‘Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road’ (1973): Representing lesbianism in the 1970s

'Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road' (ITV, Thames, 30 October 1973)

‘Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road’ (ITV, Thames, 30 October 1973)

(Text of a paper given by Billy Smart at ‘Television for Women’, University of Warwick, 17 May 2013)

What I’m going to do today is present a long-forgotten drama of some significance to you and – through close textual analysis of it – demonstrate how the spatial conventions of studio television drama could be used to present women’s experience to viewers, realised through visual codes – of performance, physicality and aesthetic detail – as much as through verbal means. By ‘studio drama’, I mean drama that was made on videotape in a multi-camera television studio, the dominant form of television drama in Britain up to the 1980s.

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Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (1981), Jean Cocteau and the realm of videographic fantasy

vlcsnap-2013-09-06-19h32m50s20  (Text of a paper given by Billy Smart at ‘Walking in Eternity’, University of Hertfordshire, 3 September 2013)

What I’m going to do today is examine the spatial realisation of a fantastical world in the 1981 Doctor Who story, Warriors’ Gate, draw some conclusions as to how the story’s distinctive visual style is inextricable from its narrative form and consider how the drama shows and investigates fantasy itself.

I’m going to do this in relation to the strong affinities between Warriors’ Gate and Jean Cocteau’s two films Orphee (1950) (a reimagining of the myth of Orpheus, the poet who travels to the underworld in order to rescue his wife Euridice from death) and – especially – La Belle et la Bête (1946), his telling of the beauty and the beast story. Commentary on Warriors’ Gate tends to mention the similarities of mise-en-scene and visual motifs between the films and the programme, but only ever in passing. What I want to do today is consider how these forties cinematic antecedents work in greater depth, and what they mean for the viewers’ understanding of the eighties television story.

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Spaces of Television researchers uncover ‘lost’ Ken Loach film


Spaces of Television researchers Leah Panos and Billy Smart today had the happy experience of coming across a 1973 BBC programme long believed to be lost, including a film directed by Ken Loach (featuring an early performance by Ben Kingsley). This happened when we were conducting research for the forthcoming ‘Spaces of Television’ book at the BFI, looking through uncatalogued tapes for Full House, a live Saturday night BBC2 arts programme broadcast between 1972 and 1973. Loach’s film, Misfortune, is an adaptation of two comparatively early short stories by Anton Chekhov (‘The Huntsman’, 1885, and ‘A Misfortune’, 1886), originally shown as a part of Full House on 13 January 1973 and  – despite a copy taken from the episode actually being available for the public to view at the BFI Mediatheque since 2011 – had been mistakenly listed as missing until today!

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Bob Baker interview and Spaces of Television panel at ‘Childhood and the Media’ conference at Leicester, 18 July

'Doctor Who: The Three Doctors: Episode 1' (BBC1, 30 December 1972 w. Bob Baker & Dave Martin)

‘Doctor Who: The Three Doctors: Episode 1’ (BBC1, 30 December 1972 w. Bob Baker & Dave Martin)

Professor James Chapman, co-investigator for the Spaces of Television project, will interview television writer, Bob Baker, as part of the programme for this year’s International Association for Media and History conference which runs from the 17th to the 20th July at the University of Leicester. Bob is perhaps best-known for his collaborative work with Dave Martin on Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89, 1996, 2005-). Known as the Bristol Boys, Baker and Martin wrote such pivotal Doctor Who serials as ‘The Claws of Axos’ (1971), ‘The Three Doctors’ (1972-3) and ‘The Hand of Fear’ (1976). However, Bob is also a significant figure in his own right within British children’s drama, as a writer, creator and producer of some of the best-known children’s drama serials of the 1970s and 80s.

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Darrol Blake Interview Part III: Thirty Years Of Directing Soap Operas

'Crossroads': Episode 2674 (ITV, ATV, 20 January 1977) "David and Rosemary ponder on whether they should re-marry."

‘Crossroads’: Episode 2674 (ITV, ATV, 20 January 1977) “David and Rosemary ponder on whether they should re-marry.” Directed by Darrol Blake.

In July 2011 Leah Panos and myself had the good fortune to interview veteran television director Darrol Blake in his Barnes Bridge home. In a career that spans fifty years, Darrol started as a Design Assistant at the BBC in the 1950s, going on to become a Production Designer and then direct for the BBC, before becoming a freelance director for both the BBC and a range of ITV companies from the 1970s onwards. In Part One of our interview Darrol talked about working as a designer at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, working on a diverse range of programmes made in several different studios. In Part Two he discussed his experiences as a director for the BBC and at Thames Television. In the final part of our interview he discusses his experiences as director of hundreds of episodes of all the major British soap operas between the 1970s and the turn of the century.

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Darrol Blake Interview Part II: Directing for the BBC and Thames Television in the 1960s and 1970s

Untransmitted episode of 'Doomwatch' (BBC1, 1972)

Untransmitted episode of ‘Doomwatch’ (BBC1, 1972)

In July 2011 Leah Panos and myself had the good fortune to interview veteran television director Darrol Blake in his Barnes Bridge home. In a career that spans fifty years, Darrol started as a Design Assistant at the BBC in the 1950s, going on to become a Production Designer and then direct for the BBC, before becoming a freelance director for both the BBC and a range of ITV companies from the 1970s onwards. In Part One of our interview Darrol talked about working as a designer at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, working on a diverse range of programmes made in several different studios. In Part Two he discusses his experiences as a director for the BBC and at Thames Television.

Directing for the BBC: 1960s

BS. Which jobs as a designer were you especially proud of?

DB. Perhaps Take a Sapphire. I did several things with Ned Sherrin, because what he wanted to do was musicals, and the fact that he directed Tonight and talks programmes was for money, what he was really doing was writing musicals with Caryl Brahms. After That Was The Week That Was Ned Sherrin could write his own ticket and he could use anyone in the Corporation who he liked to work on the show. So he was my patron. Somebody like Ned would actually see potential in somebody who was in an inferior position and would work to help them. I’d worked a bit on That Was The Week, did the whole of Not So Much A Programme, More A Way of Life, which was the Friday-Saturday-Sunday version of the satire bit, and then he said, “We’re doing these big one-off musicals in between series” and that was very enjoyable. We were walking down Lime Grove where his office was and he said, “Oh, I’ve asked for you for the autumn again” because the BBC were making him go around again with the satire bit, so I said, “Ugh! Not as designer, you haven’t” He said “Oh yes, you’re the one who wants to be a director. What do you know about it?” So a piece of paper went very high up the BBC and landed on Dick Levin’s desk and it said, “You will loan Darrol Blake to Ned Sherrin for six months’ attachment”. And I was directing the pilot of BBC-3, which was the third attempt at the satire bit. Ned wanted to call it Its All Been Done Before and we said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea’. Because That Was The Week That Was had been called TW3 and because BBC2 had just started and because Ned was working virtually straight to the governors because it was such a hot potato it was like having his own channel so we called it BBC3. And people used to say, “Oh, I can’t get that” “No, its on BBC1” “But you said it was BBC-3” And that was patronage but thank God, because it got me out of the design department.

 But then I was away attached for six months and then I had to go back to the design department, and that awful man I pointed out, James Bould said, “We are short of designers! We are six short, come and be three of them!” And we decided to get married at this point and everyone in the department knew that I was getting married and I thought, ‘Oh I’d better put in for some leave’. And I wandered in to the design manager’s office, looked at the thing on the wall and there was a show for me to design about three days after I was due to get married. I said, ‘That is a joke isn’t it?’ ‘No’ so I went in to see James and he said, “Leave is a privilege, not a right!” “I’m getting married!” “Doesn’t affect me.” So, we had a weekend in a friend’s house in Surrey somewhere and I came back and sat there on a tiny design job in one of the smallest studios, Jury Room it was called, and my assistant could have done it, but he insisted I do it. So I got through the dress rehearsal and there was a fairly new director doing it. I said, “Are there any notes for me?” he said “no” and I thought “I’ll go to Venice, then”

BS. So how did you finally become a staff director?

