Pure television

4th September 2016

Among many other excellent activities, my friend and colleague Luke McKernan, who is Lead Curator, News and Moving Image at the British Library, curates the invaluable Picturegoing website. As the site succinctly explains, ‘Picturegoing is an ongoing survey reproducing eyewitness testimony of viewing pictures, from the seventeenth century to the present day.’

Many of the entries, which are drawn from diaries, letters, memoirs and more, feature people bearing witness to watching films. But from time to time Luke unearths a fragment written by someone who has just watched television. As he has with his most recent post, ‘”Gerald Cock Presents” – Review of Television Programmes’, written by Kenneth Baily and published in The Era on 14 October 1936. Reading it, I felt much as I imagine a historian of the early modern world might feel when generously offered an unknown incunabulum. Suddenly and excitingly, a fragment of the past was illuminated for the first time.

A weekly paper founded in 1838 but with only another three years of life left, The Era was especially noted for its theatrical content. Luke provides exemplary annotations to his selections, and from these we learn that ‘Kenneth Baily was a radio journalist, editor in the 1950s of the Television Annual and author of an early history of the medium, Here’s Television (1950).’

Gerald Cock was the BBC’s first Director of Television, having previously been the radio service’s first Director of Outside Broadcasts; in contrast to Director General John Reith, Cock was an enthusiast for the new medium. And as Luke also informs us, ‘The Two Bouquets was an operetta by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon.’ But this 700-word review has so, so much more to reveal about the first days of television – and even during the couple of hours this afternoon that it prompted me to research online newspaper databases it has proved to be a key to learning much else.

Experimental broadcasts

BBC Television officially went on the air, broadcasting from Alexandra Palace, on 2 November 1936. Just over two months earlier the service had, at very short notice, put together a series of broadcasts from AP just to the Radiolympia show. But the first transmissions that could be picked up more widely were those about which Kenneth Baily was writing. These began on the afternoon of 1 October using the (flawed and later discontinued) Baird ‘mechanical’ system but (according to a Times article I had previously missed) things did not go well:

The first regular television programme was broadcast from Alexandra Palace yesterday by the British Broadcasting Corporation. During the programme and at the end the announcer apologized for technical faults, caused, in one instance, he said, by a temporary failure of the water supply which cools the valves of the transmission installation.

Apparently the quality of the pictures improved so that by the closing minutes of the hour the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather and his sketches could be clearly seen , making him the first visual artist to appear on British television. A ballet, animals from the zoo and the first edition of Picture Page were planned for Friday but these were cancelled and replaced by the broadcast of acquired films. Two days later The Sunday Times reported (in another article I had not previously unearthed)

Technical difficulties marred the first television transmissions from Alexandra Palace last week, and yesterday’s breakdown resulted in the cancellation of yesterday’s programmes, but repair work has been carried out and there will be a transmission tomorrow.

Transmissions were from 11am to midday and then for a further hour from 3pm, and there were no broadcasts on Sundays. One of the very few places where television could be seen was at the Science Museum, but from Wednesday 7 October, thanks to the far-sightedness of Southern Railways, passengers at Waterloo Station could catch the test transmissions as well as their trains. Programmes were shown in the waiting room opposite Platform 16; admission was free but ‘restricted to the holders of railway tickets’. Demonstrations could also be seen at Selfridges and at Whiteleys in Bayswater, or – if you were feeling brave – by appointment at the offices of Baird Television.

Broadcasts in the week that Kenneth Baily monitored were made using the more reliable Marconi-EMI electronic system which from the beginning gave clearer pictures than Baird’s. I have yet to find a detailed schedule for these transmissions, although elements can be pieced together from newspaper reports. On Tuesday and Wednesday, for example, scenes were broadcast from the annual North London Exhibition held at Alexandra Palace. There were the various entertainers name-checked by Kenneth Baily, including Henry Hall who would become a stalwart of the service, and the popular variety comedian and radio regular Leonard Henry.

On Friday, there was a preview of more than 20 new English cars that were to be unveiled at the following week’s Motor Show:

One by one, the cars drove up in front of the ‘electric eye’ [The Times reported] and an expert gave details of their main points. Although the light outside the Alexandra Palace, where the cars were shown, was not good, reception was steady and clear, but details of the engines could not be clearly seen when the bonnets of the cars were opened.

On 11 October the Observer gave further details of what had been broadcast during the previous week:

We were, among other things, given a golf lesson and a riding lesson, shown one act of a popular play [which was The Two Bouquets, of which more below], taken on a tour round an exhibition, including a dress parade and a cabaret show, and were introduced for the first time to Picture Page, the television equivalent to In-town Tonight. Picture Page is good, and is sure to be popular.

Picture Page

Kenneth Baily’s description of the first Picture Page (to which he mistakenly adds a definite article) is fascinating. Like the Observer’s correspondent he is very positive about its prospects, and indeed the series ran until the war and from 1946 to 1952. The first ‘guest list’ sound like a fairly typical line-up for its early run:

Fight-Lieutenant Swain, altitude record breaker of the RAF; [hore-racing tipster] Prince Ras Monolulu ([with his catch-phrase] I Gotta Horse); Mrs. Flora Drummond, suffragette leader [who had been imprisoned nine times for her activism]; a Siamese cat; and Diana Sheridan, the photographer’s model [then only just 16, later an accomplished actress, and invited back to appear on the 100th edition of the show].

