The arts on early television

4th November 2016

Having yesterday highlighted Shakespeare on television between the wars, today’s short post spotlights a Media History seminar on Tuesday when I’m sharing the spotlight with my colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley. The event is a contribution to an interdisciplinary research seminar series at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies and Institute of Historical Research. The seminar starts at 6pm at Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU. Everyone is welcome.

My topic of the arts on television before World War Two is one that I’ve explored a little on this blog in the past, including here. And the richness of the archive material makes me hope that I can find time and resource to research it in much more depth in the future. In the meantime, below is my title and abstract for Tuesday.

‘The arts on early television and the BBC’s cultural mission in the interwar years’

Regular BBC Television transmissions began on 2 November 1936, and until the war forced the closure of the Alexandra Palace studios at the start of September 1939 there was a daily service of music, drama, dance and talks. Almost nothing of this extensive output was recorded but much of it is documented in Radio TimesThe Listener and the BBC Written Archives at Caversham. These sources allow us to explore the programme content in detail, including television’s extensive engagement with the arts in these years.

This paper offers an overview of the extensive and eclectic cultural output, which included several hundred dramas, numerous concerts of classical music and dance performances, and on-screen appearances by prominent visual artists, architects, writers and film makers. The programming extended the BBC’s mainstream understanding of its public service mission under Lord Reith but at the same time, perhaps because television was a marginal service with a very small metropolitan audience, it included a number of experimental broadcasts exploring themes and ideas often associated with interwar modernism in Britain.

Image: detail of a framegrab (originally in a 4:3 format) from the BBC Demonstration Film, 1937; this is a mock-up for filming of a live broadcast from the series Around the Galleries hosted by artist John Piper – featured are a canvas by John Constable, a Henry Moore sculpture and a Pablo Picasso painting. The precious short film clip is the only moving image trace that we have of pre-wat arts television.

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