DB. I was never a staff director. One – When Ned got me onto directing BBC-3 – which was an official attachment for six months – I was still under contract as a designer. I was only a year or at most 18 months into this three-year contract. So we’d been doing this show live for quite a while, six or eight weeks and of course Ken Tynan said that word, and the audience leapt up from about four or five million to nine million and there were questions in the house. And I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder if I’m due for an ERR?’ which was an extra responsibility reward, which in any part of the BBC if you were acting in a post above your station you got ERR, as I’d been directing a live show every week. So I went in to the AA, the admin assistant of the current affairs department who were producing it, I said who I was and what I was doing. He said, “I’ll look into it”, so I didn’t hear anything. Then I happened to see him in a corridor and he said, “God! You’re being paid far more as a designer than you would be as a PA director in telly current affairs – stay where you are!” Dick Levin was very good at both getting credits on screen and paying designers.

 Then I was ordered back into the design department for three months in 1966. The BBC decided to go around again with more BBC3 even though Ned had gone off to the movies, bought the entire team together without Ned and we were a riderless horse. The put a man in that had never previously done anything faster than one programme every nine months and he was a complete disaster, a nice man, very nice sense of humour, but not a clue. We were live every Saturday but he was still having postmortems about the previous show on the Tuesday. No! You should be commissioning writers to do material by then. So John Bird, John Fortune, John Wells and Eleanor Bron used to meet at my flat in Hampstead to decide what to do, and then we’d go into the office and tell him. It was awful. Finally, we went upstairs to Michael Peacock who was Controller of BBC1 at the time and said, “Take us off. Please!” He said, “No no no – give it till Christmas and I’ll find you another producer” So he gave us jolly Jack Gold, who was a wonderful bloke and had never worked in the studio before in his life, he made films and before that had been a film editor, he didn’t know anything about a live show. So it was again very much on my shoulders, with a wonderful floor manager and team and everything and John Wells, John Fortune, John Bird, Barry Humphries and Eleanor were a great gang. John Bird, particularly is such a good actor. He came and played a bishop for me in Emmerdale years later. But it was not a happy period; it was the fag end of the satire period.

BS. Was Alan Bennett still in it then? He was in some of them.

DB. No, Alan Bennett was only ever a guest in BBC-3. God, I’ll never forget it, he and John Bird were going to do a sketch about the various councils up and down the country commissioning art, statues and artworks to be in the front of their town halls and things, something like this. So they decided that they were going to play a sculptor and a town councilor in this sketch, but they wanted the base of a totally representational statue. So I got some eleven-foot legs made in jaboilite and a great big fake marble stock base commissioned on the Tuesday for the Saturday. This was all under way somewhere and we’d go to the office and improvise and set the sketch, when Alan Bennett suddenly came up to me in my office and said, “I can’t think of anything to do. I’m going to the dentist” and never came back. So John Bird and John Fortune improvised a sketch on the day, really around these eleven-foot legs with terrible puns like, “El Greco? Leonard Greco, he’s on his last legs” – that’s why I remember Alan Bennett. Another silly story is that he was born and grew up in Leeds just around the corner from where Anne [Cunningham, Blake’s wife] grew up and to her they were Bennett’s the Butchers, because his father was a butcher.

 One of the things that had happened in 1958 when I was assisting Natasha was the launch of Monitor, and what happened subsequently was that an entire department, Music and Arts, was created as the son and grandson of Monitor, and there were a load of producers around who specialized in music programmes and arts programmes about painters and writers. Humphrey Burton, who had been a production assistant on Monitor became head of Music and Arts while I had been doing all these satire things, and Music and Arts became a sort of indulgence corner where people would arrive and spend loads of money on fantastic films. And because I’d spent my life in the television studio up to that point I thought that I’d get out and learn how to make films. So I happened to see Humphrey Burton in the corridor one day and said, “I’d love to come and work for your department”. So he said, “Oh, great yeah okay. There’s an advertisement on the board at the moment for a producer. Oh, it’s closed – well, put in for it anyway” And I put in for it and got it without a board interview, which was unheard of because you always had to sit before a board which had got a Personnel person and a producer and a sort of Joker person from that department who wasn’t really involved with what they were doing who would actually trip you up if he or she could, four or five people usually.

 Suddenly I was in Arts Features. What had happened was that something called London Weekend Television had started and Humph had gone off to join them, so there were loads of people left in Arts Features to whom he’d promised this that and the other running around with no leadership. So they found someone new to be head of department, but they decided to have a weekly topical arts magazine, colour was looming, and a woman called Lorna Pegram – who’d been one of those women who’d let me direct back in the days when I’d been a designer for women’s programmes, a department that had subsequently been swept away because they’d decided that afternoon programmes should be properly financed – was now in that department as an editor of this new review. It was initially called Release and there were just a sort of job lot of us who had been promised the earth by Humphrey thrown onto this magazine programme. She and I got on terribly well and always had. I was one of the producers on it as well as director, and a man called Colin Nears who had been in schools television a lot was the other producer. And Gavin Millar, who is now a very distinguished drama director and loads of other people who have gone on to have extraordinary careers who were then quite young were all there, and we just endlessly made films and studio items for a topical arts magazine that was the first weekly show in colour. Before that I’d worked on Our World in 1967, the first ever satellite television programme.

BS. Was that the global live thing where The Beatles preformed ‘All You Need Is Love’?

DB. Yes, it was the first time that satellites were used to send pictures all around the world. I did three months on it and I was the director of all the bits in between the inserts from all of the other countries. There was a marvelous man called Noble Wilson who was directing in TC1 Gallery, I was in TC2 Gallery directing the TC1 floor, which had Bleriot’s plane and graphics and all sorts of things. It was the most extraordinary programme and it was a story in itself. That happened because a head of Science Features, Aubrey Singer, got this idea, went around the world twice. The first time nobody would talk to him, but in between he got The Beatles on board and then the whole world wanted to join in at that point and they were fighting to contribute to the programme. And so apparently while he was pulling the programme together he went to Michael Peacock and said, “Who’s your best studio director?” Michael Peacock told me, “I didn’t know what he meant. What does he mean? Who’s used to chaos? Ah yes, Darrol”

 So I was put forward as the studio director for this epic global production and it was absolutely fascinating. But the excitement of the two-hour transmission was just enormous and three months later we all gathered to watch a recording of the programme and it was the most boring programme that I’ve ever seen in my life. The excitement of actually doing it was extraordinary; babies were born on cue in Mexico and Denmark, people shot rapids, I cued a tram in Melbourne from *Television Centre when it was five in the morning there. Nowadays you’d just take it for granted, but getting pictures out of Australia for instance was quite something.

Directing for the BBC: 1970s

 It was from doing Our World and Release that I went freelance, because I still hadn’t finished the three years as a designer when I got this job as a producer at Arts features. After three years of that I think that I just asked to be released from my contract. And then Lorna got fired and at last I got transferred to drama series and did those Doomwatches and Onedin Lines.

 Even in the 1970s, we were still recording as live. When I was doing The Onedin Line, The Regiment, Doomwatch and all that stuff, you camera rehearsed for a day and a half, and then you taped everything for two and a half hours in the evening. It was like a weird cross between working in the theatre and making a B-movie. If it was a fifty-minuter you had two and a half hours. So you could stop the tape to change costumes or shift the cameras round or whatever, but nevertheless it was tight.

BS. We saw the banned episode of Doomwatch (‘Sex and Violence’, 1972) the other day. We were talking about the interpolated footage of the execution –


DB. I got that clip from 24 Hours, it had already been transmitted.

LP. So the programme’s banning can’t have been for that reason.

DB. Oh no, it was because the public standards committee in the drama was a parallel of something that was actually happening simultaneously with the Longford Committee on which Cliff Richard was the pop star, and Mary Whitehouse’s ‘Clean Up TV’. But we were due to go out before the real committee had actually reached their conclusion, and I think the BBC was just frightened of the moral majority.

