A New Vision 

2 November 2021 tbs.pm/73995

 

Leslie Mitchell Reporting… cover

From ‘Leslie Mitchell Reporting’, first published by Hutchinson in 1981

My appointment to television came as a complete surprise. One morning, splashed across the front page of the Daily Mail, I saw the headline: ‘TELEVISION ADONIS FOUND’; a photograph of my ugly mug stared from the surrounding context. It was a long time before I was allowed to forget that headline, and even now over forty years later it still crops up. In actual fact the appointment had not been made. There had been some six hundred competitors for the job, but without my knowledge, the powers-that-be had selected me as a semi-finalist.

With less mystery, but equal publicity, two charming young women had already been selected as announcers. One of them was Jasmine Bligh — a young and attractive society girl with good looks, a strong personality and a mind of her own. The other was Elizabeth Cowell, a lovely brunette with features ideally suited to the television screen. These two were to be the official representatives of glamour in the world’s first public TV programmes.

As producer and compere of Geraldo’s ‘Romance in Rhythm’, it fell to my lot to introduce them to the public for the first time over the air in June 1936. They were told to report to me for the requisite rehearsals. Elizabeth Cowell — rather more serious-minded about it than her colleague — faithfully attended on time. But Jasmine dug in her toes and steadfastly refused to appear for the afternoon rehearsal as she had a most important ‘date’ with the hairdresser.

That night, just before we went ‘on the air’, a young woman with an immaculate hair-do, but a very apprehensive look, sidled up to me and seized my hand in a vice-like grip. ‘You will help me, Leslie, won’t you?’ she pleaded. ‘I’m absolutely terrified.’ She was, and I didn’t! We’ve been firm friends ever since.

Finally my appointment was made official: Senior Television Announcer, Grade C (Temporary). Meanwhile publicity about the new medium grew like a snowball. Although the press seemed to take an inordinate interest, it was not yet regarded very seriously by the inhabitants of Broadcasting House, and very few of them realized that television would become a serious rival to sound broadcasting.

 

A spiky steel mast

The broadcasting mast at Alexandra Palace

 

A few weeks later. Here it was — Alexandra Palace — a vast near-dilapidated exhibition building, set in a park at Wood Green, three hundred feet above sea-level. The south-east wing, taken over by the BBC, was surmounted by a towering television mast.

On the engineering side much had already been learned through experience on closed circuit. But the complications of producing visual programmes of any but the simplest kind had yet to be explored, since the main activities of the Corporation had been confined to the spoken word.

I was still learning variations of technique for different types of audience. In a theatre, it is necessary to exaggerate one’s appearance and performance by means of make-up, a louder projection of the voice, and gestures which can be clearly seen by the audience sitting some distance from the stage. Cabaret artists, with the audience sitting only a short distance away, concentrate on the intimate approach. Whilst in films a performer is so magnified by the camera lens in close-up that it is necessary to reduce gesture, facial expression and body movements to a minimum. Microphones can magnify a whisper so that a large audience can hear every cadence.

Radio and television present quite different problems. Although they have audiences of up to several millions, the performance is distributed to individuals or small groups in the relaxed atmosphere of their homes.

I found myself more and more often being pressed into service as an interviewer, an art which had long been practised on radio. But those interviewers relied, of course, on scripts written for them by reporters and talent scouts. It was immediately obvious that one could hardly stand and read from a piece of paper in front of television cameras. As a result, I insisted on being given headlines containing only essential information about my victims, which I would memorize before meeting them in person. The strain of interviewing half a dozen people in quick succession from memory was considerable, but it did introduce a naturalness and informality upon which television then depended.

 

A man and two women, dressed up, sit on a sofa

Three TV pioneers meet again in the programme that marked the closing of the studios at Alexandra Palace in the 1950s. Joan Gilbert, who worked on Picture Page before the war, with Cecil Madden and Joan Miller, original Picture Page girl.

 

In ‘Picture Page’ – the magazine-type programme with which I was mainly concerned — the majority of people to be interviewed had little or no experience of acting or public-speaking. They could hardly be expected to learn their lines like trained performers, so in fact a scripted conversation was quite useless. Under these conditions, the first necessity was to put the individuals concerned at their ease so that they would be willing to rely on me to guide them into the required order and length of discussion. This was made doubly necessary by the fact that often they brought with them inserts of film to illustrate their subject. As film takes some seconds to run up to speed, it meant cueing the producer verbally whilst continuing our conversation until such time as the film appeared on the screen. Objects, which had to be displayed in close-up to the camera, required careful handling to get them in correct perspective or lighting conditions. These I handled myself since experience taught me the angles at which they showed to best advantage.

