Early television programmes do not get anything like the attention they deserve. In part this is because very few such programmes – and I am thinking here of television before the mid-1950s – have been preserved. But even those that are still with us are little-studied and attract nowhere near the attention that is now lavished (appropriately) on early films. A case in point is the six 15-minute episodes of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, produced in the 1955 by the BBC, with the great man as host. These were re-broadcast in 2009 by BBC Four and ‘Citizen Welles’ has kindly uploaded them to YouTube (complete with the new channel’s branding). Watching them is a bit like sitting next to the 40-year-old Orson at dinner and having this charming, dazzling man pour his anecdotes and reflections into your eager ear. What’s not to like?
This is Episode 1, in which Orson makes a first speech in Hollywood and recalls his debut at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in Jew Suss back in 1931. Here and elsewhere, as Lawrence French at wellesnet suggests (where there is also a full transcript of this first programme), Welles has scant regard for the details of history. After all, why let facts get in the way of a good story?
By 1955 Orson Welles had been kicking around on this side of the Atlantic for a number of years, having made his last Hollywood film The Lady of Shanghai in 1947. He made his ultra-low-budget Macbeth in 1948 and then left for Europe and ‘freedom’. He starred in The Third Man feature film (1949) and a radio series spin-off, spent many months in Morocco trying to complete Othello, and then directed Mr Arkadin (1955) in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. By the spring of 1955 he was in London where he was expecting to be given the job of directing The Bridge on the River Kwai by his friend and the project’s producer Sam Spiegel – he supposedly learned that David Lean had got the gig by reading about it in a newspaper. At the end of April, a day or so after the first BBC showing of episode 1 of the Sketch Book, Orson married his long-term partner, Italian countess and aspiring actress Paolo Mori. Theatre director Peter Brook, who had made a television King Lear with Orson in New York in 1953, was his best man.
In Episode 2 of the Sketch Book Orson takes on critics.
As you will have seen by now, the format is very simple. For much of the time, Orson speaks directly to camera in a static shot that we might describe as a medium closeup. Then there are sequences in which we watch over his shoulder as he draws, with the sketches becoming the jumping off points for his tales. Occasionally he hands one of these sketches to an unseen figure to the side of the lens, and they are then shown full-screen.
Ben Walters has written an extensive essay about Orson Welles and television, which is available for reading online here. This is how he describes the tone of the series:
His renown for stage and screen work notwithstanding, Welles’s preferred mode of performance was expository rather than dramatic; he was always more comfortable as a talker than an actor. In television, he recognized an ideal platform. Like radio, but unlike theater or cinema, it was a personalized medium in which the performer addressed no more than the number of people with whom one could have a conversation.
On T.V.,Welles noted, ‘you’re only addressing two or three people. And above all, you’re addressing the ear.’ It was therefore a gift to the charismatic raconteur, and his tone in the Sketch Book was accordingly intimate, flattering, conspiratorial, always on the vergeof a chuckle or a wink.
Episode 3 is about the authorities and their alleged invasion of individuals’ privacy, an issue that was of great concern to Welles who was – as he saw it – being persecuted by government tax officials in the United States,
The six programmes were shot by the BBC Film Unit. Th is department made occasional documentaries butfor the most part produced Interlude films and other occasional fillers like London to Brighton in Four Minutes (1952), as well as establishing shots for dramas and other studio programmes. The Sketch Book was shot on 35mm film, which accounts for the strikingly good image quality. Most television of the time was shot live with electronic cameras in the studio. In 1955 tele-recording – essentially using 16mm film cameras to shoot the image on a screen – was the only available way of preserving live broadcasts, and the process resulted in low-definition images. But Orson Welles’ Sketchbook looks as sharp and as bright now as it would have done nearly sixty years ago.
The films were first broadcast between 24 April and 3 July 1955, at a moment when the BBC was anticipating competition in television for the first time. The commercial network ITV was to launch on 22 September that year, and its imminent arrival had prompted much soul-searching in the Corporation. As historian Asa Briggs records in his The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Volume IV: Sound and Vision, the threat of ITV had also led to improvements in the television, an increased concern with entertainment programming and a greater responsiveness to viewers preference. It is hard, however, to see these modest films with Welles making much of an impact alongside such popular hits as What’s My Line? and This is Your Life and prestige offerings such as the newly successful Panorama with Richard Dimbleby.
Episode 4 has tales about Harry Houdini and John Barrymore.
The closing credits carry the surprising credit, Producer Huw Wheldon. Wheldon, of course, was to go on to present and edit television first arts magazine series, Monitor (1958-1965) and to become Managing Director, BBC Television and Deputy Director-General. But at this point he had only just come across to programme making after three years as BBC Television’s Publicity Officer. Before that he had worked for the Arts Council in Wales and for the Festival of Britain. In an unpublished University of Buckingham MA Thesis completed in 2008 by Wheldon’s daughter Wynn, she recalls that Wheldon and Welles got on very well during the filming of the Sketch Book. Orson even tried to persuade Wheldon to become his European manager, but this was an invitation, Wynn Wheldon writes, that ‘Dad intelligently declined’.
Much of Episode 5 is taken up with the tale of the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
The other two credits on the programmes are to the film editor Hazel Wilkinson and film cameraman E. Lloyd. Ms Wilkinson’s IMDb entry lists a miscellany of roles in the cinema industry and television, including assistant editor on Leslie Howard’s movie The First of the Few (1942) and script editor on the 1948 adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy directed by Anthony Asquith.
Rather more information is available about E. “Ted” Lloyd, mostly thanks to an online biographical note from the The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at the University of Exeter. His professional life, like Hazel Wilkinson’s, illustrates the kind of links that there were between the film industry of the 1930s and ’40s and the first years of television. Ted Lloyd has joined Gaumont British Studios in 1932 and had worked on Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much. He went to Hollywood, travelled to India and fought with the RAF during the war, after which he joined the BBC Film Unit. With the arrival of ITV (and soon after shooting Orson Welles’ Sketch Book) he went across to Associated-Rediffusion. He worked there and at its successor company, Thames, where he was in charge of the filming of Mountbatten, until 1973.
The collections at Exeter hold an inscribed silver plate given to Ted Lloyd by Orson Welles in 1955. The catalogue notes that the gift was made after they had worked on a television film that year about Moby Dick – but the story, at least according to Wikipedia is rather more interesting than this note suggests.
With a great cast including Patrick McGoohan and Joan Plowright, Welles staged his two-act drama Moby Dick – Rehearsed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London from 16 June to 9 July 1955. So he would have been preparing and presenting the drama just as the Sketch Book was being made and transmitted. He then filmed, presumably with Ted Lloyd, parts of the production at the Hackney Empire and Scala Theatres, intending to sell this to the Omnibus television series in the States. Apparently, however, he stopped filmed when he was disappointed with the results, although there are differing accounts of how much was shot and what happened to the footage (for details, see the Wikipedia entry). The rushes may or may not have been lost in a fire in 1970; in any case, no fragments of it are known to survive.
By now this post has become as discursive as a Welles story, so let’s wrap it all up with the final episode of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, which is largely devoted to our host’s fascination with bull-fighting.