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

The broadcast of When We Are Married, from The Listener

Broadcasting When We Are Married, from The Listener

My previous post outlined the production of the live outside broadcast from the St Martin’s Theatre of Basil Dean’s production of J. B. Priestley’s comedy When We Are Married. This presentation on 16 November 1938 was the first such showing 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 on the following Friday and Sunday evenings a special announcement was broadcast. The text of this is preserved in the programme file in the BBC Written Archives (T14/1072), although there are no details of the speaker or the timing:

Thank you all very much for the letters, telegrams and telephone calls about the television relay of When We Are Married […] There were so many that only acknowledgements have so far been sent off in reply, but the director of television [Gerald Cock] has read them all […] He says that after 14 years’ experience at the BBC he has never known a more enthusiastic response. There wasn’t a single bad mark. And it wasn’t ‘fan mail’.

In language that effortlessly evokes its moment, a letter from Gerald Cock to Basil Dean said much the same (WAC T14/1072, 15 November 1938):

Be a good fellow and thank the artists and theatre staff from me for the grand work they did the other night […] I think the artists were splendid – especially for the way they worked under those lights in somewhat novel conditions and put up such a good show. The whole thing was a great success. There has not been one criticism so far, and that is almost unheard of.

Dean’s reply (18 November) was more guarded, with no suggestion as to whether he personally felt that the encounter with television had been worthwhile. He did, however, acknowledge the ‘unfailing courtesy’ of the television staff ‘during that very trying Wednesday’. Nearly forty years later, with a sense of what really mattered, he remembered that the broadcast ‘did not help the run of the play particularly because we were selling out already’ (Mind’s Eye: An Autobiography 1927-1972, London: Hutchinson, 1973, pp.263).

The outsiders’ view

The responses of the press – and I have found two detailed discussions so far – were a touch more muted than the BBC’s, but they were still broadly positive. The Times carried a thoughtful (anonymous) review:

The experiment to the non-technical, unexacting eye, was surprisingly successful. A great deal of detail was lost […] and speakers now and then disappeared and then surprisingly reappeared in unexpected places. Sometimes when they did not actually disappear we gained the impression that the pursuing camera was only just ‘making it’. But these were trifling defects to set against the rather awful fact that last night, for the first time in a London theatre proper, it was possible to follow a play and enjoy a large measure of its fun from the bar.

It would not seem, however, that at present the theatre has much to fear from television. Those who found it a strain upon the eyes to follow the farce act by act and went in to the auditorium were in a position to judge the difference between what Mr. Basil Dean, in a curtain speech, called ‘the magic of human personality’ and its black and white shadow. The actual stage seemed to be bursting with life and colour. (‘Television in the theatre: experiment with three cameras’, 17 November 1938, p. 12)

In The Listener Peter Purbeck devoted almost of the whole of his regular television review column to what he described as ‘another of those exciting occasions when we are all conscious that television history is being made’. He considered two key questions that have preoccupied producers of such broadcasts ever since. How similar or not was the broadcast to the experience of watching the play in the theatre? And was a live presentation from the theatre better or worse ‘than the play produced in the studio, simply and solely for television’.

In answer to the first query, and while recognising that after the broadcast he now wanted to see the play at the St Martin’s, Purbeck fell back on a trusty chalk-and-cheese comparison. ‘Televised drama,’ he wrote, ‘ and flesh-and-blood drama are, and always will be, very different cups of tea […] nothing in black and white on a screen, however perfect it may become technically, can weave the spell of living players on a stage a few yards away.’

Tackling the second question, Peter Purbeck reflected

The production at the St Martin’s was designed for its own audience, using a tradition of stagecraft built up over generations. It took no special account of the technical needs of the camera. So we might on the face of it be justified in saying that if the producers at Alexandra Palace, with only the camera to consider, cannot do better at their own game then it is time they could.

Yet it is no quite so simple. Being on stage can lift an actor to give a better performance. Comedy works better when watched with others, and so audience laughter helps a broadcast. On the other hand,

Where the studio production scores over last Wednesday’s performance [of When We Are Married] is in the movement of the actors […] the television screen, owing to its size, cannot show more than two or three players in detail at one time. In the studio this trouble is overcome by grouping the actors accordingly. On the stage they could not be so neatly grouped, and so the camera had to chase from one speaker to another with rather bewildering effect; and even then we occasionally listened to a voice whose owner was unseen. (‘We go to the theatre’, 24 November 1938, p. 1151)

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Discussion

One thought on “In the beginning: When We Are Married (BBC, 1938) 2.

  1. In 1961 my Lancastrian born parents Harry and Dorothy Cole both appeared in a Durban South Africa repertory theatre production of “When We Are Married” by J B Priestley.

    So coming across this fascinating story of how the play was the first full length theatre production to go live on TV was both interesting and nostalgic. Bravo BBC.

    Quite shattering to realise that such a technical first was achieved by the BBC in 1938 when we here in South Africa only acquired a television service in 1976

    Posted by Stephan Cole | 25 September 2011, 2:27 pm

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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