In 1963, a young and pre-fame Bob Dylan landed some rare paid work by contributing to the televised BBC play The Madhouse on Castle Street. It was a few quick bucks the travelling troubadour needed, also providing his first plane ticket out of the US and one that would change the course of his career.
As part of the Sunday Night Play strand, the show was written by Evan Jones and directed by Philip Saville and made with electronic video cameras but cut onto film rather than tape. It was an interesting proposition that not only feels nostalgic and warm but also gives audiences the first glimpse of Dylan amid the bright lights of television. The audio below may well be pretty ropey, but it does a great job of transporting fans back into the dusty days when Bob Dylan wasn’t a world-renowned name.
According to the BBC press office, Dylan made his first trip to London in the winter of 1962/63, and shortly after, the young folk singer was spotted in a Greenwich Village basement by TV director Phillip Saville. Instantly drawn to Dylan’s intense character, Saville invited the then-21-year-old to appear in the aforementioned BBC play the following summer.
“Despite his total lack of experience, Dylan was cast as the rebellious young lead Lennie, paid a fee of 500 guineas and flown to London,” Bob Harris explains. “His next three weeks coincided with one of the coldest British winters on record—a time when Londoners braved snowdrifts, freezing temperatures and power cuts and even saw the Thames freeze.”
“He came over to do a play for the BBC called Madhouse on Castle Street,” remembered folkie Martin Carthy of his experiences with meeting Dylan for the first time. “Whenever he and his charges came over, his manager, who was Albert Grossman, would bring him around the folk clubs.” Carthy was in a group called the Thameside Four and welcomed the singer, “A big fuss was being made about him […] I went over and asked him if he wanted to sing and he said ‘ask me later’, and I asked him later and he got up and sang. He blew everybody away. Just a fabulous performer, completely in charge.”
Adding: “While in London, Dylan stayed with Martin Carthy, who helped introduce him to the burgeoning folk club circuit and who remembers chopping up a piano for firewood to counter the effects of that long cold winter. Dylan became a regular figure on the folk scene and even found the time to cut an LP in a record shop on Charing Cross Road, under the pseudonym of Blind Boy Grunt”.
He concluded: “Dylan’s stay also resulted in a burst of original songs including some of his most beloved like ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, which were heavily influenced by his exposure to traditional English folk music.”
Despite Bob Dylan going on to earn international stardom, the only lasting copy of the footage taken from Dylan’s performance was ‘junked’ in 1968, which was a common – albeit devastating – practice at the time. It means the film was scrapped to save space or make more film. A process now that feels entirely criminal.
Despite all footage being destroyed, scrappy audio was rescued of Dylan singing ‘The Ballad of the Gliding Swan’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, marking its place in history as his first-ever TV performance.
Check it out below.