Eight decades later, TV's first drama script turns up

A copy of a Pirandello play, broadcast to a tiny audience in 1930, casts light on a media milestone – although the BBC at the time was unconvinced
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The Independent Online

Exactly 78 years ago tomorrow, four men and a woman gathered in John Logie Baird's new studio in central London and carried out an experiment with the infant medium of television. They had no idea they were about to give birth to an art form that would dominate the world and lead to decades of hand-wringing over sex, violence and profanity: television drama.

Baird, the inventor of television, a radio producer called Lance Sieveking and three actors broadcast the first play adapted for TV on 14 July 1930. The shaky 30-line live transmission of The Man with the Flower in His Mouth by the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello could only be seen by around 1,000 people. The technology used to record later broadcasts did not yet exist.

Now the script of that drama has been made available to the public for the first time, along with fascinating BBC reports analysing whether the experiment was a success or not.

The play was directed by the BBC's director of production, Val Gielgud, the brother of the actor Sir John. He had been due to take an acting role but was ill on the day of broadcast.

In June that year, during rehearsals, Sieveking wrote: "I have devised a production method, and a television dramatic script, which I hope may be the foundation of the future technique. Mr Gielgud and I, with the co-operation of Mr Baird, experimented with the possibility of quick varying focuses, to see whether in a play it would be possible to have 'close-ups' ... Though electric photocells cannot be focused as quickly as the lens of a camera, nonetheless the result is impressive and can be used dramatically."

He added that a "gratifying effect of perspective is obtained in a picture in which the back of the nearest speaker's head is seen, while beyond it, smaller, is the face of his vis-à-vis".

The shot he describes, still a standard one in the industry, was chosen because the script – about a dying man who sees the world in a fresh light – did not demand much scenery or camera movement.

Pirandello's original script, now believed lost, was photocopied by a BBC producer called Derek Brady in 1967. He and Sieveking were reproducing part of the broadcast to celebrate the Ideal Home Exhibition. Mr Brady has since kept his photocopy of the 15-page script – complete with original annotations and notes – until last week, when he handed it over to the British Film Institute's television archive.

Joan Moat, the BFI's head of special collections, said that Mr Brady's phone call came "out of the blue".

"He felt the BFI was the best place for it," said Ms Moat. "It's a very important part of television history. Very little exists from the very early days, so this is another piece in the jigsaw. It was, in effect, the first independent production – it was a Baird Company production."

Brian Robinson of the BFI added: "It was a great achievement for Baird, culture and the world. British television drama has produced some of the greatest art of the 20th century. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Harold Pinter all had their training in television drama. This script is the beginning of the huge international traffic in British TV drama."

Mr Brady, who also saved contemporary newspaper articles and reviews of the play, was unavailable for comment.

"Let it be admitted," wrote the Times drama critic of the day, "that plays by television are as yet a subject for men of science, not of critics of the finer points of acting. [But] the difficulties that have already been overcome are many and remarkable."

Also among the papers gifted by Mr Brady to the BFI was a BBC report from 1931. It said, less enthusiastically: "The experiment is still too recent for its implications to be grasped. It is possible that all the lessons learnt will only need to be forgotten."