. The camera is set at what Barry Salt, an early historian of film style, has termed the ‘cinematic angle’, placed at an angle to the setting and people, a rich variety of whom wander past: the placement allows us to see them, but does not block their movement, and there is incidental action to notice in doorways deep in the frame, enhancing the sense of a community (Fig 1). The shot ends (Fig 2) with one man coming a bit closer to the camera and veering off, separate from the friendly others: later we will get to know him as Pender the land agent, the ‘cloud in their sky’, but for now the visual hint is still restrained and mild, matching the line about the cloud being still ‘low on their horizon’.



Fig 1


Fig 2


Soon after this comes the first meeting between identified characters. Again it is a one-shot exterior scene with fixed camera, which this time observes from square-on. From the left of frame comes one couple, Mary Kearney and her mother, and from the right of frame another: Arthur O’Connell, played by O’Donovan himself, accompanied by the priest who has befriended him (Fig 3). Introductions are made, and the two young people retire to the background to begin an intimacy that will lead at the end of the film to marriage. Through the space thus opened up between the older and younger couples come first, from the left, a pair of passer-by girls (Fig 4), and then from the right a horse and cart driven by the film’s other romantic lead, Mat (Fig 5). He stops to offer Mary and her mother a lift, goodbyes are said, and the cart exits left; the two men watch it go (Fig 6), and finally exit right themselves.



Fig 3


Fig 4


Fig 5


Fig 6

This is plainly a theatrical kind of ‘blocking’, with the use of upstage and downstage areas, and entrances and exits from and into the wings, a system here lucidly carried over into cinema with the asset of its fixed spectator positioning – and of palpable location space. This factor is exploited more fully in the scene that comes  shortly after, still only eight minutes into the film, again featuring Arthur and Mat.



Fig 7


Fig 8


Here, they both walk towards us along a country lane, Arthur being some 50 yards in front. Successively, they stop to have a word with the comic figure of Barney, who is leading his donkey-cart along the road in the other direction. At the start of the shot (Fig 7) Barney enters from back left to be accosted by Arthur, who asks for directions and moves on; meanwhile Mat has been walking steadily from deep in the shot, and himself speaks to Barney (Fig 8), looking out beyond the camera as he refers to Arthur, now out of shot, and to his love for Mary; Mat in turn exits, and we cut to Mary in her garden. Throughout this shot, the camera has again been static. It is a pity in a way that it is broken up by two dialogue titles, but the shot/scene – plan-séquence in French terms – is still very pleasurable, in line with the pleasure one feels that O’Donovan and colleagues must have felt in setting it up and executing it, playing with space within the frame, and also beyond it in the unseen space behind the camera. How satisfying it is to have placed Mat so precisely in the distance and given him the cue to start walking at just the right moment. It doesn’t seem forced, because the road is straight and narrow; there is only one realistic place to put the camera, and how effective it is to let it run.


Putting the three scenes together, one senses a real exploratory relish in covering so much in single shots, and in handling space and movement in a variety of ways, the composition and movement being successively diagonal, lateral, and direct towards camera. Impressive in a different way is the much slower, solemn three-minute interior scene, much later in the film, around the bed of the youthful Norah Lahy, who is dying from tuberculosis.



 Fig 9


Fig 10


The master shot (Fig 9) encompasses the whole space, but O’Donovan does not make a fetish of the plan-séquence, and cuts unobtrusively in the middle of the scene to a somewhat tighter shot (Fig 10) before ending back on the wider one. The takes must have been shot successively rather than by two cameras simultaneously, but strict continuity of time and angle is observed, and it feels like a single take. The mise-en-scene is very precise, incorporating important background detail and some movement of characters around the bed; O’Donovan is again clearly drawing on his Abbey Theatre staging experience while exploiting the greater closeness and control of viewpoint enabled by cinema.


