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In the beginning: two traces

Last night at BFI Southbank Simon Vaughan, archivist of the Alexandra Palace Television Society, presented a fascinating programme of film material related to the earliest years of television. There are no official recordings of any broadcasts before 1947, and the practice of ‘tele-recording’ (filming the electronic image from a monitor) was not widely used until the early 1950s. (‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’ (1953) is the first tele-recorded drama to survive.) But there are a small number of the BBC’s own documentaries and demonstration films (including Television is Here Again (1946)), and there are also some fragments of film shot at Alexandra Palace by BBC employees. Continue reading


From the theatre, 1938-1939

As my two recent blogs explored, the BBC Television Service took outside broadcast cameras to the St Martin’s Theatre in the autumn of 1938. The live transmission of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married was the first full-length broadcast of a play from a London theatre. Just a week after When We Are Married cameras went to the Palace Theatre for the opening of the musical comedy Under Your Hat. The stars Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert ‘are to be interviewed in their dressing-rooms,’ the Observer reported, ‘and the audience will be seen arriving in the foyer.’ Continue reading

100 television stage plays: [7] 1976-1981

Having split the BBC and ITV outputs in the previous four posts, here I am considering them together for the six years before the arrival of Channel 4. As before, this outline of one hundred significant television stage plays offers a first tentative map of the history of the form. Some of the productions no longer exist, and of the ones that are still in the archives, there are many that I have not (yet) seen. Continue reading

In the beginning: When We Are Married (BBC, 1938) 2.

My previous post outlined the production of a live outside broadcast from the St Martin’s Theatre of a production of J. B. Priestley’s comedy When We Are Married. This presentation on 16 November 1938 was the first such presentation of a full-length play, and as a consequence its successes and failures were much discussed in the days and weeks that followed. Both in public and in private the BBC was thrilled with the transmission, and indeed on the Friday and Sunday following a special announcement was broadcast. Continue reading

In the beginning: When We Are Married (BBC, 1938) 1.

Although 1938 is not exactly the beginning of stage plays on television (see my posts on The Tiger and Marigold for the first productions), the evening of 16 November saw a notable first in this story. That night the BBC television service mounted its first live outside broadcast from a London theatre. The evening’s programming was the whole of J. B. Priestley’s hit comedy When We Are Married direct from London’s St Martin’s Lane Theatre. Despite the technical complexities, the transmission was a notable success, and the approach was used on several further occasions before the war. Continue reading

100 television stage plays: [6] ITV, 1965-1975

Periodisation in these posts is, I recognise, fairly random – and nowhere more so than with this fairly arbitrary decade from ITV’s output. In these years before the comfortable broadcasting duopoly was challenged by Channel 4, Sky and the slew of other services that followed, the regional companies continued to produce high quality single dramas, many of which still were derived from originals written for the theatre. Continue reading

In the beginning: Marigold (BBC, 1936)

‘I think we should have a play from a London theatre for the opening week of programmes,’ the BBC’s programme planner Cecil Madden wrote in a memo on 24 September 1936. Madden was assembling the offerings for the first days of the BBC Television Service which was to open on 2 November. He was anxious to fix on a production at this stage so that the title could be billed in Radio Times, and he had noticed that a revival of the Scottish comedy Marigold was about to open. The consequence of Madden’s reflections was that scenes from Marigold became the first drama to be televised officially by the BBC. Continue reading

In the beginning: The Tiger (BBC, 1936)

Scenes from Marigold, a Scottish comedy, are recognised as the first elements of a stage play to be broadcast by the new BBC Television Service after the start of its transmissions in early November 1936. But the extracts from Marigold, which was then running in the West End, were not the first drama to go before the Alexandra Palace cameras. At least two other current stage plays, The Insect Play and The Tiger, supplied scenes used in the experimental broadcasts during the month or so before the official opening on 2 November. Continue reading

Television (drama) is here again

To celebrate the anniversary in early November of the start of the BBC Television Service, BFI Southbank is running a series of screenings under the title, ‘From Birth to Teens, TV’s Earliest Years’. Tonight’s fascinating show, ‘Georgian Television’ highlighted fragments broadcast between 1946 and 1949, with the main attraction being the seventy-minute documentary Television is Here Again. Produced primarily as a demonstration film to be screened repeatedly during the day for television retailers and repair men, this is a richly interesting self-portrait of the medium as it returned in the summer of 1946 from its wartime hiatus. And for those of us concerned with stage plays on television, it contains two priceless sequences. Continue reading

‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’ (BBC, 1953)

‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’, scripted originally by Gilbert Cesbron, is the earliest British television drama to survive. It is also the oldest recording we have of a televised stage play. If only, one feels at the end of its one hundred minutes, if only it was more interesting, more involving, less sententious. Yet simple primacy makes it a historical document of the first order, and its presence is very welcome on YouTube, where it has been posted in ten parts posted by the archive of the Alexandra Palace Television Society. Continue reading

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace