Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Writing for Television, by Sir Basil Bartlett

Following yesterday’s post about The Intimate Screen and British Television up to 1955, I read this short guide to Writing for Television from 1955 written by Sir Basil Bartlett, who is listed on the cover as “Drama Script Supervisor [for the] BBC Television Service”, this credit prefixed on the inside with the word “formerly.”

It’s a rather nice little hardback, originally sold for 9s 6d, and “was written at the request of the BBC,” says the blurb on the inside front flap. Although the author “assumes that the reader has already had some experience in writing”, this “severely practical book is for a wider circle than the professional writer only” and will “appeal to the ordinary reader who likes to know how the machinery works”. It was one of a number of practical guides published by George Allen and Unwin, with adverts on the back cover for An Introduction to Journalism by EH Butler and Play Production for Amateurs by Eric Bradwell, and ads inside for Write What You Mean by RW Bell and Technical Literature - Its Preparation and Presentation by GE Williams. 

Bartlett provides 76 pages of notes intended, he says, "for the professional writer” (p. 9), and assumes that he (always "he") comes from the theatre. "Basically, Television is a by-product of the theatre," he tells us (p. 11). Indeed, of the up to 90 scripts received by the Drama Department each week, “the majority … are still in stage-play form” (p. 48) rather than being written especially for Television.
“The Drama Department has a dual function. On the one hand it has been for many years a repertory theatre. Week after week it presents to viewers Television versions of outstanding theatre plays by authors of all nationalities and all generations. On the other hand it has a growing and gladly undertaken responsibility for finding new work by new authors and giving it an airing.” (p. 48) 
There was not a 50/50 split between the two, and Bartlett is also aware of the ratio changing. Of the up to ninety submissions received by the Drama Department each week, “The majority of scripts submitted are still in stage-play form,” (p. 48) but in 1950 the Drama Department produced 105 plays, 95 of them adaptations of established stage plays; in 1954, of a “similar” total, just 30 were established stage plays, the rest either adaptations of new plays, novels or short stories - or, good gracious, “new plays written expressly for the medium” (p. 49). In addition to this, the department produced four serials. 

To aid the would-be writer of TV, Bartlett provides extracts from 10 notable TV productions, which - like The Intimate Screen - are evidence of the sophistication and ambition of early TV. For my own reference, they are: 
Strikingly, Bartlett doesn’t encourage writers to write material expressly for TV. With fees for single performance of an original play at £120, and £60 for a repeat, he admits that “an author … can scarcely make a living out of Television, even if he writes ten plays a year and gets them all accepted" (p. 71) - even if the expansion of television and the development of TV craft may mean increased fees in future. There’s mention of sales abroad, but at this stage he’s talking about selling a script that can then be reproduced, rather than a recording of a BBC-made play.

Instead, Bartlett is entirely pragmatic about using Television to further a career on the stage.
“The BBC Television Service is, however, an excellent try-out theatre. And it is on this basis that it should be considered.” (p. 70)
He gives six reasons: “First, he will get his play knocked into shape by experienced script-writers and directors.” Television also affords better casting and production that a small-stage try-out, and the author will get his name known to millions, who might then go see a stage version, and he’ll have the value of newspaper coverage - all while retaining the rights. Elsewhere, Bartlett tells us that - at BBC Television at least - “the standards of the theatre prevail” as “Television respects the author’s integrity”. Indeed, “once an author’s work has been accepted it becomes the sole purpose of the director, actors and technicians to see that it is project as well as is humanly feasible on to the screen.” (pp. 14-15.)

Yet the sense is that the author would have little involvement at all in the televisual elements of screening works primarily conceived for the stage.
“The adaptation of stage plays, old and new, is normally undertaken by BBC staff writers and directors, and outside writers are rarely called in to adapt the work of their playwright colleagues. Most plays, after all, require no more than rigorous pruning, a little transposition of scenes and a general opening up.” (p. 43) 
Of course, an increased focus on original plays written especially for the screen would obviate this kind of work, and I wonder how much that influenced the decision of Sydney Newman, when he became Head of Drama at the beginning of 1963, to close the Script Department entirely.

