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

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager

£40 - 48k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Manager to join...

Guru Careers: PR Account Manager / AM

£20-30K(DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a PR Account M...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Account Executive

Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: One of the UK’s largest and most s...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence