16th November 1937
You are the ruddy optimist! I
thought you knew all about wireless, including the fact
that the television stuff only has a range of about 35
miles, although there are one or two freak places like
Brighton and Ipswich that can get it 50 miles away.
Also, that if you can get the sound,
you can get the vision (an exception to this, is that
the waves seem to go up and bounce back off the ceiling
and the sound has been picked up in New York)!
We are so sorry that you should have
fagged all the way over to Weston for nothing, but now
I'll write and tell you "all about it".
We were staying at Rickmansworth and had a show the night before at a
very posh Girls' School near Bishops Stortford.
get home until midnight, but up in the morning early,
bright eyes open wide - breakfast at 7.45 and off at
8.30. A beastly drizzly November morning but no
fog to speak of. Having my thinks focussed
somewhat ahead I missed a turning and took rather a long
way round, but we got to the Alexandra Palace at 9.30
and horribly derelict and dreary it looked, too, with a
tattered poster advertising some dead and gone Trade
Exhibition all across the front.
Alexandra Palace - Studios immediately below the mast
There was an old man sweeping the
leaves and waste paper off the front steps, so I asked
if this was the place ('cos it didn't look it)!
"Oh Yes Sir, this is the place, but
the Television Studios are all down the other end, they
only occupy one tower." So away we went and sure
enough, there were big brass bound swing doors and big
brass bound Commissionaires, but their uniform is much
too policeman-like to be homey and restful to a poor
bloody motorist. The 'Constables' at the door wafted
me on to the 'Sergeant' at the desk, to whom I produced my
Licence - I mean I gave my name and address and he
showed me through the window, where to park the car.
By the time I had done so, stage hands from the studio
were swooping down to carry in the junk. I sort of
apologised for having such a lot of it but they said
"That's all right, sir, that's what we're here for"
and we soon found that spirit pervades the place.
Everyone is cheery and jolly and helpful and thoroughly
interested in his or her job.
They packed us into the lift (lucky
that Dodie is more or less compressible) and up we went
to the second floor. Here the atmosphere changes
from that of a luxury police station to that of a hospital.
Long corridors, enormously lofty, painted walls and
thick silent lino on the floor. Fire appliances at every
corner and lots of blokes in long white coats flitting
about and looking horribly like surgeons.
Glimpses, through doors marked "Staff Only" of enormous
switchboards and electrical apparatus that seems to
We were shown into a dressing room
(with our name on the door, which made me feel very
professional). Here the hospital, police station
and theatre, were subtly blended. It was about 20
feet long by 10 feet wide by 40 feet high. One
window so far up it was almost out of sight. For
two thirds of the length of one wall, ran a built-in
dressing table with mirrors above it surrounded by
electric lights. On the opposite side, a full
length mirror and a wardrobe. In the corner, a
wash hand basin.
2 small tubular steel chairs
1 large ash tray
1 pot of cold cream
1 nest of waxed paper drinking cups
1 framed copy of instructions in case of fire.
Well, we felt we'd got a home of our
own, but as we were supposed to be rehearsing from 10 am
to 11, I wanted to get on and get the show set up, so I
snooped across the corridor into the studio. It
was about 140 feel long by 60 feet wide by 40 feet high
and was divided from the corridor by enormous sliding
doors (then open) with small doors let into them.
The small doors each had a port-hole through which one
could peep and so avoid barging in when there was
The walls were all hidden by scenery
of various kinds - all painted in grey and black
monochrome. About 15 feet up, there were steel
galleries running all round and in one place bridging
the studio. Inumerable steel bars ran across from
these, some supporting scenery, but most of them
carrying huge electric lamps, singletons, twins,
triplets and clusters.
About half way along the side opposite
to the corridor, was a booby-hutch about 10 feet high.
