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From the theatre, 1938-1939

When We Are Married: filming; from The Listener

Shooting When We Are Married, from The Listener

As my recent posts here and here 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. ‘The producers and engineers of the mobile unit,’ enthused the Television Correspondent of the Observer, ‘have been working towards this great adventure for some months.’

According to a reporter from the Manchester Guardian, the theatre producer Basil Dean ‘believed television should be encouraged’, but he also thought that it was unlikely ‘that experiments of this kind could be frequent, as they interfered too much with the normal conditions of a theatrical performance.’ (‘Television from the theatre’, 17 November 1938, p. 12) Even so, 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, a touch brethlessly, ‘and the audience will be seen arriving in the foyer.’ (‘New phase of television’, 13 November 1938, p. 18)

During the ten months after When We Are Married at least thirteen further outside broadcasts (OBs) from theatres were organised for plays, musicals and variety performances. But the war closed down television for the duration, and when it returned in the summer of 1946, the potential of broadcasts from the theatre was soon curtailed by the restrictions of the West End managers (which is a tale for a future post). There were, of course, far more studio drama productions than theatre broadcasts both before and after the war. But I am intrigued by these first occasions on which the stage itself was brought live to the screen – and as a step towards further research I have compiled the following outline of other pre-war outside broadcasts from the West End.

Under Your Hat, broadcast live on 24 November 1938.

Billed in Radio Times as ‘first night scenes direct from the Palace Theatre, London’ (18 November 1938, p. 27)

The Emitrons [electronic cameras] have now become West-End socialites. After the televising of the Priestley play from the St Martin’s theatre the mobile unit prepares for another date with boiled shirts on Thursday – this time to televise the scenes at the first night of Under Your Hat […]

Three cameras will be used – one to show celebrities as they pass through the brilliantly lit foyer to the auditorium; another will be installed in Cicely Courtneidge’s dressing-room, giving intimate glimpses of the two stars back-stage; and the third camera will have a box to itself in the auditorium to televise part of the first act.
(‘The Scanner’, ‘Television goes high hat’, Radio Times, 18 November 1938, p. 26)

G. S. Melvin, from Babes in the Wood
G. S. Melvin, from Babes in the Wood

Babes in the Wood, 21 December 1938.

The dress rehearsal of Tom Arnold’s Christmas Pantomime with Fay Compton, G. S. Melvin, Greta Fayne, and Jack Edge at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. (Billing, Radio Times, 16 December 1938, p. 18)

Radio Times had previously reported in that negotiations were well-advanced to visit the Covent Garden pantomime Red Riding-Hood over the Christmas 1938 holidays. ‘You will see the company rehearsing on Christmas Eve and a part of the actual performance on Boxing Day,’ ‘The Scanner’ predicted in mid-November. (‘Television goes high hat’, 18 November 1938, p. 26) But these discussions clearly came to nothing, and it was Covent Garden’s great rival that welcomed in the cameras.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, broadcast live on 2 January 1939.

The entire performance, presented by Bronson Albery and Michel Saint-Denis, with Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Esmond Knight, George Hayes, George Devine, Vera Lindsay, Lucille Lisle, William Devlin and Basil C. Langton, and produced by Michel Saint-Denis, will be televised direct from the Phoenix Theatre, London.’ (Billing, Radio Times, 30 December 1938, p. 16)

For the fourth time a show will be televised direct from the stage of a West-End theatre. […] There will be three cameras in the auditorium – one in the centre of the circle and two close together in the orchestra pit. These last two cameras will be fitted with different lenses so that changes can be mad from mid shots to close shots and vice versa without any change of angle – viewers will not feel that they have been suddenly snatched out of a theatre seat and planted in another with every camera change.’ (‘The Scanner’, ‘Sunday afternoon outings’, Radio Times, 30 December 1938, p. 15)

Twelfth Night, from Radio Times

Twelfth Night, from Radio Times

But the sensations that ‘The Scanner’ hoped to head off were exactly what afflicted the anonymous reviewer from The Times:

The second play to be televised in its entirety from a theatre, Twelfth Night at the Phoenix, presented far greater difficulties than the first. Mr Priestley’s When We Are Married is a farce seeking only laughter […] The joke was clear, and it sufficed that the wheeling cameras caught all its principal points by registering every comic expression which had something of importance to contribute. But Twelfth Night is more than a joke and its lyric beauty defies the vigilance of mechanical eyes which alter their range minute by minute.

