"The Man with the Flower in his Mouth" - all about the first ever tv play, by Derek Brady

John Logie Baird started his experimental television work in Hastings, moving to Frith Street, Soho, in 1924. His first BBC transmission was on 2LO on September 30th 1929. His studios then moved to premises at 133, Long Acre and it was from here that the first television play was transmitted. It was broadcast at 3.30 pm on the afternoon of Monday 14th July 1930 on the National Programme of the B.B.C. Vision transmitted on 365,3 metres and sound on 261.3 metres Medium Wave, a low definition 30 line transmission.

A BBC radio producer, Lance Sieveking, was assigned to produce the play and the BBC's Director of Productions, Val Guilgud chose Luigi Pirandello's "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth" which had recently been broadcast as a Radio play. This was an avant-garde play dealing with cancer (the flower in his mouth was an Epithelioma, a cancerous growth on the lip). It's scenario is two men seated at a cafe table, engaging in a philosophical conversation.

A Times preview on 14th July remarks "The piece chosen - and having regard for all the circumstances, very perceptively chosen - by Mr Val Guilgud, the director of productions for the BBC - is a forbidding study of emotion in the shadow of death, which the B.B.C. might not ordinarily choose as part of an afternoon's programme, but its qualifications as a subject for the present experiment are overwhelming, for where else shall we find a play that is almost without action, that demands no depth of perspective, and that can be performed without grave loss though but one actor (and then only his head and shoulders) is to be seen at a time?".

It is of interest a television commentator was recently heard to remark that all pre-war telly was frivolous with fat men playing the xylophone and men prancing about with flowers in their mouth.

Lance Sieveking had two experimental sessions before the transmission and copies still exist of his reports to Mr Eckersley and Major Murray at the BBC -

sieveking_small (18K) Gielgud and Sieveking

brady_sieveking_script_small (28K)

"The Man with a Flower in his Mouth" script
The first session was held on 23rd June, 1930 with Mr Sieveking, Mr Gielgud, Mr Baird and Mr Sidney Mosely, Programme Director of the Baird Television Development Company, present. This session looked at the possibilities of dramatic close ups and the effect of make up. These issues were looked at again in the second session.

Sieveking reports that Mr C.R.W. Nevinson was engaged "to draw or paint the necessary scenery, and I personally interested him, so that he will be willing to accept a purely nominal fee". The scenery paintings were about three feet square and placed before the camera by means of a sliding arrangement. They depicted a street scene and a cafe set.

Sieveking also reported that "I have devised a production method and a television dramatic script which I hope may be the foundation of the future technique". The script looks remarkably similar to present day scripts with 15 pages and 29 shots indicating audio and visual content.

The second session on 25th June,1930 was held with Mr Sieveking, Mr Gielgud, Mr Baird and Mr Sydney Mosely present again, at which two conclusions were arrived at. The first regarding make up and the necessity of emphasizing the contours of the face, to compensate for the low definition picture. The second conclusion was regarding the fading board. This was painted dark brown and when presented to the camera the system became de-synchronised. This led to the adoption of a broad white line being painted on the fading board, thus maintaining a modulated signal to the system to retain sync whilst changing shots. On the day of transmission the effects boy operating the fading board was George Inns.

Sieveking also reported - "a very satisfying effect of perspective is obtained in a picture in which the back of the nearest speaker's head is seen while beyond it, smaller, the face of his vis-a-vis" The assumption is that this means the other actor, producing an over-the-shoulder two shot.

The production utilised many of the techniques used today. The script shows that music and effects from discs were used over the printed title captions and over Nevinson's scenery shown to establish the scenes. This then fades, using the fading board, into a close-up of the man. It goes on to use close-ups of hands, two-shots and mute cutaways of the woman.

The Radio Times listed the transmission for Monday July 14th at 3.30-4.0 pm on the National Programme, with the cast listed for the production as -
The Man with the flower in his mouth - Val Gielgud.
A Customer with time on his hands - Lionel Millard
The Woman - Gladys Young.
As it turned out, Val Gielgud had flu on the day and the part was played by Earle Grey, a member of the BBC Repertory Company.

brady_baird_televisior (26K)

         Baird Televisor
The wireless correspondent of The Daily Herald, watching on his Baird receiver reported -
"We had a little trouble with our particular televisor at first, but before long the images were coming over remarkably well. Val Gielgud - maybe because of his makeup, as I understand special makeup had to be employed - came over very well, but was not recognisable, in my opinion, as Mr Gielgud. Perhaps he wasn't meant to be". Perhaps this was because, in fact, Earle Grey was playing the part.

A Birmingham Gazette representative witnessed the reception on a Baird receiver at Webb's Radio Electrical Stores, Carrs Lane, Birmingham and was amazed by the wonderful strides made in television technique.

