‘Constipated, studio-bound, wall-confined, rigid’: British Actors’ Equity and BBC Television Drama, 1948-1972

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Critical orthodoxies around the multi-camera television studio characterise it as a ‘theatrical’ space, driven by dialogue and performance. Troy Kennedy Martin (1964) decried television drama’s essential naturalism, demanding a more filmic form of drama in a polemic which has strongly influenced critical thinking on multi-camera studio television. Caughie (2000) suggests that Armchair Theatre (ABC TV, 1956-68) created a ‘space for acting’ with ambitious camera movements within that space, but in the main, studio is seen as a constraining and interiorising dramatic site, in thrall to liveness and reliant on theatrical unities. This paper draws on research at the BBC Written Archives to extend current understanding of the determinants working upon multi-camera studio television up to and into the 1970s. It shows how the performers’ union Equity insisted on preserving continuous performance as a specific feature of television drama. While other determinants (technical, institutional and economic) of course come into play, Equity’s insistence on ‘theatrical’ continuous performance inhibited the narrative and aesthetic possibilities of studio drama, resisted the move to rehearse-record studio taping, and delayed the turn to all-film drama production at the BBC. Drawing on key case studies which acted as contentious ‘test cases’ for negotiations, this paper explores tensions between institutional, artistic and external determinants, complicating technologically determinist accounts to argue for a greater understanding of the role of Equity in dictating arrangement of space and material conditions of production in the multi-camera studio paradigm.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • BBC
  • Equity
  • liveness
  • multi-camera
  • performance
  • rehearse-record
  • studio
  • tele-recording
  • television
  • drama


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