Acorns to Oaks
Two contrasting people write about two contrasting genres
An acorn of an idea can grow into an oak covering many hours of TV programming. Anybody can have an idea at any time. The hard part is to translate it into something which can be put into a TV studio and transmitted: to unite into a team all the dozens of people involved. On these pages, Fusion has taken two highly contrasting subjects… an educative series based, of course, on facts and a scripted entertainment series based on vivid imaginations. Two contrasting people write in their own way about each. The first article is by executive producer STELLA RICHMAN (ATV’s ‘Love Story’, Rediffusion’s ‘The Hidden Truth’, ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Informer’ which is to come this autumn). She allows her imagination full fling by putting down her ideal conditions for the production of a series. The second article is by executive producer GUTHRIE MOIR (Towards 2000′, ‘Design for Living’, ‘Royalist and Roundhead’). He sticks to the facts which led to the present 13-week series on the Civil War.
Cultivate under blue skies
The truth about television is that, apart from the actual title and perhaps original idea, no successful series ever belonged to one person alone. An idea is only something in a person’s head. Success or failure depends on the execution of that idea and, in the making of a series, dozens are involved, all of whom contribute.
It is, however, vital that the development of the basic idea is carried out as thoroughly as possible before the series reaches the studio. If we
lived in an ideal world, I would dream of something like the following happening…
First, Cyril Bennett as director of programmes would have to give his blessing to an IDEA – just a germ confined to two sheets of paper. I should then put someone else behind my desk. Preferably he would be someone with a heart of steel and an ability to add, someone who is con-man proof. Then I would collect people like Peter Collinson (producer), John Whitney (editor), Reuben Ship (writer) and Ian Hendry (actor) and go off on a yacht, preferably to the Greek islands. Oh yes, there would either have to be a tape recorder, or a super-type James Bond girl complete with an electric typewriter. We should then live on full pay for about six weeks, talking and thinking about our idea.
Ian Hendry is the only type of actor who would be allowed on this working jaunt, because he not only thinks like an actor, but is also one of the few actors I’ve ever known who can think in terms of a whole idea, not just his own character.
After six weeks, I should return to Cyril Bennett with a most beautifully typed working document, not, repeat, not format, for that is far too rigid. This working document would outline the character who would dominate the series, the background, six complete story lines, the supporting characters and the general development of the series. Perhaps there would be a little on how the producer intended it to go in terms of techniques. The whole lot would be tied up in beautiful ribbon and bound in leather (not too expensive).
After Cyril Bennett had read it and if he was in between crises, I am sure his good sense would prevail and he would join us on our yacht. There the clear air, the blue sea and the bluer sky would add to his already highly-developed critical faculties. He would go through the whole document with us, adding bits here and asking us to lose something there. After giving us some more money, he would return to Kingsway, happy and confident that we were going to bring home the bacon – eventually.
Our two writers would then start work on one script each from two of the six story-lines. The producer and I would then start thinking about the casting, the other writers (only two) we should approach. It might then be necessary for he and I to return to London to start planning the production and to talk to writers and actors and directors. Six weeks later, the two sun-tanned writers would return to London with their two scripts.
They would hand them over and beat a hasty retreat. Only after the producer and I had had them revised after much discussion with the writers would we give them to Cyril B. These scripts would show the leading characters and any other permanent characters, plus whatever permanent sets would be used throughout the series. They would get certain attitudes and behaviour across which had come out of our discussions. One of these would then be chosen as the pilot. By this I mean not the opening episode, but the one we should use as an exercise for the rest of the series – it would be slotted in around episode 5 or 6. While the producer (wearing his director’s hat) set up this episode for a production date six weeks later, the two other writers would be given the first two scripts to read. They would then be asked to a ‘talking out’ session and invited to submit three complete story lines each, but not a script yet. The story editor would be working with the producer on the pilot. Six weeks later we should have taped our first show. This would be nearly five months from the day we were given the go-ahead. At that point, this pilot would be shown to Cyril B., the other directors who were to follow the producer, the four writers and the leading characters. The camera crew, film camera man and editor and any other technician who worked on the show would be asked to come and see it probably a few non-contributors like secretaries and night-watch- men, would be asked too. Then a few of us would see it again for analytical purposes. After that, the real writing operation would start. Changes might be made to the second script before it would be given to a director. Four writers would now be working on 12 accepted storylines. Each would have three months to write and revise three scripts. Production of the series would start approximately three months after we had seen the pilot. All 13 scripts would have gone through to a second draft.
Involvement of regular characters would have been worked out to allow the maximum rehearsal schedule possible while still recording weekly. The story editor would stay with us until the last show had been recorded. We should work with a team of four directors only. Each director would have his three scripts before starting. And so, roughly 32 weeks after the idea had been passed, production on a major series would start. For eight months, a creative team would have been paid to think and there would have been no results to see for maybe a year.
Too much time and money? I don’t think so. An unrealistic dream? I hope not. Anyway, like most of us working in television, I am still a child at heart and believe that dreams always come true.