 What happened was that was the end of my two years in drama series and I’d been doing virtually a show a month – at one point I was doing three shows at once, an Onedin Line, something on BBC2 called Shadow of the Tower and I was editing a Paul Temple. And at the end of the two years we borrowed a house in the south of France for a month, we couldn’t have afforded it, we had three children by then. When we came back I was out of work and it was the first time it had ever happened to me. To transfer from arts programmes to drama series I’d gone freelance so therefore I was hired show by show. But it just so happened that I’d managed to get a constant flow of work in BBC drama series.

 So when I came back from France I bought a Radio Times and ‘Sex and Violence’ wasn’t there. So I rang Terry Dudley, the producer, and he said, “Ahh… What made me think that I’d told you?” What happened was that the BBC had got cold feet about it and David Attenborough who was then Director of Television was consulted – he hated being in the office anyway, and wanted to go and run up trees and things – was in the office for a couple of days between trips and said, “Oh, pull it” so they did. Terry Dudley and the head of drama series were both already worried about it, because the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were on page one of the script, they were very nervous about it so when they were told to pull it they did. But I think they were more nervous about depicting Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse. I don’t really know their reasoning, but foolishly the BBC put out a press statement saying that the current series of Doomwatch will be one episode short due to a substandard production. Stuart Douglass who wrote it got on his bike to Television Centre and said, “This is absolute rubbish!” Fortunately his mate, Keith Waterhouse who had a column in the Mirror, had been in the gallery when we recorded it and he took up the cudgels and it was in the Mirror. All of this I knew nothing about because I’d been away for a month. So finally the BBC were forced to put out another press release which said, “Contrary to what we said before, it was really a very good production but the subject is too contentious to be dealt with in 50 minutes, so we’re still not going to put it out”

BS. There’s an extraordinary thing on the tape that happens after the end credits – there’s about 80 seconds of unused footage of reaction shots of horrified responses in the screening room to witnessing the execution, so you could have transmitted the drama with just the soundtrack of the execution playing with that as the pictures.


DB. I forget where Huw Weldon was at this time, but he’d got very high up at the BBC and his great beef for many years was that the audience should know whether what they were seeing was real or acting, whether it’s a documentary or whether it’s a drama and if you try and blur the two – and of course there was a great move at the time towards doing docudramas – he didn’t like that at all. So that thinking was going on in the sixth floor a lot of the time.

BS. You were making several costume dramas at this time. Did they require a specific way of thinking or particular skills?

DB. No, not really. I’d always been interested in history and as a designer I was aware of costume and period architecture and stuff like that, and I was brought up on Gainsborough melodramas. No, whatever the scene, whether its 1978 or 1911 or 2020 you try to put together something which is believably of that period. So the people don’t clutch each other in 1911, I don’t know where you’ve picked it up but you have, you’re just aware of how people behaved in those days. But its absolutely dependent on what’s on the page, how persuasive and how authentic the writer has been. No, you attack any script with the same… forensic concentration!

LP. As a director, obviously all of your experiences in design would have helped in thinking about a certain way about how things look, but you’ve also talked about enjoying working with actors. So how did you divide your time between planning how things were going to work and planning shots and so on and focusing on performance?

DB. Well, you have a preparation period in which all that is done and I found that terribly easy. I know that there’s something wrong with a script if I’m not seeing pictures and hearing voices on the second reading. If its still not happening there then there’s something adrift, but normally even the first time that I read it, I can see where it is and even hear the voices. Particularly on a series or serial when it’s all pretty well pre-cast, so you can hear the voices of the characters. If you can’t, then there’s something wrong with the writing!

BS. There’s an interview with Douglas Camfield in Screen in 1970 where he talks about having an “inner eye” when he reads a script and bad television directors not having it and being able to tell which ones don’t.

DB. Oh right. It may be something to do with being a designer, but I can always see the show already.

BS. We were thinking when we were watching a few of your productions that you have a particularly sympathetic approach to the work of designers, in that you always show the set to its best advantage.

LP. Things just tended to look good! The stately home in Doctor Who (‘The Stones of Blood’, BBC1, 28 October – 18 November 1978) for instance.

BS. You were confident about using low lighting as well, which a lot of directors at that time weren’t.

DB. Yes, but you see one of the things that used to get up my nose when I was in the design department was – it didn’t always happen to me, because I counted a show as being a success because we put on the screen what the director and I had planned to do, and that to me was, ‘We got 90% there, okay he didn’t take this or that shot in the end, so we didn’t see that £100 thing’. But you’d see other designers at the next drawing table or whatever and you’d go on to watch their work having seen it in the studio and you couldn’t see anything, and surely the director should have told the designer that he was going to do it like that, so you could have done it in black drapes or whatever. But you’d get things like massive double-storied sets, which you then didn’t see. I have to reveal that my flat mate and best man was one Ridley Scott, and he would rush up a blind alley in everything he designed, and the director was always an idiot. I can remember that he used to sit up until five in the morning making these fantastically complicated models. I’ll never forget it; this was a Matt Monro Show in the television theatre for Yvonne Littlewood, a light entertainment director, nice lady. Rid designed this thing which was a giant spiral and what he actually used were paper doilies, so it was enormously intricate, and the scene boys hated him, they always hated his shows because they were such heavy going. And, I kid you not, that was all that you saw on Matt Monro was a close-up – that was predictably what you would see, just Matt Monro singing his little heart out. And that, to me, was a mistake between the two of them, Yvonne and Ridley.

BS. Another series that you worked on at this time was Paul Temple, which was groundbreaking in being a co-production with West Germany. Did that affect the way in which it was made?

DB. Oh yes, Taurus Film in Munich. Well, the film sequences were shot in 35mm, which was very grand, and the reason for that was the film, which normally would have been 16mm, played through the studio on tape and was then taken to Technicolour and put onto film because Taurus Film produced film series for the world. So therefore the degradation of the picture from 16mm to videotape back to film would have been awful, so it was shot on 35mm. The story that I did, which was set in Switzerland, was sent over to Munich with a German director who was doing one at the same time. His was set in Munich at the bierfest and he hired a couple of German actors and I hired one German girl, the other German actors were already resident in London. I went to St Moritz at the height of the season, paid for by Taurus Film, and Ros Drinkwater, who played Steve Temple, got I’ll in Munich, she’d done the Munich shoot and then collapsed with flu, so she couldn’t work in St Moritz. So Derrick Sherwin, the producer had his wife Jane out with him and she doubled for Ros in long shots, and we went on to have to do the dialogue scenes back in the studio with back projections. It was just ludicrous having spent all that money to have to do these scenes in Television Centre. Anyway, we were actually grinding away on a 35mm back projection plate of just the street.

BS. I’ve read you articulating your dislike of productions that combine film and studio scenes.

DB. Yes, piebald productions, that’s my phrase for it. It just so happened that that’s what one was pitched into when you got into drama in 1970. You did locations on 16mm and it was edited to within a hair’s breadth and musiced and effects put on, and then you cut to the studio and there’s a different sound and a totally different texture and usually not nearly as many cuts as there were in the film sequences. So I was always very careful to ensure that the same eye looked at the film location as looked at the studio, and try to sort of marry it together in that way. But film editors would still put, if you had shots of people in trainers running on grass, footsteps onto it.

BS. Something that I always find odd about how dramas were put together in this period was that your fortnight of rehearsal for the studio would be after you’d already shot the film. So actors would have to establish their interpretation of their characters before they’d rehearsed.

DB. Well, for the most part you were using series people, so the performance – such as it was – was established anyway. And if you had a big guest performer then very often they were entirely on film, or they were just seen arriving in a car or something so you’d have a chance to rehearse their interpretation in the studio, or sometimes you’d have to commit yourself on location. But watching other people’s shows I quite often spotted quite bizarre changes between location and studio, somebody in the studio would have a heavy Irish accent and no accent at all on location, and the length of their hair would change between location and studio.

Directing for Thames: 1970s

 But those two years at the beginning of the seventies was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed doing The Onedin Line, The Regiment and all those things, and then I went off to Thames for two years. I did three Armchair 30 plays for Joan Kemp-Welch, she was also producing Armchair Theatre. I was hoping to do one of those, but there were another shenanigans that got me out of that – she was told not to use me. I know why that was. It was a personality thing, I apparently got up somebody’s nose and therefore I was not to be trusted as a director. It was all very silly. But it was on the board – I had this Armchair Theatre. There was no script yet, but I’d got this date, and when you’re working as a freelance… And then I went in one day and my name wasn’t on the board, it had disappeared. She said, “Oh yes, we’ve lost the recording date” Two weeks later it was back on the board with Dougie Camfield directing it.

