How television talks are produced 

31 October 2016 tbs.pm/9533

From the BBC Year Book for 1950

BBCYB1950In my first weeks in television, I learnt about programme planning; costing; design and scenery; properties; makeup and costume; lighting; film shorts; outside broadcasting; television newsreel. I heard the views of senior engineers, engineers in ‘racks’, telecine operators. I began to master the curious jargon of television with its mixture of terms from the theatre, from film and from ‘sound’ broadcasting.

Then, at last, I was allowed in the control gallery to take over a simple routine production. In the gallery with me were the senior maintenance engineer, the sound engineer, the vision mixer. Far away, down on the floor in a blaze of lights and in the midst of a tangle of cables, were the cameramen, the lighting engineers, the scenery and property men, the studio attendants, the studio manager. To all of them this production was child’s play. They knew the routine of the programme so well that even if I said the wrong thing they would do the right one.

To me, up in the gallery, the production was a revelation of the difference between producing talks in ‘sound’ broadcasting and producing talks in television. In ‘sound’, when the time comes for transmission, the talks producer’s work is practically over. In television, at the moment of transmission the producer’s work rises to a climax. The whole complicated television machine has to be worked. The team on the floor, the team in the gallery, the telecine operator in his distant room, are all dependent upon current instructions given second by second through the producer’s microphone. ‘Cue Telecine. Cue Grams. Mix. On you, One. Two on Preview. Mix. On you, Two. Clear One. Change Caption. Three on Preview. Pan down a little, Three. Thank you. Cue Speaker. Mix….’ The flow goes on continuously till the last ‘Fade sound and vision’ and someone else takes over.

When I came from the routine of a known programme to the first of a new series I realized that the differences in planning were just as great as the differences in transmission. Once the idea for the series was accepted, the first programme was immediately scheduled. The turmoil began.

Where is your detailed estimate of cost? How many sets do you need? Are they to be specially designed? What properties do you want? How many tables, chairs, vases, ash-trays? What sizes? What shapes? What periods? Oak or mahogany? Brass or glass? What set will each property go in and in what order? Must they be specially hired or can you manage from stock? If specially hired, will the programme allowance run to it? Will your speakers smoke? If so, the fireman must be ordered to stand by. Will the people taking part want make-up? Or wigs? Or costumes? If so, for how many people? What are their measurements? Names and addresses? Types of costume? When can they go for fittings? How many dressing-rooms? At what times? How much outside rehearsal? Where? What properties do you need for rehearsal? When can these be collected? Is a studio manager wanted at rehearsal? Are articles of value being used in production? Are they specially insured? When are they to be collected? Has supervision been arranged while they are at Alexandra Palace? Do you want a boom or two lazy arms? Any stand microphones? Are you using telecine? Have you booked viewing time for your film? Who’s going to cut it? Have you permission to use it? Has it arrived? Is it 35 mm. or 16 mm.? Do you want it blown up? What footage? How may blanks? Can you afford dissolves on your programme allowance? Do you want captions? What lettering? What wording? What credits? Can you free a camera for the announcer? At the beginning? At the end? Are you using still pictures? Has copyright been agreed? Are you having an orchestra? Using records? For how many minutes? How many cameras do you need? Is a Crab essential or will an Iron Man do? What lighting? Daylight, sunlight, moonlight? Where’s your script? Where’s your studio plan? Where’s your shot list?

GWG1950 5

At this point the chief speaker, with whom you’ve been discussing the argument, planning the script, agreeing the illustrations, and upon whose participation the whole elaborate edifice has been built, may well be saying, ‘I’m sorry, but it looks as though I may have to postpone this adventure into television. I’ve been summoned urgently to Washington on important business. Perhaps we could do it later on?’ Or the difficulty may be at the other end. The important speakers have, with difficulty, made themselves free for the necessary dates; they have been persuaded to consider their argument in visual terms; to accept the only illustrations which are possible; to master the route to Alexandra Palace; to agree to be made up, to wear clothes which won’t be difficult to light, to rehearse in London at strange places on given days and at given times. The programme planners then may say, ‘Could you postpone your programme a fortnight? We want your date for an interesting topical item that’s just been offered.’

