Paul Rotha (1907-84) is a complex and rather fascinating figure. In part he is so interesting (and he is the focus of a major conference at the University of Leeds in September) because he played a significant role in both film documentaries in the 1930s and in factual television after the war. After working with John Grierson at the Empire Marketing Board and the GPO Film Unit, he ran an independent production company in the late 1940s and then from 1953 to 1955 was Head of the BBC Documentary Department. His time with the Corporation was troubled, as Tim Boon details in Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television (London: Wallflower Press, 2008, pp. 203-08), and after two years his contract was not renewed. Which is the context for the publication in 1956 of Television in the Making, an interesting collection of essays edited by Rotha.
The book’s twenty essays, to which Rotha provides an introduction (itself a key text for understanding his own view of the medium), are reflections by practitioners on specific aspects of television production. There are contributions from many of the key figures of the time, including producer Caryl Doncaster on ‘The story documentary’ and Norman Swallow on ‘Documentary TV journalism’. The BBC’s influential Head of Design Richard Levin writes on ‘Design in television’ and the pioneering engineer and colleague of John Logie Baird D. R. Campbell considers ‘Special effects in television’. For the specific concerns of Screen Plays, however, there is ‘Acting in television’ by Joan Miller and the revealing ‘The television drama’ by J. Royston Morley.
Joan Miller was a stage actress with credits in plays by Shaw and Ibsen as well as the host of the pre-war television magazine Picture Page. She writes primarily about the differences between acting for the stage and small-screen:
The actor’s concentration [on television] must be much more controlled because he must enact a role, often in constrained floor-space, where there should be ample stage-space, with three, four or even five cameras moving in and out, often in front of his very nose. At times the particular camera to which he is playing can break down before his eyes and another camera take over at an angle unfavourable to the actor, but he must go on acting, showing no sign that he is anything but composed and completely master of the situation. (p. 97)
Royston Morley’s contribution to Television in the Making is valuable because it is a straightforward description of how drama was made and how it was regarded by its producers at the time. Within three years or so ITV’s drama under Sydney Newman will be focussed on creating original drama for television, but in 1956 Royston Morley is still very much in thrall to the theatre. ‘Our best dramatic writing and production in Britain is to be found in the theatre’, he writes. For him, the script is paramount, and he is a touch dismissive of the concern to make television ‘a visual medium’: ‘a dramatic programme will stand or fall by the actual construction and writing of the drama, and by the importance of the idea behind it.’ (p. 26)
At Alexandra Palace before the war Royston Morley had been one of the early drama producers.
In the pre-war Television Service, the maximum effort was put into the production of drama programmes, and it is fair to say that here were evolved the techniques which were later copied by producers of other types of programmes. (p. 25)
The studio processes of live drama in 1956 were much as they were up to twenty years before, although there is an acknowledgement that tele-recording is beginning to make an impact. Royston Morley offers a brief chronicle of the journey of a play from rehearsal room to transmission, and as illustration he provides two floor plans (one with camera positions and one without) of Harold Clayton’s 1955 production of Romeo and Juliet. Throughout, there are numerous asides that help us more than five decades on understand how drama then was understood. As an example, he writes that ‘overall, television cutting is much slower than that normally used in the cinema, partly because the screen is smaller and partly because of the importance in drama of the words’ (p. 36).