Meanwhile one had to lure unsuspecting performers away from pools of shadow where their features would be lost, whilst talking away coherently and easily. In those days we moved about during interviews. These difficulties were increased by any temporary breakdown of the camera. This called for instant recognition of the situation and an unflurried move to another camera as it positioned itself to take over. The problems of constantly looking all ways at once and trying to maintain an even flow of conversation can be imagined. Nowadays, of course, the majority of interviews are conducted from a fixed position where the lighting is pre-set. Objects to be demonstrated are placed in front of separate cameras. And a script can be read from a giant tape-machine affair— the autocue. In the early days, our work was further complicated by the fact that two competitive systems of transmission were used alternately — Baird and Marconi EMI — one in the afternoons, the other in the evenings.

Each transmission system involved different personnel and equipment. For the performers it demanded different clothes and even different make-up. Unattractive make-up – dark blue lips and yellow faces — made even the girl announcers odd to look upon, and dyes on different materials, including women’s hair, were likely to register black on one camera and near white on another. I found that the lapels on my dinner-jacket looked white, so had to buy another.

Film experience had taught me that with the hot lights, greasy make-up and abnormal wear-and-tear of cleaning, my existing wardrobe would be unlikely to stand up to the strain for long. Since my salary was still less than £9 [£660 in today’s money, allowing for inflation] a week, I persuaded the BBC to advance me £50 [£4,000] out of salary, so that I might lay the foundations of a wardrobe equal to this historic occasion.

It was essential to memorize names, dates, places, camera and lighting positions — in fact, all the particulars of each and every show. As well as rehearsing for the two alternative systems, we would also sit in for lighting, make-up and wardrobe tests and rehearsals.

On one occasion the lighting men were exploring the possibilities of back lighting (the effect of bright lights behind the subject). I was called upon to sit in for the experiment. As the floods were brought closer and closer behind me, I started to burn mentally and physically. Jumping from my chair, I stroked the back of my head and the hair came off in my hands, burned to a frazzle.

 

On the air, 1936, with Donald McCullough and in the air – fire-fighting at Ally-Pally

 

At an early stage in our preparations, I was proudly shown the lighting for the main stage. Lights had been set at equal intervals along the front and two strong floodlights at each side of the area. I pointed out, as an erstwhile producer and stage-manager, that this would ‘burn up’ the pictures of the performers if they moved anywhere out of centre to right or left, just as in the early days of the cinema, when film stock was far less sensitive. The acting area needed to be lit brilliantly over the whole frame, taking most of the character away from the faces of the performers, but cameras and lighting had to be moved for shots from positions other than the centre. I was told to mind my own business as an announcer and let the experts get on with it. But it did happen as I had predicted.

One of the first requisites for announcers is to have some visual signal that their camera is on the air. There was no such signal at first, so I soon suggested a small light-bulb which would operate as the camera came into action. One was otherwise left on the screen with a wide meaningless grin before getting the signal to speak. The engineers were hilarious. Me and my mad ideas — the additional power would break up the picture and put the camera out of action. All cameras have such a signal today as standard.

Incidents like these demonstrate just how ignorant many of the staff were about the techniques and methods of professional film-making. Moreover they started without most film requisites – not even camera-dollies and cranes for variable travelling-shots, until we had visited Pinewood and Denham Studios to see them actually at work.

On the production side however we had people of considerably wider experience. Stephen Thomas, from the Lyric, Hammersmith, was now an internationally known lighting expert and Dallas Bower an experienced film-maker. Peter Bax from the West End stage was our scene designer. And I myself had studied theatrical and film lighting during my years on the stage.

The shows were to vary from talks to outside broadcasts; from classical music to dance bands; from drama to variety acts; so it was obvious that life was not going to be altogether uneventful.

 

Mitchell and Miller look at an elephant whilst being looked at by a TV camera

Live outside broadcast with Joan Miller

 

Jasmine, after one look at the terrors in store, was stricken with appendicitis, which left Elizabeth Cowell and me to shoulder announcing responsibilities for a ten-day transmission to ‘Radiolympia’. Elizabeth too succumbed with laryngitis before the opening day. So I was left to hold the fort alone for the first five days.

It was during these hectic pre-opening experimental days that I came upon Baird’s ‘Spotlight Studio’ for the first time. Here, I was seated on a high music stool in complete darkness. Behind me crouched two studio attendants, who up to this point I had taken for personal friends. From the wall in front of me was a blinding light playing over my features. When the appropriate red light prompted action, one of my friends hit me hard on my left kidney. This was my cue to smile (a rather unconvincing smile); then his mate gave my right kidney a similar violent blow, which was my cue to start talking. I only hope their crippling enthusiasm was because they neither of them knew their own strength.

 

Radiolympia 1937 brochure illustration

 

Our first ever programme, on 26 August 1936, was a variety show called ‘Here’s Looking at You’. It included Helen McKay, the singer, Pogo the Horse, whose inner anatomy was provided by the two Griffith Brothers (they, with Miss Lutie, their ‘trainer’ had long been favourites in pantomime and on the variety stage), a close-harmony trio — The Three Admirals — from Cochran’s show Anything Goes’, and Chilton and Thomas, two dynamic young Chilean dancers.

