A to Z of a Play 

29 July 2022 tbs.pm/75602


FREDERICK LIDSTONE tells the whole story of a television drama production, from the script to screen


TV Mirror Annual 1956 cover

From the TV Mirror Annual 1956

It lies on the desk of Michael Barry, Head of Television Drama — a TV play, complete, approved and scheduled for production. One of the hundred and forty which Lime Grove have to find for your entertainment every year.

Like a successful cake, it has the right ingredients. Interesting characters, for a start. If viewers decide, five minutes after the beginning of a play, that they couldn’t care less what happens to the people concerned, then all else fails as well.

The story is quickly under way. The characters have good dialogue which makes them say the sort of things which come naturally from their lips; filling in the details of their personalities; establishing their reality.

The plot develops on a rising tide of emotion, drama or comedy until it reaches a climax which the author knows how to handle to bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion.

Are these things much to ask of a potential author? The answer must be “yes,” for only two per cent of the plays submitted to TV Drama are accepted for the screen.

But this one is starting on its journey to your home, and in the mind of Michael Barry is a horde of questions which must be answered. Who shall produce it? That is indeed question No. 1, upon which success or failure depends, no matter what the quality of the writing or the skill of the actors.

The producer must want to do a play. He must read it, enjoy it, be in sympathy with the story, visualise the characters and be prepared to give it all the authenticity it calls for.

Into the picture at this point comes Richard Levin, Head of Design, which means that he controls the vast Scenery and Design Block at Television Centre, five minutes away from the studios. Every background, every setting in the thirty or so variety, drama and feature productions which come to your screen every week is his responsibility.

His mind is constantly in the future, working on programmes which will not come to you for many weeks. Like the production manager in a big factory he must think in terms of ideas, materials, costs, labour—and time. Only thus is he sure that his department can cope with the work.


A man gives direction to a woman

The producer… a vital link between author and screen. Here Rosalie Cruchley listens as Stephen Harrison shows the emphasis which he wants given to a part of the dialogue in Charles Morgan’s play “The River Line”


And here is our play, the next on the list, and Richard Levin will want to know as soon as he can exactly what is required so that on the chart on his wall he can fill in the “estimated man-hours” needed to ensure that on the day for the first rehearsal in the studio the whole production can move in, lock, stock and barrel — or, in his case, scenery, furniture and “props,” right down to the ashtray in which the hero stubs out his cigarette.

The men who design television settings are a mixture of architect, artist, interior decorator, expert in period styles and all types of drama. They must look at their job through the eye of the television camera; know its possibilities and its limits.

The designer of our play reads through the manuscript to get an overall picture of the work to be done. As he reads he sees in his mind’s eye the settings against which the characters play. A stately room, maybe, with imposing double doors here, an Adam fireplace there; windows over there. A wall covered with bookshelves.

Right there and then he could take a sheet of paper and a pencil and draw them, but it would probably be a waste of time. The producer might have quite different ideas about the position of the door, the fireplace, the window — and he is the man who must decide, for it is against such things that the actors must play their parts with smooth natural movement and careful grouping. Every chair and table is placed for their benefit.


A view down into the studio

The multiple set in use, enabling one scene to follow another without a break. The doorway, shown to viewers in close-up, can be quickly removed so that the interior of the room can be shown. The fireplace wall is back-projected


You, as a viewer, are not conscious of these “mechanics of production” nor are you intended to be. If two characters play a long scene in a room they must move about and change position to avoid monotony, but there must be an apparent reason for each move. (Watch this next time such a scene is played on television and you’ll see how skilfully it is done.)

So producer and designer get together and the rough pencil sketches begin. Snags crop up and the roughs go into the waste-paper basket. New ones are made — but the basket might be half-full of crumpled paper before even the first details are settled.

Now the sheer mechanics of production must be considered. The play must move swiftly from scene to scene with the continuity of a film. But whereas that film continuity is the result of editing shots made over a period of weeks, the television production is continuous, happening as you see it. This means that the cameras must be able to switch from scene to scene in a matter of seconds.

So the settings in the studio are visualised on a “multiple” basis — close together, perhaps even joined together though two adjacent scenes, from the story point of view, are miles apart.

The final rough sketches meet with the approval of the producer from the point of view of action; they must allow for smooth and swift camera and microphone movement covering the action of the play; the lighting visualised not only for illumination but for effect as well.


Two men paint backdrops

In the scenic artists’ studio where backcloths are painted. These are mounted on frames so that they can be moved up and down for correct working height


From the designer’s final drawings the full plans are prepared, and from these not one detail i$ lacking which may be needed to stage the production. It is drawn to scale; not only a “front view” showing, say, the walls of a room, how they will be panelled, where the doors will come and what design they will be, but also in what is known as a “plan view,” a bird’s-eye view of the whole settings from above.

This is drawn out on a sheet of paper which is a complete scale plan of the floor of the studio and when completed it shows, down to the last inch, exactly where the settings will be placed when they are completed.

Now the task of set building can be seen in all its detail. Expert eyes can tell exactly how much work is involved.

Time — and money — will be saved by making use, as far as possible, of existing materials, and a swift inspection of one part of the great scene block at television centre provides the answer. In the scene docks there are rows upon rows of “flats” used for the walls of the settings; dozens of doors and windows of every conceivable shape and design. Basically they will do; the carpenters and scene painters will carry out any necessary small conversions.

Many of the tricks of the theatrical scene painter are used. For example a perfectly plain door can be painted and shaded in such a way that, to the eye of the camera — and therefore to you — it might appear to be elaborately panelled. It is all a question of putting in deep shadows and highlights such as you would see if the door were really panelled. Some panelling, incidentally, is real.


Three men work with wood

A television interior setting is made up of a number of “flats,” some of which are shown here under construction in the carpenters’ shop


In outdoor scenes a backcloth might have to be painted, and the particular section which deals with this is equipped with the latest gadgetry. The scene painters actually stand on a floor which is halfway up a very tall building. Frames fixed to the wall carry the cloth to be painted, and a special switching device allows these to be raised and lowered so that any part of a big cloth is brought at working level. There is a gap between the floor and the wall to allow for this movement.

Use may be made of back projection for some outdoor scenes; views seen through a window — even some interior settings. This is nothing more or less than a magic lantern throwing the scene on to a blank screen from behind, and the actual scene itself is on a slide about the size of a postcard. There is a library of slides in Scene Block, but if the appropriate background is not in stock a suitable photograph is found — or taken — and a slide prepared from it. Thus can the actors, who stand against the front of the screen while the picture is projected through the back, be made to appear as though they are on a hilltop, in a cathedral, a cave — there is no limit.

The designer of the settings, as has been said, is also responsible for all the furnishings and properties. He makes out a detailed list which is sent to the property department — and what he wants he will get. It may be amongst the fifty thousand properties already carefully stored and indexed; if it is not then it is hired from an outside firm. But be it a revolver, a jewel casket, a loaf of bread, a vase, a radio set, a bottle of whisky, a pair of antlers, a volume of an encyclopedia, it has somehow to be obtained. Furniture and hangings must be exactly right; everything true to the country or period represented.


A view down into the artists' studio

Looking down on the scenic artists’ studio. In the centre is the control mechanism which raises or lowers the backcloths in the gap between wall and floor


Meanwhile, of course, the scripts have been duplicated. In the first stage these only contain the dialogue, on the right hand side. Technical details of camera movements will be added later.

The casting of the play begins. There may be well-known stars in the lead—in some cases production of a play is delayed until a certain star is able to undertake an important part. The smaller parts are filled either by immediate choice from some of these valuable “supporting players” whose talents are well known, or by reference to casting lists and auditions.

A play which you may see on your screen on a Sunday night is rehearsed for three weeks, but when that first rehearsal begins at ten o’clock on a Monday morning it is not in the studios at Lime Grove. No television studio could be spared for that length of time. It will be in one of the many rehearsal rooms which the B.B.C. hires all over London — local assembly rooms, boys’ clubs, and so on. Action which you may finally see taking place in stately and elaborate apartments first takes shape in bare rooms with a few chairs and tables.


People measure a piece of scenery

Where possible, existing units of scenery are used for a new production. The designer watches as measurements are checked.


Here is where the television producer begins to prove his skill — which has to go far beyond that of a stage producer. The delivery of words, the use of facial expression; movement — these are the elementary things. What the producer has to do now is to imagine himself to be a camera. Shall it show the scene in “long shot,” “medium shot” or close-up? Shall it focus on one person or two?

Remembering the small home screen, the temptation is to move in close to give the acting full impact and allow fine shades of expression. But in that close-up there must be little or no movement.

Switching from one camera to another must be planned for movement and effect, but it must not confuse the viewer. The “geography” of the setting and the positions of the characters must be clearly in the viewer’s mind before any rapid switching can be indulged in.

The actors, too, must know exactly what the cameras are showing at any particular point, and work with them. Take a simple case of two people having a fierce argument, each being shown in close-up by a separate camera. The pictures from each camera must be chosen so that the viewer sees the action or reaction that most strongly interprets the scene.


