Wallace Peat's Wessex Puppets

Below is a transcript of a 16-page hand-written letter, which Puppeteer, Wallace Peat, wrote to a friend and neighbour in 1937 about his appearance at Alexandra Palace during the BBC's early days of Television Broadcasting.

The addressee is referred to by an affectionate nick-name, which has been abbreviated to "L.T."
It can be assumed, from the start of the letter, that "L.T" had attempted to see Wallace's TV appearance, but was out of the 35 mile range of the TV signal.

Wallace and his wife, Dodie, were staying with family in Rickmansworth, as a touring base, at the time Wallace is writing about here.

16th November 1937

Dear L.T.

You are the ruddy optimist!  I thought you knew all about wireless, including the fact that the television stuff only has a range of about 35 miles, although there are one or two freak places like Brighton and Ipswich that can get it 50 miles away.

Also, that if you can get the sound, you can get the vision (an exception to this, is that the waves seem to go up and bounce back off the ceiling and the sound has been picked up in New York)!

We are so sorry that you should have fagged all the way over to Weston for nothing, but now I'll write and tell you "all about it".

We were staying at Rickmansworth and had a show the night before at a very posh Girls' School near Bishops Stortford.  Didn't get home until midnight, but up in the morning early, bright eyes open wide - breakfast at 7.45 and off at 8.30.  A beastly drizzly November morning but no fog to speak of.  Having my thinks focussed somewhat ahead I missed a turning and took rather a long way round, but we got to the Alexandra Palace at 9.30 and horribly derelict and dreary it looked, too, with a tattered poster advertising some dead and gone Trade Exhibition all across the front.

Alexandra Palace
Alexandra Palace - Studios immediately below the mast

There was an old man sweeping the leaves and waste paper off the front steps, so I asked if this was the place ('cos it didn't look it)!

"Oh Yes Sir, this is the place, but the Television Studios are all down the other end, they only occupy one tower."  So away we went and sure enough, there were big brass bound swing doors and big brass bound Commissionaires, but their uniform is much too policeman-like to be homey and restful to a poor bloody motorist.  The 'Constables' at the door wafted me on to the 'Sergeant' at the desk, to whom I produced my Licence - I mean I gave my name and address and he showed me through the window, where to park the car.  By the time I had done so, stage hands from the studio were swooping down to carry in the junk.  I sort of apologised for having such a lot of it but they said "That's all right, sir, that's what we're here for" and we soon found that spirit pervades the place.  Everyone is cheery and jolly and helpful and thoroughly interested in his or her job.

They packed us into the lift (lucky that Dodie is more or less compressible) and up we went to the second floor.  Here the atmosphere changes from that of a luxury police station to that of a hospital.  Long corridors, enormously lofty, painted walls and thick silent lino on the floor.  Fire appliances at every corner and lots of blokes in long white coats flitting about and looking horribly like surgeons.  Glimpses, through doors marked "Staff Only" of enormous switchboards and electrical apparatus that seems to shriek "X-Ray".

We were shown into a dressing room (with our name on the door, which made me feel very professional).  Here the hospital, police station and theatre, were subtly blended.  It was about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by 40 feet high.  One window so far up it was almost out of sight.  For two thirds of the length of one wall, ran a built-in dressing table with mirrors above it surrounded by electric lights.  On the opposite side, a full length mirror and a wardrobe.  In the corner, a wash hand basin.

2 small tubular steel chairs
1 large ash tray
1 bin
1 pot of cold cream
1 nest of waxed paper drinking cups
1 framed copy of instructions in case of fire.

Well, we felt we'd got a home of our own, but as we were supposed to be rehearsing from 10 am to 11, I wanted to get on and get the show set up, so I snooped across the corridor into the studio.  It was about 140 feel long by 60 feet wide by 40 feet high and was divided from the corridor by enormous sliding doors (then open) with small doors let into them.  The small doors each had a port-hole through which one could peep and so avoid barging in when there was anything doing.

The walls were all hidden by scenery of various kinds - all painted in grey and black monochrome.  About 15 feet up, there were steel galleries running all round and in one place bridging the studio.  Inumerable steel bars ran across from these, some supporting scenery, but most of them carrying huge electric lamps, singletons, twins, triplets and clusters.

