Thursday, February 14, 2008

Like many television enthusiasts (all male, obviously), I have a tendency to record programmes that I never get around to watching. In my case, it's simple forgetfulness and lack of time. One close relative, however, uses 3 VCRs to record a vast amount of material, almost all of which is then labelled and filed, unviewed. Only when others ask him 'did you see...?' or a laudatory review appears does he dig the tape out and watch the programme. If the programme passes without comment from trusted advisors, the tape is re-used and so the cycle begins again. It's a quite brilliant system in a way, almost like an Ofcom logging operation, and in the days before BitTorrent, he was a reliable source of programmes we'd missed. I'm in the process of educating him on the subject of hard drive-based PVRs, which I suspect he'll adopt with gusto once the initial learning curve is negotiated.

For my own part, last week, I had a sudden urge to watch the 1964 'Wednesday Play' production of Jean-Paul Sartre's 'Huis Clos', translated as 'In Camera'. This play is best known for being the origin of the phrase "Hell is other people". I found it on a disc with a 1963 BBC West regional documentary about Swindon Town FC, directed by John Boorman. Both were recorded during BBC4's 'Summer in the 60s' season in June 2004, so it's only taken me 3 and a half years to get around to watching them. Back then, I didn't even have a DVD recorder, so they've been transferred from VHS, still unwatched, at some point since then. Strange how the archival mentality works.

Anyway, as my expertise is comedy not drama, I'll spare you a review of the play. Suffice it to say that I was gripped, that Harold Pinter - in a rare acting role - was superbly sinister, and that I'm slightly in love with Catherine Woodville, the future Mrs Patrick Macnee, who played a flakey socialite with a dark past. The one thing that I feel does need a special mention, however, is, rather aptly, considering the title of the production, the camera work. As with most drama of its era, it's a multi-camera studio production. Moreover, it's from the days before lightweight shoulder-mounted cameras. Every camera used will have been a cumbersome valve-filled box from the factory of EMI or Marconi (probably the latter, for reasons explained by Martin Kempton just below here), on a gas-operated Vinten pedestal with the footprint of a woolly mammoth. And yet, everything moves in a fluid, graceful manner, while one shot would appear to be impossible. At one point, Woodville walks around and around in a circle followed by a camera. A revolution or so would have been easy enough, but sooner or later, the camera cable would have got caught up and forced a jerking halt. There's evidence of this on a 1970s edition of 'Magpie' where a similar shot is attempted with the lovely Susan Stranks. Very soon, the cameraman is forced to admit that this is as far as he can go. In this play, however, the camera goes way past that point. How the hell was it done? Well, according to Bernie Newnham, ex-BBC cameraman and producer, this shot became a legend in Corporation circles, and was the work of his mentor, Jim Atkinson. The camera was hung from above, with the cable also hanging from above, thus not trailing on the floor and getting wound around the pedestal. Another of Jim Atkinson's trainees has since offered an alternative technique: the shot was done using a standard floor pedestal, with the cable arranged around it so that it unwound rather than tightened. Either way, I'm not surprised it became a legend. It's still a jaw-dropping piece of craftsmanship, however it was done. UPDATE: 18/2/2008 - Bernie has located someone who worked on the play, and the definitive answer is that the camera was on a conventional pedestal, but the cable was suspended from the lighting grid.

Bernie's excellent Tech Ops site (broadcasting history as written by the infantry rather than the generals, which is always worth hearing) has a page on Jim Atkinson, and I present the clip in question here.