The film’s cast is worth attention. The deathbed scene has in fact contained a third set-up, a single brief cut-in – still looking in the same direction – to frame Norah’s grieving father (Fig 11). He is played by Arthur Shields, who like O’Donovan had a long Abbey Theatre career. In the background of his shot, as of the other shots, playing Norah’s lover Billy, is Breffni O’Rourke (spelling of his name varies), who was also, more briefly, an Abbey actor; he and Shields and O’Donovan were on stage together there in November 1916 in The Playboy of the Western World, not long after Shields had been released from the prison camp where he was sent for his role in the occupation of the Post Office in the Rising of Easter week.


Shields made no more films until John Ford took him to Hollywood in 1936 as assistant director of his film of The Plough and the Stars, and to play the role based on Pearse (Fig 12); thereafter he had a steady career in American cinema and TV. O’Rourke became a prolific character actor in British films for some years up to his death in 1947; his weightiest role is in the Launder-Gilliat comedy-thriller I See a Dark Stranger (1946, set in 1944). Like Shields in real life and in the Ford film, his character was active in the Rising, but his role in this British film three decades later is to serve British purposes, assuring Deborah Kerr’s militantly anti-British  Irishwoman that all of that bad feeling is now history, and that the annoyance of Partition is sure to be sorted out in friendly fashion once the war is over (Fig 13). Something very similar happens with the young Cyril Cusack, who vigorously plays the young son of Knocknagow’s evicted O’Brien family (Fig 14). With virtually no more Irish films to be part of for decades after, he too becomes a familiar British film presence, available likewise to serve British ideological interests when required, as in another film set in 1944, The Man who Never Was (1955). As an Irish taxi-driver in London (Fig 15), he receives and supports another Irishman, a pro-Nazi spy – played by Stephen Boyd, Irish actor of a later generation – who has been sent from Berlin to attempt to unravel British plans ahead of D-Day (Fig 16).



Fig 11


             Fig 12


Fig 13


      Fig 14


 Fig 15


Fig 16


The point of this is to reinforce what we already know to be the importance of Knocknagow, a landmark film ‘made in Ireland by Irish men and women’ at a pivotal historical moment, which for complicated reasons led nowhere, so that several of its great talents went on to serve other cinemas, as well as Irish and other theatres. Among them Fred O’Donovan himself.


It is possible that recordings exist of some of his radio productions, particularly from the war years. But almost certainly the only visual footage to survive, after Knocknagow, derives from his minor acting roles in some British films of the 1930s and 1940s. Only two are of any real interest. Ourselves Alone (1936) is a rare film of the period to be made mainly by Irish men – but not, now, by Irish women, and in England rather than Ireland, though it is set in the rural south during the War of Independence. Director is the Belfast-born Brian Desmond Hurst, who wrote the script in tandem with Abbey Theatre playwright Denis Johnston; a number of the cast are Irish, including Niall McGinnis as the local IRA leader, Abbey veteran Harry Hutchinson as an informer, and O’Donovan as barman at the pub that functions as a nationalist HQ.  He takes the lead in hiding guns when Black and Tans mount a raid, and has a great moment (Fig 17) when their officer demands a glass of porter, and complains of it being undrinkably sour: the barman responds that ‘Maybe it’s the blood that does be pouring into the waters of the Liffey these days that makes it so’, and turns his back contemptuously.


A year later he has an uncredited role in the comedy-thriller Young and Innocent. He is just about identifiable as a detective helping to investigate the murder of a woman washed up on the beach, at the start; only for a brief moment is his face visible beneath his hat, and he does not reappear (Fig 18). The director is Alfred Hitchcock, and that connection will be worth returning to.



    Fig 17


Fig 18


His main work meanwhile has continued to be in theatre. It’s impossible to know, pending new biographical evidence, whether he will have regretted leaving the intensity of the Abbey and Ireland for a less rooted career in England, but he certainly stayed busy, as is demonstrated by a trawl through the records. To sum up: he worked variously as actor and director, on long commercial runs and more specialist short seasons, and on Irish and non-Irish drama.


