Writers and performers recall their first broadcasting experiencesby Ian Irvine / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
In his memoir “Palimpsest,” Gore Vidal recalls beginning his career in television in 1954, with his play Dark Possession, written for CBS. At that time, plays were broadcast live. For actors on live television, normal stage fright was exaggerated by the knowledge that 20m people would be watching them and that should they forget their lines, learned in less than a week, there would be no more television work. There were many terrible stories… I watched one ethereal blonde girl, in the course of a tender love scene, soundlessly vomit on her swain. Dark Possession went smoothly until the first commercial, which was also done live. In a dramatically—even reverentially—lit corner of the studio theatre there was a special chapel for the Westinghouse refrigerator, for which we toiled. The high-priestess-saleswoman was absent that evening, and her place was taken by a young actress, who briskly described the virtues of the refrigerator. “And it all works so easily. You just press the magic button…” She pressed the button. Nothing happened. Close shot of actress’s panicky face. Then, as she gabbled incoherently, the sound of a crowbar prying open the door. On cue now, she turned, pressed the button and, like a lover come home from who knows what crusade, the door fell into her waiting arms. The next day the story made the front page of most newspapers. There was no mention of the night’s play. Evelyn Waugh records in his diary being filmed for US television, 30th June 1955. An excruciating day. They did not want a dialogue but a monologue. The whole thing is to be cut to five minutes in New York and shown at breakfast time. They filmed everything including the poultry. The impresario kept producing notes from his pocket. “Mr Waugh, it is said that you are irascible and reactionary. Will you please say something offensive?” So I said: “The man who has brought this apparatus to my house asks me to be offensive. I am sorry to disappoint him.” “Oh, Mr Waugh, please, that will never do. I have a reputation, you must alter that.” I said later… “You expect a lot for $100.” “Oh, I don’t think there is any question of payment.” Noel Coward records in his diary his first time live on US television, 24th October 1955. I saw the recording on Saturday morning, having been warned it was a rush job… They were right to warn me. I looked like an emaciated bull moose… It was not this, however, that concerned me. What did was that a great many of the camera shots were muddled and diffuse and taken from too far off. I therefore spent the rest of the day re-rehearsing the show insisting that practically all of it should be done in close-ups. It’s no use me trying to sing witty lyrics if you can’t see my eyes… At the end [of the live show] chaos set in… I was terribly touched by the messages from strangers all over the continent. What an extraordinary medium. It is hard to imagine those millions of people all looking at me at the same moment.