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1970s, BBC, BFI, Billy Smart, Dead of Night, Don Taylor, Studio drama, The Exorcism, Uncategorized

Dramatic Spaces: The Imaginative World of the TV Studio (Dead of Night: The Exorcism, BBC 1972)

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Don’t have nightmares. We decided to open our season – ‘Dramatic Spaces: The Imaginative World of the TV Studio’ – with The Exorcism (BBC2, 5 November 1972) for two reasons.

Firstly, to celebrate and honour the writer and director Don Taylor, a passionate advocate of the imaginative potential of studio television drama; and secondly because the play is a quintessential, perhaps perfect, studio television drama: a story that could not be made in any other form – film, radio or stage – without losing some of the unique power and focus of this version.

By studio drama I mean drama that was made in the TV studio, recorded ‘as live’ onto videotape. This meant that performances on the studio floor were taped live through multiple cameras, with mixing between shots occurring, in a gallery in a separate part of the studio, at the moment of performance, rather than cut together in post-production, as in film. Although advances were made in video-editing technology to make the subsequent re-editing and reorganising of studio material more practicable, this process – of mixing between shots taken by multiple cameras at the time of recording – remained the essential form of studio drama until the 1990s.

This mode of production created a very different art form to the cinema, where directorial decisions tend to be more immediately apparent to the viewer. With studio television drama now a largely obsolete art form, it has become much disparaged even by those who worked on it. Producer Tony Garnett says:

A whole aesthetic had been invented to justify or glorify this way of making drama, but I thought it was dishonest rubbish (…) five or six cameras were deployed around the studio trying to catch the action while the whole thing was being simultaneously edited. This resulted in a form of crippled cinema on the run. (2014: 21)

Our season exists to counter this claim, celebrating what was distinctive and unique about studio drama by screening ten remarkable plays made in BBC Television Centre between 1964 and 1984. Don Taylor rhetorically asked what the television studio could offer that film could not. His reply was:

‘an empty space. A prepared canvas ready to paint on; the vacuum of an open mind waiting to be filled. It can offer the landscape of the imagination, ready to be entered, a world inside the head as vivid, often more vivid than the world outside the eyes that the film camera photographs so faithfully. It can offer nothingness, waiting to become something, a world waiting to be created out of the chaos of four characterless walls, a shiny floor, and a grid of lights. It is something waiting to happen, a statement ready to be made. One object or person placed within it makes a quite specific and individual point. Two, and the play begins.’  (1990: 171)

I’m going to establish three particular attributes of studio drama, explaining how they help The Exorcism achieve its effect, and illustrating each quality through a clip from another play.

The first attribute is closeness. The use of multiple cameras meant that directors could follow scenes from multiple perspectives at the moment of performance, able to move in and show performers in close-up scrutiny. This could create an unnerving sense of intimacy when watched by viewers in their own homes.

In ‘The Exorcism’ we do not initially see much of the characters in close-up until five minutes into the play, when Rachel sits at her clavichord – “just right for the cottage, small scale, intense”. We are only permitted to look into the characters’ faces once events start to become unsettling, observing the spontaneous nuances of their responses. By the time that Rachel becomes possessed this close observation has become relentless (barely cutting away from her for seven minutes) and unflinching (the camera unable to turn away from her sweat-drenched brow, foaming spittle and scrunched eyes).

Creating an intimate understanding of character through closeness was a hallmark of Taylor’s style, illustrated by my first clip, taken from the opening of a BBC Play of the Month version of Waste (BBC1, 4 December 1977), an Edwardian play by Harley Granville-Barker:

Taylor orientates the viewer’s understanding of the characters and the room through a series of concentrated close-ups, mixed in time to the music, creating space for the viewer to speculate upon who these intriguing people might be and what their thoughts are – an effect commended by Dennis Potter in a Sunday Times review;

The opening of Waste works well enough when you are trapped in the stalls, but is an instant switch-off on television. A woman is playing an over-elaborate dirge on the piano in an over-furnished room filled with over-dressed ladies. Too much! But Taylor began with the ringed hands on the ivories, and very slowly pulled back and back to let us take in the room and its inhabitants in a manner long sanctified on TV as the cliché device for revealing, say, a naked prostitute spread eagled on the nylon carpet with a knife stuck deep in her pectoral muscles.

– praise that suggests how good studio dramatic technique could also be found in more populist and melodramatic dramas than Waste.

My second quality of studio drama is its unique ability to convey interiors, especially rooms – suggesting how characters understand themselves through how they inhabit the environment of the rooms that they live and work in.

There are several reasons why studio television achieved this; the electronic nature of videotape meant that the images it recorded – in glowing colours, sharply defined to let viewers make out precise details of the set – were unlike the pictures that the film camera produces. The major television companies, especially the BBC, employed specialised in-house design departments, working to the highest possible standards, applying a wealth of experience to programmes. And the episodic nature of much television fiction trained the viewer to understand characters through the rooms that they saw them in; when we think of Steptoe and Son, say, or Stan and Hilda Ogden, we tend to imagine them in their homes.