 I knew Dougie as a floor manager, of course. Back in the ghetto of the women’s programmes of the late fifties we did a serial called Perido Flight, which was a dramatization of a Victorian novel and he was the floor manager. And then we were directors in the same area. But he died far too young.

 You just don’t know about other directors, you see. There’s only one per show. You inherit an actor or two who’s just been in something wonderful from another director and you say, ‘How did you get on?’ I remember asking one about coming off Wuthering Heights that someone had done again and it was a terrible production and I said, ‘How did you get on with him, then?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember much about it, we played football most of the time’.

BS. When you were at Thames, you worked on the world’s least well-documented series, Harriet’s Back In Town. What on earth was it?

DB. Oh that was an afternoon series. What happened was that the production companies each produced a serial for the afternoons when ITV started daytime television in 1973. YTV produced Emmerdale Farm, Thames made Harriet’s Back In Town, Granada produced Crown Court. Each company produced something and they ran in seasons. Harriet’s Back In Town was about Pauline Yates as Harriet, who was divorced but still friendly with her ex-husband, and her next-door neighbours were in it. It was a very nice show to do; it was just quite a middle-class afternoon serial. It didn’t last, although they might even have done a year. Emmerdale succeeded and Crown Court went on – I did a few of those.

 That’s the reason why I didn’t get Armchair Theatre, I think. What happened was that in the run-up to me doing my episodes I’d go to watch the previous episodes being recorded, and I can remember going to this recording studio – I’d done about 84 Rainbows by then and other kids’ shows as well as the three plays for Joan – and I met a cameraman coming out. He said, “Oh, I can’t stay in there” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “there’s a man dying in there – I can’t watch it” And the guest lead, an actor named [Mr X.], was having an affair with Harriet and he couldn’t remember the lines. It was just an actor falling apart, which one has seen once or twice in one’s life and it’s not a pretty sight. He was having this terrible time and it was all around the building that [Mr. X] was a disaster. My episodes, which came up a couple of weeks later, were his exit, so I was ready for problems. I didn’t do anything about it, but I knew I was ready. We got to the read through and he went, “Mumble mumble mumble” So I thought, I’m going to have to do something about this now. So I thought that I’d take him to lunch, I went over and I said, “Where are we going for lunch?” and he said “We’re not going anywhere” And the way that he read his lines, the last person to have done that to me had most of his part cut, so I’m going to have to tell him. So we went to lunch separately and then came back to rehearse in the afternoon and suddenly the AFM put a note into my hand that said, “See Jackie at four o’clock” – Jacqueline Davis was the producer. I went in and she said, “How’s the day?” “Not the best of my professional career” – because he’d been very, very strange all day. And she was very buttoned-down, but suddenly it all came out and she said, “What I can’t stand is you rubbishing the show!” What? And this picture of me that [Mr. X] had given her – It turned out that she and [Mr. X] had had an affair in the past, so he’d gone running to her and said he’s useless. Because I’d started to say something to he and Pauline – Pauline was very sweet and was coping with him wonderfully – I started to say, in this style of thing, I was going to say something about the Woman’s Own style of story. And he started to shout at me “OH, TELL US ABOUT THE STYLE! WE’VE ONLY BEEN DOING THIS FOR EIGHT WEEKS, AND YOU COME HERE AND TELL US ABOUT THE STYLE ALL OF A SUDDEN!” That wasn’t what I was going to say; it would have been something quite different. I was gobsmacked. There were various other explosions like that during the day, and somehow he’d gone to the producer and he said that this incompetent fool from the BBC was ruining his life. No, he was ruining his life. And I’m sure that’s the reason why I didn’t get the Armchair Theatre, because Jacqueline Davis had the ear of the head of the department and Joan was persuaded not to use me. So some years later I was doing Crossroads, and guess who was in it? [Mr. X]. So that was an interesting meeting. We sort of tiptoed around each other, it was perfectly polite and he did actually learn the lines and hit his marks that time. Earlier on, he’d probably been in some private, or rather public, collapse. I suppose that I looked like somebody who he could trample all over and he did.

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Darrol Blake Interview Part I: Designing for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s


In July 2011 Leah Panos and myself had the good fortune to interview veteran television director Darrol Blake in his Barnes Bridge home. In a career that spans fifty years, Darrol started as a Design Assistant at the BBC in the 1950s, going on to become a Production Designer and then direct for the BBC, before becoming a freelance director for both the BBC and a range of ITV companies from the 1970s onwards. In the first part of our interview Darrol talks about working as a designer at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, working on a diverse range of programmes made in several different studios.

The 1950s

DB. The first programmes came from Lime Grove in 1950, but because it was a film studio and because it was the most bizarre building, when it was a film studio it had five sound stages – two on the fourth floor, would you believe? – a huge one and a sort of narrow one beside it on the first floor and a tiny one, that was the five studios. But there was no back lot or anything; houses, the Metropolitan Line tube and Shepherds Bush Market surrounded it. It was hemmed in. So there was no outdoor work in the film studios, or certainly not for us in the BBC. The massive studio with the huge tank in the middle was used as a scenery store by the BBC and was never used as a studio. So we had two studios up on the forth floor and this long narrow studio which was where we did the Quatermass serial in 1955, and this tiny studio in the side which was the children’s’ programmes place.

 The Shepherds Bush Empire around the corner was the conventional variety theatre where the stage was built out to take the cameras and things, and half of the stalls were covered over so that you could have an orchestra or other technicians. So half of the stalls, and of course the circle and upper circle, remained for the audience. So that worked for many years as a television studio theatre.

 The BBC acquired Riverside Studios in 1955, after it closed as a film studio in 1954. And they’d made some quite respectable films there, as they had done in Lime Grove. But the two tiny studios at Alexander Palace also still existed at this time, and by the time that I arrived there to work at the BBC it was only the News Division who were left there, and they didn’t move out until Television Centre was up and running.

 The access to the studios in Lime Grove was by giant goods lifts; one at the front and one at the back. So if you wanted to use anything like a car in the studio, you had to take it up to the fourth floor in one of these giant lifts. But Studio F, the big studio, was where they built sets, which they then took up in the lifts to the various studios. So Lime Grove was where the Television Service was, that and Alexandra Palace. Television Centre didn’t come on stream until 1960, once they were into recording things, but the majority of Lime Grove programming – drama talks and everything – was for live transmission.

BS. So, logistically, could several studios be used simultaneously for recording and transmission?

DB. Oh yes, but in the mid-fifties the majority was live. We transmitted Quatermass live from Studio G and I can remember working as [Production Designer] Stephen Taylor‘s assistant in the studio. There was a moment in the play where this rocket was fired off to another planet and there was a close up of a control panel. I was supposed to get the house electrician to wire it up so that when they fired it lit up, and there was a special close-up of this thing. And I got halfway home and I thought, “God, I’ve forgotten!” So I watched the thing in somebody else’s house and up came the shot and nothing happened and the show went on. It was live so you could do nothing about it. I don’t think that anybody even said anything; there was just a rather strange shot of some gear that didn’t light up… But that was life in those days – the fact that it was live concentrated your mind like nobody’s business. Actors were sick in the fire buckets and all sorts. But most actors were experienced in the theatre, so to break the programme up to record it in parts was strange to them. They were used to starting in the beginning and going right the way through, and the fact that the odd million or whatever were watching them they tried to disregard. But they had to do ridiculous things like change their costume on the run from set to set. My wife [Anne Cunningham] was in the original cast of Coronation Street, for instance, so they did one live followed by one recorded.

 So that conditioned the way that things were written, the way things were designed because obviously they all had to fit in the studio at the same time. Later on, when you got into recorded programmes you could put up a set and record absolutely everything in that set for six episodes or whatever in one block. When I got to Emmerdale Farm in 1977, it was established by then that you put up thepub set or the farm set and knocked off scenes for six episodes at a time. Most scenes were put in the farm kitchen so the cast ate huge meals. They’d have six breakfasts or six dinners and then break for lunch!

