The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

The First British Television Play – 1930

The Man with the Flower in his MouthLuigi Pirandello’s “The Man with the Flower in his Mouth” was transmitted from the Baird studios in 133 Long Acre, London, on 14th July 1930. For the first play in Baird’s modest studio, Val Gielgud (of that Gielgud family!), the productions director, chose one with only three on-screen characters:

The Man (i.e. with the Flower etc..): Earle Grey
The Woman (his wife): Gladys Young
The Customer (who missed his train): Lionel Millard

In 1967, an edited version of the play was remade entirely in 30-lines and recorded onto a stereo tape recorder. One track held the 30-line video signal (with the innovation over 1930 of having sub-black synchronising pulses, as used in analogue broadcast television), the other track held the audio. Bill Elliott, at that time with Granada TV in Manchester, used his own modified Televisors acting as camera and monitor. However, the most exciting feature of this re-make is that it was supposedly re-produced and presented by the original producer, Lance Sieveking, supported by the original art-work (by C R Nevinson) and music recording.

There is a ‘however’ to that. The BBC had made their own version at roughly the same time in the 1960s and the audio introduction to that by Sieveking sounds absolutely identical, suggesting at least that the audio introduction was ‘borrowed’ by the ILEA from the BBC. If that’s the case, then it calls to question the claim that Sieveking personally oversaw the ILEA production.


The Content

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, frame 1 The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, frame 2The stills from Bill Elliot’s videotape, re-played from reel-to-reel tape recording, shows impressive detail on 30-lines, as illustrated on the first two captions. (The second one says “by Luigi Pirandello”).

The captions are accompanied by the strains of the original music from the very 78rpm disc that Sieveking used in 1930. The music you hear comes from the actual 78rpm music disc of ‘El Carretero’ used by Sieveking for the introduction, which is now owned by Paul Sieveking, Lance’s son and co-editor until 2002 of the ‘Fortean Times’. I transcribed the disc and restored the audio as best I could, and registered this audio recording with the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) in 2004. The clip below is the first 30 seconds, not used in the 1967 remake.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

On the soundtrack (YouTube video below), once the music fades out, we hear the voice of Lance Sieveking describing the scene. ‘An avenue lined with trees…. electric lights gleaming through the foliage….’

And so started the joint Baird-BBC Television Play…

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, frame 3 The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, original art (left) This is a picture off-screen from the 1967 re-make. When compared with the original art-work (right, from “Television” August 1930), the graphic is mirror-reversed. Although Bill Elliott’s camera used mechanical scanning on 30-lines, he used a mirror mounted in front of the lens which he tilted to provide panning (not done in the original broadcast). This gave mirror-reversal and would imply that the text captions were printed left-right reversed for the reconstruction – or more likely that he recorded the captions separately with the mirror swung out of the way . The slight skewing of the picture is caused by the ‘camera’ being arc-scanned (as was the original play), but displayed with straight lines.

The Cast of 1967 in 30-lines

Off-screen shots

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth 1967 - The Man The Man with the Flower in his Mouth 1967 - The Woman The Man with the Flower in his Mouth 1967 - The Customer
The ‘Man’, the ‘Woman’ and the ‘Customer’
Amateur actors – all unknown but possibly with a link to the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority)


NOTE: The YouTube version comes from the double CD The Dawn of Television Remembered and unlike other versions available on the net from Bill Elliot’s footage which he gave away to many folks on 625-line video Sony Betamax tape, this version has had the audio remastered, the new ‘El Carretero’ transcription inserted and the video cleaned up.

Is it an authentic version of the 1930 play? From a production point of view, it’s close and how close depends on whether the story of Sieveking returning with the original props, captions and incidental music, is correct or not. At time of publishing my own view in Restoring Baird’s Image [IEE 2000, p179], Elliott’s claim was thought to be correct.

From a technical point of view, this is not 100% authentic, but is the closest we can get. Here are a few points of detail to consider:

  • Elliott used a mirror in front of his modified Baird Televisor camera, which allowed panning. This was not used in 1930 and the field of regard was absolutely fixed such that the actors had to stay within a limited area. Actor changes were effected by a sliding checkerboard in front of the camera, which would have slowed down the on-screen action.
  • Elliott edited the original 1/4inch reel-to-reel audio tape (which I have an original). There are splices between scene changes, made even more noticeable as his Televisor motor drifted in speed and the pitch changes in the video are a result of those edits and speed drift. (The audio sounds OK so it’s not the tape recorder!)
  • Elliott used a high quality 1960s photomultiplier with modern amplifier giving plenty of high frequency content. As an indication of what you would see in the studio that’s fine, but for the viewer in his home the image would be a little less crisp than this.
  • The tape recorder and the tape has added artifacts of vertical streaking that would not be visible on a direct broadcast in 1930.
  • The image was recorded using a 625-line camera pointing at a special-purpose 30-line monitor that Elliott built. This makes for a much poorer picture than a true 30-line picture. Consequently, the picture you see has been smoothed out in time slightly to reduce that effect (Thanks to the Wilsons of Stable Recordings for that).

Remake – Further Information

Thanks to Simon Vaughan of the APTS for the following article referring to the 1967 remake of TMWTFIHM. Oddly there is no comment regarding Bill Elliott.

Heard and Seen (PDF, 145kbytes)

(The Journal of The Guild of Television Cameramen, Number 3, Winter 1974, Pages 10-11)


Some Facts about Bill Elliott

  1. Bill Elliott provided all the 30-line imagery (other than my Phonovision imagery) for the 1985 Granada series “Television“. His material appeared in Programmes 1,2 and 13. A fleeting extract from “The Man with the Flower in his Mouth” appeared in Programme 13.
  2. Bill converted one of his precious Televisors into a camera by putting a photomultiplier behind the scanning disc – just where the neon would have gone for display. On the other side of the disc, he had a lens that focused the scene onto the surface of the scanning disc – which acted as an image dissector. He could display the result either on the other Televisor or on his home-brew CRT display.
  3. Bill wrote an article for New Scientist many years ago describing Baird TV and illustrating the article with his picture of William Taynton, the first person ever to be televised back in October 1925.

Original Captions

In ‘Television’ for August 1930, four of the original captions were reproduced in an article “The Fourteenth of July, 1930″ written by Lance Sieveking. They have been scanned, cleaned up and are reproduced below.

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth - original caption 1 The Man with the Flower in his Mouth - original caption 2 The Man with the Flower in his Mouth - original caption 3 The Man with the Flower in his Mouth - original caption 4

Click on the above images for high resolution scans.