Many times between 1921 and 1934 he is found linking up with the London-based Irish Players, Abbey exiles who had left before he did, playing alongside actors like Arthur Sinclair, Sarah Allgood and her sister Maire O’Neill for runs of several weeks. 1921 and 1930, as Christy in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. 1926 and 1930, as Jack Clitheroe in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. 1927 and 1934, in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, latterly as Joxer Daly. Occasionally he directs as well. There is nothing Irish after 1934 apart from three short plays by Yeats and Lady Gregory, a few performances of each in specialist venues. But O’Donovan makes up for this in a big way when he moves into Television.


If one continuity between his years in Dublin and, decades later, with BBC TV is the renewal of the long-take aesthetic of Knocknagow, another is his privileging of Abbey playwrights.


His first work for the newly-launched BBC TV service, in 1936, is an acting role, as Michael Mikell in the short play by Lady Gregory, The Workhouse Ward. He had himself created this role as early as 1908, soon after he joined the Abbey company, and played it frequently thereafter in Dublin and London.


Once he joins the small BBC staff, he continues to direct Abbey material, presumably by his own choice. Abbey plays make up about a quarter of his output in the years that follow. In summary:


Lady Gregory          3 plays (+ two of her translations from French)

J.M. Synge              3

W.B. Yeats              2

Sean O’Casey          2

Lennox Robinson     2

Denis Johnston        2


The two most ambitious productions are of Juno and the Paycock in 1938, and of The Playboy of the Western World in 1946. Floor plans of the former survive in the BBC archives. Critics at the time were impressed by the effects achieved by depth of field, even on the tiny screens of that era.


It must have been a strange experience for O’Donovan, in his fourth production after TV resumed in 1946, to direct The Playboy. He had himself played the youth of the title, Christy Mahon, more often, surely, than any other actor has ever done, starting in 1909. W.G. Fay had originated the role at the Abbey, when it famously provoked an audience riot during its first run, but he left the Abbey soon after and O’Donovan took over, playing it repeatedly thereafter in Dublin and in England, Canada and America. Indeed he had his own riot experience in 1911 in New York (fig 19).



Fig 19


The newspaper – undated, but it must be from the last week of November 1911 – gives an account of the passions stirred up in Boston and New York by conflicting groups of Irish-Americans over its depiction of, especially, Irish women. James Joyce is on record as having praised O’Donovan’s characterisation over that of Fay, his predecessor in the role.


How different it will have been in 1946. One wonders how much time he spent in reminiscing to his new Christy, played by Patrick Boxill – not a famous name, but he had played Johnny Boyle in the Juno production of 1938. O’Donovan did at least have Arthur Sinclair from the old days in Dublin and London, as Michael Flaherty, as well as his own wife, Joyce Chancellor, as Sara Tansey, and Maureen Cusack, wife of his Knocknagow child star Cyril, as Susan Brady. That production would be high on the wish-list for recordings, had such a process then existed.


O’Donovan’s continued loyalty to Abbey material and Irish players, after decades away from Dublin, is revealing, and indeed rather moving. It would be nice to argue that he was helping to fly the flag effectively in Britain for Irish culture after the tensions of the war years, but it must be remembered that TV still had a very small audience, restricted for technical reasons to a small area around London, and also by the high cost of TV sets. Nevertheless, plays did get some press reviews, and they may have had a certain cultural impact out of proportion to the size of their audience.


What is certain is that O’Donovan’s long-take strategy, likewise dating back to his formative Irish years, attracted interest in and beyond the BBC. In the early days of TV broadcasting in France, he was brought over to Paris in order to demonstrate his single-camera system, part of a wider Anglo-French exchange but also, it seems, in order to provide a specific form of masterclass for French technicians. The result was broadcast there in late June 1952, and was well received. It turned out to be his final production. Already ill, he went into hospital on return, and died in London on 19th July.


That final production, in the French language, was of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which had been the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in 1940. When O’Donovan was refining his single-camera strategy for TV in the late 1940s, Hitchcock was doing something very similar in cinema, for the ‘ten-minute takes’ of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Ten minutes was the maximum time for a Hitchcock take before the film ran out; in live TV, O’Donovan could run on for longer, creating an unbroken theatre-style continuity. A review in the French weekly Radio Cinéma Television took the production very seriously, exploring the comparison with Hitchcock’s Rope, and asking in its headline: ‘Single Camera: is this the future for televised drama?’ The caption to an illustration draws admiring attention to the effects achieved by profondeur du champ (depth of field; composition in depth).


