Friday, 28 November 2008

Coming to You Live

About 50 years ago, William 'Ted' Kotcheff, one of the Canadians who shook up UK TV was directing a TV drama. He was one of quite a few Canadian TV guys who came to the UK in the 1950s to teach us how to make exciting telly with adverts in. Because none of us had seen Canadian telly at the time, this was pre-videotape (invented by Ampex in 1957 and coming to the UK in 1959), a fair few of them were able to come over and do this, convincing our industry bigwigs that Canadian telly must be a good model for our ITV, if only because it was in English, it wasn't American and you had to imagine the rest.

On November 30th 1958 (not the 28th as many sources have it) Ted Kotcheff was directing a live Armchair Theatre for ABC from an old cinema in Didsbury in Manchester which they'd turned into a studio. It was a play called Underground about World War III breaking out- Nuclear attack on London, survivors down in the Underground tunnels, all that, and because it was live, the actors would be nipping off behind the scenery whenever they went off to cover themselves in masonry dust and so on.
The now notable actors Peter Bowles, and Warren Mitchell were both in the play, along with a guy called Gareth Jones, a young plump Welsh actor. Gareth explains he's feeling a bit dicky as he's applying the powder between sequences, and then, in front of everyone, as he returns to the action Gareth collapses and dies mid-performance.

Luckily there's an ad break coming up, the remaining scene is muddled through (thankfully it appears it's one low on lines from Gareth) and during the commercials Kotcheff and his assistants, Verity Lambert and James Gatward gather the actors 'round. They tell them Gareth has just fainted and break up his character's plot functions between the rest of the cast. They ask them to busk it and tell the camera men to shoot the play like a football match- just follow the action. The rest of the play is staggered through as a semi-improvised piece, at the end of which Kotcheff announces Jones' death to the cast.

Now in the theatre an actor dies, and generally they take it as a sign you can end the show,
So why did Kotcheff carry on? Some reckon he did it just to show he could, in a piece of adrenaline aided bravado. Some have whimsically suggested he found himself possessed by a desire to take poor Gareth Jones' disappearing life as he slumped to the ground and pickle it in radio waves, beam an impression of his essence out through the Winter Hill transmitter across the stars, and into eternity, though primarily to homes in the North Wales, Greater Manchester and Merseyside area, and somehow keep him alive.

It was this kind of woolly techno-spiritualist thinking about electronically recording a dying man that partially informed my poor joke radio show the other day. The other part of it was inspired by a story told by someone from the British Sound Archive a few years back. They're 'phoned up at work by someone asking if they have any recordings of death rattles. They go to the database and say 'Yes, we've two, one 2 minutes 12 seconds and another 3 minutes and 8.' 'I've got those already,' says the caller in disgust. I've been wondering about what kind of guy a death rattle collector might be ever since.

I have a suspicion, looking at related TV disasters of the time, that Kotcheff actually kept going for rather more prosaic economic and practical reasons. He was told to. Armchair Theatre was a big audience puller and there was a lot of revenue to be gained in its ad breaks, if you stop a show like that halfway through, that audience goes and you lose the money.

I suspect there was nothing in the can on hand to fill the play's remaining time that wouldn't have disgruntled viewers more than a rather improvised finale to the drama they were already watching so that's what they got. This was ITV four years in and they needed the money badly, much like now.

There's a great example around the same period which I've alluded to here before where ITV finishes its presentation of Hamlet before the play ends. They need to get in the commercials before the end of the hour to make them peak time ads and get the top rate for them, so they fade to black in the middle of a speech and pop on a Kia-ora advert. This is Peter Brook's famous production with Paul Scofield, prestigious stuff, ruined, half the required corpses still standing. Legend is Lew Grade the ATV mogul is watching at home and he's furious. He phones up presentation and demands “What the hell happened? What happened?” and the guy on duty replies “Oh, they all died in the end, sir.”

Ted Kotcheff now produces the TV series Law and Order in the US, his most famous credits are probably First Blood the initial Rambo film and Weekend at Bernie's a film in which people try to pass a dead man off as still alive which you can't help imagining might have been informed by that night 50 years ago when Kotcheff did it for real.

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