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.

Live soap: EastEnders and Coronation Street (2015)

DAVID ROLINSON

BTVD_Coronation Street live_2015_1
This article presents some thoughts on special live episodes of soaps since 2010, in particular the editions of EastEnders and Coronation Street broadcast in February and September 2015 respectively.1 It identifies some of the ways in which the two series addressed liveness both textually and paratextually, as in their cross-platform interest in interactivity. Engaging with British television drama’s residual qualities of liveness, immediacy and intimacy, these episodes pose questions for our understanding of soap storytelling, in particular its handling of time. The following thoughts are unpolished reflections, taken from before and after a module screening, but form hopefully useful notes for others to develop, for instance in conjunction with this site’s other pieces on live drama across the decades and a forthcoming piece that will discuss soap time in more detail.

Introduction: Live!

Underground (1958)

OLIVER WAKE

Armchair Theatre Writer: James Forsyth; Adapted from (novel): Harold Rein; Producer Sydney Newman; Director: William Kotcheff

This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2018.

When people talk about live television drama, and in particular the disasters that can befall live productions, actors forgetting their lines and technical faults loom large. Sometimes mention will be made of the incident in which a leading actor died during a performance. It sounds like it could be a dark joke or an industry myth, but it’s true. It’s a morbid story but a fascinating one.

The production in question was Underground, transmitted on Sunday 30 November 1958 as part of ITV company ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology. It was directed by William (known as Ted) Kotcheff, one of ABC’s regular directors, then aged only 27, and produced by Sydney Newman, the company’s drama supervisor. The play was a television dramatisation by James Forsyth of Harold Rein’s 1955 novel Few Were Left. No recording of the play exists, so this account is based on various interviews and media reports about the play. There are several accounts of what happened which, though largely consistent on the main events, differ notably on the smaller details. In this essay I’ll try to separate the reality from the myth and distortion as far as is possible at this remove from the event itself.

Live from Pebble Mill (1983)

OLIVER WAKE

Five plays. Writers: Keith Dewhurst, Fay Weldon, Bernard Kops, Stephen Davis, Michael Wall; Producer: Robin Midgley; Directors: Robin Midgley, James Cellan Jones, Robert Walker, Donald McWhinnie

During the 1960s, live television drama on British screens was slowly phased out in favour of the convenience and control afforded by pre-recording on videotape. Ever since, there were murmurs that some unique, special quality inherent in live performance had been lost and occasional attempts have been made to revive the form. One of the most interesting of these attempts was Live from Pebble Mill, produced from BBC Birmingham in 1983.

Live from Pebble Mill was conceived and produced by Robin Midgley, the head of drama for BBC Birmingham, who had a background in the theatre and had worked on live television drama in the 1960s. He insisted the project wasn’t simply a nostalgic exercise in retro television production, but an attempt at forcing a more imaginative form of staging through the use of the live method: “We’re not trying to turn the clock back. Quite the reverse, in fact. Instead of going for the usual kind of ‘reality-effect’ in the studio, we’ll be using the space more imaginatively – in a sense, exploiting the live context to break with some of the conventions of naturalism.”1 Not all were impressed by his experiment, with the Radio Times reporting that one “distinguished script editor” had informed Midgeley that “you’re setting back television 20 years. Progress lies with more film, more technical sophistication, more refinement.”2