The drama of The Exorcism is dependent upon the viewer forming a sophisticated understanding of – and relationship with – the rooms of the cottage; initially as a sophisticated renovated space of imaginative interior decoration filled with the best 1972 mod cons; then as dangerous, confined place full of traps and nasty surprises; and finally as the site of terrible historical suffering. As Taylor’s direction gradually reveals more and more of the space of the house and its organisation, the viewer’s eye can’t help but roam around the rooms of the cottage, even if only half-consciously, picking up details of the décor; a decanter, a Christmas tree. Objects that will eventually become important to the plot – the clock and carving light – are initially shown for momentarily longer, enough to snag against the viewer’s imagination.

The character of Rachel is shown to have a greater receptiveness towards the house, and her relationship with the space is presented differently to the others. Rachel is the only character who we really see alone in a room and reacting to the space, when she enters the dining room with candles and senses something, and – when she cooks or plays the clavichord – the only character who we see working or creating inside the cottage.

My second clip, from Double Echo (a play in the series The Mind Beyond, BBC2 6 October 1976), is a clear example of how studio drama could use the precisely realised environment of the room to comment upon the situation of characters. It shows an autistic teenage girl in her bedroom.

The arrangement of the room conveys a sense of order and placement. In turn, the neat placing of Alison within the frame presents the viewer with a sense of how the girl might fit in within this ordered world, helping the viewer understand her inarticulate frustration when this sense of order is broken by the record player not working. Once order is restored, a mix displays the world of Alison’s room, presented in the same circular movement as the revolving LP on the turntable, giving a sense of the meaning and security that that the girl might derive from her possessions.

My final attribute of multi-camera studio drama, is how the technique of switching from camera to camera within scenes could create tremendous dramatic rhythm. The mounting horror of ‘The Exorcism’ is conveyed through a series of disrupted domestic rituals; a clavichord recital; sharing a bottle of wine. It is at these points when the rhythm of camera shots alters, changing to a quick series of close-ups that show the reactions of all parties, making the viewer aware of the seriousness of the situation. Unexpected cutting can also disrupt this rhythm of shots selected. For example, during the party game with the ice cube, a sudden split-second cutaway shot of Rachel’s reaction in another room disorientates the viewer and makes the scene even more frightening.

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My final clip is from a 1973 Armchair Theatre play, The Golden Road, a rare and early lesbian TV play, in which a married couple take in a female lodger who starts a relationship with the wife. I’m going to play you a scene, in which the wife introduces the lodger to her mother-in-law, to demonstrate this studio sense in action. The rhythm of the scene is brought out through framing and shot selection that makes the underlying attractions and conflicts explicit, and tells us something of how much each character understands the situation.

Several things are worth observing here. On paper, the scene is potentially rather static – four people eating dinner talking about their lives – with action contained in the inferences of the dialogue. After a teasing, thematically astute, introduction with a close-up of unfamiliar exotic food, director Douglas Camfield brings out these inferences through close-up observation of individual responses, giving the viewer a precise and detailed sense of individual character; the lodger provokes, the wife is naively enthusiastic, the mother forbids, the husband spectates. It isn’t until three minutes into the scene that we get a prolonged shot of all four characters together. The scene also achieves mobility in how it places Anna within the frame, in charge of the evening, moving to and from the table. This arrangement is implicit in the script, but Camfield accentuates it by, throughout the scene, only moving the camera in shots where Anna is doing things; the character with the catalysing power to affect and change situations. It is important to remember that this scene, consisting of 44 shots in four minutes, would have been recorded in one take, with mixing between cameras done live at the moment of performance, giving the viewer a real sense of spontaneous reaction.

For me, the one cardinal virtue, unique to studio drama was the way that it blended space (the expanse of the studio, and the ability to present this studio space, cutting and mixing from different perspectives) and time (the time to watch scenes develop and performers respond to each other in real time). I hope that what I’ve shown today (the combination of closeness, rooms and rhythm) demonstrates how, if studio drama was “cinema on the run” these conditions could make it, not so much a muddled hybrid of a dramatic form, but something rather distinctive, even exciting, in its own right.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Garnett, Tony. ‘Contexts’ in British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future: 2nd Edition. Bignell, Jonathan and Lacey, Stephen (eds.) Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Potter, Dennis, ‘A real shaker of a play’, Sunday Times, 11 December 1977.

Taylor, Don. Days of Vision. London: Methuen, 1990.

(Text of a lecture given after a BFI Southbank screening of Dead of Night: The Exorcism on 6 February 2014. With thanks to Leah Panos.)

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