A new biography written by Michael Seely, Directed by Douglas Camfield, is published this week by Miwk Books. Camfield (1931-84) was one of British television’s great directors, but the combined factors of his early death and the unavailability of many of his productions have left both the man and his works being only partially remembered.
There are three particularly good reasons to read Directed by Douglas Camfield. It paints a portrait of Camfield’s life and very distinctive individual personality, with many testimonials and memories from friends, relatives and colleagues (both behind and in front of the camera). It is a rare chance to read a full-length consideration of the career and works of a television (rather than film or theatre) director, an overlooked role in television when compared to the writer or even the producer. But the book’s greatest virtue is that it studies all of Camfield’s productions as a whole, not just the series that have made Camfield’s name known to fans of Doctor Who (BBC 1963-89) or The Sweeney (Thames/ ITV 1975-78). The chance to read about such fascinating productions as Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road (Thames/ ITV 1973), Accident (BBC2 1978-79) or Missing from Home (BBC1 1984) is extremely welcome. And it is to be hoped that it encourages greater interest and wider availability in such plays and serials.
One particular quality of Camfield’s direction regularly referred to by his peers and colleagues in Seely’s book is his meticulous preparation. Actor Gregory De Polnay’s description of the making of Camfield’s final production, Missing from Home, is typical:
“Douggie really believed in rehearsal, and we spent a month rehearsing the first three episodes before we went in front of the cameras. The result of this was that when we started filming the cameramen commented, “these actors really know their stuff!” He made you feel confident to try things. He had such faith in us that we felt we could really take this series and make something of it. He was a one-off and was loved and admired by all who worked with him.” (in Seeley 2017: 268)
I have written about Douglas Camfield quite extensively over the last ten years. When working on the ‘Spaces of Television’ project at Reading from 2010-13, Camfield always struck me as the model director of television drama from the 1960s to the 1980s, his productions equally fluent and exciting when working under the very different disciplines of studio, film or Outside Broadcast production. And in my work for ‘Forgotten Television Drama’, I often find myself most drawn towards the episodes of a neglected series that Camfield directed, his directorial style tending to reveal a programme’s potential to a greater degree than many of his peers.
Much of this work is as yet unpublished, and the publication of the biography presents a good opportunity to make more of it available. In his section on Z Cars (BBC 1962-78 – Camfield’s episodes in 1967-69 were from the show’s less well remembered second iteration as a twice-weekly half hour series), Seely devotes a couple of paragraphs to discussing Camfield’s rehearsal timetable. This is a précis of my findings in the second half of a lecture that I’ve given a couple of times, which I publish here for the first time, prefaced by a few biographical paragraphs about the different stages of Douglas Camfield’s career taken from earlier in the same lecture.
Who was Douglas Camfield?
“Having been an Art Student, Library Assistant, Dishwasher, Farm Labourer and Trainee in a firm of Woolbrokers, Douglas Camfield joined the BBC as a Trainee Assistant Film Editor. […] A part-time writer, he has six drama scripts to his credit. His hobbies are Aqualung Diving, Archery, Judo, Skiing and Flamenco Guitar.” (BBC Press Release: 1966)
Camfield had a considerable hinterland before he came to television, arriving at the BBC after studying at York School of Art and serving five years as a Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire Regiment, and the effects of both institutions (the draughtsmanship of the art student and the discipline of the Army Officer) can be seen in the type of director that he became. His joined the BBC as a Trainee Assistant Editor at the Film Unit in 1956, a highly unusual starting point for a TV director of the time, who generally came from theatre or radio. Camfield then slowly ascended the ranks of studio management as Floor Manager, Assistant Floor Manager, and Production Manager before finally becoming a BBC Staff Director in 1964.
Professionally, his peers considered him to be one of the pre-eminent television directors of his generation. Those who worked with him often say that; he was a great leader who managed his crews like an army regiment, encouraging great loyalty and outstanding contributions; he meticulously planned shoots in advance like a military campaign; he had tremendous zest and enthusiasm; and was blessed with a remarkable visual imagination and the ability to realize this onscreen:
“[Dougie’s] method of working (…) was detailed, decisive and exhilarating. He had the knack of generating excitement around him, and his enthusiasm was infectious. He had an ability to bring out the best in people. He got them to discover their own imaginative limits. He used to say that everyone could be a ‘poet’ in his own sphere” (Philip Hinchliffe, producer: 1993)
Camfield’s directorial career falls into three very distinct phases. He made his name as a staff director through his imaginative work on Doctor Who and Z-Cars, two exceptionally demanding series that combined very fast turnover of production with technically challenging scripts. It was under these tough conditions at the BBC that Camfield’s practical skills as a director were honed and continually tested, skills seen throughout his subsequent work.
