Execution Revives Live Television

By Turner, George | American Cinematographer, February 1986 | Go to article overview

Execution Revives Live Television


Turner, George, American Cinematographer


Television delivered one of its occasional surprises last November 17. On that evening, for the first time in about a quarter-century, ABC-TV presented an original, prime time, live TV drama. It was a two-hour show, The Execution of Raymond Graham.

To those of us who had grown up watching theatrical movies, the live dramas presented a curious mixture of pluses and minuses. Visually, they fell far short of film standards. Generalized lighting, sometimes ponderous camera moves, unavoidable gaffes that cried out for retakes, that pervading grayness that was a blight of TV transmission in those days - all these were bothersome to viewers accustomed to the expert photographic techniques customary in even the smaller theatrical films. The carefully lighted closeups so beloved of moviegoers were painfully absent. There were no post-production refinements. The sound likewise fell below Hollywood standards, with a scarcity of musical scoring and much unwanted noise.

And yet there were certain aspects of live TV drama that riveted the attention and commanded the respect of the viewer. Most critics overused the word immediacy and cited the similarity to watching in-person performances on a stage. However it is hard to get much immediacy from the fuzzy black and white images that were delivered to small, rounded screens of the period.

More probably it was the high quality of dialogue, direction and acting that made live shows memorable. With visual opulence out of the question, these aspects were emphasized. The acting was superior to most of what we were getting in the movies. The stage training, the rehearsals, the fact that the players were able to build their characterizations chronologically instead of in scattered takes, the emotional involvement that comes with good ensemble work - all of these things showed.

They show, too, in The Execution of Raymond Graham. TV equipment and techniques have improved immensely since the days of Playhouse 90, too. There isn't a clumsy moment in what must be the most precisely timed show ever attempted on TV. (We can use the present because, while the show was presented live in the Eastern United States from a studio in Toronto, it was taped for delayed broadcast on the West Coast.)

The play was written by MeI Frohman and directed by Daniel Pétrie, a veteran of live drama whose last work in the medium was a memorable version of Joseph Conrad's Victory with Eric Portman and Richard Harris.

A dozen cameras covered Execution, which was televised in one long take (except for commercial breaks) after four weeks of rehearsals. About 17 minutes of the show was pre-recorded on tape, consisting of scenes shot inside a real prison, an auto, a phone booth and some houses. …

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