Representatives from the Times, the Daily Mail, the Manchester Guardian and other critics watched in a darkened room at 133 Long Acre and the Daily Herald Wireless Correspondent reported that he watched a privately owned televisor, operated under ordinary "listeners' conditions." The Baird televisor had a screen two and a half inches by one and a quarter inches.

At the start of the transmission a caption photograph of Lance Sieveking was shown whilst an aluminium disk recording of his voice made for 6d at the end of Southwold pier was played. On it Lance Sieveking made an explanatory announcement (this is indicated on page one of the script). Through an oversight the photograph used was in profile. This turned out to be useful as several letters arrived at Baird's office later, asking why the speaker stood sideways to the camera and how he managed to speak without moving his lips! These letters proved that the transmission was received successfully, and as far away as Dublin and Lisbon. The press notices on 15th, July emphasised that the "Radio play was Heard and Seen" (Birmingham Gazette) and "Actors Heard and Faces Seen" (Daily Herald).

brady_headline2 (40K)

Transmissions after the move to 133, Long Acre had started to combine sound and vision but in limited form. From 1929 onwards there had been some experimental transmissions of ballet dancers and ladies singing to camera which are assumed to have carried sound but were transmitted after normal hours. The press headlines on July 15th emphasized the fact that the actors were seen and heard thus combining radio sound with vision to create television.

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth not only was the first television play to be transmitted but was one of the first significant sound and vision transmissions. This was the first consecutive sequence of shots to be transmitted and Lance Sieveking devised the first television script. A significant advance in television technology!

The BBC year book of 1931 states "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth was chosen for the first television broadcast of a play in July, but the experiment is still too recent for its implications to be grasped. It is possible that all the lessons learnt since this first play was broadcast will only need to be forgotten". A low key and negative entry for such a significant and ground-breaking development in television.

In 1968 the Baird Television Company approached the I.L.E.A. Television Service to co-operate in recording a reconstruction of "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth" which was to be used at the Ideal Home Exhibition later that year. The 30 line transmission was to be shown on an original Baird Televisor of 1928 vintage alongside the latest range of Baird television sets of 1968. Lance Sieveking came out of retirement to produce and direct the play with Baird and I.L.E.A. technical staff and I.L.E.A. drama teachers as actors.

brady_baird_1_small (16K)

brady_baird_2_small (16K)
The photograph shows a thirty line camera made up, mainly from original Baird parts, being operated by Derek Brady. The camera was a modified televisor constructed by Bill Elliot, (at that time with Granada TV in Manchester). He placed a photomultiplier behind the Nipkow scanning disk to create a signal, by replacing the neon originally used in the receiver. Note the Nipkow disk and the chequered fading board (which was presented to the camera by a mirror), these can be seen in this photograph. Lance Sieveking is shown sitting in the background.

The second photograph shows Derek with an actor in costume and make up of the time.

Lance Sieveking directed the reconstructed production and advised on costume and make up. He coached the actor's style of speech and their delivery of lines to replicate the radio drama style of 1930.

The aluminium disk recording of Seiveking's introductory words was not available for the reconstruction so what had proved to be the all important accompanying profile photo caption which defined and confirmed the transmission range in 1930, was dropped.

The reconstruction started with music from the original Odeon 78rpm disk used in 1930, played over the opening titles. These faded into one of C.R.W. Nevinson's paintings and Sieveking's voice, recorded by Robin Dolman of the ILEA. This was intended to set the scene for the play. The lines "An avenue, lined with trees" to "sipping a mint frappe through a straw", heard on the reconstruction, are said by Lance Sieveking. The reconstruction then goes into the body of the play.
brady_TMWTFIHM1 (43K)
The rest of the artwork commissioned by the B.B.C. from Nevinson was not used in the reconstruction although I assume from the script that they were used in the original transmission of 1930. The 30 line reconstruction transmission was recorded on a quarter inch twin track audio tape running at 15ips. and used for playback at the Ideal Home Exhibition.

Here it is, the reconstruction of the first ever TV play, The Man with a Flower in his Mouth -

Derek Brady, November 2007

TV Dawn - www.tvdawn.com
Copy of original script. July 1930
BBC internal memos 23rd and 25th June 1930
Radio Times entries July 4th and July 14th 1930
Television Magazine July 1930
Press cuttings July 14th 1930 The Times
Press cuttings 15th July 1930 Daily Mail, The Times, Daily Herald, Birmingham Gazette, Manchester Guardian, Nottingham Guardian, Blackburn Times.
Press cutting 20th July 1930 New York Herald Tribune
Extract from BBC Year Book 1931 Howard Rose (Page 193)