Fertilise with facts
The idea for the series came to me as I was visiting Boscobel House in Shropshire, where the young King Charles II hid after Worcester. Admiring the venerable oak in the grounds – descendant of the original in which the monarch hid – one halcyon spring day more than a year ago, I resolved to try to transmit to a wider audience some of the magic of these battles long ago and of our nation’s tortured conscience. The original oak was pulled apart by eager Restoration souvenir hunters and vandals the Age of Reason had them too – and its successor is fenced around to deter their twentieth century counterparts. The Boscobel Oak, as portrayed on a contemporary coin, has been adopted as a symbol for the television series among the screen titles and on the supporting literature. It even features on a special ‘Royalist and Roundhead’ series tie which will be presented to participants and distributed to a wider public.
Rediffusion possesses a small dedicated team of adult educationists: two directors Graham Watts and John Rhodes – the editor – Peter Hunt, and three researchers, Helen Littledale, Edward Hayward and Simon Buxton, the last two history graduates. The team is completed by Frank Jessup, head of the extra mural department at Oxford University, who compiled a special source book for the series Background to the Civil War (Pergamon Press, 12s. 6d.).
Working against the clock is the greatest nightmare for most adult education television producers. They and their schools programmes colleagues are the odd men out in an industry which prides itself on living intensely in the present and in putting out important special programmes at a few hours’ notice. They alone have to plan their programmes’ contents and set their presenters to work on draft scripts as much as six months to a year ahead of transmission if they are to relate their supporting literature effectively to the programmes and encourage serious viewers to creative follow-up work, without which even the best programmes remain just so many arrows fired into the air. Some months of research followed last autumn in the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and obscure local museums and sites of battles up and down the country. This produced the plan to interpret the period through its great representative figures like Clarendon, who spanned in his life of astonishing political and literary activity the whole period, and more, Coke and Eliot, Pym and Hampden, Strafford and Archbishop Laud, Charles I, Cromwell, Prince Rupert and Fairfax, the poets Milton and Marvell, Lilburne the pamphleteer, Hobbes and Sir Henry Vane, Charles II. University dons, including Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper of Oxford and Professor John Hale of Warwick, were consulted and contracted to write outlines.
Purely didactic programmes, particularly if they take the form of straight lectures on television, fit uncomfortably into an evening’s viewing in which entertainment predominates, and can deter even intelligent viewers who are not ready or in the mood for profound concentration. All speakers were requested, therefore, in conceiving their outline scripts, to try to assemble their material in a way that would lend itself to visual and dramatic treatment. Dons, like bishops, are accustomed to addressing their audiences from above and as a result many of them find difficulty in adapting their customary lecture-room techniques to the needs of television, where an effectively personal and relaxed manner wins viewers and its opposite repels.
All the outline scripts, setting out the gist of what was to be contained in each programme, had reached Television House by the end of January to be mulled over by all the creative members of the team. The presenters were then individually visited in their separate universities by the editor on the scripts, by researchers for guidance on illustration, and the director for timing, style and rehearsal. Dramatic sequences were discussed and agreed as were the use of actors to read speeches, poems and letters. It was commonly agreed that no dialogue should be invented and no imaginary scenes – every word spoken in the dramatic sequences had to be authentic, culled from the records of the period. By the middle of March, some of the earlier scripts were ready for recording. The session in the studios lasted the best part of a day for the presenter, with additional days of rehearsal, of course, for the actors.
One difficulty was found common to almost all the scripts. Each expert tended to presuppose in his audience a greater fundamental knowledge of the seventeenth-century background than could be counted on. After reading one or two programmes, it was decided that a special introductory programme to set the scene must be added. The programme started with the dramatic scene on the scaffold outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, Henry Soskin playing Charles I, not forgetting the stammer. Cromwell appeared twice, portrayed by Patrick Wymark, who said he had always wanted to try that part. Ludovic Kennedy, a professional historian himself, though of a different century, put the questions that the average viewer would need answering to get the most out of the rest of the series to Dr. Maurice Cranston. In the end not all the programmes were recorded in the studios. For Professor Trevor-Roper’s programme on Charles I, the whole team flew up to Chiefswood, his vacation retreat near Melrose in the Scottish borders.
It is difficult to assess the comparative value of adult education on television. Adult education programmes have only been regularly seen for the last three years. It is too soon yet, therefore, for completely satisfactory methods of audience research and assessment to have been established. Without much more detailed research, feed-back of audience reaction and follow up methods, such as are envisaged in the Prime Minister’s ‘University of the Air’ project, producers can never be absolutely confident that their programmes are giving their audience exactly what they want. All that can be claimed now with certainty is that the audience for series like ‘Royalist and Roundhead’ constitute incontestably the largest adult education classes in the country. A television series can present a string of experts of national repute in a way that no local class or group could hope to. Producers of such series have a two-fold responsibility and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the two parts. While it is legitimate to assume some basic knowledge of the subject matter and equally some will to learn in the viewer, as an educationist himself the producer is keenly conscious of the chance always open on the television screen, of catching and drawing and keeping the more general viewer almost unawares or in spite of himself. The dilemma with all education programmes remains how to satisfy the minority of serious searchers after new knowledge without alienating the majority of viewers, without whom national television networks could not exist.
Drawings by Brian Morris