A regular reviewer of broadcasts for that magazine at that time was the great film critic André Bazin, whose TV reviews are only now starting to be collected. It is frustrating that he did not review the TV Rebecca: with his strong attraction to the cinema aesthetic of long takes and profondeur du champ, he is sure to have had interesting things to say about it. Instead, the review is by Janick Arbois, wife of the journal’s founder, both of them being good friends and associates of Bazin; it is almost a Bazin review by proxy, but it would be a more satisfying end to O’Donovan’s career if it were by Bazin himself – and would belatedly give him more exposure, when Bazin’s collected TV writings are published.


Somehow this is typical of the ill luck which has kept him neglected for so long. He was not in the original cast of any of the major Abbey plays, as opposed to minor ones and short ones: despite acting Synge’s Christy Mahon for so long, he did not originate the part, and he left the theatre before the advent of O’Casey, which helps to explain the wide neglect of him in Abbey histories. The films he directed for the Film Company of Ireland are lost, other than Knocknagow, and his input even to that as actor and director has often been overlooked; the collapse of the company at a time of political turbulence meant that he had no successor film to direct. He acted in the second London staging of Juno and the Paycock, but not the first, the production which made such a strong impression on Alfred Hitchcock, otherwise he might well have been cast in Hitchcock’s early-sound adaptation of it. Above all, there is the ill luck of having none of his TV work survive, because of the dates of his career and the time of his death, just before the first telerecording of a BBC TV play in 1953. And the last of these plays was evidently not seen by the Frenchman who might have given it a solid critical after-life.


I like to fantasise about the time his path did cross briefly with that of Hitchcock in 1937, during the shooting of Young and Innocent. In a lunch break, they discuss Ireland and O’Casey, and the novel Rebecca, which is not yet quite published, but they have heard advance reports, and both like the idea of dramatising it. They talk of the lure of the long take, of which O’Donovan has experience from way back; they resolve to pursue it systematically when they get a chance, and ten years later they are both doing so.


One famous; one forgotten, but not for ever. The work of John Wyver, distinguished TV producer as well as critic, is sure to make a difference. And Knocknagow survives, and is being more widely shown. It is likely to get more exposure at centenary time, at Festivals and elsewhere, especially if better print material can be found. The British archive has some tinted footage that could be printed up, and there may be fuller and better versions surviving in the US, where the film was shown widely and successfully at the time. Reader, please help if you can!



Author’s Note: I am grateful for various kinds of help and advice to Alain Kerzoncuf, Stephen Donovan and Dudley Andrew; to Barry Houlihan of NUI Galway; and especially to John Wyver, whose article on O’Donovan’s TV career is forthcoming in the Historical Journal of Film Radio And Television.


Charles Barr is Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia, has taught at UCD and at NUI Galway, and was a Research Fellow at TCD in 2014. His books include Ealing Studios and English Hitchcock.


A note on main sources 


Knocknagow. See issue 33 (2012) of the Australian online journal Screening the Past for a diverse collection of scholarly essays edited by Stephen Donovan, and for a link to the film itself.


The Abbey Theatre. There are many books, but few that mention O’Donovan, except sometimes in passing. The online database is invaluable:

A link supplies information about the more extensive Abbey materials held in the Special Collections section of the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway, which also holds the Arthur Shields collection.

London Theatre. The fullest database is evidently still a printed one, the multi-volume The London Stage: A Calendar of Plays and Players, by J.P.Wearing, covering the years 1890-1959 – a great enterprise and a great resource. Original publication by Scarecrow Press, 1976-1993.

BBC Television. This excellent new database enables O’Donovan’s TV work to be traced in detail:

It derives from an AHRC-funded research project ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’, based at the University of Westminster from 2011 to 2015.  (Principal Investigator John Wyver, Research Fellow Amanda Wrigley.)





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