Despite working as a staff director in the unpromising field of serial drama, Camfield’s exceptional facility for television was already attracting wider recognition in the ‘60s, receiving the unlikely accolade of a profile in Screen in which he defines his visually-led approach to television drama, stating that the good director needed to posses an “inner eye”:
“Try reading a virgin TV or play script. Do pictures come alive in your mind? The first time you read it, something should be happening in your private projection screen that you keep inside your head. As you go through a scene, you should be ‘seeing’ faces, groups, exciting compositions or at least a glimmering of how to stage this or that piece of action…” (1970)
In 1971 Camfield became a freelance director, generally dividing work between the BBC and Thames Television. As well as working on popular studio series (Public Eye ABC/Thames/ITV 1965-75, Van Der Valk Thames/ITV 1972-73), Camfield was one of the leading directors at Thames’ new Euston Films division, which produced series on 16mm film. Although Euston productions often look spectacular, their production was as demanding as studio drama, made under very stressful conditions at great speed. With a 50-minute episode of The Sweeney given two weeks to prepare, two weeks to shoot and two weeks to edit and dub, the practical qualities of a director like Camfield became very apparent. When the BBC eventually followed suit and tried to make its own Euston-style shows (Target 1977-78, Shoestring 1979-80), it too turned to Camfield to direct those.
Camfield’s pre-eminence and facility gained greater recognition in the final years of his life before his death at the age of 52 in 1984, being assigned with prestigious serials and TV movies, including a $4million, 35mm film of Ivanhoe for CBS (1982). It seems probable that, had he lived and continued directing for another 20 years, Camfield would have become a much better known figure.
Even if one were to disregard the quality of his work, such a career would make Douglas Camfield an ideal case study for a historical project that examines the use of Space in British television drama from the ‘50s to the ‘90s. Over 20 years, he worked for both the BBC and ITV and he was equally fluent in the three major forms – series, serial and single play – and modes – studio, film and outside broadcast – of television drama production of the time. In addition, because of his work on Doctor Who (and to a much lesser extent, The Sweeney) a small body of critical and historical writing already exists about Camfield that a researcher can draw from.
Studio recording in the 1960s: Z Cars
How did Camfield achieve his results? I’m now going to talk about the archive research that I’ve carried out in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham, in order to discover what specific individual production practices he used, and how these decisions possibly affected the final onscreen programmes. It’s worth briefly outlining how drama was put together in the television studio in order to establish just what a highly pressured process it was when Camfield started his career. In a typical twelve-hour day studio day, actual recording of the programme would only occur after supper in the evening, the preceding time having been spent setting up and in camera rehearsal. So, as in the theatre, television actors would only be performing the play for the audience at a set time in the evening.
For every 30 minutes of screen time, 90 minutes would be allocated to recording. So recording of an episode of Doctor Who would be run in sequence between 8.30 and 10.00 in the evening, with a few pauses in recording between scenes to enable changes of costumes and make-up, set dressing, setting up complex special effects and so forth. Recording had to be completed by 10.00 p.m., when technical staff stopped work. If recording overran by a minute, urgent overtime negotiations had to be taken to persuade people not to stop work, as could happen. For example, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven is missing its final scripted scene.
BBC production files provide first-hand evidence of how programmes were made, including extensive documentation of budgets, contracts, shooting schedules and much more. Paradoxically, the further that one goes back in time, the greater is the amount of material was kept, meaning that we can refer to exhaustive documentation for programmes from the ‘60s that no longer exist, but can do nothing but watch the programme itself for material from the ‘’80s. The extensive research has been already been carried out into Doctor Who provides a helpful methodology for how one might use this material, creating detailed insights into the practical difficulties of production. Here’s an example of what archival research can teach us about studio recording, taken from Camfield’s earliest surviving production: (CLIP: 14 Nov 1964. Doctor Who: Crisis (BBC1) + DVD information text)
Because such exhaustive work has already been carried out into Doctor Who, I decided to look instead at the unread production files for Camfield’s other ‘60s programmes, most particularly the police series Z Cars, to see if I could discover anything new about how he worked. I discovered a mass of helpful general things, and, I think, made one major new discovery. A few very important general points became apparent: Camfield always seemed to get productions in on time and under budget, these two factors being the major criteria which directors made their reputation at TV companies, quite as much as the perceived quality of the programmes that they made. He was also very astute about asking for expensive technical equipment very early on when preparing productions, much earlier in the process than the casting of major actors. A vital factor in how he managed to achieve his characteristic “inner eye” shots was that, unlike other directors, he generally used five cameras – the maximum number for a studio crew, allowing greater flexibility and speed to mix from shot to shot and scene to scene, but also making recording a more logistically demanding process.
Between 1967 and 1971, Z Cars had a rate of production even more demanding than Doctor Who, with two 25-minute episodes broadcast every week of the year. Z Cars’ producer Ron Craddock (1969-78) described the difficulty of such an operation: “I should think we have more screen time than any other BBC programme. There’s no margin for error, and if anything goes wrong we’re really up the creek.”
This continual turnover meant that very little time was available to put Z Cars together, with only eight days allocated with the cast for each week’s episodes; after two days shooting of filmed inserts the previous week, rehearsals took place from Monday to Thursday, followed by two days recording in the studio on Friday and Saturday.
