Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Experimental Moments: R.U.R. and the Birth of British Television Science Fiction

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Experimental Moments: R.U.R. and the Birth of British Television Science Fiction

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the BBC Television Service, the general attitude was that the medium was best suited to the relay into the home of events happening at that moment somewhere else. As T. H. Pear put it, in a response to the start of British television, 'In sightless broadcasting, we listen to real people doing things now; television adds "here" to the now. The feeling that, though still at home, one is looking at, as well as listening to, important events, will excite many who for various reasons cannot move away from dull surroundings' (n.p.). However, the introduction of drama to the television schedules meant that, while the viewer may have been watching people performing somewhere else, they were also watching representations of something that was happening in a place and time other than the here-and-now of the performance space or the home. Director of Television Gerald Cock stated that, 'I believe viewers would rather see an actual scene of a rush hour at Oxford Circus directly transmitted to them than the latest in film musicals' (qtd in Caughie 31). The introduction of telefantasy could be seen as a step even further away from the conceptualisation of television as transmitting what is happening somewhere else now because it shows utopias and uchronias, neverwheres and neverwhens, and thus provides a site for experimentation with the techniques and form of the medium - 'the showcasing of production innovations' which Helen Wheatley associates with the Gothic genre on television (23). This article will use the 1938 and 1948 BBC Television Service adaptations of Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) to illustrate and explore some of the ways that this experimentation took place, countering the tendency towards what Jason Jacobs terms 'the intimate screen' while also seeking to engage the developing audience of this new medium.

With an audience composed almost entirely of the well-off, metropolitan middle class,1 the prewar Television Service seems to have been more comfortable with this sort of experimentation than it would become in later years. To a certain extent, this can be connected to an explicit desire within the Service to establish an identity for television that would separate it from radio, film and theatre and to make the most of the technical and formal differences inherent in the system. As the Deputy Director-General of the BBC noted regarding the launch of the Television Service, 'we do not pretend to have passed the experimental stage. Our engineers are still learning and so are the men and women responsible for the creative work of planning and performing programmes' (Carpendale 5). Similarly, Janet Leeper wrote in a 1937 article for the Contemporary Review, 'as yet television does not know where to borrow or what to create; it is in an artistically experimental stage' (55).

However, there was also the desire, not to say requirement, to ensure that the audience was pleased with the programming so that the experiment with television would continue. This desire was illustrated, in part, by the early adoption of a form of viewer survey to assess the television audience, not only in their reactions to the material produced, but also to discover what sort of people were watching television, where it was being watched, where the viewers stood in economic terms and what their levels of education were. The first viewer survey was conducted in 1937, and was a very simple affair that mainly aimed to discover how many television sets were in use in private and public settings, 'to find out under what conditions the television programmes were being received' and to allow the opportunity for people to comment on individual programmes (BBC Listener Research Section 1). Later, more detailed surveys were conducted in autumn 1948 and December 1950. These surveys provide an idea of the way that the audience was perceived by the BBC, as they formed the basis of BBC policy, and so give us some idea of what sort of decisions were being made with regard to programme selection and the development of television aesthetics. …

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