LP. In your early career as a design assistant and then a designer at the BBC, what was the process of assigning jobs? You mention that you worked on other formats like light entertainment. Were you just a drama designer or did you work across different genres?

DB. No, you always worked in different things, although some people specialized. The experienced senior designers got the big dramas to do, and there was a certain amount of patronage in that producers and directors would ask for specific designers because they liked working with them. That went on so they’d have to ring the design manager and book you. But I’d attached myself to Stephen Taylor who was a brilliant designer and died disgracefully young at 33, I’d worked with him and then went away to do National Service. I volunteered for Cyprus and Gibraltar and Singapore and all of the trouble spots of the time and I got sent to Epping – North Weald to be precise – at the other end of the Central Line. My work was extremely boring and I got on the tube and went back to Shepherds Bush or Riverside whenever Stephen had something interesting on the floor, so I’d get off and come and do a play with Eartha Kitt, say. The other guys in the huts were totally disbelieving that I was doing that, this spotty idiot. Dick Levin was head of the Design department at the time, he was a second father to me, but it was Roy Oxley, the assistant head who was a practicing designer who actually gave me the job in the print room. So the thing about National Service was that if you were employed before you went in the firm that employed you had to take you back once you’d finished. I’d hardly been away because I’d very often been in the studio with Stephen.

 When I came back Dick Levin had decided that the general standard of design in minor programmes – talks programmes and panel games and women’s programmes, there was a ghetto called women’s programmes in those days – was not very good, so he was going to bring somebody in. He brought in the woman who had been the Head of Display at Simpsons Department store, who knew nothing about scenery or faking anything, a Russian-Jewish woman called Natasha Kroll, she was going to be head of this little unit called Studio Design. After a couple of weeks of drawing for other people I was given to her. Sean Kenny, who went on to revolutionize theatre design later, a chap called Keith Parry and myself were Natasha’s assistants, and we did umpteen programmes, three or four a day. So I’d be trotting from Lime Grove to the theatre to Riverside. So for example on a Monday it was Panaorama, This Is Your Life and whatever women’s programmes were on. So This Is Your Life was invariably in the theatre, Panorama was usually in Lime Grove in either D or E on the fourth floor and the women’s programmes were mostly in Riverside so you had to nip down there as well. And that went on for year after year, and every now and then you’d get some money to redesign something, there’d be a new season of What’s My Line? I made a little corner for myself in women’s programmes and all these women who produced those shows – Lorna Pegram, Monica Sims, Beryl Radley, Joyce Bullen – knew I wanted to be a director, so they let me direct on several occasions. At the S.D.U. we had our own stores, we had our own stores of furniture and scenery and odds and ends, and so you’d mix and match all these wretched programmes all over the place. Natasha had no idea about scenery as such, she thought that if you wanted a brick wall you got a brickie in, so one was forever heading her off from disasters of various kinds. But she did have a selective eye – Wow! Thanks to her and her assistants we raised the level of the general look of programmes. This meant that I was running around from very epoch-making talks programmes to women’s programmes and panel games. From my initial work as a messenger boy, I’d got to know the studios like the back of my hand, which was vital later on. Because of this patch of three or four years I’d worked with many different production departments so I had friends dotted all over the place. When I actually transferred to being a director that was terribly useful because I was known around the place. So in a sense I was protected from the selection process in the design department at this stage.

 I was seventeen or eighteen, and I’d always wanted to be in this world. The fact that I was working in Lime Grove was quite extraordinary because my upbringing had been on those ridiculous Gainsborough films, so I was in my element, even though Natasha Kroll was a very hard taskmistress. I remember one day I was working on some science programme and the director was an idiot. He wanted to have a piece of string tied up in the gantry and tied to a brick on the floor and he was going to pan down this and he wanted it backed. So I said, we’ll put a backcloth or a cyclorama round it. So he said, yes is that all you can do, and I said, you do realize that if you pan down a string against a plain background, it won’t look as though anything is moving? And he couldn’t understand that, he couldn’t grasp the fact that a piece of string will be a static image. It was this day, I remember, and I must have been doing something else for women’s programmes in another studio. I got back to the office and she said, “How was it?” So I said, “Oh, it’s one of those days, Natasha, when you think that life owes you something better” And she said, “Life owes you nothing” That was the tenor of the relationship. I was only a spotty kid, but nonetheless those lines sort of stay with you.

 After a few years Natasha said to Dick Levin, “Oh Dick, I do a play. I got bored with all this stuff, all this situation!” and the BBC were about to do The Lower Depths, the Gorky play.

BS. They recently rediscovered a print of that in the Library of Congress.

DB. Have they? Wow! Directed by Michael Elliott. So Sean and I assisted her and she really had no idea what she was doing. It was a joy for me to go with her to the meetings with Michael Elliott, whom I learned an awful lot from. That was live from Studio D on the forth floor on Lime Grove. I’ll never forget it. He had a Mole Crane, which was an enormous thing for that studio, and we designed a complete box set with bits of it that you could take away and there were traps that the cameras could look through. Michael started the play with this Mole Crane, its cable carefully wound round, inside the set looking back at a table. And there was a tin cup and he wanted a cockroach under this cup, and they were going to pick up the cup and the camera would pull out of this box set and then the thing would be shut. So when it got to the night it had all worked perfectly in the dress rehearsal. And apparently there’s the opening shot of the tin cup on the table in close-up and he said, “Is the cockroach there?” They said, “yes”, he said, “Show me!” so they lifted the cup – Shoosh! The cockroach jumped – and they were on the air! So the pictures faded up, the title over it, somebody picks up the cup and you get a pointless shot of somebody picking a cup up. That was a very memorable production because they used actors who were appearing in the West End. It was live on a Sunday night, of course, they would camera rehearse on the Saturday morning, and for the continued rehearsal when they had gone off to do their matinee and evening performances other actors would come in and stand in for them.

 That would have been early in 1958 and something else that happened at the same time was a programme called Monitor, which was a great discovery and success, and Natasha was particularly fond of doing that. Every now and again she got bored – “Oh, I bored!” – so either I, or one of the other assistants, would do it and work with idiots like Ken Russell. Well, he’s not an idiot but just – impossible. He rang me up one day and we were filming on the next day on Stage 2 at Ealing and he wanted a big roller-skating rink. So I said, ‘okay’, put the phone down and went to the scene dock and I said to dear Fred Lister who was the clerk down there, “What have you got that’s big?” Because we had a number of stock sets – the Tudor set, the Georgian set, or whatever, which were used in bits. He said, “Well, the Tudor set’s in…” But it was set in the twenties, when there was a great Tudor and Jacobean revival in decoration going on. So, guess what, we had a Tudor roller-skating rink, with lots of balloons and streamers and goodness knows what and people in twenties costume. It looked okay, I suppose.

LP. When Television Centre opened in 1960 –

DB. That was the date of the first programme to be made there. It didn’t open then. It was already there when I joined in 1953, in the sense that the scenery block was built and the Design Department were already in there with quite a few production personnel in there. The central doughnut was sort of marked out, but most of the site was still the ruin of the 1906 White City Exhibition. So there were great moldering pavilions and a huge empty steel tank, which had been a lake, and gradually that was replaced with the Television Centre. But people say that it opened in 1960 – it was the first transmission in 1960.

LP. But were you still based mainly at Lime Grove before 1960, or did you work on site?

DB. I was only in Lime Grove as a messenger boy in 1953, and when I got the job in the design department from 1954, I was in the Television Centre, and was there forever.

LP. So did being in Television Centre change the whole process of design and the way in which you went about it?

DB. Well, studios got bigger. I wish that I could remember when it was that things started to be recorded, but it was during my years of National Service in about 1956 and 57. When I came back we were still doing a hell of a lot of live stuff, but plays were being recorded by then. But you couldn’t cut the tape, because the tape was then useless – it cost £80 to cut the tape. Of course, electronic editing came in much later on so nothing got cut. Drama was editable in theory in the 1950s, but they still tried not to have to edit the tape.

