Writing for television and the editorial influence


The major problem facing any writer coming fresh to television is to understand what it is. Is it a new art medium or merely a new method of disseminating information? Is it simply an extension of radio, or is it just an inferior form of cinema? These are basic questions which require an answer. Before dealing with them, however, I would like to set down the three main problems which, in my belief, face any writer, new to television. They are:

(1) The problem, already mentioned, of understanding the nature of the medium

(2)The problems of time and space encountered in const rusting the script.

(3)The problem of lay-out of the script.

Now to deal with these in order. Perhaps the best way 1o start on the first is to compare television with other media and' to plot its affinities and contrasts.

Like radio, it is broadcast to a mass-audience grouped in small numbers; it forms part of a daily service; it may be produced inside the studio, outside it, or both; and each programme is consumed in one performance, or a small number of performances. Like the film, it employs cameras and the action is seen through lens; it is viewed on a screen; it employs simultaneously sound and vision; it employs grammatical devices such as the mix and the fade. Like the theatre it is a live medium; its actors or actualities give a continuous performance.

Now for the points of divergence. Unlike radio, television, must bow to the exacting demands of vision as well as sound. Unlike the film it is principally a live, as opposed to a recorded, medium although this may change with time; its action has only relative mobility. Unlike the stage play, its action can move swiftly from set to set; it plays to small intimate groups of people at short range.

From this brief analysis it should be apparent that, although television draws characteristics from these media, it can by no means be identified with any one of them. It has too many affinities with the film merely to be an extension of sound radio; it has too much of radio and the theatre merely to be an inferior form of cinema. It is a new and exciting medium in its own right. It is not even an alternative to the theatre or the cinema; it is rather a window on the world, a magic window through which can be seen passing all the sights and sounds and people of the day. Maurice Wiggin, the television critic, once called television "a periscope through which we can see how the world wags". This seems to me a definition it would be hard to better.

When I said that television was a live medium I was, of course, quite aware that it does employ both recorded sound. (on disc or tape) and recorded vision (on film). Most plays and documentaries use linking filmed sequences and some types of programme use a high proportion of film. When this happens television takes on temporarily the characteristics of a recorded medium, though its real nature remains the same. Being a living medium is the principal cause of what I have called the problems of time and space. These keep cropping up in various forms in every script and any writer who is determined to master television must develop a technique for dealing with them.

Let me give a simple example. In one scene a character called John Smith is drinking in a night club, dressed in a dinner jacket. In the next scene he is at his office next mornings .dressed in a lounge suit. In a film, this would be quite straightforward. The action would be recorded shot by shot and edited together. In television, however, the position is quite different because shot follows shot and scene follows scene in real time. If John Smith has to change his costume, the script must be constructed so as to give him enough time. Even if no change of costume is necessary, he must still be given time to walk from set to set, collecting any necessary "props" en route.

Occasionally the problem may be eased by the insertion of a linking film sequence but by no means every time. Within a scene the time factor still holds; if an actor has to lace up his boots, tie his tie, or even put on a car wheel, the actual time must be allowed. These actions cannot be telescoped, as in a film.

Closely allied with the problems of time are the problems of space and, indeed, they are often aspects of the same prob!em. Every set in the script has to be built and erected in the studio. Some sets can be managed by back-projection and other devices but, in general, all the sets demanded in the script must be erected side by side. From this it follows that their number will be limited by the available studio space; it is no use a writer asking for twenty-three sets, because he will never get them. He may get twelve; he is lucky to get more than eight.

This, considering the size of the larger studios, may seem an unnecessary curb on the writer, but there is a very good reason: the studio lay-out must take into account not only the disposition of the sets but the necessity of movement from set to set. The needs of the actors have already been touched on, but also there are the camera crews and their dollies, the microphone booms, the lighting men and a whole army of technicians. Unless they can keep up with the actors, the programme as a piece of television ceases to exist. The general rule is, therefore, that the more room there is for maneuver, the faster, the actors and technicians can move.

At its best, television has only relative mobility and its action moves from set to set, or from set via film sequence to set. Within each set the aciton is usually pegged to a room, an office, a shop, or some other unit until it moves on to the next scene and is pegged there. It cannot (as in the film) move down corridors, along roads, and up hills or down precipices. .For this reason the television scene is similar to the stage scene and the television script tends to consist of thirty to sixty such scenes, grouped into sequences and linked in the mounting I rhyth of the action. I should add that this technique of writing " was not invented by television writers nor borrowed direct from the cinema; it was developed by William Shakespeare

The number of sets and scenes employed in Hamlet or Richard III is very much the same as in a television script. If Shakespeare were alive today he would be our leading television writer. Certainly the present fashion for one-set plays would have driven him from the theatre.

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