John Baird; The Man With The Flower in His Mouth
‘Baird himself was always exploring the fringes of his imperfect medium, taking up one experiment after another, more with the passion of an artist than the prudence of a scientist’
Briggs. The Golden Age of Wireless 1965
Picture the scene. It is three thirty in the afternoon on 14th July 1930, and the first BBC television broadcast of a play is drawing to a close. The play is no lightweight knockabout comedy or melodrama, it is in fact Luigi Pirandello’s one act drama “The Man With The Flower In His Mouth”, written only three years earlier.
On the roof of John Logie Baird’s studios at 133 LongAcre, Covent Garden, a simultaneous broadcast of the play is taking place on the world’s first large TV screen. It may be only ten square feet, but this is practically IMAX compared to the ten square inches that Baird’s television sets usually run to. An invited audience of VIPs, including signor Marconi himself , has been winched up the outside of the building on a dangerous open-air goods hoist, to stand in a tarpaulin tunnel and witness the historic screening.
The screen is five feet high by two feet wide, and has been constructed with Baird’s usual mixture of inspiration and cack-handedness. It is made up of 2,500 incandescent light bulbs, which are red hot, and have started to melt its edges. A frantic message comes to the studio below to stop the broadcast, but the producer, Lance Sieveking, appeals to Baird. “He was a man with a tremendous sense of occasion”, Sieveking recalled. “He said ‘Tell ‘em to go right ahead and let it melt’”.
It would not have been the first time that an invention of Baird’s had melted, exploded, or caused near serious injury. Nonetheless the screening marked the transition of TV from entertaining novelty to creative medium. The Man With The Flower In His Mouth was the first great artistic acheivement of television; a combination of Sieveking’s artistic flair and Baird’s flawed, eccentric, but ultimately visionary genius.
Among the viewers of the large screen on the studio roof was the booking agent of the nearby London Coliseum. Thus two weeks later Baird British Television was hired for a fortnight’s run at the theatre.The screen was set up on the stage and received live broadcasts from Baird’s studios. This was the first recorded demonstration of interactive TV, as via a phone link from the stage to the studio the audience could make requests and ask questions of the celebrity performers. Among the rather odd assortment of celebrities who made gestures in response to viewers’ requests were the boxer ‘Bombadier’ Billy Wells, scout leader Lord Baden-Powell, and British fascist Oswald Moseley.
Two years earlier Baird had already demonstrated “Noctovision”, or transmission of pictures in the dark, stereoscopic TV ,the videodisc (six minutes of picture and sound on a 78rpm record) and colour TV ,albeit on a screen one inch square. The latter was acheived by a Nipkow disc, the heart of Baird’s system, fitted with green, blue, and red filters, and was successfully shown to the public on 6th July 1928 (“....a basket of strawberries showed the red fruit very clearly”). He actually intended to combine colour pictures with 3D TV, but never got down to the problem.
The broadcast of The Man With The Flower was the culmination of an astonishing period of creativity, but it was also, ultimately, his apogee. His own crude system was an evolutionary blind alley. What the world needed, and what it got by 1935, was an electronic system which gave high definition, and had no moving parts. In short it needed the cathode ray tube, and the TV system which came about from the combined efforts of many scientists, thousands of engineers, and the financial might of EMI and RCA. Baird’s construction of biscuit tin lids and bicycle lamp lenses could not compete, and yet , on his own apart from a small group of hand picked technicians, he consistently stumbled into the unknown ahead of the rest. His crude mechanical devices anticipated by several decades many media developments of the late twentieth century.
Video art is always arbitrarily deemed to have begun with the invention of the portable video recorder in 1965, and the seminal recording of the Pope’s visit to New York by Nam June Paik. Television before this is accepted to be mostly light entertainment, with sociological but not artistic significance. In fact, the early pioneers of TV had to find their own language, influenced by cinema, but also determined by technology, just as artists who work in video do today.
The Man with the Flower in His mouth stretched the boundaries of what was technologically and aesthetically possible on the TV screen. It was not in fact even the first ever broadcast drama. Ten months earlier, the radio station WGY in New York had broadcast a melodrama called “The Queen’s Messenger”, written by one J. Hartley Manners, and Baird himself had screened a play called “Box and Cox” performed by his loyal staff. But Pirandello’s one act drama was the first serious theatre piece that had been broadcast, with a talented producer and cast, and as Baird’s engineer Tony Bridgewater acknowledged, Sieveking “exploited this primitive medium to the utmost”.
And primitive it certainly was. Baird’s mechanical TV system was based on the Nipkow disc, a revolving disc with a spiral of holes in it that scanned the, hopefully immobile subject. In Baird’s case the disc was originally the lid of a biscuit tin, pierced with thirty holes, into which were inserted bicycle lamp lenses. Behind the lenses had been placed crude photoelectric cells, and the apparatus also made use of other readymades, such as carpet needles. Moreover the requirements of the system meant that the actors had to perform in a space eighteen inches wide by three feet high, only a little bit larger than a present day TV screen, in total darkness, whilst being scanned by a flying spot of light. Dancers on his later broadcasts complained that they ended up black and blue, as they kept falling over in the dark. The camera was static and the actors had to slide in and out of the fixed studio chair in order to deliver their lines.
The idea for the first BBC play had come from Baird’s indefatigable publicist, Sydney Moseley, with Lance Sieveking as co-producer and Val and his brother John Gielgud as principal actors. The play was chosen by Val Gielgud, partly for its artistic merit, but mostly because it had only three actors, plenty of long speeches, and little action. Sieveking was well known as an experimental radio producer, especially to Moseley who had been a radio critic. He regarded his co-producer as exceptionally imaginative, in fact “so much so that in many of the early plays he produced it was hard to understand what he was driving at”. The choice was inspired. If Moseley was the showman, and Baird the unworldly prophet, then Sieveking was the artistic engine who gave the whole project coherence.