Demonstration of back projection

Back projection is used a great deal in television plays, and this picture shows how it is done. A photographic slide of the required scene is fitted into the lantern on the left and the picture is thrown on a mirror. From here it is reflected on to the back of a screen brilliantly enough to show through to the front. Against this front the actors stand, and to the eye of the TV camera it looks as though they are in a woodland glade, a castle, or whatever scene the play demands. The mirror is used to reduce the length of the “throw” necessary to obtain a big picture. The dotted line shows the angle of the “throw”


In the rehearsal room the limits of the setting, entrances and exits are marked in chalk on the floor, and in order that the producer can see exactly how some of the action will look on TV he is provided with a special reducing lens which he can place to his eye.

So, with the copy of the dialogue in front of him, he formulates the whole thing from the point of view of camera angles, and makes notes alongside showing where each change of view is made.

While all this is going on the designer is watching the set building, checking on the way the props are being assembled. All scenery is painted in full colour, although the viewer only sees black and white. It helps the actors enormously to feel that they are moving around in real rooms; the effect of monochrome would be deadly.

Comes the day when the whole production moves into the studios for the first camera rehearsals. Everything is assembled in Scene Block at Television Centre, carefully checked on to the big van which takes it to the studios, five minutes away.


Four actors and a producer in a bare room with marks on the floor

In the bare rehearsal room the limits of the setting are indicated by chalk marks on the floor. This picture was taken when Eric Fawcett was producing Peter Cushing and Ann Todd in “Tovarich”


Now the full value of the detailed studio plan can be realised. The carpenters erect the settings with no question at all as to where this or that should go. All the properties are placed together in the middle of the studio and the designer is there to supervise their position on the set, for he naturally knows where everything should go.

One other important branch of production must not be forgotten — the wardrobes. If the production should be a period play even the vast Wardrobe Department at the BBC may not be able to provide the costumes. A number of outside firms are called upon to supply the costumes, to measurements taken as soon as the cast is first assembled for rehearsal.

The lighting engineers arrange their great banks of lighting so that the settings are flooded with an even lighting. These units consist of rows of separate bulbs which eliminate the risk of hard shadows. Extra spotlights and floodlights shine down from the high gantry running around the studio to provide highlights or to illumine such things as backcloths seen through windows.


A woman goes through racks of clothes

There are extensive wardrobes at Lime Grove containing costumes of all periods, but many are hired from theatrical costumiers


Now the producer and his assistants go to the Control Room to see the first fruits of their labours, for all the acting comes to them over the cameras, which move into action according to the script duplicated from notes made by the producer in the rehearsal rooms.

How does it work out with all this technical theory put into practice? Extraordinarily well. There was a case where five people in a play all had to be seen at once by one camera although they were in different parts of a room. There must be no “masking” — every face must be clear. At the first camera rehearsal they took their places and on the monitor screen in the Control Room the producer saw the result. It was perfect.

Minor adjustments have to be made, of course, to the movements and sometimes to the furniture — the designer is always in the studio when camera rehearsals begin.


A BBC camera points at a man and a woman

Great impact is gained on television by the use of a close-up and in this picture producer Rudolph Cartier is showing Sonia Dresdel exactly how he visualises a camera angle in the play “Count Albany”


The actors’ lines? Being professionals they are quick to learn; quick to “cover lip” if they should forget.

But if the worst comes to the worst, the prompter steps in. Standing there beside the cameras with a complete script, he or she has a switch which can cut out the microphone completely for a second. The wanted word is quickly given, the mike switched back. All you may notice is a momentary break. Producers in the main loathe this device and it is only used if absolutely necessary. The prompter, therefore, must be skilled enough to decide, in a split second, whether the hesitant actor is likely to “recover” the dialogue or needs assistance.

Make-up is carefully watched over a monitor screen and adjustments made if necessary.


A man and two women sit in front of a bank of monitors

In the control room Rudolph Cartier watches the monitor screens connected to each of the cameras in the studio. By a series of press-buttons he selects the actual picture to be shown to the viewers as the play progresses


All “extras” such as effects, music, and so on, are strictly timed. Sometimes a play demands a sequence which has to be filmed “on location” by the cast and inserted at the appropriate place. When this comes, action in the studio is suspended and they watch it being run through on a monitor screen. It may have been filmed “silent,” which means that they must speak dialogue to match the film.

By the time transmission comes, the “drill” is complete. The sound engineers move their microphone booms swiftly from one place to another; the cameras silently truck up and down. The actors go from one scene to another; maybe changing costume in the studio if there is no time to go to the dressing rooms. The make-up staff is constantly in attendance. Timing is carefully watched.

Everything under control? Yes. But when transmission time arrives and the cast waits in expectant silence for the voice from the control room which says “Opening announcement going out, stand by”; when the Studio Manager raises his hand towards the actor giving the opening line and drops it as a sign to begin, the nervous tension is there. It always will be there as a prelude to a fine and sensitive performance.


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