That the BBC produced some 105 plays each year helped clarify something for me: why the BBC had a regular run of Sunday-Night and Tuesday-Night plays. It was all down to limited studio space.
“A BBC Television play is rehearsed for either two or three weeks according to its complexity. Most of the rehearsals take place in outside rehearsal rooms, and the cast spends only two days, including transmission day, in the Television studio.” (p. 62)
So Studio D at Lime Grove would have Saturday and Sunday booked for the live Sunday-night play; Monday and Tuesday would be for the live Tuesday-night play; Wednesday and Thursday would then be given over to a repeat performance of the Sunday-night play - implicitly, affording it more value than a play shown just once on Tuesday. (As we saw in The Intimate Screen, it was the Thursday-night repeats that got recorded, where examples survive.) The studio was therefore free on a Friday, when a smaller production such as a half-hour serial might be fitted in.

When it began in 1963, Doctor Who was recorded in Studio D on consecutive Friday evenings. This series-of-serials was possible, surely, because by that time, more prestigious dramas were being recorded in the new Television Centre, freeing up space - but the structures and schedules remained.

Then there’s the kind of material suitable for TV. For all Bartlett underlines the connections to theatre rather than film (“Stage plays and Television plays are living things, whereas films are in cans”, p. 14), he has to admit a major difference.
“One of the biggest problems facing the Television writer is that his public is so elusive. [Whereas a playwright can see the audience,] “The Television writer, on the other hand, is writing in a vacuum. He has a potential public of many millions. But he can never be sure, at any given moment, that those millions have not switched off.” (pp. 26-27)
Even so, he tells us,
“The viewer is the average man. And what he wants is to be told a story which he can both enjoy and understand.” (p. 27)
And he warns that,
“the majority of viewers have no theatrical background. Many of them have never been in a theatre in their lives.” (p. 28 )
This was, of course, an insight often ascribed to Sydney Newman but is fundamental to the medium years before he even came to the UK.

So much of the book is about Television as a modern, technological medium but Bartlett’s warnings on subject material firmly place this in history:
"Although not liable to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain it [the BBC] is compelled, by the nature of its Charter, to exercise a strict internal censorship of its own. This amounts to no more than a sense of responsibility for what is shown to the family and seen in the home. Thus there is no place in BBC programmes for plays that might normally be produced in private theatre clubs. And any author who has an urge to write a play on a distasteful theme--rape, for example, or incest or abortion--would be better advised not to write it for Television. ... The BBC must also be cautious about plays with a strong political content. ... In addition, there is a quite natural ban on the portrayal of the Royal Family in fictional programmes.” (p. 18)
That said, I held my breath when he raised the issue of writing aimed at minorities - but it wasn’t at all what I expected:
“If he [the author] decides to throw caution to the winds and write deliberately for a minority audience, for the hard core of better-educated viewers, he must remember that the BBC Television Service puts out a single programme and that the time allotted to minorities is considerably less than is possible, for example, on Sound radio, which has three channels. And the competition for the few minority spaces on Television is a stiff one.” (p. 29)
It’s a case for accessible, popular television - a grounded, universal TV - very much in Newman’s line.

There’s much more, such as on the popular appeal offered by regular characters and situations in serials and series - though, “With its single programme and shortage of studio space the BBC Television Service cannot embark very frequently on a series.” (p. 42). And there’s a fantastic chapter that takes us through the day of a live recording, explaining everyone’s roles and giving a sense of the tension, and the author getting in everyone’s way, which dovetail’s nicely with the account in Alvin Rakoff’s new memoir.

And then, at the end, Bartlett concludes with something that’s a cognitive leap forward. Though, “People are inclined to be snobbish about Television Drama and to regard it as a slightly disreputable member of the theatrical family” (p. 73), “In the future the theatre will, I believe, have a lot to learn from Television.” (p. 74). He means in doing away with the frame of the stage play - footlights and the proscenium arch - to get up close to, even inside a subject’s head.
“It is an intimate medium and well suited to this task.” (p. 76)
As we saw yesterday, he was right - and much sooner than he can have expected. He's a key witness, on the cusp of revolution.

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