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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 (it even features an absurdly young Petula Clark) as it returned in the summer of 1946 from its wartime hiatus. For those of us concerned with stage plays on television, it contains two priceless sequences. One illustrates the pre-war outside broadcast of the Lupino Lane musical Me and My Girl while the other recreates the famous ‘screen scene’ from a production by George More O’Ferrall of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.

Fortunately the whole of Television is Here Again is available on YouTube, in seven parts taken from a very good print. This is the first:

I intend to return to the film in the blog, but for now let me draw your attention to the two sequences about Me and My Girl (in part four of the YouTube post) and The School for Scandal (part six). Me and My Girl was a hugely popular musical show that played at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in the late 1930s. On 1 May 1939 BBC Television took three cameras to the theatre for one of the first outside broadcasts of a stage show, and Television is Here Again marks this with a comparatively extended sequence. We see extracts from the show, including the famous ‘Lambeth Walk’ number, filmed apparently from the front of the circle.

Me and My Girl, from Television is Here Again
Me and My Girl, from Television is Here Again

The status of these shots is something of a mystery. They cannot be from the live outside broadcast, since there was no form of telerecording at that date. (The BFI presentation included the experimental telerecording Variety in Sepia with Adelaide Hall from October 1947; the electronic lines were very prominent in the screen image.) Yet the film shots appear to reproduce quite precisely the kinds of framings that the television cameras might have achieved, both as wides embracing the full stage and closer ones focussing on individuals. Quite when these images were taken, and for what purpose (since Television is Here Again features a range of archive shots) may be solved if a programme file exists in the BBC archives. Watch this space.

The School for Scandal, filmed in 1946

The School for Scandal, filmed in 1946

The producer George More O’Farrell staged scenes from Sheridan’s The School for Scandal on 28 May 1937. His half-hour presentation was part of the Play Parade series, and starred Greer Garson, Denys Blakelock and Earle Grey. Because its credits are frustratingly minimal, the question of whether Television is Here Again managed to bring this cast back together is also a subject for further research (can someone enlighten me as to whether the actress here is indeed Greer Garson?). Again, the long sequence from the documentary is clearly not a record of that original production; this was shot on film with almost certainly enhanced production values when compared with the 1937 version. But it is interesting that the sequence is introduced with a title card that, rather than featuring any details of the cast, gives the title and author alongside ‘Produced by George More O’Ferrall’.

The performances are certainly very broad and the film ‘coverage’ of the scene could best be described as ‘basic’. Yet this is a remarkable trace of elements of an early television stage play, derived from a production from the first year of the television service and committed to film seven years before the first full telerecording of a drama, ‘It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer’.

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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