The 1960s

LP. I was really intrigued to read you say in an interview that you had a role in designing the Blue Peter cyclorama.

DB. Yes, that’s another claim to fame. When I came out of the S.D.U. one of the things that designers did for three or four months at a time as part of the cycle was Blue Peter. And a rather extraordinary girl preceded me on it, Julia Trevelyan Oman It was her that cut the ship out of Perspex and put it at the back of the set, and that and something else that she designed, it all blew off the lorry. And she asked to be taken off the programme in the end because it was apparently disaster after disaster.

 So I was put on to it in 1962 alongside Edward Barnes who was the studio director at the time and a new girl called Biddy Baxter who had just come in as producer. And this was the middle of a season, so there was no money or man-hours, man-hours being workshop time. Prior to that, they’d had little box sets for the make, the animals and the other features, with a gap in the middle for the ship. So I just swept away all the box sets and put the cyclorama, which was there anyway, it was a standard thing in the studio, and I used some bits and pieces from the S.D.U. stock that weren’t being used anymore – the unit must have been disbanded by then – and I put up some shelves and some rostrums with rough matting on top for the animals and that was it. And Valerie Singleton, the new girl, and Christopher Trace were the presenters, and it must have included the Christmas edition because I remember hiring a sleigh from Pinewood with pantomime ponies drawing it, presumably with a man holding them and Chris and Val sitting in the sleigh with presents and things. And we had no money or man-hours or anything, but what we used to do in those days was ‘X’ things. In other words, if you saw something that you like in The Black and White Minstrel Show or the Sunday play or whatever, you’d issue a WVO – Works Variation Order – which said ‘Such and such a property to be ‘X’d for Blue Peter’ So I’d spotted some marvelous cane arches in The Black and White Minstrel Show. So I put them up in Riverside 1 so that they were self-supporting, covered them in p-lights as they were called in those days, fairy lights, and the sleigh drove down through these lights and came up to the camera and the show started. It happened like that on the air. On the dress rehearsal the sleigh came through the arches and something sticking out of the sleigh caught one of the arches and the whole thing went “Draaag! Clumph!”, a wonderful moment, and that was it. And forty years later they were still using the same set, basically, it got more and more glamorous. It was something that I’d sort of learned on This Is Your Life, really because you just never knew what you were going to be asked to do, and there was no money and there were no man-hours. So you had to have something that could disappear, in order to have a completely empty studio to put the Band of the Lifeguards or 500 kids singing carols into. You just took the shelves away and there was room for them.

BS. And that set still gives the viewer a sense of home, being centered on their sofa and shelves and ornaments.

DB. Oh yes, I didn’t give them any sofas, but that must have come later. It was imbued into us by Natasha Kroll that it’s got to look good, you don’t want to make them comfortable. She didn’t actually say that, but I can remember doing Sportsview and the producers always wanted comfortable armchairs to do interviews in, but we never gave them that.

LP. That reminds me of how all of the guests on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross would always complain about how uncomfortable the couch was.

DB. Yes, eventually things went the other way and all chat shows ended up with sofas, but the desk for the presenter to hide behind was always there in the early days.

BS. At what point were you promoted in the Design department?

DB. That’s a sticky subject. Because I was on my own in the studios all the time when I worked for the S.D.U, I was already in fact a designer although I wasn’t administering thousands of pounds as a designer. Doing three or fours shows a day was effectively my training scheme as a director. You sat with good bad and indifferent directors, and you saw how not to treat people and you saw how to do it properly. I never went on the BBC training course; my training was being a designer sitting on a chair behind the directors. When I came out of the S.D.U. I was given this patch of designing for shows like Blue Peter and it was still fairly minor stuff. But it was a BBC rule that you could act for five months in an elevated position, but if you acted for six months then they had to pay you. So you were always stopped after five months of acting as a designer, so you went back to working on the drawing board or doing minor things. This was called acting up – you were only given attachments to other departments. This acting up did enable you to be able to apply for a designer’s job with some backing when one came up on the board. I’d applied two or three times for an official job and was passed over. By the time that I got a designer’s job – you know how the tectonic plates move in these big organizations – they were getting towards not having a huge staff and putting people on contract. So I had a three-year contract as a designer. I didn’t go freelance until 1970, and that was to get from Arts and Features to Drama, just at the time that my twins were born. But I wish that I’d done it about five years before, because thanks to Ned Sherrin I was directing the Saturday evening satire show, and I was a sort of name then. I’d been headhunted by ATV, but decided not to take it up.

 Dick Levin had the idea that we were working as ‘taxi’ designers. ‘What does that mean, Dick?’ He said, “well, you know, we’re chugging along and somebody falls ill and we get another taxi driver designer off the rank and you go in and do it” And you got big plays that way – I got several big plays because people had fallen ill or fallen out with the director. One that I took over, August for the People, I’ll never forget it.

BS. Is this the one that wasn’t transmitted?

DB. You’re right and I know the reason! Marilyn Roberts Taylor was allocated to this play and she was very grand and swishy with what she designed and the thing took place in a vast stately home with the public visiting. So there were vast columns, it was a big set in TV Centre, and when I got to the studio – because I took it over quite late – there were huge gaps. I said to the scene boys, “What goes there?” and they didn’t know. I looked at the plans and they were no help, so I got some huge tapestries and covered up the gaps, and I spent my life persuading the standby painter and the standby carpenter to do things. That was something that I learned from Stephen – he used to spend all of his money and man-hours on one set and the rest you’d sort of fake up in the studio, he was very naughty like that. I shall never forget it, Eric Portman, a big movie star of the time, was playing the lead. I think it was one of the first plays ever to have five days in the studio because it was a long play. It was a stage play and they were going to do the whole damn thing. Brenda De Banzi was playing his wife, and she kept flirting with the camera crews and the prop boys and she was a lady of advanced years. And she was sort of pathetic really, because there was all this sort of girlish giggling and flirting going on with the camera crews and they were all going, [sotto voce] “God…” I’d watched the dress rehearsal and then went home – I didn’t stay for the recording because there was nothing I could do. I came in the next day to do something else and I met the callboy outside dressing room number 1 in Television Centre and I said, “How did it go?” He said, “You hadn’t heard?” “No” “We didn’t do it” So I said, “What do you mean?” “Well, I went to Eric Portman’s dressing room [knock knock] ‘Mr. Portman? We’re ready to record. [knock knock] Mr. Portman?’ ‘I can’t! [groans] I can’t!” He was exhausted, he couldn’t do it, and so they didn’t! Brenda Di Banzi was packed and out of the door in about five minutes flat.

BS. That production got as far as being announced in the Radio Times.

DB. Oh yes, well it would do because in those days recording dates were quite close to transmission.

BS. How did a commission normally work for a drama designer? How much advance warning were you given for a series episode or a big play?

DB. About two or three months ahead you would know that you were doing a play, and then your work would depend upon the availability of a script. It was called projected arrangements, and when I was with Natasha it was my job to keep the projected arrangements up to date, because we were doing so many shows that it was our bible and you’d have revisions come around so you’d tear off one arrangement and stick the new sheet in and all the rest of it. I’d underline in red the shows that we were responsible for and there was a lot of red underlining in those days. Then you’d discover what the name of the show was and who the director was and you’d wait to be summoned by the director who was the director and producer in the early days – later on there were producers of strands of plays or series and individual directors. Very often the scripts were late so you’d get a briefing, we’ll get you the script as soon as we can. When you got the script you’d see that it’s a pub and two cars in the studio, or it’s somebody’s tenth floor flat if you were doing Z-Cars or Dixon of Dock Green – Dixon of Stock Green as it used to be called by designers.

LP. Did you ever work on Z-Cars?

