Although 1938 is some years on from the beginning of stage plays on television (see my ‘In the beginning’ posts on The Tiger and Marigold for the first productions), the evening of 16 November that year saw a notable first in this story. On that night the BBC television service mounted its first live outside broadcast from a West End theatre (and this is the first of two posts devoted to it). The evening’s programming was the whole (or almost, see below) of J. B. Priestley’s hit comedy When We Are Married direct from London’s St Martin’s Theatre. Despite the technical challenges, the transmission was a notable success, and the experiment was repeated from other theatres on several further occasions before the war. Live broadcasts from the theatre featured frequently in the television schedules of the 1950s and 1960s, and the idea has been revived on occasions ever since. Contemporary NTLive presentations extend a tradition that began on a November evening seventy-one years ago.
Plans and promotions
Increasingly adventurous outside broadcasts were a central element of television’s trasnmissions in these first years. Already in 1938 audiences had ‘visited’ the circus at Olympia, the London Passenger Transport Board’s skid-pan for omnibus training, a boxing tournament at Harringay Arena, the Chelsea Flower Show and the River Police base at Wapping. Plays from the West End also featured frequently in the schedules. Just over a week before When We Are Married, on Sunday 6 November there was a live presentation from the studios at Alexandra Palace of nearly two hours of Goodness, How Sad! by Robert Morley. Tyrone Guthrie’s production of this play was running at the Vaudeville Theatre, and according to Radio Times‘ diarist ‘The Scanner’ it was ‘the thirty-sixth production to be televised during its run at a West-End theatre.’ (‘Big Guns at the Palace’, 4 November 1938, p. 17)
The programme file for When We Are Married in the BBC’s Written Archives (WAC T14/1072) contains extensive documentation of the broadcast, but there is no indication of whose idea it was to take the cameras to the St Martin’s Theatre. Given the friendly tone of the letters between the theatre producer Basil Dean and director of television Gerald Cock, it is possible that they dreamt up the idea together. At the end of October the BBC’s production manager Harold Cox was meeting to discuss logistics with technical staff at the theatre and with representatives of the London County Council.
A note headed ‘Preliminary Survey’ dated 28 October 1938 minutes the results of a BBC site visit. Discussions had determined the outside location of the ‘Scanning van’, cable runs and access to power – much as needs to be fixed for live broadcasts today. This gathering also determined the number and position of the cameras: ‘it was decided that three cameras (of the super type if available) be used; one either side of the orchestra pit on small rostrums and one in the front row of the Dress Circle’. (‘Super type’ Emitrons would permit closer shots to be achieved than would be available with the conventional cameras.)
Gerald Cock and Basil Dean worked out the financial arrangements, which were confirmed in a ‘Private and Confidential’ BBC letter to the theatre producer on 2 November. A fee of seventy-five guineas was to be paid, with fifty guineas representing the agreed fee and the remainder being recompense for any loss of audience because of the presence of the cameras. (When, I wonder, did the BBC stop negotiating contract payments in guineas?) Dean was to pay the cast and other fees from what he received, but the BBC would in addition cover charges for specific work requested from theatre staff as well as the cost of the extra lighting that would have to be brought in.
The financial arrangements appear not to have been contentious, but the billing of the production in Radio Times threatened to be more problematic. Reflecting his showman’s spirit, Dean put forward to the BBC a hyperbolic announcement that began (Basil Dean to Philip Dorté, 31 October):
First time in the history of the Theatre!
First time in the history of Television!
This was not quite the BBC’s style, at least not in 1938, and the outside broadcast producer Philip Dorté wrote back (1 November) explaining that some changes to the announcement would be needed ‘to bring it into conformity with our standard set-up of billings’. A more reserved version was prepared by programme planner Cecil Madden and sent off to Radio Times with the note ‘Please do not alter this billing in any way.’ (Memo, 2 November) The editor of the illustrious magazine responded rather haughtily to Madden, pointing out that only part of his suggested wording was ‘genuine billing matter’. ‘I am sure you will understand,’ the editor wrote, ‘that if we allowed billings to take on this character, the television page would soon be a mass of ecstatic ejaculations that no viewer could be expected to read.’ (Memo, ‘Billings’, 2 November) Madden, however, won this battle, largely by suggesting ‘that our relations with Basil Dean might be imperilled’ if changes were made. (Memo, ‘Billings’, 3 November)
Technical preparations continued, with substantial additional lighting being ordered – to beef up the theatrical illumination – and the installation on the stage and in the auditorium of four or five microphones. Harold Cox worried about which costumes might need to be altered for the broadcast (he needed the main cast to be in lighter rather than darker clothes), and – with the aid of a camera plan – he liased with the make-up team. ‘The closest shots,’ he explained, ‘will be taken with a 4″ lens from the two side positions and a will comprise tight 2-shots.’ (Memo, 14 November)
Publicity, however, continued to cause concern. Priestley complained to Basil Dean that the Radio Times coverage was not what it should have been. Cock had to explain that since arrangements for the broadcast had only been completed on the day Radio Times had gone to press ‘rather superhuman efforts were necessary to get in what we did print.’ (Gerald Cock to Basil Dean, 14 November) Cock also said that he was intending to watch part of the broadcast at home and then to come round to the theatre to see the remainder on the set that would be installed in the bar. To help raise the profile of the broadcast, Dean and several cast members trailed the event on television a few days before, and mention of it was made on the evening itself in radio news bulletins.
On the night
The show went on the air at 8.30pm, when viewers were greeted by announcer Jasmine Bligh. Two previously shot film images of the theatre exterior (a long shot and a closer pan) were shown, before Ms Bligh announced the characters and cast members. Throughout the evening a variety of techniques were employed to reinforce the sense of the viewer visiting the theatre. As a background to the introduction of the actors, the screen featured a theatre programme with a turning page. Then, after our host had explained that the play was divided into three acts with two ten-minute intervals, she suggested that ‘During these intervals we suggest that you relax as if you were in the theatre itself.’ (‘Script’, 16 November, p. 2)
The curtain went up on the first act, which lasted for thirty seven minutes. In the interval, viewers were again exhorted by Jasmine Bligh to treat television just like the theatre.
We suggest that you should leave your chairs, put the lights on, and discuss the play – in other words do what the audience is doing at St Martin’s Theatre at this moment. (‘Script’, 16 November, p. 2)
Having played music over a caption during the interval, television summoned its audience back to the screen with a ‘theatre bell effect’. The pattern was repeated during the second interval. All appears to have gone well, although should there have been any breaks in transmission, the engineers had as a back-up a selection of short films including Spain of Yesterday and the cartoon Mickey in Arabia.
Although viewers believed that they were seeing the full theatre show, Basil Dean many years later recalled in the second volume of his memoirs that ‘dialogue had to be severely cut to fit the BBC programme’. Nor was this the only imposition of the new technology:
[T]he grouping of the characters [was] rearranged to accommodate the restricted movement of the cameras of those days. The powerful studio lights completely destroyed my stage lighting. Because of the inconvenience that these arrangements would cause to our patrons we announced special prices of 5s and 2s and 6d. (Mind’s Eye: An Autobiography 1927-1972, London: Hutchinson, 1973, p. 262)
Dean watched the transmission on a television screen in the bar at the back of the dress circle. ‘It was great fun of course,’ he wrote. ‘First occasions are always memorable.’ (p. 263) At the end of the broadcast he made a short speech from the stage, and then the transmission switched back to Alexandra Palace, from where J. B. Priestley offered a few concluding remarks. After which, the assessment of this notable experiment began – which will be the focus of my second post about this historic production.