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TV Trends: Drama goes live

Robert Weedon | Television | Friday 19th February 2010

The BBC's flagship soap opera is 25 years old, and to celebrate, tonight's anniversary edition was performed live to air, reviving a television tradition which, with a few exceptions, had largely died out in the late 1960s. However, once upon a time, whenever a play or comedy was shown, it was always performed live, as if on stage. There were several reasons for this.

Firstly, with TV being in its infancy, the direction taken by early broadcasters was to follow the traditions of another great institution - the theatre, where each performance takes place within the set-bound constraints of the stage. Actors were used to this format, and it made broadcasting a play easier.

Secondly, without modern editing techniques, and certainly no videotape, other than shooting and editing film, there was no acceptable way of recording performances. The pictures beaming across the nation were precisely what was happening live in London; if the lead actor inadvertantly belched in an actress's face, or a studio light fell down from the ceiling, then that was what everybody saw. If a repeat was needed, the performance was simply restaged, and for the most part, few of these performances were saved in any form, leading some to regard TV as an "ephemeral art form", especially in comparison to the safely celluloid-stored purpetuity afforded by a cinema film. Certainly, very few live TV broadcasts survive from that era - even famous performances and plays, such as Nigel Kneale's Quatermass Experiment of 1953 do not survive in their entirety.

Indeed, the first two episodes of that serial were themselves involved in an early experiment at saving a live transmission for reselling by recording it onto film. However, an unfortunately-placed insect appears to have scuppered that attempt, and only the first two episodes were retained. Following the introduction of videotape in the 1960s, and a corresponding move towards pre-recorded programming, live drama broadcasting died out, with series such as Z Cars being amongst the last to retain the tradition.

In recent years, there has been a mini-revival of the concept. This began with a remake of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005 broadcast by the excellent BBC Four. This, somewhat surprisingly, managed to under-run by several minutes, a fact attributed to nerves on the part of the actors. Since then, several other productions have taken up the mantle, such as Coronation Street, for its 40th anniversary edition.

As noted elsewhere on the site, live broadcasting of any kind throws up a series of problems all of its own, and a live TV drama is particularly challenging. Not only do the actors have to know what they're doing at each moment, but the crew - lighting, sound, cameras, editors - all have to be incredibly sharp and well rehearsed, with the director ultimately the god of the undertaking.

As for tonight's broadcast, there's no point in reviewing Eastenders as a prospect. It's a British TV soap, and so therefore a combination of 1960s Kitchen Sink realism and melodrama, and this episode ticked both of those boxes admirably, with scenes set in grotty bedrooms, a drunken pub wedding reception and a dimly lit set of urban streets. It was surprisingly ambitious, however, especially the huge Oliver Twist-inspired climax, where a main character is pursued across a rooftop by police before plunging to his death. This could have descended into chaos, but seemed to come off quite well (no pun intended).

Elsewhere, one felt a real underlying tension - the live transmission meant that there was a genuine fear evident in the actors, which, given the rather lurid storyline revolving around a murder and police investigation in which nearly everyone was a suspect, seemed quite appropriate. The half-hour episode ran over by only two minutes, and other than a few repeated lines, a brushed microphone and one Thick Of It-style piece of wobbly camera work towards the end, the whole enterprise seemed to go smoothly. I have to admit to being quietly impressed. I don't think I'll tune in next week, though...

Synth drumroll anyone?

Eastenders 25th Anniversary special

Channel: BBC One
TX Dates: 19th February 2010
Duration: 32.40 mins
Details: SD: Stereo, live transmission, widescreen
Writers: Simon Ashdown
Director: Clive Arnold
Producers: Lorraine Newman, Diedrich Santer (exec)
Overall: 8/10


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