Re-recording live drama: the fallibility of the television drama record

OLIVER WAKE

Anyone researching live television drama will inevitably encounter the well-known obstacle that only a small percentage of live broadcasts were recorded from transmission and subsequently archived. A lesser-known obstacle for anyone trying to appreciate the quality and aesthetics of live drama is that those recordings which were made and archived are not necessarily an accurate representation of the programmes as broadcast.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the recording of live transmissions was largely accomplished via the telerecording process, resulting in a continuous record of the broadcast on film. It has usually been assumed that this film recording was then left untouched, and only over recent years has it become clear that this was not necessarily the case. In some instances, once the live transmission of a drama had concluded, the cast and crew remained in the studio and re-performed sections of the programme that were considered to have been substandard on broadcast. These scenes were also telerecorded and could subsequently be edited into the master recording to create a more polished version of the whole programme.

James O’Connor

OLIVER WAKE

James O’Connor – often known as Jimmy O’Connor – wrote a number of popular and successful television plays in the 1960s and early ‘70s, regularly collaborating with director Ken Loach. He had an unusual background for a television dramatist. He was formerly a career criminal who had turned to writing while serving a life sentence for murder, having narrowly avoided being hanged.

Early life

O’Connor’s life story encompasses the sensitive subjects of deprivation, domestic abuse and criminality which would not normally be appropriate topics for this website. We do not usually make personal biography a focus of our coverage, but O’Connor himself emphasised how his early experiences informed his television plays, as did contemporary reactions to his work, and it is important for us to understand his background to understand his work. The following account of O’Connor’s life before becoming a television playwright is drawn from O’Connor’s autobiography The Eleventh Commandment.1 Aside from the basic details of his murder conviction, reprieve and release, it is not possible to independently corroborate any of his reported life story. In view of O’Connor’s early life of dishonesty and later career as a storyteller, one may be inclined to wonder how far his account can be trusted to be accurate. We leave this for the reader to determine for themselves.

Experiments in colour and electronic film systems: George’s Room (1967)

DAVID ROLINSON AND SIMON COWARD

Half-Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_George's Room_1How and why is George’s Room in colour? Anyone coming to George’s Room knowing the rest of director Alan Clarke’s plays for Rediffusion’s Half-Hour Story strand thanks to the BFI’s Alan Clarke at the BBC set might wonder why this is the only one in colour and why it looks so different from the others.1 In comparison with the inventive compositions, fast cutting (vision mixing) and ambitious camerawork of plays like Stella, George’s Room seems highly conventional in its largely static compositions and its alternation between mid-shots, close-ups and wide two-shots: a reviewer at the time said that the play ‘has almost no movement’ and ‘could easily pass as a radio play’, watching characters ‘speaking or samlistening’.2 In the circumstances this is perhaps unsurprising. Clarke directed this colour version at Wembley Studios, using the same electronic multi-camera set-up as his black and white Half-Hour Story plays. However, George’s Room adapted this set-up in order to use ‘E-cam’, a system designed to make filmed drama in television studios. There were similar attempts to combine television and film technology elsewhere in the television and cinema industries – as we shall see – but Rediffusion were pioneering the integration of film and the electronic multi-camera studio. George’s Room was the main pilot experiment to test ‘E-cam’, which makes it a fascinating moment in British television drama, a stepping stone to possible futures in the use of colour and the convergence between television and cinema. This essay is the most detailed exploration of George’s Room to date. This might not be surprising, given that those studying Clarke could only access an incomplete version,3 until, as the BFI’s Sam Dunn explained, ‘the missing half […] was discovered hiding in the deep recesses of the National Archive’.4 This essay provides information on different stages – from commissioning to overseas sales – but its main focus is on the play as an experiment in colour and electronic film.

Stella (1968)

DAVID ROLINSON

Half Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_Stella_11The BFI’s superb new Alan Clarke box sets contain many treats – they at last make most of the director’s surviving BBC work available to everyone and do so with such loving remastering and restoration that even those of us who have seen these pieces many times have never seen or heard them like this – but I’m particularly pleased with the bonus DVD on the main blu ray set Dissent and Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC.1 This collects several of Clarke’s early plays for the ITV strand Half Hour Story (1967-68), including pieces that were thought lost from the archive.2 I say more about Half Hour Story in my new essays for the blu ray booklet, and more about this and Clarke’s other early ITV work in my book Alan Clarke (2005);3 however, this website essay revisits Stella (1968), one of my favourite Half Hour Story plays, to study it in more detail.4 Clarke is rightly being celebrated by film critics for his filmed drama, but we should not forget that he was also a master of the electronic multi-camera studio. This results in such impressive studio experiments as Danton’s Death (1978), Psy-Warriors (1981) and Baal (1982), but there are signs of his qualities in Stella and the other plays that he made at Wembley Studios in his early days at Rediffusion.

Conversations at Night (1969)

OLIVER WAKE

Thirty-Minute Theatre Writer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Translated by: Robert David MacDonald; Producer: Innes Lloyd; Director: Rudolph Cartier

Thirty-Minute Theatre was a drama strand instigated by the BBC to return shorter plays, transmitted live, to the television schedules.1 It began in October 1965 with a version of Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure, and ultimately produced over 250 dramas, although by the end of 1968 the live element was had been entirely dropped. 1969’s Conversation at Night was director Rudolph Cartier’s fourth entry into the BBC2 anthology, following Brainscrew in 1966, The News-Benders in 1968, and the Hitler segment of the These Men Are Dangerous trilogy from earlier in 1969.2 It was Cartier’s last production under BBC contract as he returned to freelance work thereafter.3

The short play was written by leading post-war Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who is best known for his full-length satirical stage dramas The Visit and The Physicists. Conversation at Night started out as a German radio play in 1952 and transferred to the Munich stage the same year. It came to Britain as a radio play first, translated and produced by Christopher Holme for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1963.4 The stage version premiered in London in 1966. For television, the play was translated by Robert David MacDonald and produced by Innes Lloyd.