A pantomime of errors (in 1947)

21st December 2012

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!

Our story begins with a programme suggestion written on 12 August 1946 by producer D. H. Munro. Television had only been back on air just over two months, but already it was clear that the BBC would not continue to enjoy the easy relationship with stage producers of the pre-war years. There was concern about theatrical managers in the West End that television coverage of a show would damage the box office, and as a consequence relationships were welcomed with producers and proprietors outside the West End (but still close enough to get a signal to Alexandra Palace).

D. H. Munro had secured an agreement with Bertram Montague to present outside broadcasts Jack and the Beanstalk from the production’s rehearsals and from the stage of the Croydon Grand. Munro’s bosses at the BBC were unenthusiastic about presenting the rehearsals, but they did very much want a panto for the first Christmas of the post-war television service.

'Jack and the Beanstalk' programme

What emerged from discussions was the idea that the first half of the show would be presented on Monday 6 January, starting at 6.30pm, and the second half would be shown the following day, from approximately 8.30 to 9.40pm. Three cameras were to be used, as was standard practice for outside broadcasts. These were placed exactly next to each other in the centre of the theatre’s Circle, with one offering a long-shot, another medium shots and the third, close-ups.

Billings were issued for the two broadcasts. The theatre production was by Barry Lupino, with ‘ballets and dances by Mrs Grandison Clark’. Lupino himself played the Dame, and the cast included Marjorie Sandford – perhaps best known for the 1938 film Lassie from Lancashire, the 6 Mighty Atoms and Eugene’s Sensational Flying Ballet. The television producer overseeing the broadcast was Campbell Logan, who was later to oversee many of television’s classic serials of the 1950s and ’60s.

Monday evening, 6 January, came around, with the plan being to transmit the first half of the pantomime from 6.45 to 8.25pm. At 5.00pm that afternoon the OB transmitting van was working perfectly, but soon afterwards a fault appeared. According to a detailed technical report compiled in the wake of what he described as ‘a double disaster’, assistant chief engineer R. T. B. Wynn wrote, ‘This fault was intermittent […] and conditions of darkness, weather and cramped space made the location of the fault and clearance of it extremely difficult.’ The whole broadcast was lost.

Next morning the fault had cleared, but to ensure a belt-and-braces operation for the night, a second transmitting van was despatched to Croydon. So too was the expert known by the BBC acronym A. E. i. C. Tel. O. B.s (I think that must be Assistant engineer in charge, television outside broadcasts). He is identified further in the report only by his surname, Bliss.

Mr Bliss turned up at 11am, by which time the BBC had committed to showing the full pantomime that evening – and the fault in the first van had reappeared. Nor could it be isolated, despite Mr Bliss conducting ‘a complete series of elaborate tests […] such as  connecting additional smoothing condensers parallel with others, looking at the ripple on oscilloscopes etc.’ The second transmitter arrived at lunchtime, and work proceeded to get this one up and running.

Fault no. 2 came along soon after but was repaired by 3.30pm. Satisfactory pictures were sent to Alexandra Palace, which is where Mr Bliss returned to, and all looked to be under control. Then at 6.30pm, just fifteen minutes before the panto started, fault no. 3 appeared. ‘A bad wave form’, this time, which Mr Bliss suspected was due to the receiver at nearby Swains Lane. Off he went to try to correct this problem, which had sorted itself out by the time he arrived.

Around 6.50pm the signal was afflicted by ‘line and frame slip’ (fault no. 4). The broadcast from Croydon continued and the problem was sorted by 7.15pm. There was then nearly an hour of satisfactory pictures and sound before fault no. 5 – caused by ‘a faulty smoothing choke’ – kicked in. An engineer known only to us as Newman did some good work, as R. T. B. Wynn wrote, ‘to locate this particular faulty choke which was in an extremely inaccessible position’. The heroic Newman had got this choke out by 9.04pm and ‘lashed it up on insulators’. But to no avail, since faults 6, 7 and 8 had by this time joined the party. All of the cameras went down, and there was nothing more to be done. The O.B. was abandoned at 10pm and everyone returned to base.

When the picture was lost at 8.05pm viewers had been treated to a slide of a transmitting mast, apologies in sound only and, for a brief period, audio from the Grand supplemented by a radio-style commentary. But within fifteen minutes the whole feed from Croydon had closed down, and emergency plans kicked in with the showing, first of all, of the GPO Film Unit documentary Night Mail. This was followed by another short film called On the Slate, after which the announcer had some good news for those still watching:

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are very fortunate in having in the studio tonight ‘Fish-Hawk’ and he has asked me to tell you – in fact to break it to you gently – that he is by way of being a bird artist.

‘Fish-Hawk’ was Mr Wolfe Murray, and he entertained the expectant thousands with a selection of bird drawings. There was one more documentary to come, an unidentified film seemingly called Wheel and Wee, and then finally at 9.50pm, the service could return to the scheduled programming with The Pavinoff Ballet.

R. T. B. Wynn was clear that no blame should be laid at the door of the engineers at Croydon:

The three men primarily concerned, two of whom were suffering from feverish colds, did everything that could be expected of them, and the series of disasters which dogged their efforts should not in any way impair our confidence in them.

Along with a bunch of technical recommendations, R. T. B. Wynn offered the thought that the television service might wish ‘to have a small number of artists, preferably those of the Kay Cavendish type, on short call on the telephone as a cover when the whole, or nearly the whole of an evening’s programme depends on an O. B.’. He recognised, however, that this might be viewed as ‘a policy of despair’.

The following year the BBC tried again, and – perhaps remarkably – secured agreement from Bertram Montague to a repeat of the plan, with broadcasts of the two halves of Cinderella on two consecutive nights. From the correspondence in the production file, all seems to be going well until there is a mute slip from Television Booking Section confirming a cancellation payment to two hundred pounds to Bertram Montague. No reason is given, and for the moment – pending research in another file – quite why Cinders didn’t go to the television ball that year remains a Christmas mystery.

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