Stars and wipes
A series of Associated-Rediffusion video dramas make their way on to ABC in the United States
A 90-minute programme called ‘Three Roads to Rome’ is due to be screened soon by ABC over the American network. Lest anybody should forget here is the story of how this major drama brought its own drama to our Wembley Studios when recorded there by us for ABC. The man who co-ordinated all the technical facilities and saw it through was MIKE METCALFE, programme liaison engineer, and the author of this article.
‘Three Roads to Rome’ was the composite title of three separate plays, starring Deborah Kerr and with a glittering cast including Celia Johnson, Isobel Dean, Anthony Newlands, Jeremy Brett and Alan Cuthbertson.
Associated-Rediffusion provided the full technical facilities of Studio 5, and the whole of its production resources for the 525-line video tape recording. It was soon obvious that the entire 14,000 square feet of floor would be required to house the biggest sets since ‘An Arabian Night’, including a full-sized ‘practical’ carousel in an Italian market square.
Ronald Marriott, aided and abetted by his P.A., Helen the Best, became thinner but wiser as director, while the Americans sent a colourful quartet of producers to assist him. In order of meeting they were:
enter (at ceiling height) briskly: John B. Green (Executive Network Producer) quickly known as ‘Big John’. This could be because he was at least nine feet high and came from Texas. (Why doces he never stand still? Is the weight too much for the floor for more than a minute? ‘Hush dear, he’s thinking!’)
enter (legato con moto) ‘Beau’ Goldman (bow-tied associate producer and musical adviser): ‘Say, Beau, have you met Steve Race? He will write your music.’
exit Both (Control Room left) together with scripts, stop watches, blank music sheets, frowns and a brace of P.A.s.
enter (quietly, politely, inquiringly) Arthur Penn, legendary film, Broadway and television producer and other half of COE PENN production partnership. He is small, tweedy, bespectacled, but with an air of intent. ‘You say we can have eight cameras, all on two-shot? – That’s just fine!’
exit — with Ronald Marriott to floor, in a hurry.
enter – Bold Fred (Coe), fresh from Paris and preceded by his ‘you-name it — he’s done it and at the moment he’s television adviser to the President and they don’t come any bigger than KING SIZE’ – reputation. ‘Good morning’ (formal introductions) and, quick exit to his private viewing room (with telephone to gallery) calling over his shoulder: ‘Arthur, I want to talk to you about the lighting, and another thing, that scene where we are’ … A pause, quiet descends, the gallery settles and from the studio the pleasantly Welsh voice of floor manager Eric Cooper calls for quiet. Fred Pusey’s delightful Forum and Rome hotel balcony set appears on camera 1.
The cultured American voices (how beautifully Deborah and Celia have slipped into character) engage in the opening dialogue of ‘Roman Fever’ – the first play.
It is Monday morning. Vic Gardiner’s five cameras cluster above, below and all around the hotel balcony balustrade, sections of which are being continuously moved, just in case one of the five cameras can get a better two-shot, or maybe a small trench for the crane would give … a … better …
Before we had finished in the studio some four days later we had all learned a great deal about American production techniques. Quickly we found how to live with and interpret their methods and techniques to their satisfaction, while at the same time bringing our own individualism to the finished product.
Did I say finished?
The V.T.R. Room at Wembley looked like a first feature cutting room with a world premiere brought forward a month. From this do-it-yourself drama kit, Jim Runkle’s recording team, Harry Baker in charge of V.T.R. and Theo Duka in charge of tele-recording sound, worked like beavers to cut together a rough working copy from the dozens of ‘takes’ and bits of tape in order that the producers could have some idea of the production as a whole on the following day. (Perhaps even a timing.)
This was done on Friday and Saturday while Steve Race, with copious notes, a buzzing head and the prospect of a heavy week-end was charged to write the incidental music by Monday morning’s 9 o’clock band call. The American technique for major productions is to record the music and any effects required, post-sync sound, as in feature films. This was an innovation in live television production as far as we were concerned and considerable knitting of facilities was required to achieve it. It was, as far as I know, the first time that the techniques of live television, film sound and video tape had all been combined in this way.
On Monday morning, we assembled in Studio 5 to view the final cut working copy and to record the musical backgrounds required at intervals throughout the 90-minute production. Tony Bristow kept a firm hand and his urbane disposition visible throughout and the session was successfully concluded just as the last over-coated musician left the studio.
With, it seemed, an ever-increasing kit of parts, we ascended on the Tuesday morning to the dubbing theatre at Television House where George Willows and his crew bade us welcome, while Freddy Slade sharpened his chinagraph and his wits for the master mix. Sound tracks wild and sound tracks sync were combined to sound track master and while a fascinating series of numbers flashed by on the projection screen, the V.T.R. picture from Wembley appeared, as if by magic on cue from the dubbing mixer. (Sheer fantasy this!) Tracks were moved, cut, laid, wiped, stretched, blooped, padded, blanked and generally administered by ace cutter, John Butler, who was able to remove ‘dead air’ not by a fan, but by moving music tracks to cover dialogue pauses.
The prospect of replacing the theatre carpet was causing George Willows some alarm (Why can’t John B. Green sit down?). Ronald Marriott was down to his last set of finger nails and now had pins and needles in both legs. Faces various, looked in, paled, and left rapidly; but by Wednesday afternoon, it looked as if we had won. Thursday saw the happy wedding of track master sound, to track V.T.R. vision, while Friday morning saw the first-off replay of the entire production to most of the principals and cast.
The quality of all aspects of the production were the subject of very considerable praise from the Americans and the occasion for not inconsiderable sighs of relief from us. The impeccable lighting of Bob Gray gave Don Furness, in charge of racks, the opportunity to produce some of Studio 5’s finest pictures. During the production it was fascinating to see how the expert make-up, under the direction of Mary McDonough, coped with the changes in age and character of Deborah Kerr, who although rarely off the set for more than a few minutes at a time gave a shining example of patience and sweetness which charmed everybody. Her casual asides during the inevitable moments of tension reduced the floor to near hysteria on several occasions.
Much of the great success of this operation was due to the enormous co-operation given by everybody and the mustering of Associated-Rediffusion’s production facilities under the supervision of programme coordinator, Lloyd Williams. A complicated operation? Expensive? Time-consuming? Yes, possibly all three. But for first-class quality and guaranteed results on a national network where these factors count above all, come to Associated-Rediffusion, as ABC did.
About the author
Mike Metcalfe was a control section supervisor and programme liaison engineer at Associated-Rediffusion