The lost television of Fred O’Donovan

20th April 2017

I am delighted that this week the new issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Television and Radio has published my article Exploring the lost television and technique of producer Fred O’Donovan’. The article is developed from a 2015 conference organised by The History of Forgotten Television Drama research project, and the issue features a number of fascinating articles based on papers presented there. Frustratingly, online access to the full article is restricted to those who have institutional access to a subscription (although the issue Introduction is freely accessible), but here is the opening of my contribution. If you would like to know more, do get in touch — John Wyver.

In the history of British television drama few notable creative figures are as forgotten as the actor, film director and pioneer producer Fred O’Donovan. After a distinguished career at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, after directing Ireland’s first feature film, and after nearly two decades’ work on the London stage, O’Donovan joined BBC Television in early 1938. As one of the first directors of studio drama he earned a ‘Produced by’ credit on more than 60 broadcasts.

These included plays by the major Irish writers J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey as well as dramas by Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov and Molière. Among the actors with whom he worked were Wendy Hiller, Angela Baddeley, James Mason and Alastair Sim. On his death in the summer of 1952 O’Donovan was 67, and past the BBC’s usual age of retirement, but he was still employed full-time by the Corporation. Indeed he had just returned from overseeing a French television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in Paris.

Along with other television drama producers at that time, including Dallas Bower and Stephen Harrison, O’Donovan was a key agent in the fledgling form’s development. With his background in theatre and the cinema he also exemplified the medium’s intermedial engagement with the stage and other media of the day. According to his contemporaries he also worked with a highly distinctive studio style involving lengthy shots without cuts that was known as the ‘one camera technique’. But to date no moving image trace has been discovered of what at the time was a celebrated body of work.

In part because of this lack of recordings, and despite both his centrality to early television drama and the ‘one camera technique’ representing a significant aesthetic alternative for studio drama, Fred O’Donovan has received little attention in the literature on early television. He is a marginal figure in the memoirs of others who were active at Alexandra Palace before and just after the war, and among later writers only Jason Jacobs in his foundational study of early television drama, The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama, has afforded his work sustained attention.

Drawing on a range of written sources, and in particular the records of the BBC’s Written Archives Centre (WAC), this article begins the process of recovering O’Donovan’s work by offering a critical introduction to his career, an exploration of the production context in which he was operating, and a consideration of the significance of his ‘one-camera technique’ and its resonances in moving image culture since his death.

The earliest television drama to survive in full in the archives is It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer, broadcast live on 22 and 26 February 1953, adapted from Gilbert Cesbron’s stage play and directed by the most influential producer from the next generation, Rudolph Cartier. Paradoxically, O’Donovan’s feature film Knocknagow, which was released in 1918, has been preserved, albeit in an incomplete form, and has recently been the focus of extensive critical engagement. The loss of O’Donovan’s live television is especially frustrating since he was renowned for a singular approach to studio directing dubbed by his contemporaries as the ‘one-camera technique’.

Writing in 1950 John Swift distinguished O’Donovan’s distinctive strategy from the conventional form of production in which the director used mixes to transition and (when this became technically possible in the mid-1940s) cut between two, three or occasionally four cameras to compose a continuous sequence of shots from different angles and with a range of frame sizes. ‘There is one other system,’ Swift recorded, ‘known as the one-camera technique. It is the speciality of one producer in particular, Fred O’Donovan, who is steeped in stage traditions and to my knowledge has adhered to this method throughout his time as a television producer.’

As Swift recounted, O’Donovan choreographed his cast in front of just a single camera, which would have had only restricted movement, for scenes lasting 20 minutes or more. ‘One-camera production,’ Swift continued, ‘demands the highest degree of precision and when perfect co-ordination is achieved between cast, cameraman and producer the result is often a smoother and more polished presentation than the more complicated many-angle technique.’ Swift, like O’Donovan’s producer peers before and after the war, clearly regarded this approach as a personal idiosyncrasy, but throughout the first years of the medium it was an active and approved alternative to the dominant multi-camera techniques.

‘A new medium finds its place, its identity and its acceptance,’ André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion suggest, ‘by going through three stages – appearance, emergence, and constitution – that mark what we have called its two births.’ In Britain the ‘appearance’ stage can be identified as that during which John Logie Baird and others were experimenting with the technology prior to November 1936 when the BBC service began. Gaudreault and Marion develop their generalised argument by asserting

At the moment of its appearance, a new technology is still only a “crypto-medium”, because the singularity of the medium is as yet still hidden and unrevealed… By inheriting an apparatus that stands at the intersection of various pre-existing intermedial combinations, the ‘crypto-medium’ becomes a “proto-medium”… After mimetically relaying its surrounding genres, a medium then unfolds along the path of its singularity. This is the emergent phase. The singular medium becomes the object of claims on its identity and is henceforth perceived as virgin territory, as fertile ground for new experiments in communication or artistic creation.

Fred O’Donovan’s work in television belongs to this ‘emergent’ phase, when television was a ‘proto-medium’, and before its ‘constitution’ as autonomous and distinct from other media from the mid-1950s onwards. His productions demonstrate both the intermedial combinations and the new experiments in artistic creation that Gaudreault and Marion identify as characteristic of the early, ‘emergent’ period.

More specifically, his ‘one-camera technique’ is a reminder that the production methods and screen languages that were to become dominant in later years, during the ‘mature’ years of multi-camera studio drama from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, were not inherent in the medium from the start. Alternative approaches were developed even if they proved to be roads not taken.

Early television, as Doron Galili reminds us was ‘a fascinatingly complex period of the medium’s social, cultural, and material history, one that saw not only the formation of the dominant traits of 20th-century television but also numerous other alternatives and unrealized possibilities.’ As far as can be ascertained in the absence of recordings, Fred O’Donovan’s work was one of those ‘alternatives and [his own productions aside] unrealized possibilities’.

Image: the broadcast of BBC Television’s first drama, Marigold, broadcast from Alexandra Palace in 1936 before Fred O’Donovan joined the staff.


  1. Billy Smart says:

    History of Forgotten (not Lost) Television, surely?

    The issue has turned out well, I think. Its all intelligible and worth reading at the very least. And its a real contribution to British TV history from you to have got the first O’Donovan TV piece in circulation.

    • John Wyver says:

      Apologies, Billy – my idiocy (and I have corrected it above). It’s a great journal issue – bravo.

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