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14 May 2011
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The Madhouse on Castle Street: Bob Dylan, Maureen Pryor, James Mellor, Ursula Howells (BFI Stills)
Sunday 14 October 2007 11pm-12.10am; rpt Thursday 18 October 1.50am-2.55am (Wednesday night)

Remarkably, Bob Dylan first visited Britain to take part in a BBC play.

It was the coldest winter on record: Britain was frosty and grey. Millions of milk bottles were buried in snow drifts, Cliff was number one, and there were two TV channels and three radio stations (all BBC). This was the world a 21-year-old Bob Dylan entered when he visited London for the first time in December 1962, having never left America before.

Dylan had been spotted playing in a Greenwich Village club by enfant-terrible TV director Philip Saville. Saville felt he'd be perfect for the part of Lennie, the rebellious young lead in a high-profile BBC drama Madhouse on Castle Street.

Despite his total lack of acting experience, Dylan was hired for a substantial fee, brought over to the UK and put up at one of London's poshest hotels, The Mayfair. He was in London for three weeks. He introduced himself to the folk scene, which was a direct parallel of the one he'd left behind in New York. Both were leftish, vibrant, cultish affairs that would provide Dylan with the springboard to transform popular music.

As for the play, it exposed Dylan to Britain's disturbing and surreal new genre of so-called 'boarding house drama'. Madhouse on Castle Street is set in a boarding house somewhere in England. One of the tenants, Walter Tompkins, has retired to his room and vows never to come out again. Dylan sang four songs including the first ever broadcast of Blowin' in the Wind.

The BBC wiped the play in 1968 and it's since become the Holy Grail of missing Dylan archive. Arena goes in search of that lost treasure, finding the rarest ever Dylan tracks along the way and exploring the bizarre, magical, not to say hilarious story of the first time Bob Dylan was let loose in London.

With contributions from director Philip Saville, Evan Jones who wrote the play, folk legends Martin Carthy and Peggy Seeger and supreme Dylan collector, Ian Woodward.

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See original production stills from the drama
  In Pictures: Bob Dylan
Explore Dylan's career and hear dozens of song clips
Bob Dylan Timeline

A week of Bob on BBC Four

Do you recall watching the play in 1963?

BBC Links

Bob Dylan Homepage
The BBC's Dylan season and exclusive web features

Folk Message Board
Join the discussion at the Radio 2 site

Have You Seen Bob?
Share your memories of Dylan's UK tours in the 1960s

External Links

Observer Music Monthly
In-depth feature about the programme

Independent on Sunday
Article on the 'lost songs' featured in the documentary

Sunday Telegraph
Article about the footage hunt (PDF)

Bob Dylan
Huge official site that includes rare live tracks

Expecting Rain
The premiere source for Dylan news

Isis Magazine
Long-running Dylan fanzine

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