The impression given was one of extreme restlessness. Viola was now a tiny figure scarcely distinguishable from half-a-dozen others equally diminutive and now rather more than life-size, taking up half the screen and hiding the balcony at her back. So with all the others. The result was to falsify the fluid grace of the production and to tempt viewers who were not preoccupied with the technical wonders of the apparatus to close their eyes and to treat the affair as broadcast [radio] drama. Then there was much to enjoy. (‘Television from a theatre’, 3 January 1939, p. 8)

The correspondent for The Observer had similar reservations:

The Director of Television has to solve some difficult problems in determining what is and what is not good material for the mobile transmitters. Last week they went to the Phoenix Theatre to show us the production of Twelfth Night complete and to Olympia to show excerpts from the Bertram Mills Circus. Twelfth Night proved to be a poor show from the television point of view because it was not produced for the medium. Continuity of action was continually interrupted by the endeavours of the cameras to follow rapid movement and the lighting was never really good enough. (‘Television’, The Observer, 8 January 1939, p. 21)

Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket, 13 January 1939

By permission of Sir Oswald Stoll, the first act of [the variety programme] Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket, with Ruth Hasse, Gold and Cordell, Johnny Riscoe, Julita and her Spanish Dancers, Olding’s Crazy Gang, Carter, The Mazzoni’s Trio, The Five Olympic Rings, Arthur Pond and Company, The Lily Aven Trio, The Yu-Nan-Chen Company, Schamil’s Russian Company, Doorlay’s Eighteen Midget Ponies, Popows Cossack Choir, and the Twenty-four Betty Hobbs Girls, will be televised direct from the London Coliseum. (Billing, Radio Times, 6 January 1939, p. 16)

• Coliseum Night, monthly live broadcasts from 21 February 1939.

Such was the success, seemingly, of Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket that the BBC began to broadcast monthly the first half of the variety bill at London Coliseum. (Variety nights such as these are not, for the most part, elements in the Screen Plays research – and they will not feature in our planned database of productions). But they definitely have a role in this story about early OBs from the theatre.)

By permission of Sir Oswald Stoll, the first half of the current Variety programme,
with Constance Evans, Edison and Louise, George Dorlis, Renee Houston and Donald Stewart, and the Australian Air Aces, will be televised direct from the London Coliseum. (Billing, Radio Times, 17 February 1939, p. 16)

These outside broadcasts are documented also on 14 March, 18 April, 9 May and 20 June.

Three cameras are used, and close-ups bring the stage so near that the quality of the transmission is almost equal to that from the studio. (Billing, Radio Times, 14 April 1939, p. 14)

The reviewer in The Observer pin-pointed a problem that has afflicted OBs from the theatre ever since:

On Tuesday we had our monthly Coliseum Night. Undoubtedly to put over the excellent television pictures which we see is a remarkable technical feat, but we must seriously question whether this kind of thing is good television entertainment. The performers are ‘filling’ an enormous auditorium, and the pictures we see of them yelling at the tops of their voices and exaggerating every gesture tend to be distressing. Artists like Bertha Wilmott and Yvonne Arnaud get away with it because they are geniuses in their own line. The supply of geniuses is, unfortunately, very limited. (E. H. R., ‘Television’, The Observer, 23 April 1939, p. 27)

Magyar Melody, from Radio Times
Magyar Melody, from Radio Times

Magyar Melody, broadcast live on 27 March 1939.

A musical romance by Eric Maschwitz, Fred Thompson, and Guy Bolton. Lyrics by Harold Purcell and Eric Maschwitz. Music by George Posford and Bernard Grun. Dances and ensembles arranged by Joan Davis and Cleo Nordi. […] Production by William Mollison. Televised direct from His Majesty’s Theatre. (Billing, Radio Times, 24 March 1939, p. 12)

Alexandra Palace has been snowed under with congratulations on the televising of Magyar Melody direct from Her Majesty’s Theatre. This was another technical triumph for the mobile unit, but some of our gratitude is due to the performers in this lively and beautiful show who had to work under untested[?] lighting conditions for the benefit of those who were watching them in their own homes. Is there one of us who saw the show by our firesides who has not determined to go to His Majesty’s at the earliest possible moment and have the colour added to the delights of fine acting, dancing, grouping and scenery. (E. H. R., ‘Television’, The Observer, 2 April 1939, p. 27)

• Me and My Girl, first broadcast live on 1 May 1939.

