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Bookshelf: Adventure in Vision (1950) by John Swift

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

Production of the first stage play from the BBC: Marigold, 1936

It’s a good title, Adventure in Vision: positive and forward-looking, with a smart slippage between ‘seeing’ and ‘foresight’. The subtitle of John Swift’s book is The First Twenty-Five Years of Television, although when it appeared in 1950 there had been only seven years of official BBC transmissions. Swift was a journalist who as ‘The Scanner’ had been writing the Radio Times television diary, and his book covers the quarter of a century after John Logie Baird’s public demonstrations of his invention at Selfridge’s department store in London. Published by John Lehmann Ltd (which the same year issued Elizabeth David’s ground-breaking A Book of Mediterranean Food), Adventure in Vision has thirty-three half-tone plates and is one of the very best early histories of the medium.

Production shots of The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, 1930

Production shots of The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, 1930

Our concern here is with what Adventure in Vision can tell us about early stage plays on television, and for the very first of these Swift appears from his detailed account to have been a witness. In July 1930 Baird’s company mounted an experimental broadcast of Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in His Mouth. The staging was the responsibility of the imaginative radio producer Lance Sieveking, and the cast of three performed in front of four canvases painted by the distinguished visual artist C. R. W. Nevinson.

The size and range of the field in which the producer worked wer not extensive, being represented by the head-and-shoulders picutre of the actor sitting in front of the transmitter and, alternately taking his or her place, items of scenery or captions or inanimate objects of about the same size and seen at the same distance…

Occasionally the screen showed an expressive view of a pair of hands resting on a table or holding a tumbler as the dialogue continued. The gestures and changing expression of face were frequently visible, which was unfortunately more than one could say for some of Nevinson’s ‘scenery’, though at one time it was possible to detect plainly a glass of mint frappé with straws projecting from it. (p. 47)

Adventure in Vision balances engineering history with the development of programme forms, and Swift is particularly valuable for his eye witness descriptions of broadcasts from Alexandra Palace after the BBC began its television service on 2 November 1936.

[George] More O’Ferrall put on the first television version of a play — Marigold [see image above], to be followed by The Tiger and then T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, with Robert Speaight. Murder in the Cathedral marked the beginning of the use of symbolic effects. In the stage version Becket sees the temptations in flesh and blood; in television these were presented as ghosts whispering in his ear, by skilful positioning and ‘double takes’. (p. 87)

The television service shut down on 1 September 1939 and began again on 7 June 1946. Swift is clear that in the immediate post-war years television’s main selling point was the programme of Outside Broadcasts: ‘the promise of the Cup Tie, the Test Match, the racing classics, visits to the theatre’. Nonetheless, ‘The admitted second in popularity in television is drama, and very soon producers were getting back into their stride again with Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde and O’Neill; Priestley, Hay, Pirandello and Wallace.’ (p. 126)

After a chronological account of television through to 1950, Part Two of Adventure in Vision is a kind of survey of contemporary programme types, with Chapter XX1 dedicated to ‘Drama – Some Achievements and Comparisons’ (pp. 152-158) and the following chapter concerned with ‘The Camera and the Actor’ (pp. 159-170) There is much interest here that reflects contemporary understandings of plays for the medium.

What [the viewer] is seeing two, three, or maybe four nights a week is a continually progressing experiment towards a new interpretation of the dramatic art, an experiment which, while not without some rather dismal failures, is already punctuated with outstanding successes — the three-hour two-part productions of King Lear and Mourning Becomes Electra by Royston Morley with Barry Learoyd’s settings, and a similar length production of Hamlet by George More O’Ferrall, using scene designs by Peter Bax. More O’Ferrall received the ‘Oscar’ award of the Television Society for his presentation. [emphasis in the original]…

Each of these, engaging three or four cameras (or a total of seven in a two-studio production), has blended the technique of the theatrical art with the ingenuity of the cinematic craft to create an interpretation foreign to both. That is drama as it should be in television, a medium with an infinitely greater canvas than that of the theatre or cinema. It is greater not only because of its technical composition — its combination of the best of film and stage methods — and its ‘lack of horizons’, but also because it is neither under the heavy thumb of the sponsor whose wares may be salted peanuts nor cramped (from the point of view of technique) by the commercialism that demands box-office appeal. (p. 153)

In a detailed exploration of the techniques of studio drama, John Swift focuses on the production in May 1949 of the play The Gentle People by the American writer Irwin Shaw. ‘The greater part of the action in this play,’ Swift explains, ‘takes place on a waterfront landing stage, in a small dinghy moored alongside, and in the dinghy in mid-harbour.’ Extensive use of film for the scenes on or near the water was ruled out, and so producer Eric Fawcett and designer James Bould staged it with a large-shallow tank of water ‘and a dinghy that, while resting on the bottom of the tank, was able to rock with the movement of the actors to give the impression that it was afloat.’

In the mid-harbour scenes it was necessary to give the impression that the outboard-engined dinghy was travelling at several knots. It was, of course, stationary, and its engine was not working. The supposed exhaust noises of the engine were supplied by the effects department, and to give the impression of forward movement a bow-wave was created by a hidden hosepipe playing on the bow of the dinghy from underneath the water and directly ahead. [emphasis in the original] (pp. 161-162)

Swift complements his description of the play’s production with several photographs and a studio floor plan (see below). He also acknowledges that to facilitate the movement of actors and cameras between scenes, some two to three minutes of entirely new dialogue written by BBC producer Duncan Ross were interpolated. Such detail about the production process is all the more valuable since, inevitably, no recording exists of The Gentle People or indeed of any of the other dramas discussed by Swift.

There is much more of interest both to the scholar and to the general reader, and fortunately good second-hand copies of Adventure in Vision can be found for around £15 (including from Kelly Books Ltd which specialises in hard-to-find volumes of media history). For one last quote, I was particularly taken by comparison made by actor Stephen Murray between working in a television drama studio and what he recalls as ‘broadcasting’, that is radio. (Swift credits this quotation to a Radio Times feature in March 1949.)

As far as actual working conditions go, the difference is enormous. Compared with the unimaginable nightmare of the television studio — the lights, three or four times hotter than any one encounters in a film studio; the creeping, peering cameras, with their incredibly efficient, silent, headphoned crews, winding and cranking and tracking in and out at the orders of the unseen, unheard producer; the wild rushes down the corridor from one studio to another, while dressers tear clothes off one’s back and throw fresh ones on and make-up girls mop one’s streaming face — compared with this the peace and tranquillity of the broadcasting studio is like a rest-cure. (p. 170)

Studio floor plan for The Gentle People, 1949, from Adventure in Vision by John Swift

Studio floor plan for The Gentle People, 1949, from Adventure in Vision by John Swift

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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