Baird Television logo

The Play's the Thing: The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

by Iain Logie Baird

When television broadcasts over the BBC finally launched on 30 September 1929, a problem remained. There was only one transmitter available. For six months, the Baird studios were forced to broadcast video and sound alternately at two-minute intervals. After the activation of a new Marconi transmitter at the BBC's Brookmans Park facility, simultaneous vision and sound television broadcasts could begin. The date of the first official sound and vision television broadcast was 14 March 1930. With the Baird/BBC television service now fully on air, the BBC began to plan something ambitious programme-wiseto test the entertainment value of the new service.

Often erroneously identified as the world's first television play, The Man with the Flower in his Mouth was actually the second. The first occurred on 11 September 1928, conducted by General Electric from their Schenectady, NY stationto test Ernst Alexanderson's new 48-line television system. The play was The Queen's Messenger, a melodramatic piece by London-born J. Hartley Manners. Arguably it was a more adventuresome production than the first British play would be in that it used three cameras however, the technology was essentially a copy of the Baird system. Director, Mortimer Stewart, mixed the camera feeds in a control box. Only four of General Electric's octagonal television sets were tuned in. This was because only four existed! One of the four was used as a studio monitor and can be seen in the thumbnail below.

For the first British play, BBC radio producer Lance Sieveking's reaction to the new medium of television was to see it as a situation in which he could experiment with new ideas. In collaboration with the BBC's head of drama, Val Gielgud, he brought an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's short play L'Uomo dal Fiore in Bocca (1923) to 30 line television as The Man with the Flower in His Mouth. Pirandello's L'Uomo dal Fiore in Bocca is itself an adaptation from a short novel: essentially a philosophical dialogue in a cafe between a man with a cancerous throat (hence the title) and a businessman who has just missed the train to work and has time to kill.

The flying-spot camera scanning the scene was fixed, and could not cut from face to face. To maintain synchronism for receivers, a chequered fading board needed to be slid across during scene changes to provide an adequate picture signal. the cast rehearsing the playThe fading board was operated by 16-year-old trainee George Inns, who grew up to become the producer of the long-running (and now politically incorrect) "Black and White Minstrel Show". Four black-and-white backdrops were created by the well-known artist C.R.W. Nevinson in the Baird system's 7:3 aspect ratio. To get the requisite definition of features, faces were made up in grey-white with blue lips. Apart from the faces of the three actors, close-ups of their hands were cut in. Incidental music was furnished by a gramophone.

The play aired on 14 July 1930. On the roof of the Baird Company's 133 Long Acre premises, dignitaries including the wireless pioneer Marconi watched the play on the new 2100-lamp large screen in the canvas tent 'theatre' set up for the occasion. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, to whom Baird had gifted a deluxe home Televisor a few months earlier also tuned in to the broadcast at No. 10 Downing Street.

In 1967, Radio Rentals who owned the Baird brand approached the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Television Service to co-operate in recording a reconstruction of The Man with the Flower in his Mouth for the Ideal Home Exhibition later that year. The video at the right is the one performed in 1967, with fairly accurate 30-line equipment specially constructed by technician Bill Elliot at Granada. The reconstructed play was authentically re-produced and presented by the original producer, Lance Sieveking, supported by the original artwork, and used the original incidental music which had been retrieved from the 1930 gramophone disc. The actors were students from ILEA, who were coached by Sieveking himself.

Further reading
Derek Brady and the Story of the Man with the Flower in his Mouth