Monday, October 18, 2021

The Intimate Screen, by Jason Jacobs

Recommended to me by my friend Dr Una McCormack, The Intimate Screen - Early British Television Drama, published by Oxford in 2000, covers the period 1936 to 1955, and is fascinating.

Jacobs sets out his intention to “revise significantly, rather than refute completely” (p. 3) the model suggested by Gardner and Wyver, that:
“The first phase [of Television drama], primarily under the aegis of the BBC, was one of the last sustained gasps of a paternalistic Reithian project to bring ‘the best of British culture’ to a grateful and eager audience—a mission of middle-class enlightenment. Thus in its early days TV drama picked up the predominant patterns, concerns and style of both repertory theatre and radio drama (as well as many of their personnel, and their distinct training and working practices) and consisted of televised stage plays, ‘faithfully’ and tediously broadcast from the theatre, or reconstructed in the studio, even down to intervals, prosceniums and curtains.” (Gardner C and Wyver J, ‘The Single Play from Reithian Reverence to Cost-Accounting and Censorship’, and ‘The Single Play: An Afterword’, Screen 24/4-5 (1983), cited in Jacobs, p. 3.) 
Gardner and Wyver were not alone in seeing “a respect for theatre” (Jacobs, p. 7) as “blocking” the liberation of new forms of drama which came in, they felt, for two reasons: with the creation of ITV in 1955 and Sydney Newman starting work in British television in 1958. 
“Along came this man with the dream of putting the story of ordinary people and of our times, the contemporary times, on the screen, and doing this with quality, and giving writers freedom to write … This natural force blew through the corridors of television and blew a lot of the cobwebs out. That man probably had a greater influence on the development of television than anyone else.” (Ted Willis, speaking on the 1987 Channel 4 documentary And Now For Your Sunday Night Dramatic Entertainment, cited in Jacobs, p. 7)
Jacobs argues that many of the supposed innovations of this “second phase” — a focus on original plays written especially for television, working class subjects, moving the cameras, cutting, location filming etc — had a long pedigree in television already, and that the medium had always aimed at a kind of intimacy with the viewer which set it entirely apart from film, radio and the stage.

As he goes on, that “intimacy” was readily discussed in the press and the BBC’s internal paperwork, and understood in a number of different ways: the intimacy of watching in your own home (rather than dressing up to go out to the theatre), usually on your own or with just a few other members of the household (not a whole theatre audience); the intimacy of softer spoken voices as actors did not need to project to the back of the theatre; the intimacy of live drama, where the audience was witness to events happening in real time (and things might go wrong at any moment); the intimacy of small studio spaces and the close-up… 
“Intimacy meant the revelation and display of the character’s inner feelings and emotions, effected by a close-up style of multi-camera studio production.” (p. 8)
The sense is that the practicalities of television - in licensing material to put on screen, the limited studio and technical facilities, the smallness of the TV screen, and it being in people’s homes - shaped the kind of drama that was screened, the way it was framed and the audience’s response. The aesthetics of TV drama came from how it was made.

One major issue in exploring all this is that so little TV survives from the first phase: Although recording — and thus retaining — TV programmes wasn’t readily available in the UK until about 1958 (p. 4), 
"by 1947 it was technically possible to record television on film so, theoretically, there should be a complete record of programmes from here onwards. Instead, for the pre-1955 period, we have two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, the 1953 televising of the Coronation, an adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a selection of children's programmes from the early 1950s, and some sporting events (Test Match cricket, some football)." (p. 10) 
Just as in histories of the theatre (and in the sort of Doctor Who archaeology I’m involved in), these missing performances are pieced together from surviving paperwork, recollections and photographs, partial records rather than the full story. Jacobs is excellent at this: each chapter gives the broad context before moving into case studies on particular plays, detailing — as much as is possible — how they were staged and framed.

Some details are fascinating: instantaneous “cutting” from one camera to another was not possible until 1946; until then, “mixing” between two shots could “take up to eight seconds”, requiring great skill on the part of the crew, with some scripts specially written to accommodate the delay (pp. 46-47). There's lots of the limits of what could be achieved, and how small, gradual improvements in technology could change the feel of drama.

In fact, more recordings exist than Jacob suggests: there are surviving bits of pre-recorded material from the 1930s, and the earliest surviving “full” TV drama is It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer (tx 22 February 1953) - “full” because the surviving version is the shorter repeat; the original longer version was not recorded. It's striking that all these surviving dramas of the period - Schweitzer, Quatermass and 1984 - were produced by the same person, Rudolph Cartier. As Jacobs details in a 15-page case study on 1984, Cartier was extremely adept and lauded in his time for pushing what TV drama could do — though Jacobs argues that Cartier was selecting from a range of already established techniques rather than originating them entirely. But the retention of Cartier’s work isn't necessarily evidence of him being held in special esteem.

For one thing, other plays were recorded but not retained. The Broken Jug (tx 24 August 1953, produced/directed by Hal Burton) and The 23rd Mission (tx 11 November 1953, produced by Ian Atkins, directed by Julian Amyes) were, says Jacobs, both pre-recorded rather than broadcast live — marked as such in Radio Times, though without any reason being given, annoyingly.

