July 14 1930 was an auspicious day for TV plays, as it marked the first time that a play was ever transmitted on TV. The BBC had been experimenting with John Logie Baird’s TV technology since 1929, running test transmissions from both Baird’s premises and their own radio headquarters at Savoy Hill. In the summer of 1930 it was decided that a drama should be produced as a new test for and demonstration of the medium.
The lucky title was Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth. Val Gielgud (yes, a relation), the production’s director, chose the play as it was only about half an hour long, had a confined setting and only had three characters: The Man (Earle Grey), The Woman (Gladys Young) and The Customer (Lionel Millard).
The production was broadcast live from a set at the Baird company’s headquarters, 133 Long Acre in London. Generally regarded as a successful experiment, it was watched by prime minister Ramsay MacDonald with his family at 10 Downing Street, where Baird had installed one of his prototype ‘televisors’ two months previously so MacDonald could view the test transmissions he and the BBC regularly broadcast.
Given it was early days for TV, don’t be too surprised to learn that it wasn’t shown in 1080p high-def or 4K Ultra. Instead, the video was a mere 30 lines – 1/36th the resolution of HD and a 1/20th the resolution of PAL. It also also wasn’t recorded, so that first ever TV play is lost to history, I’m afraid.
However, in 1967, a shorter version of the play was remade entirely in 30-lines by Bill Elliott of Granada TV in Manchester. He used student actors to play the parts and recorded the performance a stereo tape recorder: one track held the 30-line video signal; the other track held the audio. Not only did use his own home-built recreation of Baird’s televisor to act as camera and monitor for the recreation, he also brought in the play’s original producer, Lance Sieveking, to authentically reproduce and present it. Sieveking was also able to provide the original artwork used in the play and the same 78-rpm gramophone record that had provided the music in 1930.
This clip is restored from a Betamax copy of the 1967 video, filmed off-screen at 30 lines. And it’s this week’s TMINE play. Enjoy!