Views of a Viewer

Source: Jean Bartlett, ‘Views of a Viewer’, The Radio Times, 4 June 1937, p. 3

Text: Perhaps other televiewers may be interested to read a brief account of the reactions of one household and its friends to the first six months of television. We ought to say, first of all, that we ourselves were enthusiastic amateurs in the old days of thirty-line television, and so were very excited at the prospect of seeing a larger, steadier, and brighter picture and were duly thrilled by the inaugural programme last November. Our modest criticisms of that and all subsequent programmes are made, we hope, with the realisation that television is still experimental. Not so, some of our friends who, having seen it once, sometimes inquire sympathetically, as if it were an invalid member of our family, how it is getting on, and then fade away to the cinema. But the loss is theirs.

The most important element of the television picture is, obviously, movement. The artists may be shatteringly beautiful, the lighting perfect, the scenery just right, but without movement it completely fails. We often say that if producers remembered this fact during every second of their preparations and rehearsals, every type of programme that has so far been televised would be successful and every failure could have been a hit. Programmes in our television vernacular, are either alive or dead. So many, among the alive, have been so good that it is almost impossible to select the best, or even the best type.

Talks are by unanimous vote the weakest point. (The Zoo talks are, of course, unique and all too short). They must be quite the most difficult programmes to present, and the difficulties have so far seemed insuperable. There seems to be no good reason why every broadcast programme should be translated into television. Why struggle with the impossible?

The subject of a talk may be profoundly interesting, but close-ups studies of the speaker’s face add nothing to it. With one exception – Sir Kingsley Wood – no speaker has appeared to enjoy television from the transmitting end.

Perhaps we are unduly prejudiced against pottery and masks, but there was surely a whole year’s supply provided in a few weeks recently. One talk on pottery was so dead that we blushed in the darkness, having invited some critical friends to their first experience of television. And then suddenly the screen came to life, and we looked at a potter working at his wheel, and talking as he made, spoilt, and remade a bowl. Such things are real television, and only when a talk can be illustrated throughout its length by dynamic pictures can it justifiably be televised. The appearance of the speaker at the beginning, and again, perhaps, at the close of his talk, is all that the average viewer wants of him.

We nearly always have a full house when ballet is included in the programme, and this is not just because we move in a circle of ballet fans, but because, in spite of the smallness of the figures compared with close-ups, good dancers can convey a wonderful sense of space, and make dance one of the most satisfying television subjects. The movements of the camera inevitably tend to destroy the dancers’ movements a little, but this effect is less noticeable when the scenery follows horizontal rather than vertical lines. The scenery is sometimes too elaborate for a picture in which everything is black and white, as, for instance, in the current television production of Casse-Noisette by the Vic-Wells ballet.

When an excerpt from a current West End production is part of an evening’s programme then we always have a large, self-invited audience and a very appreciative one that would like to see this become a regularly weekly feature. Shakespeare, on the other hand, invariably falls flat, even when distinguished artists are playing the selected arts, Non-Shakespeareans are frankly bored – they cannot get the hang of the thing before it is over; and lovers of Shakespeare are irritated by brief episodes suspended in mid-air and inevitably devoid of the play’s original stagecraft, and viewed from two camera alternately at rather uninteresting angles. The charming fairy and ballet scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, being easy to dissociate from the rest of the play, were also delightfully easy to watch.

Cabaret and light entertainment are attracting fans of their own who are gradually forgetting the earlier weeks when every item of this type lasted six times longer than anyone could bear. The difficulty here must be, as in ordinary broadcasting and the stage, to find really good comedians and entertainers with fresh material.

One amusing little point is provided by two rather deaf neighbours of ours. At home, they sit with their ears glued to a wireless set in full blast, and never, in ordinary conversation, hear a remark at the first time of speaking. Nevertheless, when they come to see and hear a television programme they are quite content with a volume that is guaranteed not to wake the baby, and they still hear every word. The picture evidently helps their hearing, and neighbours’ wireless sets can take heart – the television age is going to be a quieter one.

I suppose the greatest thrills of of all for television enthusiasts have been those rare relays from outside the studios – the boxing match from the Alexandra Palace ring, the model aeroplane display from the Palace grounds, the archery, fire-walking, and other outside broadcasts – and, of course, as a climax to them all, the televising of the Coronation procession from Hyde Park Corner on Coronation Day, when television broke from the apron srings that tied it to the Alexandra Palace and came into its own.

Comments: Jean Bartlett was an ordinary television viewer, though at a time when there were few television viewers at all, reception in the UK being restricted to a few thousands sets mostly owned by people living in London. The BBC began a regular television service on 2 November 1936. Kingsley Wood was a Conservative MP. Scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were broadcast on 18 February 1937 and 23 April 1937. The coronation of King George VI took place on 12 May 1937 (the broadcast showed exteriors only, not scenes inside Westminster Abbey).

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