Below, it was divided into two cubicles one a sort of
telephone booth and the other, a dark cubby hole where
there was a television screen in which you could see
what was happening in the other studio. We didn't
go into Number 2 Studio, but as far as I could see through
the port hole in the door, it was the exact twin of
ours. On the flat roof of the booby hutch were
three of four small tubular steel chairs. Of these
more anon. Right up near the ceiling in one of the
shorter walls of the studio was a large glass panel.
This was the side of the little room where the Producer
sits, sideways on to the studio, with a television
screen before him. Another bloke sits in front of
him and another behind him, all facing the same way.
One of these controls the sound transmission and the
other the vision.
On the studio floor, in addition to a
large assortment of scenic furniture, were three or four
large pieces of electrical apparatus painted battle ship
grey and mounted on motor-car chassis. These, I
correctly assumed to be the cameras, but they are boxed
in to such an extent, that they don't look a bit
The cables leading to them are covered
with white canvas and so big that they look like fire
hoses. When I first saw half a dozen of them
snaking away along the corridor, I began to wonder where
the fire was. The camera has two lenses jutting
out, rather like a very large pair of binoculars, but I
fancy that one of them is only a sort of glorified view
finder for the camera man. At the side of the
camera is a little hole into which the camera man plugs
the end of a flex leading to his earphones. By
this means, the producer can talk to him when at work,
without the sound coming into the studio and being
picked up by the mike.
The mike-men have earphones too.
The mikes are on cranes consisting of a telescopic steel
upright with a long telescopic arm at right angles at
the top and the mike is hung in gimbals at the end of
it. The thing has a reach of 15 to 20 feet, so it
can be held just over the heads of the performers and
just of of view of the camera. It is mounted on
pneumatic tyre wheels, but not such big ones as the
cameras have. Each camera man has an assistant to
trundle him around, signalling his requirements
according to the producer's instructions by tic-tac
movements of his hands.
Wallace's sketch of a camera and boom microphone
When I walked into the studio, there
were about 20 of the white coated gentry there.
Some of them standing in groups talking highly technical
jargon. I found one bloke who was alone and asked
him if Mr Bussell was anywhere about. He said;
"Ah! That's just the gentleman I'm looking for.
He ought to be here by now. He'll have to be
shot!" I asked if there would be time to go out
and buy a wreath. He said he thought so as he
hadn't got his pistol loaded yet. I then asked if
there was a spot of space where I could start to set up
the show and he suggested the corridor.
just starting to unpack in the corridor when another
white-coat came along and, indicating a space about 2
yards square on the studio floor, asked if we could set
it up there. We were just moving to this new
position when a very large and heavy piece of scenery
crashed down off a truck, just brushing my elbow.
We nearly didn't televise after all. However, five
minutes later, another 'surgeon' came along and said "Oy!
I want that corner for Napoleon and Josephine.
Would you mind going just over there?" We went and
then Jan Bussell arrived and of course, he shifted us
again, but this time we stayed put and soon had the show
It was agreed that we should try "Pistol
and the French Soldier" and "Clementine" to start with
and Jan told me that before the show, I was to trickle
round to the front and say a few words. All the
cue I should get as to when the camera was coming to
life would be this -
from the camera man. Well, of
all the grim and ghastly jobs, to go and smile sweetly
and talk naturally to that black hole of a lens, with
the studio as silent as a tomb except for my own voice -
I didn't like it.
I don't mind facing an audience,
because I can usually find at least one face that looks
interested and talk to that and I don't much mind having
my photograph taken, even with a cine camera, because if
it's a failure, the negative can be destroyed and the
picture taken again.
But this bloody business combines the
worst features of both. You try talking to the
butt-end of a beer bottle and at the same time convince
yourself that you are being seen and heard by thousands
of people whose only interest for the moment is you.
It's not nice and the blessed camera is only about two
feet from your nose.
After that, playing the puppets was
comparatively easy, although there was a searchlight
shooting straight at us from the behind the camera.
