The dawn of US television in the early 1950s. A primordial moment when the potential for every kind of creature was possible. Where if you were a writer, you became master of your own universe. You could write anything. Play with time, mix genres, invent new characters, new fictions. As experimental as you could get without the police taking you away. Your only remit? To create a plot tantalising enough to keep an audience interested in that blender at the end of the show.
Early American television drama was driven by volume. Crudely put, entertainment produced on an industrial level. Programmes shot out of the blocks at speed, with enough of them to prove that the new fangled ‘tele-vision’ worked and that the ‘wires and lights in the box’ were worth switching on. We’re not talking about formulaic dramas here with established characters and dilemmas. Every feature had to give a fizz in the brain. Every offering had to delight in a way that the previous offering had delighted, but more so. The only way was up.
This imperative stretched the minds of screenwriters and hyper-concentrated the minds of actors who had to deliver the drama live. The implicit danger of the idea is only matched by the unimaginable creative rewards that came from embracing it. The experience, for those who had the confidence to work in this way, was often described autobiographically as a career highpoint. The gods have a special place for those who take such risks and reward such earthly bravery as the fullest expression of the human experience.
Actually, it also produced great entertainment.
Thanks to the kinescope process, some of these early, live dramatic productions have been salvaged. They have lived too long in the cinematic shadows, waiting to be brought out into the sunlight as a contributing parent to the modern film experience. To understand the power of the idea, indulge me a little by watching the live Studio One version of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (1954) and then the cross-fertilized version of the film of the same name, produced three years later in 1957.
Witness how Sidney Lumet, the director of film version goes out of his way to recreate the visual grammar of the TV original by Franklin Shaffner, where the urgency of the performances generate a ‘nowness’ and a new kind of visual reality. Some…