For those ten days we put on a show, morning and evening, with offbeat variations which included trick camera shots and unrehearsed fooling from the conductor of the Television Orchestra, Hyam Greenbaum. Among players in the orchestra were an up-and-coming young violinist, Eric Robinson, and Sidonie Goosens, harpist member of the famous musical family.

From closely observing the reactions of people watching the screens at Alexandra Palace during those hectic rehearsals, I had got the feeling of the effectiveness of TV. It seemed to be taken with intense seriousness by viewers. Now, with a ‘real’ live audience at Olympia, I perpetrated a private experiment.

‘Do forgive me,’ I said, during one of the earliest transmissions. ‘But would the lady with that lovely hat mind removing it? The people behind you are unable to see the screen. Thank you so much.’ Naturally I could not see my audience, but it was reported back to me that the request was taken absolutely seriously. A number of women started to remove their hats.

 

A woman in furs and a man in a morning suit

Phyl and Leslie Mitchell on their wedding day, 2 June 1938

 

Since they were completely experimental, these beginnings were naturally inclined to be rough, but we quickly learned that spontaneity covered over many deficiencies.

For some time the BBC’s indefatigable Cecil Madden had been conjuring up programme ideas for the future. It was he who devised “Picture Page’. A permanent feature of the programme in those early days was a young Canadian actress, Joan Miller. Sitting at a telephone switchboard, she would announce each celebrity in turn for the interviews. Joan, later the wife of Peter Cotes, the theatrical producer, was to make a considerable name for herself as an actress in the London theatre.

On 8 October, ‘Picture Page’ made its first appearance. I introduced amongst others, Squadron-Leader Swain; who had just broken the world altitude record for the RAF, Prince Monolulu, the racetrack tipster, familiar to all racegoers, Dinah Sheridan, the actress, then a very young advertising model, and Mrs Flora Drummond, who had been closely associated with Mrs Pankhurst in the Suffragette Movement.

During that first year alone I interviewed an impressive list of celebrities: they varied from HH the Aga Khan to Pop-Eye the Sailor Man! The effectiveness of Pop-Eye’s visit to the studio was somewhat dimmed by the fact that he had succumbed to laryngitis and could barely talk above a whisper, but we managed to play an excerpt from one of his films to back him up.

 

Mitchell in a crowd facing the King

Talking to HM King George VI at the Royal Film Performance, 1950

 

Through succeeding weeks we three announcers (Jasmine had now recovered from her appendix operation) alternated between trying to find somewhere quiet in which to memorize details of the programme for the following day; and rehearsing afternoon and evening transmissions of the current day for the benefit of producers, artists, cameras or lighting men.

The official opening of the television station had been arranged for 2 November 1936. There was an imposing array of participants, including the Chairman of the BBC, Mr R. C. Norman, the Postmaster-General, Major Tryon, the Chairman of the Television Advisory Committee, Lord Selsdon, the Chairman of the Baird Company, Sir Harry Greer, and the Chairman of Marconi EMI, Mr Alfred Clark.

In view of my greater experience, it was decided to make me announcer of the day. In introducing this gathering I had to memorize not only their names and titles, but a varied collection of honours and decorations which they had accumulated during their distinguished careers.

Also to be included in this official opening programme were two coloured American dancers, Buck and Bubbles, Adele Dixon, the singer and another edition of ‘Picture Page’ which introduced Jim Mollison (fresh from breaking new flying records), Kay Stammers, the tennis star, and Algernon Blackwood, the famous author and playwright. Then — perennial favourites – a pearly king and queen from London’s East End, and finally, a formal introduction of my two colleagues, Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell.

 

Two women lean over a desk

Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh, continuity announcers in 1937

 

Already my nerves were beginning to show signs of strain. On 1 November a senior official approached me with a fistful of closely typewritten pages — my announcements for the official opening, the result of a considerable amount of thought and preparation by the Governors of the BBC. As I looked, the pages seemed to multiply in front of me.

‘I can’t do it,’ I said desperately. ‘Tell me what to say and I’ll say it to the best of my ability. But memorize that? No!’

‘Mitchell,’ the official said, ‘if this is your attitude, I must remind you that your job is only temporary.’

I took the pages from him and tore them in half. Mind you, in the short time left, there was little opportunity for him to find anyone who could take it on.

The following day, having memorized the names and decorations I improvised the rest. Great was my elation to find in The Times the following day my first television notice — still one of my proudest possessions. ‘The very successful transmissions of the male television announcer,’ it reads, ‘suggested that there is a technique to be learned by those who wish to be well televised.’ So I kept the job.

 

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