The entire production under the personal supervision of Lupino Lane. Televised direct from Victoria Palace. This will be one of the big television occasions of the year—the first time that a musical comedy has been televised in its entirety from a theatre (Magyar Melody did not quite fall into this category), and incidentally the first time the television mobile unit has visited the Victoria Palace.

Apart from the fact that Me and My Girl set the world doing the Lambeth Walk, this show, which has now been running for almost eighteen months, has a record number of laughs per minute. (‘Billing’, Radio Times, 28 April 1939, p. 14)

The broadcast of Me and My Girl was repeated in full on 17 July 1939, and it was highlighted in the post-war BBC documentary Television is Here Again (1946). Directed by Philip Dorté, who produced the broadcasts of When We Are Married, Magyar Melody and Me and My Girl, the film contains an extended sequence of this Lupino Lane show, shot much as it would have been (although with better definition) by the OB cameras. Given that none of these pre-war OBs were recorded in any form, this sequence (which begins at 6:35 in the clip below) is as close as we can come to experiencing them on a screen.

Me and My Girl […] proved to be excellent television material. […] It was a brilliant performance and easily the best we have had yet from the theatre. At the end the whole company sang the National Anthem from the stage, and viewers suddenly became aware that they were looking in at a spontaneous display of enthusiasm for the King and Queen, who were present at the performance. It is in moments such as these that the whole marvel of television is most keenly felt, for viewers were at one and the same time by their firesides and yet present in the theatre sharing in a great occasion. (‘Television and the theatre, The Times, 8 May 1939, p. 10)

The Desert Song, broadcast live on 13 July 1939.

The show, with Bruce Carfax and Doris Francis, was televised in full from the Garrick Theatre. Arrangements for the transmission must have been finalised at a very late date, for although the television listing in The Times confirms the broadcast on this Friday evening, Radio Times simply carries a note that ‘Details of this evening’s transmission will be announced from the studio earlier in the week.’ (Listings, 7 July 1939, p. 17)

Not all of those engaged in the professional theatre were happy about these broadcasts, or indeed about the new medium in general. On 17 May 1939 a deputation of managers, artists, musicians and employers went to see the Post-Master General, Major Tryon. Headed by Walter Payne, President of the Society of West End Theatre Managers, the group ‘made representations that the development of television would have a detrimental effect on the theatre.’ Major Tryon promised no more than that he would consider their arguments and bring them to the attention of the Television Advisory Committee. (Anon., ‘Effect of television on the theatre’, The Times, 18 May 1939, p. 14) The tussle between the traditional entertainment medium and its new sibling would become more pointed in the years immediately after the coming global conflict.

The Desert Song appears to have been the last time the mobile unit went to the theatre before television shut down for the war on 1 September 1939. The edition of Radio Times that bears that date (which had gone to press perhaps ten days before) carried an enthusiastic plug from the magazine’s diarist ‘The Scanner’:

On September 12 the television mobile unit will be one of the guests for the premiere of the new Jessie Matthews-Sonnie Hale musical comedy I Can Take It at the Coliseum—a broadcast on the same lines as that of the Cicely Courtneidge-Jack Hulbert show Under Your Hat at the Palace Theatre.

Viewers will see the audience arriving in the floodlit foyer of the Coliseum, the most distinguished of them being interviewed by Leslie Mitchell — a medley of boiled shirts, fashionable dresses, wisecracks, and opulence.

Then, just before the curtain lifts, viewers will be taken into Jessie’s and Sonnie’s dressing room, to be interviewed by Lionel Gamlin. Their reactions will be particularly interesting, as this is their first West-End production under their own management, and actually their first appearance in musical comedy.

As for the show itself, viewers will see the opening scene just as though they were in the auditorium. Reception should be first-rate, for the Coliseum already has special wiring for television cameras. (‘Television Can Take It’, 1 September 1939, p.15)

The broadcast, of course, did not go ahead, and it was to be seven years before television cameras again transmitted live from the theatre.


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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