The BBC Production
The Time Machine

On Tuesday, January 24, 1949 at 8:30 pm,
the BBC produced the first adaptation of "The Time Machine"
It was broadcast live.

      Rehearsals were held outside at 31 Beaumont Mews from January 11 through January 22. On January 25, 1949 at 8:30 pm The Time Machine was broadcast live from Studio A at Alexandra Palace. The teleplay was not recorded, a 'revised production' was broadcast on February 21, 1949 at 9:15 pm.

     The Time Machine starred Russell Napier as The Time Traveller and Mary Donn as Weena. Producer/ Director and script writer was Robert Barr, Designer was Barry Learoyd.


Vol. III, No. 14

ONE SHILLING

APR.-MAY '49
Fantasy on Television

JOHN CARNELL reports on
'THE TIME MACHINE'

FANTASY REVIEW Volume 3 No. 14 page 2
TELEVISION
TAKES TO
FANTASY
By JOHN CARNELL

Over fifty years ago, a young writer who was destined to become world-famous for his imaginative conceptions of things to come sat down and wrote his first successful fantasy. It 'was the story of an inventor who fashioned a machine on which he journeyed into the future, stopped off to take a look at mankind in the year 802701, and travelled on into the dim vistas of the world's end before returning to the security of the 19th Century. It is said that Wells' tale of "The Time Machine" set the early British film pioneer, Robert Paul, thinking about the possibilities of the screen play. It has even been suggested that the author himself may have been influenced, if only subconsciously, by the awakening technique of the new art form when he wrote his amazing tale. At any rate, he and Paul got together in a project which, if it had not failed for lack of capital, might have resulted in the filming of the Time Traveller's adventures, or, at least, in an attempt at something which even today's film-makers Would scarcely dare to tackle.

But could he possibly have dreamed, in 1894 (any more than we did only a few months ago), that "The Time Machine" would be presented to an audience of thousands, sitting comfortably in their own homes before their television screens in 1949? In spite of difficulties which were readily recognised, such an ambitious production was not too much for the B.B.C. to attempt; and if they did not succeed to the extent of satisfying the armchair critics of the Press, one of whom described it, with a yawn, as "The Crawl of Time", at least they were quick to see in the brave try the making of television history.

There were, actually, two attempts, the first having caused such a furore of caustic comment* that several revisions calculated to improve the whole production were made in the second showing. Even then viewers who looked-in on both versions found difficulty in deciding which version was the better. But it was generally agreed that "The Time Machine" had been worth the time and trouble, and the money, spent on it. For the fantasy fan, especially, it was a momentous event, indicative of the shape of things to come in TV.

The first announcement of the play caused quite a controversy over the courageous bid of producer Robert Barr and scene designer Barry Learoyd to present this corner-stone of science fiction in a medium to which, it seemed to the sceptics, it was quite unadaptable. The discussions between the producer and his staff over the ticklish technical problems it raised were the
subject of an article in The Radio Times. How could they give an impression of the passing of hundreds of thousands of years in the space of some three minutes? How to design sets strictly limited in size to really look like a bizarre world of the distant future? How to show the Morlocks in their dark underground domain?

FANTASY REVIEW
A Journal for Readers, Writers and
Collectors of Imaginative Fiction
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Vol. 3, No. 14 Apr.-May. '49

Editor: Walter Gillings.
Associate Editors: John Carrell, J. Michael Rosenblum, D. R. Smith, Arthur F. Hillman, Fred C. Brown, Frank Edward Arnold, J. O. Newman, A. Vincent Clarke.
American Correspondents: David Kishi (New York), Forrest J. Ackerman (Hollywood), Sam Moskowitz (Newark, N.J.), Bob Tucker (Bloomington, Ill.)

An article in Illustrated, with three pages of stills and pictures of the production in the making, appearing after the first showing, revealed how some of these difficulties were overcome. It also reported how it was proposed to vary the second production to meet the criticism that the whole thing amounted to no more than "an exercise in elementary fretwork," in which buildings of the future had been cut out of futuristic photographs or plastic spheres, and mounted in frames only eight inches high before being made into film sequences.

My own reaction, on the first showing, was that "The Time Machine" was a first-class job of television, considering the limitations of Alexandra Palace with which all viewers are familiar through the Press. I thought Mr. Barr had succeeded, as far as anyone could expect with such a difficult subject, in making the show enjoyable and, at the same time, understandable to the majority of viewers. But the gentlemen of the Press, ever ready with their blunt instruments to do murder for the sake of a new angle, thought otherwise; so much so that the B.B.C., for the second showing, made changes in the dialogue and chopped pieces from the time-travel sequences in an attempt to pacify the reviewers and give those of its viewers who found it hard to swallow a better chance to appreciate the implications of the idea right from the first scene.


Condensed to a little less than an hour, the play opened with the Time Traveller, played by Russell Napier, discussing his theories with his friends after dinner. He shows them a model of the Time Machine, and while they watch. it slowly fades from the table on which it is resting. Then he shows them, in another room, the actual machine on which he proposes to travel, but they are even more sceptical and leave him to his reverie. Impatient to prove his case, the Traveller mounts the machine (a beautifully designed contraption) and sets off into the future.


The Time Traveller meets the Eloi.
A scene from the television version of
"The Time Machine."

In the first showing, after a brief interval in which the hands of the wall-clock recorded the passing of many hours, the lights began to dip and rise to indicate the passage of the days, and as this effect speeded up the walls of the room gradually dissolved. In the second performance this was cut out, killing the impression of fast-moving time. But, outside, the sun moves ever more swiftly across the sky until it is a continuous band of light, rising and falling to indicate the equinoxes, and throwing into vivid relief the changing shapes of successions of buildings which become more startlingly futuristic as the Traveller flashes through the ages.
Eventually the buildings are replaced by domes and peculiar stilted erections, and as they fade the Traveller arrives in the era of the Eloi. These were played entirely by small women and children, the Traveller towering above them like a god, which they imagined him to be, and the difficulty of their speech was easily overcome by limiting their vocabulary to shrill laughs and twitterings.
The action became slower as the Traveller, having surveyed his surroundings, discussed the past and mused upon the present with the uncomprehending Weena. but grew in suspense with his discovery of the fact that the Morlocks had abstracted the Time Machine and his futile efforts

 

 

 

* Especially by Observer critic W. E. Williams, who condemned "the ill-fated endeavour to confine the cosmic vision of H. G. Wells upon a miniature screen. Its resources," he argued, "are too pathetically meagre to cope with such a story . . . and its cardboard improvisations of the landscapes of Utopia reduced the fable to banality. The impersonation of the creatures who inhabited Futurity was another exposure of the limitations of the medium, and the delicate little citizens of the Golden Age (with their sinister troglodyte guardians) proved a mere rabble of pantomime elves dressed in horrible costumes."


 

The following article is from issue #17 of TV Zone magazine
under the section fantasy flashback

The Time Machine

The Plot

     The living room of a late Victorian house. A Young man, a medical man, a psychologist and a provincial mayor are guest of an inventor (who we know only as the Time traveler). He describes his theories on the dimension of Time to his friends, and shows them a scale model of a machine he has constructed to travel in Time. He has the psychologist activate the model, which fades away to nothing....

     The medical man is skeptical, and the traveller takes them all through to his laboratory to see the full-sized Time machine he has built. It is streamlined with quartz rods protruding from the front and a seat for the occupant. The Traveller announces his intention to explore Time in it. Embarrassed, his friends make their excuses and leave. Shrugging, the Traveller mounts the machine and activates it. Stopping quickly, he finds the clock has moved forward several hours. He activates the machine once more...

     The room darkens then lightens, the clock hands blur, and the traveller's housekeeper seems to zoom across the laboratory. The machine goes ever faster, and the laboratory becomes modern-looking, then begins to fall to ruins. Outside, the buildings become more and more futuristic. The laboratory area becomes a parkland vista. The traveller stops the machine at last, clumsily, in the middle of a severe storm. He sees a strange elfin face...The rain stops, and the traveller is looking up at the face of a strange monument. The Time machine's dials read 802,701 AD.

    A group of diminutive, beautiful but frail people appear, dressed in short robes. One female shows an interest in the Traveller. Their language is strange, but the Traveller is disappointed to learn they think he came from the sun on a thunderbolt—hardly the perfect intellectual society he had hoped to meet. He removes the starting handle from his machine as he is led to a communal building where he is given fruit to eat.

     The female communicates that she is called Weena; her people are the Eloi. The Traveller points out to her where the landmarks of his London were. Where Wimbledon once was stands a huge palace of green porcelain. The Eloi couldn't have built it. Weena gives him a flower as he tells her he wants to travel back to meet the people who made the last remaining buildings. He returns to the monument—to find that his machine has gone. He panics, then realizes the Eloi lack the strength to move it, and he has the starting handle. Someone else has taken it.

     The next morning the Traveller is with Weena when he hears the sound of machinery coming form a large well. Weena is scared of the well, but he decides to go down into it.


Descending, he finds a platform, then becomes aware of a number of creatures in the darkness around him...He has to fight desperately to escape from them and return to the surface.

     The underground people are the Morlocks, descendants of that part of the human race which once tended machines. They still do so, but now feed on the flesh of their one-time masters, the Eloi...The Traveller and Weena travel to the green palace, and discover it is a museum. They realize the building is infested with Morlocks, and escape. As dusk falls the pair reach a wood and rest.

     The Traveller wakes to find himself surrounded by Morlocks. He fights them off, but Weena is gone.

     Returning once more to the monument, the Traveller notices a bronze door in it i open, revealing the Time machine inside. He suspects a trap but goes in. he is grabbed by the Morlocks, but manages to reattach the starting handle and takes off in the Time machine. He travels out far into the future, where there are only rocks covered in green lichen. As he goes onward, the sun grows larger as it ages and decays. When he stops again he is menaced by giant crabs on a beach, he travels on, until life is reduced to green slime, then vanishes altogether. An eclipse by another planet heralds the death of the sun; and the end of the world...Terrified, the Traveller puts his machine into reverse. At long last, the laboratory walls reform around him.

     The Traveller finishes relating his tale to his friends, back in his living room. He is still dirty and fatigued from his adventure. The medical man and the psychologist agree he has been overworking, dismissing the story as a dream. The Traveller laughs—it all seems to be fading from his mind now. He muses, "But they say life is a dream," as he fills his pipe. He puts his hand in his pocket for a match—and brings out the flower he was given. h says softly, "Weena..."

Background

     The Time Machine, written in 1895 by HG Wells, is one of the most influential works of early Science Fiction literature. Although it has a very straightforward narrative structure, any visual production requires a range of technical effects to depict travel through Time. In January 1949, barely two and a half years after the BBC's fledgling television service resumed transmission after World War Two, Robert Barr dramatized and produced the story as a one-hour play. Like any producer of the time, he was faced with the problem of performing live,which left no escape should actors forget their lines, or if cameras and other equipment failed—which they very frequently did.

     As producer, Barr would have combined the roles of yet-to-be-invented functions of script editor, production associate and, most importantly, director. Together with the self-imposed mantle of scriptwriter, this must have made the process o production more cogent in light of the medium's limitations.

     Those techniques for special effects available in 1949 were used to their limit. Film was used for both straight inserts and for back projection, which provided most of the Time travel sequences. A good indication, albeit in a very whimsical 1940's style, o the problems and solutions created by Barr and his designer Barry Learoyd, can be found in the Radio Times article accompanying the first transmission, 'To the World's End in Sixty Minutes' by John Swift.

     Written as a parody of the scientific discussion at the start of the play, it has Barr countering the objections of his colleagues as to how he will create the Eloi(using casting and clever mock-up) and the Morlocks (largely to be left to the viewer's imaginations), synthesize futuristic architecture (the clues are in the book) and depict the Time journeys themselves (here the article refers mysteriously to back projection). Learoyd proposes a curverd and elegant Time machine. The final objections are to the form of dialogue. Barr says he will invent what is needed, but the Eloi and Morlocks spoke no intelligible tongue, an to invent one would be pointless as such, Barr's most telling comment is that 'faint heart never made good television.'

     Barr's adaptation is more faithful to the novel than George Pal's later film, although he makes necessary cuts for timing, and has less exposition. The major surgery is to the end, which no longer has the Traveller going back to the future, but ends with him realizing his experiences were real. The style of the script is remarkable to modern eyes in that it is the form of one continuous scene, but then television at this stage was made by people with experience of radio rather than films, and was per force done as a continuous strand. The only out-of-sequence recording was on a 78 rpm disk (number DLO 46072), cut in Broadcasting House. Although film telerecording had been experimented with as early as 1947 this was very primitive and it was not until the early 1950's that program began to be preserved in any number.

     After outside rehearsals at 31 Beaunont Mews from the 11th to the 22nd of January, and a day's pre-rehearsal in the studio, The Time Machine was transmitted live from Studio A at Alexandra Palace from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm on the 25th January 1949. Judging from letters to Radio Times, viewer reaction was divided between those who found it so 'tiered and impossible' that they could not enjoy it, and those who marveled at the technical achievement and escapism, although one writer complained of intrusive off-camera noises in the studio. With no technology to record the original performance, a 'revised production' of The Time Machine was televised on Monday 21st February 1949 at 9:15 pm.

Edward Glenn


The following is from Radio Times
the week of January 21, 1949.

 

From the section titled
TALK OF THE WEEK

The Man in the Saddle

'What, another problem to be solved?' queried the leading man. 'The riddle of the Sphinx? Well, it will be a change from murder, anyway. Yes, it will be amusing to investigate the future instead of the past.'

     That was more or less what Russel Napier said when Robert Barr offered him the role of the Time Traveller in his production of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. In the past, detective parts have fallen to Napier, such as those in the reconstructed crime No Other Woman and the premiére of Max Catto's Kid Flanagan. He will be in the saddle of the Time Machine on Tuesday, but at the moment he has as little idea of what he will find in the future a we have—a good basis for spontaneous acting.

   8.30             H.G. Wells'

'THE TIME MACHINE'

A fantastic voyage into the future

 

The story of a time traveller who projects himself into the year 802,870 A.D., and journeys onwards into the twilight of the world.

 

Adapted and produced for
television by Robert Barr

Production designed by
Barry Learoyd

 

 

 

To The World's End in Sixty Minutes

     They were talking about re-creating The Time Machine as a television drama. It was a small gathering, not unlike that which Wells himself conjured up fifty-odd years ago as the preliminary to the flight through Time of his fantastic contraption of brass, nickel, ivory, quartz, and heaven -knows-what. The Man-in-the-Corner might well have been the Medical man. You may recall that he was not too anxious to be mixed up in the affair—he had a reputation to maintain.

     'I don't believe it's possible to do it', said the Man-in-the-Corner. He said it with an air of finality. He was not imaginative.

     'Now if you put the Machine in reverse,' opined the Stout Little Man with the waxed mustache (he would be ideally cast as the Provincial Mayor), 'I'd say you could do it. You'd know what you were about, if you see what I mean,' and he went on to tell of an aged film, something about a Yank at the Court of King Arthur. He had imagination, but it went backwards—the Wellsian Time traveller did not.

     It was the tall, lean man with an evil-smelling-pipe—let us call him the Psychologist—who was in his element, probing into the minds of two men who believed they could interpret these Wellsian imaginings in visual form. If they refused defeat, why should he? But, he could think of no way out.

     'Surely,' he said, 'everyone of us has a different conception of practically every being and thing in the book. My interpretation of the sunset of mankind may be entirely different from that of my butcher or coal merchant, so how can you put it in pictures?'

     'Talking of pictures.' I interjected, 'I did hear tell of a film company that got The Time Machine on the stocks. The scriptwriters had to have aspirins for breakfast every morning and in the end everybody concerned gave up the ghost.'

     'There, I told you!' said the Man-in-the-Corner, and the Stout Little Man nodded knowingly.

     The Producer had taken little part in this conversation, but the problems propounded on all sides were as a bit between the teeth.

     'All right!' he said, 'I know it's not easy, and I know we all have our own idea about every single thing in the book. I read it when I was twelve. I read it last week and my idea of it is still much the same. But it may not be everybody else's idea. Millions of people have read and reread it, and if nobody has attempted to interpret it visually then it's time someone did. We may succeed, we may not, but faint heart never made good television—if you will forgive the metaphor.'

     'And I'm with you.' said the Scene Designer at last, He had hoped, by keeping his piece, to pick up some ideas of the shape of a land crab three-million years hence or a suburban house in a mere 25000 A.D. But nobody yielded any ideas.

     'You've both decided you're really going to make a shot at it?' asked the Psychologist.

     'Yes'

     'Right. Now let's consider just a few of the problems. At the very beginning you will have to make the Time Machine disappear from the Time Travellers dining room?'

     Indulgently, the Producer and Designer smiled. That was an easy one, but every man to his trade.

     'And what about the delicious people of the Golden Age, the Eloi?'

     'That,' said the Producer, 'is a matter of casting—and clever make-up. They will have to be of small stature with delicate features and voices pleasing to the ear. Wells gave us enough detail to go on. I think most of us have a similar idea, at least , of the Eloi.'

     'And those dreadful Morlocks underground?'

     'Ah, now that's a different proposition. They were loathsome creatures, but fortunately they lived in darkness. That is where the viewer's imagination will play a big part.'

     The Stout Little Man wriggled himself up from his armchair. 'Yes, we'll accept the people.' he began, 'but what about the things—houses, roads, methods of transport, dress, even in the next hundred-thousand years?'

     'My dear chap,' replied the designer, 'Imagination—assisted by Mr. Wells! He has given us a number of hints; the great, bubble-shaped mass homes which I have in mind for the Eloi, for instance, are not beyond possibility. But in any case, the next few hundred-thousand centuries flashed by in moments, Remember "The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me...the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness..."?'

     'Ah, there you are now.' cried the Psychologist, seizing on a point, 'You can't alter nature. You might do wonders with lighting tricks, but you can't replace whole scenes every tenth of a second.'

     'Then we'll put it on film,' explained the Producer. 'Use the time traveller himself "live,"—but that's a technical matter, We ought to cover 800,000 years or so in two-and-a-half minutes.'

     The Man-in-the-Corner, thinking hard all this time, produced his trump card.

     'And what, may I ask, does a Time Machine look like?'

     The designer looked puzzled. 'Well,' he said, 'It's ...it's sort of...oh, you know,' and he began to demonstrate vaguely with his hands, rather like a salesman selling one of those American cars that may be either coming or going.

     'It was all nuts and bolts and cog wheels and bits of jutting machinery in my days,' said the man-in-the-Corner, meaning to be helpful.

     'Rubbish,' declared the Designer. 'Any man of science engaged on such a project would think in terms of curves and parabolas and all that.'

     Then I thought of something. 'But,' I said, 'The Time Machine is a fantastic story told by one man. What about dialogue?'

     'I shall have to write it, that's all,' was the Producers only answer.

     'Maybe, but the Morlocks and Eloi didn't speak any understandable language. Wells gave little idea of how they spoke.'

     'No? And suppose he did? Suppose there were a Morlock and Eloi language and we did put the play in it? That wouldn't achieve what we set out to do , would it?'

     Which is as good an answer as any. And so the discussion went on. That was three weeks ago. The Producer (Robert Barr) and Designer (Barry Learoyd) have used up a lot of pencils and paper since then and we shall see their version of The Time Machine this week. It should be interesting.

John Swift (Radio Times)

    Thanks to Derek Johnston for submitting these additional articles

Into the Future
"Not a few people would jib at the prospect of turning that fantastic Wellsian romance The Time Machine into visual entertainment. Robert Barr is one who believes that it can be done in the form of a drama-documentary and is already putting the finishing touch to his script. Most of us have read how Mr Wells made time reel past in our minds, but it is another thing to make time career forward 800,000 years on the screen, past the golden era, into the sunset of mankind, and on to the world's end. "Barr calls this production a 'visual experiment,' and it is only being made possible by the most careful collaboration between him and scene designer Barry Learoyd. A new picture-script system is being used to simplify the matching and the superimposition of pre-shot film sequences and futuristic models." The Scanner, "Talk of the Week", Radio Times, 14 January 1949, p.24

The Man in the Saddle
"What, another problem to be solved?" queried the leading man. 'The riddle of the Sphinx? Well, it will be a change from murder, anyway. Yes, it will be amusing to investigate the future instead of the past.' "That was more or less what Russell Napier said when Robert Barr offered him the role of the Time Traveller in his production of H.G.Wells The Time Machine. In the past, detective parts have fallen to Napier, such as those in the reconstructed crime No Other Woman and the premiere of Max Catto's Kid Flanagan. He will be in the saddle of the Time Machine on Tuesday, but at the moment he has as little idea of what he will find in the future as we have - a good basis for spontaneous acting."
The Scanner, "Talk of the Week", Radio Times, 21 January 1949, p.24

The Time Machine' Experiment
"As a regular (and very satisfied) viewer I wonder how many will join me in congratulating the producer and all concerned in The Time Machine? I was sorry when the programme came to an end."
(Mrs.) Gladys Hemming,
"Viewers Are Saying", Radio Times, 4 February 1949, p.25

"Must we be afflicted with a repeat of The Time Machine? Surely, there are no viewers who want to see it a second time. Am I so lacking in intelligence that I could not appreciate the fantasy? It was so weird and impossible I could not get the least bit interested in it and felt quite relieved when it was over."
A.G.Wrench,
"Viewers Are Saying", Radio Times, 4 February 1949, p.25

"The Time Machine was a very good attempt at a difficult subject. But the noises in the studio during the showing very nearly spoilt the whole performance."
A.R.Leman,
"Viewers Are Saying", Radio Times, 4 February 1949, p.25

Understanding 'The Anatomist'
" Most of the programmes these days are excellent, but there are a few which could be improved upon. For instance The Anatomist was a play which only a few people could understand. If you had half-an-hour or even an hour of comedy films one evening a week a greater majority if people would enjoy the programme. The Time Machine was produced with remarkable ingenuity and there was some very good acting by Russell Napier, but wasn't it rather short? Surely it could have gone on for the other half-hour."
G.Wingate (letter),
"Viewers Are Saying", Radio Times, 11 February 1949, p.25

Believe It or Not
"Most of you know that stop-watches are indispensable to both radio and television producers. A short time ago a programme was due to go on the air when the producer found that his stop-watch had jammed. He borrowed one from a colleague. Something went wrong with that, too, so he sent for a third. Whether it was personal magnetism, or some sort of hoodoo I don't know, but even that one turned temperamental. The programme, by the way, was - The Time Machine!"
The Scanner, "Talk of the Week" , Radio Times, 4 March 1949, p.29

 

Notes : Russell Napier was born 1910 in Perth, Australia. His later credits include turning up as a variety of police inspectors in several episodes of the 50's series Scotland Yard (Inspector Harmer in The Strange Case of Blondie and Inspector Hammond in The Dark Stairway before becoming the regular character of Inspector Duggan from 1956). His film roles include Hell Is A City (1960), The Bloodbeast Terror (1967) as the pub landlord and Twisted Nerve (1968). One of his last appearances before his death in 1974 was as Admiral Ballantyne in the film The Black Windmills.

Robert Barr was born in 1909 and was a BBC radio correspondent in WW II. He died in January 1999.

Production designer Barry Learoyd went onto work on a series of TV adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare throughout the fifties as well as the classic Kneale and Cartier version of 1984. He would also work on the anthology show Out Of The Unknown.

 


 

 

 

 

 

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