Then there was the issue of copyright. The BBC often had rights to transmit a live adaptation of a theatre play, as an ephemeral performance, but not to retain it in any physical form. In some cases, the corporation was required to destroy recordings, such as a 1939 production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).
"One solution to the copyright problem was to commission original plays for television. The setting up of a script unit in early 1950, and the hiring of Nigel Kneale and Philip Mackie as staff scriptwriters, can be seen as an attempt to generate fresh drama, and drama which could be recorded and owned by the BBC. This would not have been an issue before telerecording when television programmes simply could not be thought of as material commodities [or tradable goods]." (p. 12).
The suggestion is that The Quatermass Experiment was selected for recording over other plays of the period because Kneale was on staff and the production was written especially for television. There were still complications: Jacobs also reports issues over the pre-filming of trailers for The Quatermass Experiment because there was no agreement in place with the actors’ union Equity. An agreement was reached, and also a deal whereby only the repeat performance of a play would be recorded, guaranteeing actors two performance fees (p. 113).

Then, in a footnote about the controversy over the political content in 1950 play Party Manners and its  repeat being cancelled, Jacobs adds that,
"The BBC were keen to demonstrate that they were not prone to state control, so much so that when similar controversy erupted around Nineteen Eighty-Four the BBC repeated the play in the face of considerable parliamentary criticism. It was the repeat which was telerecorded." (p. 96n)
So was Nineteen Eighty-Four recorded — and survives today — because of the controversy?

There's some stuff about the BBC's penchant for "Horror Plays" after the Second World War, perhaps reflecting the mood of the BBC staff — and the nation — who had been in service, but also acknowledging that TV suited the creation of eerie atmospheres and, as a letter to Radio Times in 1948 put it, "actors and actresses like to have 'close-ups' of registered horror" (p. 99).

In his case study on 1984, Jacobs suggests that in expanding what TV could do — using location filming to expand the scale of the story — Cartier turned the intimacy of television on its head. As Cartier himself said, the Michael Anderson film version of 1984 made a year after his own version, 
“could not recapture the impact of the TV transmission … It was decidedly different in the TV viewer’s own home, where cold eyes stared from the small screen straight at him, casting into the viewer’s heart the same chill that the characters in the play experienced whenever they heard his voice coming from their ‘watching’ TV screens.” (Cartier, ‘A Foot in Both Camps’, Films and Filming 4/12 (September 1958), p. 10. Cited in Jacobs, p. 138) 
This was surely reversing the usual, "cosy" intimacy of television to invade the viewer’s home — and the reason the drama proved so effective and shocking. Jacobs cites glowing reviews in the press and the “mostly hostile” letters to the BBC which “criticised the play on the grounds of obscenity”, thought it “‘unsuitable for the vast audience’ or talked about it in terms of ‘pollution’: such productions could be bad for people.” (p. 155)

Jacobs concludes with the fact that Sydney Newman was, in 1956, taken to see the Royal Court's stage production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. I’m not sure that date is correct, or that Jacobs is quite right in his analysis here. It’s worth putting this in context.
"In [his work at] the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Newman had witnessed, and had also contributed to, the remarkable flowering of the dramatic arts on television in North America, in which new writers, new actors, and new directors had all played their parts. He also recognised that television was a mass medium of nothing; that because of cultural inequalities most of the audience had little experience of the theatre but much of the cinema; that television drama should reflect and comment on the world familiar mass audience. The story goes that Michael Barry, then head of BBC drama, took Newman to see Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre. That play, with its unusual worm's-eye view of society and its derisive radicalism, seemed to Newman the dazzling light on the road to Damascus; more accurately, it summed up what he had come to believe about drama..." (Bernard Sendall, Independent Television in Britain (1982), cited in Television Drama: An Introduction by David Self, p. 49.)
Jacobs thinks it ironic that Newman was taken to the play by Michael Barry of all people, the man whom Newman would replace at the BBC and, “inspired” by the revolution in theatre they had witnessed together, radically overhaul TV drama. (Jacobs also says it was ironic that Look Back in Anger was not particularly successful on stage until an extract was broadcast on television.)

But that surely isn’t quite right. Another Canadian immigrant, Alvin Rakoff, claims in his new memoir that he was offered a job at the Royal Court by Tony Richardson, having both worked together as director-producers at the BBC. Rakoff turned down the offer, "then watched as the Royal Court went on to to revolutionise British theatre when it produced Look Back in Anger." The implication is that Rakoff was offered the job - and the chance to work on developing that play - because of the work he had already done in TV. Indeed, he says the "revolution" in theatre was “started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (I'm Just the Guy Who Says Action, p. 111). 

Fusing that with Jacobs, the implication is that Obsorne's play was riffing on the intimacy, the psychological insight, that was by now characteristic of TV, and intrinsic to the practicalities involved in televising drama. The "second phase" of TV drama ushered in by Newman was not, then, some radical new form but the recognition of strengths and virtues in the now mature TV medium. In that sense, it was more building on what had gone before than breaking from tradition.

No comments: