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In the beginning: two traces

Greer Garson, How He Lied to Her Husband, 1938

Greer Garson, How He Lied to Her Husband, 1938

Last night at BFI Southbank Simon Vaughan, archivist of the Alexandra Palace Television Society (APTS), 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.

Desmond Campbell was a lighting engineer with the television service at Alexandra Palace (his thirty year career with the BBC began in 1932) and he used 16mm film as well as photography to record aspects of the productions on which he worked. APTS is the guardian of the rich Campbell archive, elements of which have been posted to on APTS’s YouTube channel. Amongst vivid and evocative footage of such delights as a 1937 fire-walking demonstration and a display of an anti-aircraft battery in 1938, both staged in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, there is a brief fragment that documents one of the notable pre-war stage plays for television.

How He Lied to Her Husband was the first of his plays that George Bernard Shaw allowed to shown on television. The half-hour drama was first transmitted in the afternoon on Thursday 8 July 1937 and was then repeated later that evening. Shaw himself attended the live broadcast. The Campbell footage comprises just three brief colour shots with no sound. The first shows the drama’s star Greer Garson, who would go on to a successful career in Hollywood. This is followed by a long-shot of the set together with some of paraphrenalia of the studio, and then finally there is a mid-shot of the presenter Elizabeth Cowell, which may or may not be related to the drama.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Shaw made some impromptu remarks to the audience after the broadcast:

You might not suppose it from my veteran appearance, but the truth is that I am the author of that ridiculous little play you have just heard. This is a very special occasion because, as a writer of plays, I never come before the curtain and accept a call. But, you see, on this occasion you have not called me. You are not like the unfortunate people in the theatre who, no matter how much they may be bored, cannot get up and go away. You who are still listening show that you are interested by that very fact. I myself very nearly went to sleep during the play. (9 July 1937, quoted in L. W. Conolly, Bernard Shaw and the BBC, University of Toronto Press, 2009, p. 92)

The other trace of a pre-war stage play, which also lasts less than a minute and comprises only two shots, was filmed by the BBC cameraman John Bliss on the set of Once in a Lifetime. This Moss Hart and George Kaufman comedy was first given in a ninety-minute production from Alexandra Palace on 6 December 1937. It was shown again on 10 December and then repeated once more on January 29 and 2 February 1938. By Christmas 1938, when it was presented for a fifth time on Boxing Day, the Radio Times could write ‘This may now be termed a television classic’. (‘The Scanner’, ‘Stay home this Christmas’, 25 November 1938, p. 15) The cast included Joan Miller, Elaine Wodson, Guy Glover and Douglas Seale.

On its first outing Once in a Lifetime was recognised at Alexandra Palace as a particularly ambitious production, as the Radio Times diarist ‘The Scanner’ noted:

At the moment the most envied producer at Alexandra Palace is the twenty-three-year old Eric Crozier, the youngest producer in the television service. He has been entrusted with the production of Once in a Lifetime, the comedy that burlesques Hollywood’s film methods. […] [T]he timings that you see for it in the programme columns are not mis-prints – the show really has been allocated ninety minutes. As far as I can remember, no television producer has yet sat on duty in the control room for as long as an hour and a half. […]

The ‘sets’, five different ones, will be prepared and a preliminary rehearsal will be held on Sunday – the first time that such a thing has been found necessary at Alexandra Palace. On Monday, the day of the first performance, there will be the customary morning rehearsal in the studio. Or, rather, studios, for the studio that has been out of operation and dismantled since one system of transmission was adopted [that is, since the Baird system was discontinued from Studio B] will be used to house once scene. This will mean that at this point those taking part in the show will have to rush out of No. 1 studio and race down the corridor to take up their positions in No. 2 studio. (‘Play that lasts ninety minutes’, 3 December 1937, p. 19)


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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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