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On the boards: television from the theatre

To the London Coliseum last night for the final presentation this season of Terry Gilliam’s spectacular staging of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. A team from BBC Four was there too, using eight cameras to capture the performance for transmission later this year. ‘Stage capture’ of this kind has a long tradition with the first theatre event presented on television being a live broadcast of J B Priestley’s play When We are Married on the evening of Wednesday 18 November 1938.

Basil Dean’s production of Priestley’s crowd-pleaser was playing that autumn directly across the road from the Coliseum at the St Martin’s Theatre. The diarist billed as ‘Scanner’ in the Radio Times was excited about the event:

It has come. I will say little about it. On page 20 the programme billing on Wednesday at 8.30pm speaks for itself. At last the television cameras are to televise a West-End play in its entirety from the stage of the theatre itself.

The day after the broadcast The Times offered some sober reflections.

Television entered the theatre for the first time last night. Three cameras were set up in St Martin’s Theatre and succeeded in presenting viewers with a complete version of Mr Priestley’s Yorkshire comedy When We are Married. One camera, operated from the front row of the dress circle, covered about two-thirds of the stage, and the other two, railed in on platforms at opposite ends of the orchestra stalls and resembling anti-aircraft searchlights, contrived with changes of lens the frequent ‘close-ups’.

The experiment, to the non-technical, unexacting eye, was surprisingly successful. A great deal of detail was lost… But these were trifling defects to set against the rather awful fact that last night, for the first time in a London theatre proper, it was possible to enjoy the play and enjoy a large measure of its fun from the bar.

Producer Basil Dean was a major force in commercial theatre (and cinema) between the wars, and he recalled the occasion (although he got the date wrong) in his book Mind’s Eye: An Autobiography from 1927-1972, published in 1973.

There was quite a fuss over the preparations that had to be made beforehand. A large television van was anchored in front of the St Martin’s Theatre, from which an assortment of cables emerged to festoon the passages and gangways. A number of stall seats were removed and runways for the cameras built in their places. Dialogue had to be severely cut to fit the BBC programme and the grouping of the characters rearranged to accommodate the restricted movement of the cameras of those days. The powerful studio lights completely destroyed my stage lighting. Because of the inconvenience that these arrangements would cause to our patrons we announced special prices of 5s and 2s and 6d. Following the brief appearance on the screen at Alexandra Palace of one or two of the artistes as a useful ‘trailer’, we managed to secure a full house.

A special screen was fitted up in the bar at the back of the dress circle where Jack [Priestley] and I spent our time hovering between drinks and audience to ‘double watch’ the proceedings. It was great fun of course; first occasions are always memorable. But it did not help the run of the play particularly because we were selling out already. Moreover, at that early stage of development television aroused only limited curiosity, and gave small sign of the world-wide influence it was destined to become. However, from the letters I received from various members of its staff, the BBC evidently accounted this ‘first night’ a great success.

The cameras these days are rather more sophisticated, the image quality far better and the cabling less obtrusive. But the essence of a outside broadcast from the stage is still much as it was seventy-three years ago. Theatre plays are now rarely accorded such attention by broadcasters, and the form is now being taken forward by initiatives such as NT Live and Digital Theatre, to both of which we will return in future posts.



4 thoughts on “On the boards: television from the theatre

  1. Eight cameras! I’m surprised it wasn’t distracting.

    Posted by Helene Giansante | 8 June 2011, 5:46 pm
    • Hurrah! Our first comment – thanks Helene! Now we need to encourage others.
      I agree that you’d think it would be distracting, especially as I was seated more or less in the centre of the Dress Circle about six or eight rows behind one of the cameras. But it’s a huge auditorium and the cameras now are really very compact, with only minimal lighting and associated stuff. I really didn’t notice them, and I have to say that I found the lady in the row in front who was using her programme as a fan right through Act Two far far more distracting.

      Posted by John Wyver | 8 June 2011, 7:57 pm
      • Rarely, if ever, have I been first at anything, John. So I hold this honor in high esteem. Might I, perhaps, get a statue for this tribute?

        All kidding aside, now that David Horn is basking in the success of Macbeth with his own Peabody statue, perhaps he can be persuaded to bring Faust to Great Performances in the near future.

        Posted by Helene Giansante | 9 June 2011, 11:36 am
  2. A friend was at the National on the night that they relayed Hamlet, and although he said that he didn’t particularly notice the cameras, there were two large plasma screens either side of the stage that were showing what was being filmed. He was therefore able to comment on the filmed version as well as the staged one (if that makes sense). I saw it in the theatre, sitting half way back, before I saw it relayed, and although it was nice to see certain things in close-up on the filmed version, I don’t think I’d have liked stage and screen side-by-side like that. Perhaps that’s an age thing, though!

    I was in the Courtyard when Digital Theatre were filming As You Like It, and didn’t even know they were there until I saw signs in the foyer during the interval.

    As I’ve said before, though, for me nothing comes close to the experience of sitting in the audience and breathing the same air as the actors. I’ll watch relayed versions (I know some purists who won’t), enjoy them and perhaps see something I wouldn’t have been able to from the auditorium, but it’ll never be the same as being there.

    Posted by Anna | 9 June 2011, 12:00 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace