British television acting has changed a lot since the days of live drama. With the exception of soaps and some sitcoms – such as Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow – production has shifted from multi-camera studio to single camera location and the rehearsal process that was once so vital is now little more than a table-read at best. At worst, it’s a brief discussion with the director on the shoot. The other side of this coin is that training for TV – which used to be an afterthought at drama schools focused on stagecraft – is now a much larger part of a performer’s toolkit. So, what impact have these changes had on how actors work for TV?
That was the question I wanted to answer when I undertook my own research. I interviewed more than 30 actors, directors and producers from six decades of television drama and looked at a selection of TV sci-fi programmes, including The Quatermass Experiment, Doctor Who and Survivors – each of which was remade in the 2000s. These provided both a historical overview and a “then and now” comparison of changing acting styles.
As most early television was live, we don’t have many recorded examples of TV acting before the 1950s. The accusation often made about these performances is that they are “stagey” or “mannered”. But watching the opening episode of Quatermass shows that some actors were already learning to scale down their theatre performances to something more suited to the small screen.
Yes, there are wide, and at times hilarious, variations in the level of projection used for voice and body (by modern standards, W. Thorp Devereux is particularly wooden). But the lead actor, Reginald Tate, had already perfected a style that wouldn’t be entirely out of place today. Unlike some of his colleagues he keeps unnecessary gestures to a minimum and his voice is only as loud as it needs to be for the boom microphones. I’ve called this emerging style “studio realism”.
Ten years later, the cast of Doctor Who were much more consistent when it came to gesture and vocal projection. Studio realism was beginning to bed in. The coming of videotape made little difference to the BBC’s production routine: the cast still practised lines and actions in a rehearsal room before moving into the studio. However, there is less sense of a theatre performance being given – despite the fact that the stage is where most actors still cut their teeth.
In the mid 1970s, Survivors saw the start of a sea change, away from the studio and on to location, albeit with outside broadcast cameras more often used to cover football matches. This is the start of modern “location realism”. Being out on site means the “frontal” acting required by three-walled studio sets can be abandoned and – no longer surrounded by the technological paraphernalia of Television Centre – many of the cast are pitching their lines at a more natural level.
Thirty years on, the relaunched Doctor Who and Survivors featured actors who had spent more time on screen than on stage and an arguably more spontaneous acting style has emerged. These day rehearsals have virtually disappeared and the production block is devoted primarily to filming. Scenes are usually recorded out of story order and the emphasis is now on repeated takes. Whereas multi-camera meant actors were playing scenes (and sometimes whole episodes) all the way through, the modern TV actor’s job is less a case of staying “in the moment” for a practised performance than an attempt to maintain “the illusion of the first time” (a phrase coined by US actor William Gillette to describe the actor’s art of making a scripted scene seem live and unrehearsed) while keeping continuity firmly in mind. All on increasingly tight shooting schedules.
In addition, the screen training now provided at drama schools, where students are warned they will be “too big” for TV, has led to an under-projected physical and vocal style that can sometimes frustrate audiences and directors. BBC shows such as Jamaica Inn and SS-GB have both come under fire for inaudibility.
When The Quatermass Experiment was remounted live by the BBC in 2005, the cast and crew were attempting to recreate a production template that fell out of use decades before. Intensive and lengthy rehearsals were required and nerves ran so high on the night that the adrenaline-fuelled, accelerated production came in significantly under time.
While most of those involved enjoyed the challenge – particularly the generous preparation time – few wanted to see such a stressful model become the norm again. However, nearly everyone I spoke to said they would like more rehearsal. Actress Louise Jameson explained:
The absolute ideal is film, one camera – hours to light it, hours to rehearse it. When you’ve got that kind of luxury it’s fabulous, but it’s so rare.
My research showed that, while British TV acting hasn’t always followed a straight or predictable path, the scaled-down style of location realism has now almost entirely replaced studio realism. What direction it will take next, in an age of multi-platform and mobile viewing, remains to be seen.