The only way in which we could see anything at all was
by getting one eye into the shadow thrown by the puppet
on the back cloth. In this way, I even managed,
twice, to steal a glance out into the studio and to my
great joy, saw that the Stage Manager was chuckling like
anything. This was a great encouragement, 'cos I
reckoned he must be pretty hard-boiled with watching
shows of one kind and another all day and every day and
if we could amuse him, we weren't doing too badly.
Having lowered the curtain at the end,
I was made to jump nearly out of my skin by Jan's voice
booming through a loudspeaker: "Wallace - that's fine -
but this afternoon, I want you to come in front again at
the end and bow to the camera!" In two minutes he
was down on the floor with us and said it had "come
over splendidly" and there was no need for any further
rehearsal and that those two items would be just the
thing - and now, would we care to watch the rehearsal of
the television play that was going to be done that
afternoon, because if so, he would see about getting the
necessary permission from the Stage Manager for us to be
in the studio.
Of course, we said we should love
it, but we did want a drink first. However, there
was plenty of time for that, because the rehearsal
wouldn't be starting for at last half an hour. So
down we went, Dodie and I, into the great open spaces of
the main building, and eventually found a bar.
Then we couldn't find our way back, so I asked a youth - a
clerk, I guess - which was the way into the Television
Studios. "Oh", says he, reaching for the roof with
his nose "You won't get in there!" I said "Sorry,
but I'm afraid we've got to, we are artists", whereupon
the lad came to earth with a bump.
When we got back into the studio, we
were shown a very steep ladder leading to the top of the
booby hutch and there we sat like mice. It was all
jolly interesting, but we could hardly make head or tail
of it. First a group of actors in one corner would
come to life and start spouting, then they would dry up
and another bunch in another part of the studio would
begin. Actually, of course, the Producer was
switching from one camera to another.
In the afternoon, after our show, we
were able to nip down to a viewing room in the basement
and see on a television screen, the play we had seen
rehearsed in the morning and all the bits of the puzzle
dropped into place, with the scenes fading out and
fading in just like the flicks. The trouble is
that the focal area of the camera is so small, if they
show a person full length all facial expression is lost
and four people standing shoulder to shoulder is as much
as they can possibly get on the screen at once.
The result is that it is all close-ups. That's why
puppet shows are so popular. Our Stage Manager
told us that they had had lots there, but ours was the
best yet. We pulled his leg and said we supposed
he told 'em all that, but he protested that although he
has to be tactful, he needn't and didn't make any
comments at all if he didn't feel like it.
We had lunch in the Studio Restaurant
in the basement (run on cafeteria lines) and jolly
good too. We had roast chicken and ham and
vegetables and meringues and coffee - all very
Our show was exactly like the
rehearsal in the morning, only more nerve-wracking,
because we knew we were really "on the air" and not
disporting ourselves merely for the benefit of the
Producer and a few BBC blokes.
I had to be "made up" (handsome men
are slightly sunburnt) and was secretly much amused
because I was asked to sign the make-up girls' autograph
While hanging about, we had a long and
interesting jaw with an actor who was in the play.
He does a good deal of film work. We got away
about 5 pm and back to Rickmansworth and could hardly get
into the house because David was so eager to tell us
what it had looked and sounded like. All of them
except the Vicar (who, poor chap, was laid up with
lumbago) had been to see it at the local Radio Dealer's
place: Phil, Margy, Binks, the Curate and David.
It seemed so rum that they had seen and heard us
although we hadn't seen them since early that
The sound comes over about four times
more accurately and clearly with television than with
ordinary broadcasting. They said it was just like
listening to our real voices. In spite of the
make-up I appeared rather pale and haggard and at the
end, bowed right out of the picture! - because it was
only head and shoulders - that bit had not been
rehearsed, you remember.
But the opinion of the family was that
on the whole it was pretty good, so coming from that
source, I suppose it was fairly satisfactory.
Anyhow, Jan Bussell seemed genuinely pleased with it, so
I hope we shall be asked to go again.
Now don't say I haven't told you all
about it! I don't often write, but by jingo when I
Lots of love from us both.
Plaque commemorating the BBC's early TV broadcasts