DB. No, I did draw one up, working with a designer called Barry Newbery and something weird happened. I did the working drawings for the workshops and the studio plan, which is what the assistant did. And somehow – I was blamed for it, I know, but I don’t know how it happened – I think when the lighting guy did his plan to trace his lighting plot he somehow got it so it slid off my plan, because all the lights were hung two feet out of position. So the sets were put up to my plan and the lights were for a different calculation. I got the blame for it, because I drew the studio plan, but since I was first and he then followed it, I don’t see how its possible that I was at fault. But this is crucial; because the director was one Julia Smith and many years later I was not hired for Eastenders until after she’d left as producer. It’s the sort of thing that people remember: I certainly remember about people who have let me down in that context.

 So, the designer would have to read the script before you went to see the director, but sometimes the script was late so you just got a briefing and would have to read the script later. And you would design what you thought the thing should look like, because you’d have to take into account how much money and how much workshop time you’d got. You’d then book all the stock scenery downstairs in the basement and then take the notional plan to the director and he would either agree straight away or say well, ‘I can’t actually get back far enough to do the wide shot on the pub set because you’ve got her kitchen in the way’, so you’d shift it, but usually it would be, ‘Yeah, great, okay’ and you’d go ahead. And then they would go into rehearsal out in the Acton Hilton and the AFM would mark the sets that you had designed with tape out on the floor and very often they’d misread them. I can remember designing The World of Wooster with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, directed by Michael Mills, another force to be reckoned with. I went out to rehearsal on one of these episodes – it was for the tech run with the crew and the designer – and I said, “Michael, why are they playing that scene up the chimney?” “What?” “Well, the two boys are standing over there in the chimney” He said, “Oh, it looked like an arch on the plan” They didn’t bother to look at the elevations.

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Booking opens for ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at University of Reading, 18-20 September 2013

The Minghella Building, University of Reading

The Minghella Building, University of Reading

Booking has now opened for the three-day, international ‘Spaces of Television’ Conference, held between 18-20 September 2013 in the Minghella Building at the University of Reading.

The conference will include four keynote presentations:

John Ellis (Royal Holloway): Everyday Spaces of Television Production

Julia Hallam (Liverpool): Liverpool in television drama: exploring spatial praxis

Michele Hilmes (Wisconsin-Madison): Co-Production and Transnational Heritage: The Imagined Space of Masterpiece Theatre

John Wyver (Westminster/ Illuminations): To get to the heart of it: spaces and strategies for television adaptations of staged Shakespeare

 The conference will also include two special panels:

Interviews with veteran television drama directors Darrol Blake (Doomwatch, Doctor Who), Piers Haggard (Pennies from Heaven, Quatermass), Brian Farnham (Rock Follies, The Borgias) and designers Peter Le Page (Armchair Theatre, Callan) Stuart Walker (An Englishman Abroad, Road)

A panel investigating television archives and their access including Tony Ageh (Head of Archive Development, BBC), Tim Beddows (Network Distributing), Dick Fiddy (BFI) and others

Screening: Reenactment by Andrew Ireland (Central Lancashire) of the 2006 Doctor Who story ‘Bad Wolf’, recorded under 1960s studio conditions (“Studio-bound – What does this mean in practice?: A Re-enactment Experiment with the British TV Series Doctor Who“)

 Conference papers are:

Mark Aldridge (Southampton Solent): Studio Action: Adam Adamant Lives!

Daniel Ashton (Bath Spa): “I’d advise anyone contemplating this to find a separate wing to live in”: Pride & Prejudice and Spaces of Cultural Heritage

Howard Berry (Hertfordshire): ‘Filmed Across the World, Made at Elstree’: How television made at Elstree in the 1960s and 70s brought a global experience to the small screen

Jonathan Bignell (Reading): Taking Puppets Seriously: Gerry Anderson’s 1960s Children’s TV Series

Steve Blandford (Glamorgan): Jimmy McGovern’s negotiation of television spaces and the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy.

Victoria Byard (Leicester): ‘I can only describe it by the forces it generates, not the shape’: fantastic spaces in Sky (HTV, 1975)

Sarah Cardwell (Kent): Frames and aspects: three adaptations of Persuasion

James Chapman (Leicester): Downton Abbey and contemporary British TV costume drama

Lez Cooke (Royal Holloway): The Unknown Spaces of Television Archives: Researching the History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK

Matt Crowder (Royal Holloway): That Was The Week That Was and the space of entertainment

Ollie Douglas (Museum of English Rural Life, Reading): Live reenactments of rural history on BBC Television in the 1950s

David Dunn: From Outer Space to the Outer Hebrides: Soap Opera Productions on the Cusp

Laura Earley (Glasgow Caledonian/ Gloucestershire) Championing the Studio: The Relationship Between Space and Style in Dennis Potter’s Non-naturalistic Television Drama

Carolyn Ellam (UEA): Critical Interpretations and Applied Cultural Meanings of Fantasy Spaces in The Prisoner (1967 – 68)              

Georges Fournier (Jean Moulin): Space in the fictions on Margaret Thatcher

Joanne Garde-Hansen (Warwick): Dennis Potter’s Extras: Below the Line Production Memories in the Forest of Dean

Elinor Groom (Nottingham): Adventures on a Boat: Southerner and Southern Television’s Freewheelers

Nick Hall (Royal Holloway): “The big city where the livin’ ain’t easy”: The urban ‘outside’ in Robert Altman’s Bus Stop episodes

Valerie Hazette (Stirling): From TV5 to TV5 Monde: A Travel in Space and History

Richard Hewett (Royal Holloway): Spaces of Preparation: The Acton ‘Hilton’ and Changing Patterns of Television Drama Rehearsal

Jason Jacobs (Queensland): The co-production of space and character in The Third Man

Richard Kilborn (Stirling) & Lothar Mikos (Potsdam): Till Death Us Do Part: Crossing Borders: New television homes for British TV sitcoms

Felix Kirschbacher (Mannheim): The Significance of Lumber.  Interiors and Exteriors of Evil in Twin Peaks

Simone Knox (Reading): Site and Style in Contemporary British Drama: London’s Chinatown in Sherlock

Stephen Lacey (Glamorgan): Studios and stages: actors, acting and the use of space in the BBC’s Performance series

Ben Lamb (Glamorgan): Spaces of performance: Armchair Theatre and the role of the set designer

Laura Mayne (Portsmouth): Televisual film, cinematic drama: space, technology and aesthetics in early Films on Four

Kevin McMahon (Southern California Institute of Architecture): Rooms against chronicles – The house in Edwardian TV

Douglas McNaughton (Queen Margaret): “How to produce by a false thing the effects of a true’: Televisual Representations of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

Darrell Newton (Salisbury): Subjectivity and the Spatial: The Usages of Media in Man from the Sun (BBC, 1958)

Joseph Oldham (Warwick): Spaces of ‘Realist’ Spy Dramas on British Television, 1978-82

Leah Panos (Reading): Studio Style, Space & Anarchic Revelry: ‘The Folk Singer’ (Armchair Theatre, 1972)

Frances Pheasant-Kelly (Wolverhampton): Bouquet of Barbed Wire Then and Now: Space, Aesthetics and Production

Martin Phillips (Leicester): Productions of rurality in the early 1990s: the roles of rural and national spaces in the production of rural television dramas.

Helen Piper (Bristol): Bolt holes and lock-ups: Anxious spaces and everyday places in early 1990s detective dramas

David Rolinson (Stirling): What Was Ahead: studio as gateway in Doctor Who – ‘Warriors’ Gate’ (1981)

Max Sexton (Birkbeck): Urban Imaginaries and Euston Films

Sally Shaw (Portsmouth): “I actually shot it on location at the Knightsbridge Spaghetti House” – depicting black politicised spaces in A Hole in Babylon (Ové, 1979 BBC).

Billy Smart (Reading): Within These Walls: The particular strengths and qualities of studio drama

Jan Teurlings (Amsterdam): The television studio as a peculiar panopticon: Reflections on studio space and its non-human actants

Gamze Toylan (Westminster): The League of Gentlemen: ‘90s TV Production: Filming a BBC in-house production in Yorkshire Television Studios

Faye Woods (Reading): Uncanny Thamesmead: The telefantasy social realist spaces of Misfits

Amanda Wrigley (Westminster): Space and Place in Joan Kemp-Welch’s Television Productions of Theatre Plays

James Zborowski (Hull): Representing the everyday in Coronation Street (1960 and 2013)

Booking details can be found here.

Conference queries should be sent to Billy Smart at w.r.smart@reading.ac.uk

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Spaces of Television articles on other websites


 A wide selection of ‘Spaces of Television’ articles have been published on other sites. Here are links to our articles on the Critical Studies in Television website:

‘TV history, the role of memory and Spaces of Television’ by Leah Panos

‘The case of Juliet Bravo: Why you have to watch all of a series to truly understand a series’ by Billy Smart

‘Spaces of Television’ by James Chapman

‘No school like the old skool?: CITV, nostalgia and branding’ by Victoria Byard

‘What goes around, comes around… Sky Arts and UK TV drama history’ by Stephen Lacey

‘Cars, spaces and places in British police drama’ by Jonathan Bignell

‘The invisible writer: Looking for Pat Hooker’ by Billy Smart

'World Theatre: Brand'  (BBC, 1959)

‘World Theatre: Brand’ (BBC, 1959)

An extensive essay about the 1959 BBC World Theatre production of Ibsen’s Brand, starring Patrick McGoohan, can be found on the Screen Plays website:

World Theatre: Brand (BBC, 1959)’ by Billy Smart


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Temple of Doom: Paul Temple (BBC, 1969-71)


‘Paul Temple: The Guilty Must Die’ (BBC1, 4 August 1971) Douglas Camfield’s characteristic mastery of depth of field is on display in Ros Drinkwater’s pop art studio. Just imagine what this must have looked like in the original colour!

(Review of The Paul Temple Black & White Collection, originally published on Tachyon TV, 2012)

 A common game played by fans of old British TV drama is identifying rival copycat productions in the eternal competition between the BBC and ITV. So, for example, Target shall forever be known as “The BBC Sweeney”, while few conversations about Enemy at the Door take very long before someone describes it as “the ITV Secret Army”. Sometimes these comparisons can be a bit unfair, but more usually they are uncomfortably accurate. So I can’t think of a better way to easily explain the intentions behind the strange case of Paul Temple than to describe it as “the BBC Saint

 The similarities in the formats of the two shows are striking; both series derived from long-running popular sources in other media, and presented the adventures of a globetrotting gentleman amateur detective, righting wrongs and solving crimes for no reason of reward beyond the hero’s own inherent chivalry. Before reaching British television screens in 1969, Francis Durbridge’s creation had already been heard on the radio and read about in novels since the thirties, been made into films in the forties, and then been adapted into an immensely popular radio series in Germany.

 This German success was crucial to the form that the inevitable television version of Paul Temple eventually took. With the stories being as popular abroad as at home, a Paul Temple series was likely to gather strong sales overseas. After a conventionally produced first series (none of which survives) a canny BBC Enterprises took advantage of German interest, and from then on Paul Temple became the BBC’s first international drama co-production, financed and filmed in association with Taurus Films GMBH of Munich. The resulting shows showed off their higher budget by incorporating extensive filming in exotic and glamorous European locations such as beaches and ski resorts, shot on cinematic 35mm film, before returning back to Television Centre to record the interiors on videotape. The series might have only run for two years, but had a very high turnover of production, churning out 64 episodes, with the BBC transferring producer Derrick Sherwin away from Doctor Who to oversee the demanding show at short notice – the effect on Who being the main reason that Paul Temple is remembered these days.

 Three years ago, Acorn released the eleven surviving colour episodes of Paul Temple on DVD, and a rum and disconcertingly unfamiliar type of programme it turned out to be when watched. The sense of disconnection between film and studio that viewers too young to have grown up with the convention often feel when watching old television is felt even by TV swots such as myself when Paul Temple switches back and forth between attempted James Bond-style glamour in Istanbul bazaars and a Wood Green interiors.

 Perhaps a series with a stronger sense of character and reason for existing might have been able to overcome this handicap of an oddly juxtaposed style, but Paul Temple’s major flaw lay in its insipid generic hero. Paul Temple turned out to be a man who it was very hard to care about or find interesting. He’s a successful thriller writer – as demonstrated by his complaining about his publisher and deadlines at the beginning of each episode – whose emotional involvement with the alarming situations that he faces varies between mild amusement and mild exasperation. Francis Matthews’ performance as Temple tried to convey this as a suave and admirable sang-froid, but the thinness of the material that he had to work with meant that he really came over as a detective who’s bored with his adventures. Ros Drinkwater, as his wife and partner in crime-solving, Steve, fared only slightly better, as at least the plots often required her to flirt with villains and dash about the place in a different natty designer trouser suit in each episode. The intention behind this couple was that the husband and wife shared brittle and ironic sparring dialogue with each other, a purpose generally sunk by this dialogue never quite managing to be funny.

 The original Acorn box set missed out the five episodes that only survive on monochrome 16mm prints, an omission rectified by this second collection. Seeing these particular shows in black and white doesn’t make as much difference as you might expect, as they happen to be the final five episodes of Paul Temple when resources for overseas locations had run out, and the closest thing we get to international glamour is confined to some stock footage of an Irish race meeting, so you’re not left feeling deprived of any diverting colourfulness that you might be missing out on.

 Seeing these episodes is an instructive lesson in the sort of things that reach the screen when a programme ends its run, limping exhaustedly towards completion. In one edition Francis Matthews is clearly indisposed and George Sewell steps in to do the necessary legwork to solve the crime, aided by three brief appearances of Paul Temple in filmed inserts. A couple of rather risky scripts reach production, the sort of stories that would have stayed in the filing cabinet if there was other material left to work with.

 These two stories aren’t necessarily the best of Paul Temple, but they do attempt to do something more interesting than the usual whodunit fare. John Wiles’ ‘Long Ride to Red Gap’ concerns a Surrey approved school, where a Lord of the Flies-style tribe of delinquent boys run riot around their drunken headmaster (Kevin Stoney) and terrorise the outskirts of Guildford, stealing dynamite and causing cars to crash while dressed as Native Americans. Another attempt at social commentary can be found in the final episode, ‘Critics, Yes! But this is Ridiculous!’ in which a Scottish holiday for Paul and Steve is disrupted by murderous goings on at a hippy commune. The suspicious locals – who perhaps inevitably include Angus Lennie – are appalled by the scandalous goings-on on their doorstep (“They’re dope fiends an’ layabouts! Aye, she used to be a nice girl until she went awa’ to that university”), while Temple’s attempts to intervene are met with hostility by the hippies (“You have bad vibrations, man”). A young Maurice Roeves plays the thankless part of the charismatic cult leader, less Charles Manson than George Best in a kaftan.

 Even an unexceptional drama series made by the BBC in the early seventies could call upon a raft of very talented and original directors to add mobility and intelligence to matters, seen here in the contributions of such familiar Doctor Who names as Michael Ferguson and George Spenton-Foster. This is most apparent in ‘The Guilty Must Die’, an episode directed by Douglas Camfield, whose audacious style (dramatic close ups, starting a scene by cutting into a detail, making rooms feel like unfamiliar and dangerous spaces) could always be relied upon to make the most routine scripts look as close to Hitchcock thrillers as television could achieve. He also knew how to cast a production in depth, seen here in the presence of Joe Melia and Sylvia Syms, and from the early moment that Michael Sheard appears in a minor role as a lovelorn accountant, you know that this is going to be an enjoyable fifty minutes. That said, you do also have the alarming sight of Patrick Mower as a swinging gold-digging seducer, chatting up Mrs. Temple in a swanky restaurant (“For a married woman, you’re very forward. Your place?”)

 Although a general blandness of characterization and vagueness of purpose don’t make Paul Temple an especially satisfying programme to watch, period BBC strengths of production and acting do mean that these episodes give genuine surface pleasure for the viewer. But the greatest promise that this release holds is in demonstrating the willingness of non-BBC companies to release black and white BBC programmes. Since 2Entertain have a horror of releasing any black and white drama that isn’t telefantasy then it would be great if the likes of Acorn could do the same thing for the BBC that Network do for ITV. Just imagine the sets that we could be enjoying: Maigret, Z-Cars, Doctor Finlay

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