The Trajectory of Television Drama (Pt. 1)

1: BBC – A First-off-the-Block Case Study

Television is a strange beast. It’s not quite cinema, not quite the theatre and not quite radio, but it bears distinctive similarities with all three. This is in large part because it has evolved out of those three older media, initially as an extension of radio, with the pictorial element of theatre and/or cinema added to the mix to varying degrees in various regions. Its forerunners, then, were distinct entities, each defined in terms of their scope and potential long before television arrived on the scene in a regular way in November 1936. Meanwhile, television has struggled to find an identity, adopting elements of the identities of the other three media.

This is nowhere more apparent than in television drama. Light entertainment has, until recently, transmuted into various televisual forms with little adjustment. Comedy is comedy, variety acts are variety acts, cartoons are cartoons, and so on. Similarly, factual programming fits into representations either established in the cinema (documentaries, newsreels) or on the radio (news bulletins), with only a slight cross-pollination of the two. But drama – and, to a certain degree, the sitcom – is where television has struggled to find a real identity of its own, and it is my view that, in several important respects, it has been steadily failing in this struggle.

Early television drama was, in a sense, much more clearly defined as its own entity than its modern counterpart. It is important to acknowledge that television arose out of the bosom of radio, and indeed many of its generic forms have been ported directly across from that aural medium. But television drama was a different matter altogether. There is some evidence of an initial reluctance on the part of television makers to delve into dramatic forms, as if they didn’t know quite what to do with it. Early outings for BBC Television consisted of variety acts, news reports and the like – the output of what was then known as the “Talks” department. As variety in particular had transferred with little adjustment from the nation’s music halls to its wireless sets (allowing, of course, for an absence of pictures1), there undoubtedly seemed little desire to tackle anything that required significant rethinking. It was enough that this fledgling technology was up and running in the first place.

Then drama slowly emerged. To suggest that it entertained its limited audiences may be stretching accuracy somewhat. Fascinated, yes, but opportunities for entertainment in those early days were hampered by the limitations of available technology and particularly by the limited imagination of the drama producers. They realised that a straight translation of radio drama to one of the two television studios in Alexandra Palace was untenable: who wanted to watch a bunch of people standing around delivering endless amounts of dialogue? Yet, in a sense, that’s what these television pioneers offered, albeit via different course. It has been said that radio is the mother of television; the earliest televised drama would suggest that its father was the theatre.

That cinema was never considered as a template for television production is culturally as well as logistically telling. Certainly, there was little facility for stretching beyond the confines of Alexandra Palace. Outside Broadcast facilities had to remain linked by cable to the building itself, which put paid to location filming in the days before telecine. Its precursor, the film chain, was invented in time, but practical considerations – i.e. the limited proportion of the license fee that went into television – prohibited any thought of pre-filming entire programs.

More significantly, however, the view at the time was that television was not cinema. If one wished to see a film of whatever length, one went to the pictures to see it. That was where scope for sophisticated production was available. Viewing something even approximating the grandeur of a motion picture on a poor quality 7-inch screen was inconceivable. Never mind that television was live, it was immediate. The slightly more sluggish, more mechanical and literally film-based Baird system had been abandoned for very much this reason: on a practical level, it simply wasn’t “live” enough.2 This was a view shared by television pioneers in other nations, but particularly in the United States, where film culture was held in tremendous esteem in the 1930s. But there was another factor affecting the BBC view of television drama production, and that was the nature of the early BBC itself.

Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC, claimed as his own the now famous BBC mandate, to inform, educate and entertain – in that order. Although he frowned upon television from its earliest days and reportedly never watched it, Reith’s upper class view was held to by all program makers in BBC Radio and Television. Which meant that television’s take on drama was certainly not going to borrow from a medium as low as the movies. (Cue derisory sneer, no doubt.) Better that it borrow from the theatre, and the legitimate theatre at that. After all, this was the nation of Shakespeare, of Marlowe, of Shaw. Using the theatre as a model was not only the British thing to do, it was the English thing to do!

This all led to some very strange results, and this is where my insistence that early audiences were less entertained than intrigued comes into play. Some of the earliest productions reportedly only used one camera for the entire duration3, and vision mixing between cameras was an unwieldy beast in those early days, apparently taking upwards of twenty seconds to mix between shots!4 Consequently, it was probably thought best to keep such advanced technical considerations as cutting between cameras to a minimum – ideally during scene changes. Moreover, the lenses on television cameras were rubbish by modern standards. The zoom lens had yet to be invented, so each camera bore a turret set-up offering three or four lenses of varying lengths. Which meant camera operators could move their image in and out, but only while their feed wasn’t being transmitted. To create a tracking shot, a camera would have to physically dolly in or out. However, given the amount of cabling involved and the very cramped space in the Alexandra Palace studios, the prospects for major camera movement (other than tilting or panning) were limited. Lastly, the ground glass through which cameramen5 viewed the image they were capturing was an entirely optical affair, meaning that the image came out upside-down. It is reasonable to hypothesise that in the early days of television, when experience was non-existent and training probably conducted by a clutch of electronics whizzes, getting to grips with sophisticated camera manoeuvres was a bit much of an ask.

The upshot of all this is that televised drama took on the appearance of theatre in more ways than one. Scenes were necessarily long because of limited studio space and capabilities, and so too were shots. Close-ups were notoriously difficult to achieve on cluttered sets, and the movement of actors could only be followed to a limited degree. Add to this the technical requirement that sets, props and costumes be designed with the then limitations of electronic transmission quality in mind, and producers might as well have simply deferred to making everything look like a televised stage play.

(Indeed, this model was taken to its extremes on occasion. As OB facilities improved, it was not unheard of for the BBC to send a crew to a West End play and telecast portions! Presumably this fell under the banner of the arts rather than drama per se, but it is evident that somebody at the BBC was trying to make a point regarding what its drama output should resemble.)

As BBC drama stayed rooted in the theatre, the techniques of production evolved to some degree around this. A lack of adequate pre-recording facilities until the late 1940s meant that programming continued to be produced live. At the dawn of television, this meant a repeat of the afternoon schedule in the evening, the entire medium’s output resembling a matinee and evening run. Later, as the schedules filled up with more material, regular practice for major drama productions was to produce two performances, typically one on the weekend and a “repeat” later in the week. (This even when the ability to record television had been pioneered: the shift from re-performances to genuine repeats of the original transmission was gradual.) These “seasons” were short, but so too were the seasons in weekly rep.

All this reliance on immediacy – the absolute synchronisation of performance and reception – kept drama in the United Kingdom well away from the cinematic mode of production and instead rooted in its own evolution out of but away from theatre and radio. Television drama was unique in its form, and with the advent of such ground-breaking productions as The Quatermass Experiment, in content. The multi-camera mode seemed here to stay; for although it arguably produced less sophisticated results than the careful single-camera mode of filmmaking, it was the best way to produce television that made no room for post-production. And it grew ever more sophisticated, daring and innovative television makers over the decades pushing it to a point not dreamed imaginable by the likes of Baird and Marconi.


  1. Which, strangely, didn’t stop the likes of ventriloquist acts from finding a successful niche in radio!
  2. Of course it didn’t help Baird’s case that, compared to the electronic EMI system, the image was pants as well.
  3. Which, mercifully, tended to be no more than half an hour on pre-war television.
  4. There is some evidence of the last gasps of this problem as late as the 1960s, by which time a “cut” could still exhibit a mix of one or two frames. Early seasons of The Avengers reveal this as a distinct drop in luminance for a single frame. (For the technically minded, this does not manifest itself per the “dirty frames” common to many telerecordings.)
  5. For they were all male in those days.

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