Breaking the Intimate Screen: Pre-Recording, Special Effects and the Aesthetics of Early British Television

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The technological constraints of early British television encouraged drama productions which emphasised the immediate, the enclosed and the close-up, an approach which Jason Jacobs described in the title of his seminal study as 'the intimate screen'. While Jacobs' book showed that this conception of early British television drama was only part of the reality, he did not focus on the role that special effects played in expanding the scope of the early television screen. This article will focus upon this role, showing that special effects were not only of use in expanding the temporal and spatial scope of television, but were also considered to be of interest to the audience as a way of exploring the new medium, receiving coverage in the popular press. These effects included pre-recorded film inserts, pre-recorded narration, multiple sets, model work and animation, combined with the live studio performances. Drawing upon archival research into television production files and scripts as well as audience responses and periodical coverage of television at the time of broadcast, this article will focus on telefantasy. This genre offered particular opportunities for utilising effects in ways that seemed appropriate for the experimentation with the form of television and for the drama narratives. This period also saw a variety of shifts within television as the BBC sought to determine a specific identity and understand the possibilities for the new medium.
This research also incorporates the BBC's own research and internal dialogue concerning audiences and how their tastes should best be met, at a time when the television audience was not only growing in terms of number but was also expanding geographically and socially beyond the moneyed Londoners who could afford the first television sets and were within range of the Alexandra Palace transmissions. The primary case study for this article will be the 1949 production of H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, which incorporated pre-recorded audio and film inserts, which expanded the narrative out of the live studio performance both temporally and spatially, with the effects work receiving coverage in the popular magazine Illustrated. Other productions considered will be the 1938 and 1948 productions of RUR, the 1948 production of Blithe Spirit, and the 1950 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Despite the focus on telefantasy, this article will also include examples from other genres, both dramatic and factual, showing how the BBC's response to the changing television audience was to restrict drama to a more 'realistic' aesthetic and to move experimentation with televisual form to non-drama productions such as variety performances.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-66
JournalCritical Studies in Television
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015


  • Television
  • Television History
  • Science fiction
  • Television aesthetics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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