It has been a while since we contributed a volume to the Screen Plays virtual bookshelf, although previous reviews can be found here, here, here, here and here. I want to remedy the lack with a brief response to a fascinating memoir written in 1987 by Michael Barry who was BBC Head of Drama from 1952 to 1961. There is an excellent summary of his career at the British Television Drama website, including an outline of why he left the corporation in 1961 after disagreements over the direction of his department. From the Palace to the Grove, however, chronicles his years in television before he took up the executive position and covers his work as a producer from 1938 to 1951.
I have a particular interest in the early years of television drama, and especially the years from 1936 to 1939. Oddly, I had not come across Barry’s book until very recently (perhaps because it was only published with a small print run in 1992 by the Royal Television Society) but I now recognise it as the most vivid and insightful account of production at Alexandra Palace in those years and then in the immediate post-war period. For anyone interested in how television drama came into being, it is an essential volume.
The years right through to 1961 were the heyday of theatre plays on television, and Michael Barry was very much a man of the theatre. He was ‘artistic producer’ at Croydon Repertory in 1937 when he first saw television at Kennard’s departmental store in the town. ‘It was, I thought, the silliest thing I had ever seen,’ he writes (p. 7) But he was encouraged by a trusted friend to apply to the new BBC service at Alexandra Palace which he joined in January 1938.
His training, such as it was, involved watching those working on the first programmes, and Chapter 3 of his memoir is a detailed account of producer Dallas Bower seeing a production through the studio. Perhaps better than any other account that I have read, this conjures up the combination of preparation, precision and chaos that so often characterised live drama. First-hand accounts of really early productions are rare indeed and this is a richly informative – and beautifully written – report.
Writing about innovations such as Eric Crozier’s bold use both studio A and B at Alexandra Palace for the same production, Barry conveys the excitement of developing the forms of the new medium:
There was a sense of competition that was sharp if friendly. Nearly everything that was done became the subject of discussion, criticism, emulation. While eagerly seeking new ways of employing the astonishing tools that were coming to hand, all had their own opinions and worked individually (p. 27).
Among the particularly valuable aspects of Barry’s book are the pen-portraits of his peers at Alexandra Palace. The characters and working methods of pioneering producers like George More O’Ferrall (whose name is irritatingly mis-spelled throughout) and Fred O’Donovan are finely sketched and add enormously to our understanding of the output in these early years. Michael Barry is also very good on understanding what it was like for actors working in television for the first time.
The book has details of many of the productions that Barry produced and these are presented in chronological order. But as he moves through the post-war years (after the briefest of diversions for his experiences as an officer with the Royal Marines) he also explores with great thoughtfulness the processes of translation for the television screen. Of particular interest in the context of Screen Plays, he writes with precision about the difficulties of taking any ‘well-made’ three act play and adapting it for the new medium:
… in the great number of cases, the result was seldom entirely satisfactory. Even the uninformed that something was amiss, and spoke dismissively as ‘another theatre play on television’… Everybody working in television drama production learned by trial and error of its peculiar nature – and of the new intimacy that allowed the stuff of drama to be woven separately, so that it became congruent with the individuality of every fireside (p. 59).
Although of course aware of the limitations of the technologies with which early television productions had to be made, Barry resists characterising this work as somehow ‘primitive’ and he is an effective advocate for the specific qualities that early productions achieved.
The uses of light, shade and shadow [he writes], in the early monochrome television picture created almost an aesthetic in its own right, of a sort not dissimilar to that of early cinema. In the way that nature will compensate for the absence of one sense by stimulating the perception of the others, it was possible to appreciate the increased emphases created by the use of tones in light and shade (p. 63)
He also usefully reminds us that it is impossible to judge the quality of the original transmissions from tele-recordings that began to made from 1953 onwards. These inevitably degraded the broadcast picture and caught little of the subtlety that was possible: ‘The remnant scraps of the earliest telerecording suggest a poor quality that is in no way truly representative of the results that [lighting director] D R Campbell and his lieutenants achieved upon the screen’ (p. 84).
None of the productions that are discussed in detail in the book were recorded, and so there is no way to match our responses the achievements of which Barry writes with such eloquence. But his celebration of them has its own value, as can perhaps be seen in this passage:
It was a period of achievement [he is writing specifically of the 1940s] that is in danger of being completely forgotten […] Perhaps it is of no more importance than aesthetic fragments or shadows, as ephemeral as the figures remembered in the fog of [Fred] O’Donovan’s production of Anna Christie, Stephen Harrison’s bold use of penumbra as scenery, or the eccentricities that Eric Fawcett’s sleight of hand brought so adeptly to the screen. There are many other such fragments… (p.86)
Michael Barry died in 1988 soon after finishing From the Palace to the Grove, and – given how rich and interesting his book is – it is inevitable that a researcher feels frustrated that he did not continue his tale through his later years at the BBC. But what he did record is hugely invaluable and – like early television drama itself – really should be better known and more widely celebrated.