Even if everything goes well, the processes of providing an illustrated talks programme in television are so elaborate that half-an-hour’s viewing time takes at least four weeks to prepare. My colleagues in ‘sound’ tend to ask if all this is really necessary. ‘Why illustrate your talks? Wouldn’t viewers be happy if they could simply see, as well as hear, the Brains Trust? Or Bertrand Russell making his points about “Authority and the Individual”? Or a team struggling with “Twenty Questions”?’. Talks producers in ‘sound’ (they say) have so often longed that listeners should be able to see (for instance) the humanity revealed in X’s smile and have tried to persuade X that a compensating humanity must be revealed in his words and by his tone or his broadcast will falsify his personality. And ‘X’ has so often wished to avoid that labour and be able ‘just to sit and talk naturally’. Television is surely the answer. Surely it should simplify, not complicate the problem of broadcast talk?

This point of view survives very little experience of viewing and certainly none of television production. The ‘talks’ producer in television quickly finds that to place even the most practised and delightful speaker in front of a camera and let him talk uninterruptedly for ten minutes normally creates boredom and irritation in the viewing public. The reason is the unnatural concentration of the eye which television forces upon the viewer. Long before this becomes an intolerable strain, the picture given to the eye must change. And so it is no reflection upon the ability of a speaker to say that his talk must be illustrated.

TV1946

The exceptions, apparent rather than real, are of two main kinds. One is the talk which is, in fact, a demonstration. Here the illustration, the relief to the eye, is provided by what the speaker does. And talks programmes which are demonstrations of scientific experiment, of cooking, gardening, hairdressing, carpentry, physical exercises, and so on are outstandingly successful.

The other exception is the ‘talk’ which is, in fact, a skilled dramatic performance in miniature. The name of Algernon Blackwood will leap to the mind of any viewer, or any reader of last year’s issue of this book. But few people combine the inventive skills of the story-teller with the art of acting in a way perfectly suited to television; and ‘talks’ of the type that Mr. Blackwood gives are likely to remain rare.

Every other type of ‘talk’ has to be illustrated. And this illustration has to be invented or selected by the producer. He can choose still pictures, photographs, or prints and get them specially enlarged. He can get film specially shot, or use such little existing film as is available, and get it specially cut. He can write, or get someone else to write, short scenes and get actors and actresses to take part in them. He can use animated maps and diagrams if he designs them and can persuade someone to make them.

He must plan all these illustrations so that they fit logically into the speaker’s arguments; visually into a pattern acceptable to the eye; practically into the possibilities of camera movement, lighting, and scene changing. And when all that is done, the real difficulties of the talks producer begin; difficulties involved in persuading distinguished people who have never faced lights or studios or cameras, who are not accustomed to giving any kind of performance or repeating any sort of ‘effect’, to look natural in unnatural surroundings, to talk naturally and yet to time, to remember the thread of their argument without a script, to give ‘cues’ and take them.

The result is something which is totally different from the ‘talk’ of sound broadcasting. It is nearer the sound ‘feature programme’ or the film ‘documentary’. Yet it is neither of these, since it must satisfy the eye, which a ‘feature’ need not; and must be performed with spontaneity to an intimate audience which a ‘documentary’ is not. In fact, it is something quite new; for which no name has yet been found; whose form is only just beginning to emerge; which has to be shaped, to be invented, to be created. And which is going to be of the greatest importance. That’s the point of television ‘talks’. And their attraction to anyone who has a part in their production.


Footnotes

  • Grace Wyndham Goldie (26 March 1900 – 3 June 1986) started her BBC career as a radio producer in 1944. She moved over to television talks in 1947. She went on to become Head of BBC Television Talks, and later Head of BBC News & Current Affairs before her retirement in 1965.

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