The world of British television off and on the screen, as it was sixty years ago.

Fry’s Delight

“A Correspondent” (AC) writes at length in The Times about television drama and whether it is “live” or filmed beforehand. It provides a useful description of the state of the art in late 1955.

Before ITV nearly all television drama was live, notes AC who suggests that, “it is pointed out that, although artists of course vary in their response to different conditions, the acting tends to have a sharper edge in a continuous, immediately transmitted performance; a film, pieced together out of fragments, often lacks some quality of intensity which is needed to shake the viewer from his armchair sloth.”

AC notes that “Film sequences are often used in live drama, either to establish place… or to bridge transitions in a story, for instance from breakfast in pyjamas to a party in full evening dress – otherwise an extra scene has to be written to give the actor time to change.” However AC’s eyes have been opened to a third possibility: “… it was not until the opening night of ITA, with its star-studded excerpts, that one became aware of film as a potential vehicle for television plays. They, a few days later, came Associated-Rediffusion’s ‘A Month in the Country’ directed by Mr Robert Hamer.”

AC continues, “The power and closeness of the performances seemed to challenge the theory that a live production is essentially stronger, and the play gave a sustained visual pleasure seldom found on the small screen.” AC adds that John Clements International Theatre series, wherein “A Month in the Country” hailed, “will remain on film” but Associated-Rediffusion’s drama director Norman Marshall “does not think necessarily think this is the best way of presenting plays on television” and notes that “from the first The Granville Melodramas have been stage with hissing and applauding audiences which certainly make one’s enjoyment more vivid.

AC then turns to Associated Television’s head of drama, Desmond Davis, who “considers film the ideal solution, because it allows time for visual composition and can be edited afterwards. From there, AC moves to Highbury Studios where ATV are using the “high-definition” recording system. AC explains: “After rehearsal as a stage play, the production is shot with television cameras from beginning to end, but fragment by fragment so that each can be properly polished. What emerges is not a poor cousin of the cinema film but something much closer, relying less on movement, and giving fuller prominence to the words, which in television drama are of paramount importance.” AC concludes this section, “The BBC has done much to discover appropriate conventions; and ITA, which can drawn on this accumulation of experience, is already opening up new possibilities.”

AC finishes on the subject of writing for television and says: “Since in many people’s view on hour is the ideal length for a performance, television drama may, besides establishing its own conventions of presentation, develop a new genre.”

Drama of a different kind was witnessed by Bernard Levin on Double Your Money – not on the small screen, but in person, because the Guardian reviewer was in the audience at Wembley Studios to see Plantagenet Somerset Fry attempt to answer the question which would win him £512. Levin reports that “Mr Fry strode onto the stage, absolutely in command of the situation.” As a result of his attire – “a splendid silk stock with a pearl tie-pin and a purple velvet waistcoat (with labels)” as well as his “handsome russet” beard – Levin declares that “he will be much in demand when colour television arrives” but then gets down to the serious business.

After being put into the soundproof booth and being allowed to adjust his headphones Mr Fry was asked by Hughie Green “to give the dates of the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI and to say what relationship each bore to his predecessor.”

Mr Levin informs us that, Mr Fry came up with the correct answers well before the 30 second time limit and was then given 20 seconds to decide whether or not to risk the £512 by returning to answer a further question. He declined saying, “I think I’ll call it a day.”

Apparently, the next question would have been “Give the dates of the battles of Blenheim, Malplaquet, Ramillies and Oudenarde, and name the French commanders against whom Marlborough fought in each case.”

Mr Fry plans to use his winnings to buy some things for the house, to give a party, and to publish his thesis on the life of Richard III.

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