Sieveking met with Baird’s engineers Tony Bridgewater and D.R. Campbell, and examined the broadcasting apparatus. In addition to the ludicrously cramped confines of the performing space, there were two other problems. Faces without make-up appeared blurred, and without definition, and also each time an actor got up from the performing chair to be replaced by another actor, the picture wobbled and lost synchronisation for several seconds.
Sieveking devised a fading board, like a large table tennis bat, which was lowered in front of the performing space while the actors changed places, but this was only a marginal improvement. Finally he replaced this with a sliding board of black and white squares, like a chessboard, which, surprisingly, worked. When pushed in front of the “camera”, the photo electric cells were not disturbed, and relatively smooth transitions could be acheived.
Gielgud and Sieveking had already commissioned specially painted backcloths by the then noted artist C.R.W. Nevinson. Given the definition of the 30 line Baird system this was somewhat overoptimistic (modern TV has 625 lines). Moseley himself commented acidly that for all the viewers would see of these they might have well used a sheet of newspaper or a household duster.
For the make-up, they discovered by trial and error that the best results were acheived with the forehead and cheeks painted yellow, and heavy blue lines accentuating features such as the nose. By the time the play went into rehearsal the two Gielguds were unable to perform through illness and had been replaced by Earl Gray as the man and Lionel Millard as the customer. Gray found the rather peculiar make-up “strangely unnatural” and not surprisingly was disturbed by the flickering spotlight. This was the first recorded use of special television make-up.
The play had just two speaking parts, with a silent appearance by Gladys Young as the Man’s tragic wife. A commuter who has missed his train regales a stranger with the trivial causes of this catastrophe. The stranger hints at a tragedy that has befallen him, that compels him to use his imagination to participate in the lives of complete strangers. He then reveals he has cancer of the mouth (the “Flower” of the title)
With an unconscious allusion to the future power of television, Pirandello’s Man spends days passively watching, staring through shop windows. ‘Helps me to forget myself’. He feels it attaches him to life. ‘I never let it rest a moment - my imagination! I cling with it.... to the lives of other people’.
Sieveking prepared a short explanatory announcement for the end of the play by going to Southwold pier and making for sixpence an aluminium record, at the end of which he clapped his own speech and hummed God Save the King. Dennis Freeman and Brian Mitchie played music effects on a portable gramophone, and the 16 year old George Innes, later producer of the Black and White Minstrel Show, was effects boy, sliding the chequerboard and taking care of the props.
The audience for the play was necessarily limited. Apart from the large screen projection on the roof at LongAcre, it consisted of those who could afford Baird’s domestic televisors, the cheapest of which was a then staggering 25 guineas. Few had been sold because until March 1930 it had been impossible to receive sound and vision at the same time. Because Baird had access to only one transmitter, the picture was transmitted first, silent, and then two minutes later the sound without pictures. This bizarre arrangement continued until he was granted the use of two transmitters only four months before the broadcast of The Man With the Flower. In addition, apart from the viewers of the big screen the rest would see the play on a screen the size of a postcard, the colour of which was usually not black and white, but orange.
The production opened with printed captions, mandolin music in the background, and a spoken introduction. There followed close ups of a glass and a musical score, and a conductor’s hand with a violin bow, before the cafe orchestra started up. These early television close ups were effected by pushing the fading board in front of the camera as a sort of primitive wipe, and placing the props in the four and a half square feet performance space before the board was pulled back to reveal the scene.
There were other close ups in the play, including hands and objects on a table. But what the audience saw was mostly the face of the Man or the Customer. This was unsurprising given the limited space, but Sieveking also managed to squeeze in a two shot. He found that if the back of the nearest speaker’s head was seen with the face of the protagonist smaller beyond it, this gave “a very satisfying effect of perspective”.
At the end the aluminium record was broadcast whilst a photograph of the producer taken in profile was shown on the screen. A few days later the BBC received amongst many letters, three from Birmingham, Dublin, and Lisbon, asking why the last speaker had stood sideways to the camera, and why his lips had not moved. It seemed that the brodcast had been received at unimagined distances from LongAcre.
Baird lived on until just after the end of the second world war, but the television world had moved on without him. He tried in the 1940s to market a large screen “tele-radiogram” with a two by two and a half feet screen that could receive BBC black and white as well as Baird’s own high definition colour transmissions, and even his own stereoscopic system. It also had a radio and an auto changing record player, a home cinema fifty years ahead of its time. But his reliance on mechanical methods until almost the end ensured his commercial failure. The Man With The Flower In His Mouth would remain in creative terms his finest half hour.
The production also received the distinction of the first television drama review by the Manchester Guardian. Unfortunately the TV critic not having a set of his own, he had to rely on the set at a local store, where there was a long queue to watch the play. The review ended plaintively “...I who was there professionally, as it were, arrived at the screen at the instant of a fade out”
Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless OUP 1965
The Guiness Book of television Facts and Feats
Moseley, Sydney, John Baird, Odhams Press 1952
Moss, Nicholas BBC TV Presents 1986
Norman, Bruce, Here’s Looking at You
Pirandello, Luigi, The Man With the Flower in His Mouth
Ross, Gordon, Television Jubilee, Allen 1986
Sieveking, Lance, Autobiographical Sketches
Smith, Anthony (ed), Television, OUP 1995
Wheen, Francis, Television, Century 1985