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Introducing Fred O’Donovan

Wendy Hiller as Grace Darling

One of the most interesting aspects of our research for me at this early stage is starting to get a sense of some of the key creative figures in the story of stage plays on television. This is particularly the case with producers and directors from the earliest years of television, before and after World War Two. And among these a particularly intriguing figure, but at present also an elusive one, is Fred O’Donovan.

Writing in 1953, just after Fred O’Donovan’s death, the critic Roger Manvell recalled that he

was noted for using only a single camera for each continuous scene in a play, instead of a series of cameras favoured by other producers, who like to change the audience’s viewpoint of the players in order to emphasise various points as a scene progresses. O’Donovan planned the movements of the actors in such a way as to allow them to appear either singly or in groups before the solitary camera he was using. (On the Air: A Study of Broadcasting in Sound and Television (London: Deutsch, 1953), p. 187)

Manvell recalls that some of O’Donovan’s ‘takes’ lasted for a half-hour and that in a production by him of George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma in 1951, ‘one was conscious on occasion of actors being brought deliberately to the camera when it should have gone to them’.

The danger of this technique is, first, a very marked slowness of pace as either the actors or the camera work their way to the right positions, and, second the visual monotony of being anchored to the single viewpoint of one lens, however mobile it may be. (Manvell, p. 187)

On the other hand, the live transmission of The Doctor’s Dilemma (of which no recording survives) was described as ‘a brisk, almost dashing production’ in The Listener by Reginald Pound, who also noted that, in these early years of the Welfare State,

The National Health Service has not outmoded the intellectual friskiness of The Doctor’s Dilemma, which no doubt stimulated the phagocytes of many in its great new audience. (‘Critic on the Hearth’, The Listener, 9 August 1951, p. 236)

(Phagocyte: ‘an amoeboid cell or protozoan that engulfs particles, such as food substances or invading microorganisms, Collins English Dictionary.)

Another early writer on the production techniques of television, John Swift, recognised that O’Donovan ‘is steeped in stage traditions and to my knowledge has adhered to this method [‘the one-camera technique’] throughout his time as a television producer’ (Adventure in Vision: The First Twenty-Five Years of Television (London: Lehmann, 1950), p. 166). Noting that the approach has its drawbacks, Swift was also enthusiastic about O’Donovan’s distinctive methods.

One-camera production demands the highest degree of precision and when perfect co-ordination is achieved between cast, cameraman and producer the result is often a smoother and more polished presentation than the more complicated many-angle technique … Particular successes of O’Donovan’s … were Priestley’s The Good Companions and Patrick Hamilton’s The Duke in Darkness. (Swift, pp. 167-68)

Born in Dublin in 1889, Fred O’Donovan was a noted actor on the Irish stage and in films, making his screen debut in 1916 in the short O’Neal of the Glen. He was a stalwart of the Abbey Theatre. Later, he was one of the earliest actors to appear on television, taking the part of Mike McInery in a twenty-five minute adaptation of Lady Gregory’s comedy The Workhouse Ward (a role he had played many times in the theatre) on 28 December 1936 (when the production was given twice, at 3pm and 9pm).

In the spring of 1938 he joined BBC Television as a producer at Alexandra Palace, starting his new career with a studio production of Sean O’Casey’s one-act comedy The End of the Beginning (5 and 13 April). He initially specialised in plays by Irish writers, mounting J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (29 and 30 May 1938) and O’Casey’s farce The End of the Beginning (18 August 1938). On 21 and 25 October 1938 he presented a full-scale adaptation of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock which, the anonymous critic for The Times observed,

was beautifully presented on the television screen for the first time last week by Mr Fred O’Donovan. Skilful use of the mobility of the cameras allowed shots to be taken of the adjoining room and of the street door, and the funeral procession passing by. The future of television seems to lie in extending the stage in this way, and emancipating the production from stage conventions. (The Times, 24 October 1938, p. 8.)

One of O’Donovan’s most notable productions was broadcast just two months before television shut down for the duration of the war. On 9 July, a Sunday evening of which the drama occupied two hours, the BBC presented The Fame of Grace Darling, which is billed in Radio Times as ‘a new play’ by Yvette Pienne. Whether, therefore, this was written for the stage or was an original script for television (which were exceptionally rare in those days) remains to be determined.

Wendy Hiller made her television debut as the Victorian heroine who, with her lighthouseman father, saved thirteen people from a shipwreck in 1838. Radio Times looked forward to the production:

The main ‘set’, the kitchen of Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, is being painstakingly copied from an old engraving, which was executed on the spot soon after Grace Darling’s rescue act.

There is just one feature of the play that will deviate from fact—the dialect. Were producer Fred O’Donovan to make his players speak Northumbrian faithfully, it would probably be unintelligible to most people. (‘The Scanner’, Radio Times, 23 June 1939, p. 18)

Grace Wyndham Goldie in The Listener was distinctly unimpressed.

There were half a dozen curious things about the new play, The Fame of Grace Darling … Infinitely the most curious was the fact that it was performed at all. For it was as handsomely bad as any piece I remember. The writing was banal; the characters stereotyped; the plot non-existent; the whole thing an essay in outmoded sentimentality which came near to burlesquing itself … And the unhappy cast, headed by Miss Wendy Hiller as Grace Darling, apparently decided that the only way to deal with it was to pump the sentiment for all it was worth and so treated us to a fine exhibition of quavers and tears. (‘Critic on the Hearth’, The Listener, 20 July 1939, p. 151)

Rather exceptionally for early journalism about television, Grace Wyndham Goldie (who would go on to become an influential producer and executive in television current affairs) discusses the camera technique in detail, although she does not mention either O’Donovan or his signature ‘one camera’ approach:

some of the camera work we are getting just now from Alexandra Palace is very tricky indeed. Here is one example from Grace Darling. We are shown the hero and heroine in a room and walking towards a window. The next moment another camera shows us their faces from outside that same window. The effect was startling. It was as if we had been spirited out of doors and were now obliged to flutter in mid air to watch the action of the play … This kind of thing seems to me to be impermissable.

O’Donovan’s bosses were clearly rather less concerned, and he returned to work for the BBC at Alexandra Palace in 1946. One of the first major productions after the television service resumed broadcasting was his Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, first given on 9 August 1946. He then staged many significant productions through to a version by Eric Crozier of Nikolai Gogol’s play The Gamblers for Sunday Night Theatre on 18 May 1952. He died at the age of 62 in July that year.

Since the earliest recording of a British television drama dates from 1953, not one minute of Fred O’Donovan’s work for the medium survives. Yet the printed materials that remain can begin to give a sense of his achievements, and the next stage in my research is to see what is preserved in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham. As to any more enduring legacy, in the book noted above, John Swift reflected on the future of O’Donovan’s single-camera working method:

Whether the technique will become recognised as part of the art of television remains to be seen. (p. 168)

Sixty-one years on, I think we would have to say that the answer to that is a ‘no’.


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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