The other day one of my sons sent me a link to a You Tube video – of the Boswell Sisters. I’d never heard of them. It was filmed in the 1920’s and shows these three girls – in their twenties at the time? – arranged around a grand piano (one of them the pianist) and singing. I was surprised to receive from this lovely young man of mine, in his early thirties and a fan of such bands as Agalloch and Troum, a link to something as apparently dated as this. But just wait till they sing. Watch it and you’ll understand why. Their performance, their professionalism and their sheer talent is astounding. The precision with which they perform one incredibly tricky number and the feeling they manage to inject into it is seriously a bit mind-boggling. In this day and age when so much sloppy dross parades as innovation and talent, it is amazing to see what was done in those far-off days when all the technology you had to play with was a microphone and a camera. And in front of a live audience. If you blew it, then you blew it. There was no wiz of a recording engineer playing with a bank of sliders behind a glass screen who could patch a dodgy performance together at leisure afterwards. What you saw and heard at the time was what you got.
One of my great friends in the film industry was a very well-known UK television and theatre actor. He first worked in television in the 1960’s. In those days, like the Boswells in the 20’s, you had no help from technology. TV drama was transmitted live, and as he said to me, when you looked into that lens and knew there were over eleven million people watching you at that moment, it concentrated the mind. And didn’t bear thinking about into the bargain.
To make matters worse, going from one scene to another often meant a partial or complete change of clothes. If the scene in which you were a policeman detaining a suspect, followed immediately on one in which you were in bed with your wife, you had to run across the studio floor from the bedroom set to the street-corner set, throwing off your pyjamas and donning police uniform and truncheon as you went – and hoped, when you got there and the red transmission light went on on the camera, that you’d got yourself properly dressed. Which wasn’t always the case.
I myself can remember some of the gaffs of those earlier days of TV drama. It wasn’t at all unusual to suddenly see a camera, microphone or whole cable-run appear in shot. One year, in the immediate run-up to Christmas, the weekly play came to an end and whoever was in the control box that night forgot to cut the studio microphone. As the end titles rolled up with music, some studio-hand shouted out in the background at the top of his voice, “Whoopee!! We’re on our holidays!!”
That sort of thing added a sort of home-spun humanity and an accessibility – amateurism it was not – to professional TV which it doesn’t have today. Not that I see any reason to wish those days back. The sudden appearance in a love scene of a man in shirt-sleeves walking past the window with headphones on and a clipboard in his hand added nothing to the drama. But give or take such lapses, the irretrievable immediacy of it put people on their mettle. Not just the actors but the whole studio with camera and sound crew. It was just one of the factors that helped hone a level of commitment and professionalism which is rare in much of today’s homegrown TV where the ratings are more important than any cultural content. But all is not lost – as I’ve said here before, it’s wonderfully heartening to see the fantastic level of creative production at every level in Denmark’s ‘The Killing’ and France’s ‘Spiral’. Let’s hope some of it migrates UK-wards.