Further Notes on Television

In 1952 Denzil spent six months in the UK and Europe. Keen to learn about the new medium of television, which had not yet arrived in Australia, Denzil arranged a visit to the BBC television studios at Lime Grove. He made brief notes and sketches in his diary and subsequently typed this longer article “Further Notes On Television”. Television is so ubiquitous today and has been around for so long that we don’t consider its conventions or origins. To Australian eyes in 1952 however, it must seemed very new and exciting. It certainly set Denzil thinking and grappling with trying to understand this new medium.

Written in 1952, this article reflects television practice before the advent of any practical means of recording television programs — either to film or videotape. Hence Denzil’s statement: “The moment a scene is captured by the lens of the camera, it is seen on the screen at home, and then is lost for all time.

Television — Its Affiliations

Television is a new medium, a product of the last twenty years, which has grown to maturity only during the last few years.

What can we most liken it to? What are its nearest relations?

On the face of it, the casual viewer might be tempted to say “The movies!”. Certainly to the person sitting at home watching the screen a television show is more like a home movie show (a good home-movie show) than anything else. In fact, on quite a number of occasions, it is a movie show. It is a televised film.

But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore the televising of newsreels and other films.

Let’s consider, for example, a televised play, a play produced before the television cameras.

The unobservant viewer at home might still not see much difference between, say, a televised performance of “Charlie’s Aunt” and the film version, but in actual fact there are quite a number of differences which the keen observer will note.

There is, for example, the question of camera angles. Often in a television play, one will see a camera angle used which would never survive the editing bench in a film. This because probably the television producer was unable to manoeuvre a camera into position in the given space of time to get the shot he really wanted — so he had to be satisfied with a compromise.

Then again, once is conscious, not very often it is true, but occasionally, of little ragged ends in production which would never be allowed to remain in any good film. The delay in dissolving to another scene, the obvious dead point at the end of a scene requiring a sudden cut, those little extra split seconds which act as brakes on the tempo of a production, and which in many cases represent no doubt the delay in transferring the thoughts of the producer to the volume control on a particular camera. Remember — from the time a producer decides, in his mind to “cut now!” he must say the words into a microphone, they must be heard by the camera man, and he must transfer the command heard in his earphones to a physical action performed by himself on his camera.

You may argue that a similar chain of action and reaction takes place in a film studio. Admittedly — but then the little ragged ends are tidied up, snipped off, in terms of separate frames sometimes, in the editing room.

Sometimes one is conscious of visual padding, either on the part of the actors, or in the form of a very slow fade out, whilst another artist is obviously dashing madly around the studio to be ready to make a nonchalant entrance through the door of the drawing room, after having been thrown out of the bar of a hotel ten miles away at the end of the previous scene.

And the lighting on close-ups is sometimes dull and uninspiring or unimaginative — simply because it is obviously the very same lighting that a moment ago was being used to light the whole scene.

All of which points to the one big fundamental difference between television and the cinema — whereas the latter is a “synthetic” product, with hours of painstaking labour spent on the performance, after it leaves the camera, television is a thing of the moment. It is transient. The moment a scene is captured by the lens of the camera, it is seen on the screen at home, and then is lost for all time.

A television play is a continuous performance. If it takes one hour for the person sitting at home to view it, then it has taken exactly that very same hour to present it in the studio.

(We are ignoring for the moment the film “insert” shots, mostly exterior scenes which are included in many television productions.)

It is that essential continuity of action, and the “present tense” that makes its greatest impact on the artists in a television show.

Acting for Television

According to BBC television experts, acting for television is more like stage work than any other medium. They will admit this if you ask them to make a comparison. Actually, they prefer not to make comparisons at all. They maintain, and rightly too, that television is a new medium developed to a point where it can stand on its own. New techniques have already been evolved, and are being evolved, and working in television is unlike anything else, other than working in television.

But it is surely safe to say, and quite obvious, that many of the facets of television production have been borrowed from its two cousins, the stage and the screen.

The artist must be word perfect in his part. He must also be position perfect and “business” perfect. There are no “re-takes” in television. Neither are there on the stage. A television performance is a continuous performance. So is a stage performance.

But an artist on the stage works to a live audience. A television artist works to a camera, behind which is a bevy of overall-clad stage hands and technicians. Very often the camera is wheeled forward to within a few inches of him. At the same time, other cameras are being trundled about elsewhere on the stage. Lights are being moved around, and a dozen other distractions are going on while he is playing his scene. And he addresses all his remarks to a microphone on the end of a long pole on wheels — a “mike boom on a dolly”.

This is remarkably akin to movie work, with the one big difference — if the artist makes a mistake during a close-up, if he “muffs” an expression, if he “hams” a piece of business, it is magnified and emphasized that very moment before millions of viewers. It cannot be cut out.

If an actor with a career of stage experience takes to television, he must learn to restrain many of his actions and expressions, or else they will look un-natural and overacted to the point of being ludicrous before the searching lens of a T.V. camera in a “close-up”.

He must also learn to dispense with that essential for the best performance of many stage artists — audience re-action. There is none on T.V.

On the other hand, if an actor with solely screen experience goes over to T.V., he must acquire the art of learning a part straight through, and of being word perfect in it. He must be conscious all the time he is before the T.V. cameras that this is an actual performance. This “take” is going to last virtually right through the action of the play.

He may like this. He may find it easier to create and sustain a mood or a character in a continuous performance — or he may be like many screen artists before the television camera, scared stiff that he will forget his lines, or “muff” an action.

But, once again quoting our BBC experts, the problem of the three mediums — stage screen and television — is not a big one in Britain, because so many artists are able to adapt themselves to performance in any sphere.

On the West End stages there are artists like Robert Morley, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Googie Withers, Richard Attenborough, John Mills, Alec Guinness and Diana Churchill (to mention just a few) who are appearing in “live” theatre every night, but who spend their days on film sets at Elstree and Ealing.

And when they finish a film, and before they start another, they are snapped up for a television performance. They are constantly working in a least two media at a time, and sometimes, on rare occasions, in three. But these occasions are rare because even an actor must sleep sometime.

The Television Producer

So much for artists. But no television show can go on the air without its producer — the most important man in the whole team.

As television is a new medium, where has he come from? What was he doing before this eighth wonder of the world burst upon us?

According to the BBC, he has graduated either from the stage or from the cinema studio — but very seldom from sound radio.

A television producer must think, and think quickly, in terms of visuals. He starts thinking in visual terms right from the very first rehearsal, and before the cast takes to the studio floor (usually not until the day of the show) for their final rehearsals, every camera-man on the show, usually three or four, knows every angle from which he will “shoot” each scene, knows what aperture he will use, what lens, what focus, whether, in the case of a “dolly-mounted” camera, he will truck in or out during the televising of any given sequence, knows at what point in the play his camera will be off the air and on the air, and he knows just when and how and where he will shift his camera to another part of the scene and focus up on another scene.

It is the producer who tells him all this. The producer of a television show must think constantly in terms of the visuals as formed on the viewfinders of the camera on the floor of the studio.

He may have to arrange his cast in the most peculiar attitude, he may have to ask them to move in confined areas, or he may have to ask them to be prepared to break the Olympic 100 yards record in dashing madly from one scene to another, but if it looks alright on the monitoring screen, that’s all that matters.

But, whilst he is obviously concerned with the picture that he sends out over the air, the television producer must also be aware of the physical conditions obtaining on the set at any given moment.

He cannot ask Camera “A” to take up a new position on a scene on the other side of the sound stage during a show if, in order to get there, Camera “A” has to cross the co-axial and other control cables leading to Camera “B” which is at that moment “on the air”.

He must not ask the technician in charge of the “mike” dolly to move in closer on a scene, if I so doing he is going to swing his sensitive moving-coil instrument into the magnetic or electrostatic field around a bunch of high powered floods.

In other words, he has quite a job! He must know quite a lot! It has been said that if a producer was unlucky enough to die whilst a television show was on the air — then the show couldn’t go on. I don’t think there is any other form of show business where this would obtain.

During the televising of a show, it is the producer who instructs the vision mixer when to dissolve, when to fade or when to cut from one scene to another; it is the producer who advises the sound engineer whether his aural levels and perspectives are in keeping with the visuals on the screen.

As his first lieutenant on the floor of the sound stage, the producer has the stage manager, with whom he can converse my means of a two-way phone during the show. He can also converse with the individual cameramen, and with the engineers responsible for the quality of the signal from each individual camera.

In the control room, he has with him his vision-mixer, and his secretary or “script-girl”. Also he has telephonic communication with the sound engineer and the sound mixer, usually in an adjacent sound-proofed control room.

He sits, like some master-mind of a pulp-magazine “story of the future”, ensconced in front of a large control board, with many knobs and coloured lights, and with four or five television screens, each with a different picture, ranged in front of him. He has a pair of headphones clamped on his head, and a microphone just in front of him, into which he issues such strange-sounding orders as “Come in more number two”, “Give me more contrast on number one”, “Alright number three. Move over to the other set.” Or he addresses the sound mixer beside him with curt commands such as “Cut”, “Dissolve to number two”, “Open up on number one”, and so on.

His script has more notations scribbled on it than the score of a symphony orchestra conductor.

And his eyes never really leave those four or five screens just in front of him.

Perhaps it is because he thinks in visual terms all the time that he has graduated generally from those two other forms of visual entertainment, the stage or the screen. The BBC will tell you that, generally speaking, a “sound” or radio producer makes a poor television producer, because all his life he has been able to ignore visuals completely and think only of what goes into the microphone.

In television, sound is important. But it is there only as the natural complement to vision.

The television cameraman has in nine cases out of ten graduated from movie work. As far as he is concerned, the work is almost identical with the work in a film studio.

If his camera is mounted on a “dolly”, then he has two assistants. If it is a pedestal camera, he has one assistant.

Programme Subjects

The BBC appear to be making a definite attempt to include subjects of educational and general informative interest in their programmes.

In addition to their newsreels of the day’s events, which are televised every evening (and are of course on film) they present a number of actuality programmes and documentary features.

The Helsinki games (on film) were televised, the Wimbledon tennis was televised from the courts, and we spent a very informative evening when for one hour we sat in front of a screen and went down the Thames from Westminster Bridge to the Tower Bridge, with the BBC’s master of actuality programmes, Richard Dimbleby.

In the general conversation of any family that has a receiver, one hears constant reference to “this and that” seen on television. Not plays or comedy or music, but interesting facts about England and the rest of the world.

Surely this is an indication that the BBC with their television services are trying to present programmes that will promote healthy discussion and a thirst for further knowledge amongst their viewers.