Camfield’s skills of preparation and organization excelled when making a programme under such pressure, and information about Camfield’s rehearsal schedule in the production files reveals how radical his time-organisation was. The documents that I have found – full, detailed, minute-by-minute advance rehearsal schedules, rather than just calls to rehearsal – appear to be unique, suggesting that Camfield was the only director to prepare rehearsals in advance with such precision.
“Rehearsals are at London Transport Training Centre as usual, but as Douglas does not start with a read-through like the other directors, we’ll be sending you a call at a later date.” (BBC WAC TR/736/1)
“This schedule is designed to reduce irksome “waiting around” to a minimum, especially in the early stages of rehearsal. To make it work, artists are asked to be very prompt. One person being late can throw everything out of gear.” (BBC WAC TR/736/1)
Unlike any other director, Camfield dispensed with the rehearsal convention of the Day One read-through, freeing up considerable time devoted to giving more precise attention to scenes and running the whole production through.
Camfield’s rehearsal schedule:
Monday AM: Plot first episode.
Monday PM: Plot second episode.
Tuesday PM: Timed run-throughs of both episodes, followed by detailed work on both episodes.
Wednesday AM: Run-throughs and polishing of both episodes.
Wednesday PM: Technical run of both episodes, followed by Producer’s run of both episodes.
Thursday AM: Working through both episodes.
Thursday PM: Run-throughs of both episodes.
As we can see, the success of such an operation was especially reliant upon the promptness of the entire company. In the place of a read-through on Day One, every scene was plotted in sequence, the schedule allocating a specific time of between 5 and 15 minutes for the cast of each scene. Camfield’s rehearsal schedule required the cast to run through both episodes five times over four days, as well as interrupted rehearsals of every individual scene on four further occasions. This was exceptional practice.
Camfield’s Z Cars studio day:
10.30-12.45 Camera rehearsals
1.45-1.50 Run TK sequences
1.50-3.30 Camera rehearsals
4.00-4.10 Set-up for 1st run
4.10-5.15 1st run (in recording order) with TK
5.15-5.30 Set-up for 2nd run
5.30-6.30 2nd run
6.30-6.45 All artists/crew in station for notes
7.45-8.00 Director’s conference with Cam. & Sound Crew, Vision Mixer in Gallery (by arrangement with T.M.2)
This to-the-minute time management continued in the studio, where Camfield managed to create the time for two further run-throughs before recording. So, by the time that a Camfield Z Cars company recorded, it would have been the eighth time that they had run through the programme. I would suggest that it was only through creating a company so exceptionally well-drilled by the time of performance that Camfield could achieve his exceptionally precise and imaginative management of studio space.
Despite having undergone his demanding rehearsal process, actors always speak with great admiration about Camfield’s facility in the studio, attributing his ability to meticulous preparation. Actors felt rewarded by the great attention Camfield paid to all aspects of production, feeling a sense of assurance in what they were doing that was likely to create good performances:
“Television was still relatively primitive (…) 405 lines, and turret cameras with four lenses on the front. It was seriously complex stuff to direct well. Dougie got it right because your lenses had to be right, camera positions had to be right. It was recorded as live. Difficult stuff. I can’t speak to highly of Douglas. He was terrific.” (Peter Purves, 2004)
“At one time in the Control Room, Dougie looked at his notes and said, “It’s half past two, we should now be on shot 44 and we’re behind”. That meticulous!” (Kevin Stoney, 2004)
So, how do these production practices manifest themselves in Camfield’s few surviving episodes of Z Cars? Two sequences stand out in the earliest episode that we have: the result of a burglary, and a gang of burglars in action. (2 CLIPS: 08 May 1967. Z Cars: Finch & Sons: Part 1 (BBC1): One and Two) The first sequence is striking because of the time that the camera takes to steadily pan across the room, while the second achieves fast movement, integrating exterior and interior shots with extraordinary dexterity. Even though I know that there was a break in recording in between smashing the window and entering the room through it, I don’t know how Camfield achieved the shot of the gang seen through the room’s windows.
Z Cars: Finch and Sons: Part 1: Recording detail
Script Page 4. Re-take 7-12 and 12 to end of sc. (Artist dried) – 5.05
15. 47 (False start to scene)
19. Break – 10.52
25. Break – 14.15
26. Re-take 78-84 (Artist dried) – 16.40
32. Re-take 106-108 (Cam. bump) – 19.06
38. Break – 22.15
41. Re-take 137-139 (Wrong positions) – 23.12
42. Pause for cam. re-pos. Re-take 144-145 (Blow not hard enough) pause for cam. re-pos.
16. Re-take 48. (Pan round room) at end of recording – 24.58
The sheet of recording details for tape editing for this episode, provides concrete proof of the value of Camfield’s meticulous preparation, when we discover that he gave himself enough time at the end of the session to rerecord these two scenes, getting a trademark panning shot as good as possible and making a fight scene more convincing, two very familiar failings in much ‘60s studio drama.