What is surprising about Baily’s description is the importance of the ‘turning pages’ motif that accompanies the linking device of Joan Miller at a switchboard (illustrated above). Almost nothing of the early Picture Page broadcasts survives in the archives, but there is a well-known short scene from the film documentary Television Comes to London, 1936 (embedded here, with apologies for the technical quality).

There is no indication in this of the elaborate magazine page graphics and the overlay of a still photograph and an electronic image of Joan Miller. Perhaps they were dropped before the first broadcasts or perhaps the effect was too complex to reproduce for a film. In any case, Picture Page needs to be researched more thoroughly, including its intertextual echoes of and resonances with the illustrated magazines of the day like Picture Post, although it’s frustrating that the wonderful BBC Written Archives at Caversham has no records for the series before the early 1950s.

The Two Bouquets

The Sunday Times news report mentioned above also includes the following:

Most important of all the transmission of the [coming] week is the televising of The Two Bouquets, the musical comedy of Victorian days which Mr Sydney Carroll is presenting at the Ambassadors Theatre, in a series entitled From the London Theatre. The transmission will last for half an hour and will be the first time that a theatrical production has gone on the air in this new form of broadcasting.

This announcement, and Kenneth Baily’s review, are sufficient for us now to assert – which I don’t believe had been known before – that The Two Bouquets was the first ‘drama’ to be shown by BBC Television. From the London Theatre was indeed the series title for broadcasts after 2 November in which the cast of current West End hits were taken up to AP to perform live in front of the electronic cameras.

On 10 October, the Manchester Guardian noted that the first of television’s theatre productions would be the Scottish comedy Marigold, and that this decision had been made ‘this week after private experiments with The Two Bouquets, the “Victorian” operetta at the Ambassadors.’ Before then, however, there was also an experimental broadcast of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, on 19 October, and unlike The Two Bouquets this was repeated in December after the service had started regular transmissions.

Conceiving dream-children

The most fascinating aspect of Baily’s article is his suspicion, right at the very start of the medium, of television’s dependence upon existing media forms. For our correspondent, heatre and the cinema do not successful television make. He is clear that ‘real entertainment value is derived from television only when television technique is scrupulously adhered to and when subjects exclusively suited to the new medium are chosen.’ The Two Bouquets, precisely because it was an excerpt from the stage, ‘assumed the unmistakable guise of failure’.

‘I believe that a few more weeks’ experience will show that television is an indifferent foster-mother for the conventional arts,’ Baily asserts, ‘and that it must conceive its own dream-children.’ Picture Post is the closest thing the week has offered to such a dream child, and he celebrates it as ‘a pure television production’.

Calls of this kind for television to develop its own specific forms and styles and strategies are a familiar feature right through the first three decades of the medium. It’s striking, however, to discover it this early. In 1964, in his famous polemic ‘Nats go home’, 1960s Troy Kennedy Martin makes a parallel argument against theatre’s contamination of television.

Yet of course television, and especially in these early years, was the intermedial form par excellence, mercilessly pillaging the techniques and the approaches of radio, film, music hall, variety, dance and, of course, the theatre. ‘Pure television’, however, remained an alluring chimera for many of those who worked for television, just as those who contributed before and after World War Two to radio’s legendary Features Department under Lawrence Gilliam aspired to create ‘pure radio’. There is so much more to write on this, but once again it is remarkable that this argument is being made so strongly even before the television service has officially started transmitting.

And one final thought: Luke is right to point out that in the article there is ‘the very early use of the word “viewer” in a television context.’ But my sense is that this was already an established designation for those who were otherwise known as ‘lookers-in’. A report for The Times on 22 August 1936, for example, notes that television will feature at the imminent Radio exhibition at Olympia, and suggests that from a visit ‘the prospective viewer will see the kind of apparatus and picture screen with which he will rapidly become more familiar when the full television service comes into operation.’ The viewers who made up the other half of the population, too, were also soon to achieve that familiarity.

Comments

  1. A tour de force. 1930s television is a marvellous thing to be switched on to.

  2. John Wyver says:

    Thanks once more, Luke.

    Since writing the post I’ve discovered that Kenneth Baily’s account of the first years of television, which he published in ‘Here’s Television’ (1950) is available on the Television Heaven website, starting here:
    http://www.televisionheaven.co.uk/history_of_the_bbc_2.htm

    The only copy of the original book that I can find online is currently priced on Amazon at £80+, so it’s great that the text is accessible in this way. I’ll return to it in a future post, but even a cursory reading indicates that Baily’s later account contains some mis-rememberings of the first broadcasts.

  1. […] I could not find the article in question, though this website is very interesting, but anyway, I love the above picture, please share if you agree with it. If someone knows the link for the original article, please post in the comment section. Postgrad ch 5. Pure television – Illuminations Media. […]

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