Rehearsing television’s return

Rehearsing television’s return

British Pathé has just published a wealth of new material on its wonderful YouTube channel (there is more about this from The Drum), and among the delights (only 5 views so far) is a newsreel spot about the return of the BBC television service after the second world war. The service, which had been operating since November 1936 from two small studios at Alexandra Palace (for more, go here and here), shut down when war was declared in September 1939. Although radio remained the BBC’s main focus in the early years of peace, television started again to broadcast the victory parade celebrations on 7 June 1946. This ‘exclusive’ Pathe report, which I’d not seen before, shows a rehearsal for an early broadcast with The Windmill Girls (also in the photograph above)- and it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways.

Let’s put to one side the objectifying male gaze that is shared by the television set-up and the newsreel camera. Although of course it’s interesting to see that this production context is an almost exclusively male world. A woman pianist tickles the ivories just out of shot, much as music was made on the earliest silent film sets, and next to her is a watchful companion. But otherwise all of the work is being done by men.

Traces of early television are rare (there are no recordings of full programmes until 1953), and this brief clip offers one of the best records of what making television involved in the early years of the medium. Note how small Studio B is, how basic is the background settings, how tightly grouped are the three cameras, and how the caption is a painted board which one of the cameras reveals before turning towards the action. Incidentally, the producer calling the shots is Cecil Madden, the BBC’s first head of television planning.

Reprise: Art and artists on pre-war television

Reprise: Art and artists on pre-war television

In another post from the blog’s archive (previously published on 17 July 2010) I take a look at the visual arts on BBC Television between 1936 and 1939. I was reminded of this because I am teaching again at the Royal College of Art tomorrow – and our main subject is Kenneth Clark, later to be the presenter of Civilisation (1969). But Clark had a significant engagement with television long before that landmark series…

In the second volume of his autobiography The Other Half, published in 1977, Kenneth Clark recalls having taken part in 1937 in ‘the first “art” programme to appear on the new medium’ of television. ‘I was chairman of a panel in which four artists tried to guess who wrote certain lines of poetry,’ he writes, ‘and four poets guessed, from details, who painted certain pictures. The poets won. I suppose about 500 people saw it.’ I am as guilty as others in using this quote to suggest (in my book Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts in Britain) that pre-war television was pretty much a visual arts wasteland. My recent burrowing in the online Radio Times listings shows me just how wrong I was — and indeed that K was mistaken too. The programme he describes wasn’t transmitted in 1937 and it most certainly wasn’t the first television ‘art’ programme.
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A pantomime of errors (in 1947)

A pantomime of errors (in 1947)

This seasonal post is an edited version of one that I wrote last year for the blog of the research project about theatre plays on British television, Screen Plays. I hope it is sufficiently entertaining to bear repeating here.

What follows is a tale of woe about a pantomime broadcast from a Christmas past, with the catalogue of problems that afflicted the planned presentation in early January 1947 from the Grand Theatre of ‘Croydon’s biggest pantomime’, Jack and the Beanstalk. This extraordinary litany of problems and faults is drawn from documents in the file titled WAC T14/312 ‘TV OB Grand Theatre Croydon 1946′ at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre at Caversham. Happy Christmas!
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‘How many ages hence…’ [day 9]

‘How many ages hence…’ [day 9]

‘… Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?’

There is a slate-grey sky over the Edgware Road this morning. But at least it’s not raining. Inside the location the sparks have hung out to dry over a scaffolding frame drapes which got soaked over the last few days. We are finished with the staircase to the Senate House, and Mark Antony has (wonderfully, thanks to Ray Fearon) cried Havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Everything that we are filming on location to the end of Act III is now complete and we have re-set at Brutus’ encampment for the two-hander that is Act IV Scene III.  Taking its cue from Cassius above, this post – written across the day – starts to consider some of the eight (!) previous BBC productions of Julius Caesar. Plus, I want to thread through this a few other thoughts about The Space which I started to consider yesterday.
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‘The moment long seen afar off…’

‘The moment long seen afar off…’

BBC Television officially began with a bunch of speeches. At 3pm on Monday 2 November – that’s seventy-five years ago today – the world’s first regular high-definition television service started broadcasting from Alexandra Palace. The BBC Chairman R. C. Norman gave the first on-air speech, and he was followed by Postmaster-general Major Tryon and Lord Selsdon, Chairman of the Television Advisory Committee. Then it was the turn of Sir Harry Greer, Chairman of the Baird Company, whose company was transmitting these first pictures. After that, there was a compilation of newsreel footage of recent events – and then the medium could let its hair down, with dancers Buck and Bubbles, Chinese jugglers and the Television Orchestra. By four o’clock it was all over and the station went off-air, only for pretty much exactly the same show, speeches and all, to be given again later that evening (although with an executive from EMI-Marconi replacing Baird’s man – and that’s the image above). Television’s second broadcast was a repeat.
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No birthday, please, we’re the BBC

No birthday, please, we’re the BBC

Next Wednesday, 2 November, is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the world’s first regular high definition television service. Given that this pioneering service was the BBC’s from Alexandra Palace, you might think that the corporation would make a bit of a song and dance to mark the occasion. I remember the fortieth anniversary, when the schedules were packed with archive repeats. For the fiftieth Jack Rosenthal was commissioned to write The Fools on the Hill, a play about the first days at AP. And this time? There’s a slightly miserable supplement in Radio Times (eight pages, three of which are John Lewis ads), and a BBC Four repeat of The Fools on the Hill. Oh, and another repeat – of an Imagine made for the seventieth anniversary. And, er, that’s it. Is the BBC embarrassed by its age?
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Something for the weekend

Something for the weekend

Now that I’m back online, here are this weekend’s recommended viewing choices. The visual arts event of the week was the opening of the Turner Prize 2011 exhibition at BALTIC, and there are brief interviews with the four short-listed artists on the Channel 4 web site. These are the shorts made by Tate, only one of which (with Tate branding) is so far also available via the gallery’s online channel as Turner Prize 2011 – George Shaw; in this, the artist speaks about his rigorously detailed paintings of a Coventry housing estate (detail above from The age of bullshit, 2010′; courtesy Wilkinson).
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