Record, play, pause 

28 January 2019

Television over the last 90+ years has evolved from only being a relay of actuality (be that news, events, drama or comedy) to something more cinematic than even cinema.

A still taken off-screen in 1965, showing both the line definition (not usually apparent to most viewers) and the progressive scanline making its way down the picture (almost never apparent to viewers but a common problem with manual telerecording)

When the formal television service began in Alexandra Palace in 1936, there was no effective way of storing programmes like there was with sound broadcasting on discs. Baird did experiment with analogue cut groove video discs, without really perfecting a playback mechanism. Images from a television screen could be crudely captured by pointing a standard cinema film (and home cine-film) camera at a television screen (whether electronic or mechanical standard) but it picked up the artefacts of the line structure and because television in the UK is based on the mains frequency of 50Hz, there have always been issues with the 24 frames per second of a cinema film camera (less for home cine-cameras) which, even if it could be locked to 25fps, may well drift as if driven by clockwork as it wound down.

The relationship between 24/25fps and 50Hz has been exploited in more recent times to develop the 25p ‘progressive’, rather than 25i ‘interlace’ digital image standard, and make electronic video cameras look like film. But for an interruption of around seven years in the 1940s, there might have been progress sooner on storing programmes in a quality good enough to be regarded as proper archive standard records of transmissions. The wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Phillip Mountbatten in 1947 is the first notable (but not the first) telerecording, or storage, or a video transmission on to film that most recognise as properly the being of archiving television broadcasts.

Radio Times celebrates the opening of the Sutton Coldfield television transmitter in 1949

The technology to achieve this was remarkably crude. A particular type of film projector that used a rolling drum of mirrors, rather than a mechanical shutter, to maintain the illusion of persistent vision from a strip of still images was used backwards as a film camera to break the shutter issues arising out of an ordinary film camera at a television. These ‘Mechau’ projectors at Ally Pally were the first film recorders used, and operating as a pair (as film canisters might only hold 9 or so minutes of raw film) these projectors running backwards, capturing via their spinning mirrors the image on a cathode ray tube, stored the likes of the Coronation, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the first Quatermass adventure, the pop that led to a sudden end of the outside broadcast from the second television transmitter in 1949 (although an inauspicious opening, Sutton Coldfield remains on air to this day, making it one of – if not the longest – continually in service television transmitters in the world) and much more. But with much potential to store comes with the responsibilities of should you even be storing it…

Repeats are not a new thing, even with one or a few television masts, the BBC repeated various programmes, often by actually remounting the whole performance mere days after the first (as was the case with Nineteen Eighty-Four). Storing programmes did cause worry for unions representing performers who worried that such stored programmes might limit the opportunities for roles. Much like needle time rules restricted how much time BBC radio for decades could give to broadcasting commercial recordings over live or specially recorded music and speech content. By whatever means of negotiation, these concerns were ultimately overcome, to a point in the mid to late fifties that performances were being stored ahead of transmission and at some point (even before video tape recording) someone realised that you could polish a production by [sotto voce] editing out and replacing parts that might not have been to the standard intended… This was far from normal practise well in to the sixties, with even in the seventies it often being the case that a programme recording started as scene one, shot one and worked through in sequence until the last shot. But seeds were being planted.

Programmes originated on film were never limited to news and current affairs, even before ITV started in 1955, the BBC had some experience in making programmes totally on film, with the only electronic stage being in transmission. Certainly some productions, like police procedural dramas and ones mostly needing to be on location, would have benefited from single camera film work rather than trying to cut around something akin to a chest of drawers on a dolly which can only go in one direction, but they remained the exception with many productions (even the most fantastic adventures in to space and beyond) relying on imaginative scripting and framing in studio to achieve the magic of television.

The recording heads on an RCA TR22 transistorised videotape recorder at ABC’s Teddington studios. Each machine cost £25,000 – over £500,000 in today’s money – with tape costing over £1000 [£20,000] for an hour’s length

But magic takes time. Even before the war, thirty minutes of screened television didn’t take just thirty minutes to happen. More so with live transmission than with stored programmes where a second or more takes are possible, rehearsal time is critical to get it right first time on the night. Unlike a stage show where ‘tomorrow will be better’ there was only one chance. The ‘house’ might only be 3 or 4 cameras, but the audience was there at one remove and was larger than most stage runs could achieve.

Setting aside, for a moment, the artists in front of camera, as they are the part everyone sees, until the mid 1990s, virtually all television – drama, variety, sitcoms, news – had one thing in common, there were lots of people behind the lenses making the magic happen as much as the ones in front of them.

Rehearsing an episode of Coronation Street at Granada TV’s Quay Street studios in the early 1960s. The staff and players automatically arrange themselves around the imaginary fourth wall where nobody sits or stands as filming the back of someone’s head for any amount of time seems weird to the viewer

In the first phase of television drama (particularly), variety and comedy (including sitcoms), it borrowed techniques from its older sibling cinema, with using photos or artwork to establish locations or set scene and only judiciously using location filming where essential, being as likely as Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps to set a scene in a studio for convenience of shooting a night-time moor at Lime Grove as venturing to King’s Cross for the authentic smuts and steam on the camera lens. Unlike its older sibling, the performances captured on camera, with two or three of them looking in through a missing fourth wall, were more like those on stage, with people talking at each other through right angles rather than face to face, with scenes often ending on a single camera to give other cameras to move to the next set, without tangling cables and mowing down crew in their path. Talking at right angles to each other still happens in television today, just because cutting between multiple cameras in real time is something seemingly limited to news. If you think you haven’t seen it, watch fifteen minutes of BBC Breakfast, then a Sunday night or a weekday-night nine-pm drama, and watch for the scenes in a living room or across a table where they sit at right angles to each other, not next to each other.

The Avengers took themselves less seriously on film than they did on video

The next phase of production sort of falls in line with the growth of the gritty (although mostly feeling tame now) kitchen sink dramas. Not all used film or film techniques, but there were plenty that needed to be stored up in advance to be tweaked and adjusted between recording and transmission. Some (such as Cathy Come Home) were mini feature films, shot all on film, sometimes in an almost guerrilla style where the production (cast and crew) faced a hostile world. Part of the style change might be linked to the growth of television beyond the upper and middle classes (or the middle classes social conscience thinking that it suddenly did) and for grit, read class awareness, for real world read not on a stage…

Certainly, highly stylised productions didn’t disappear, but perhaps some (like The Avengers) didn’t take themselves quite as seriously as they might have done a handful of years earlier…

You Say

1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 28 January 2019 at 3:32 pm

I recall seeing a kinescope version of Nigel Kneale’s 1984, repeated on BBC2 during summer 1977, nearly twenty-three years after it was first shown by the BBC.

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