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

By Iain Logie Baird, 2010, updated 9 March 2021

When regular television broadcasting over the BBC finally launched on 30 September 1929, a problem remained. There was only one transmitter available. As a result, for six months the Baird studios were forced to broadcast video and sound alternately at approximately 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-wise—to test the entertainment value of the new service.

The Queen's Messenger

Sometimes 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 WGY—their Schenectady, NY station—to test Ernst Alexanderson's 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 what was later done by Baird and the BBC in that it used three cameras. Director, Mortimer Stewart, mixed the feeds in a control box. However, only four Octagonal GE receivers were tuned in. A short segment of film footage of the production exists and can be viewed below.

An Opportunity to Experiment

For the first British television play, BBC radio producer Lance Sieveking saw the medium as an opportunity to experiment with new ideas. In collaboration with the BBC's young Head of [radio] 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 play is itself an adaptation from the novella La Morte Adosso (1923): 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 production starred Earle Grey as 'The Man', Gladys Young as 'The Woman' and Lionel Millard as 'The Customer'. Gielgud had originally intended to peform the lead role himself, but was prevented from doing so due to illness.

A script rehearsal with the Nevinson painting 'an Avenue Lined with Trees' in background

The flying-spot camera scanning the scene was fixed, and thus could not cut from face to face. Also, to maintain synchronism for receivers during scene changes, a chequered fading board needed to be slid across to provide adequate picture signal. The 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".

A more advanced rehearsal in progress, chequered fading board at left

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 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 in the canvas tent "theatre" set up for the occasion on a new 2100-lamp large screen. 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.

The 1967 Performance by ILEA

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 recording below is the of the production performed in 1967, with fairly accurate 30-line equipment specially constructed by Bill Elliot, a technician at Granada.

The reconstructed play was authentically re-produced and presented by the original producer, Lance Sieveking, supported by the original art-work, and used the original incidental music which had been retrieved from the 1930 gramaphone disc. The actors were students from ILEA, who were coached by Sieveking. You can watch some of this performance below.

Thanks to YouTube users sidecarcn and lmossey for posting these clips.