About half way along the side opposite to the corridor, was a booby-hutch about 10 feet high.  Below, it was divided into two cubicles one a sort of telephone booth and the other, a dark cubby hole where there was a television screen in which you could see what was happening in the other studio.  We didn't go into Number 2 Studio, but as far as I could see through the port hole in the door, it was the exact twin of ours.  On the flat roof of the booby hutch were three of four small tubular steel chairs.  Of these more anon.  Right up near the ceiling in one of the shorter walls of the studio was a large glass panel.  This was the side of the little room where the Producer sits, sideways on to the studio, with a television screen before him.  Another bloke sits in front of him and another behind him, all facing the same way.  One of these controls the sound transmission and the other the vision.

On the studio floor, in addition to a large assortment of scenic furniture, were three or four large pieces of electrical apparatus painted battle ship grey and mounted on motor-car chassis.  These, I correctly assumed to be the cameras, but they are boxed in to such an extent, that they don't look a bit complicated.

The cables leading to them are covered with white canvas and so big that they look like fire hoses.  When I first saw half a dozen of them snaking away along the corridor, I began to wonder where the fire was.  The camera has two lenses jutting out, rather like a very large pair of binoculars, but I fancy that one of them is only a sort of glorified view finder for the camera man.  At the side of the camera is a little hole into which the camera man plugs the end of a flex leading to his earphones.  By this means, the producer can talk to him when at work, without the sound coming into the studio and being picked up by the mike.

The mike-men have earphones too.  The mikes are on cranes consisting of a telescopic steel upright with a long telescopic arm at right angles at the top and the mike is hung in gimbals at the end of it.  The thing has a reach of 15 to 20 feet, so it can be held just over the heads of the performers and just of of view of the camera.  It is mounted on pneumatic tyre wheels, but not such big ones as the cameras have.  Each camera man has an assistant to trundle him around, signalling his requirements according to the producer's instructions by tic-tac movements of his hands.

Mike Boom and Camera
Wallace's sketch of a camera and boom microphone

When I walked into the studio, there were about 20 of the white coated gentry there.  Some of them standing in groups talking highly technical jargon.  I found one bloke who was alone and asked him if Mr Bussell was anywhere about.  He said; "Ah!  That's just the gentleman I'm looking for.  He ought to be here by now.  He'll have to be shot!"  I asked if there would be time to go out and buy a wreath.  He said he thought so as he hadn't got his pistol loaded yet.  I then asked if there was a spot of space where I could start to set up the show and he suggested the corridor.

We were just starting to unpack in the corridor when another white-coat came along and, indicating a space about 2 yards square on the studio floor, asked if we could set it up there.  We were just moving to this new position when a very large and heavy piece of scenery crashed down off a truck, just brushing my elbow.  We nearly didn't televise after all.  However, five minutes later, another 'surgeon' came along and said "Oy!  I want that corner for Napoleon and Josephine.  Would you mind going just over there?"  We went and then Jan Bussell arrived and of course, he shifted us again, but this time we stayed put and soon had the show ready.

It was agreed that we should try "Pistol and the French Soldier" and "Clementine" to start with and Jan told me that before the show, I was to trickle round to the front and say a few words.  All the cue I should get as to when the camera was coming to life would be this -

Thumbs Up

from the camera man.  Well, of all the grim and ghastly jobs, to go and smile sweetly and talk naturally to that black hole of a lens, with the studio as silent as a tomb except for my own voice - I didn't like it.

I don't mind facing an audience, because I can usually find at least one face that looks interested and talk to that and I don't much mind having my photograph taken, even with a cine camera, because if it's a failure, the negative can be destroyed and the picture taken again.

But this bloody business combines the worst features of both.  You try talking to the butt-end of a beer bottle and at the same time convince yourself that you are being seen and heard by thousands of people whose only interest for the moment is you.  It's not nice and the blessed camera is only about two feet from your nose.

After that, playing the puppets was comparatively easy, although there was a searchlight shooting straight at us from the behind the camera.  The only way in which we could see anything at all was by getting one eye into the shadow thrown by the puppet on the back cloth.  In this way, I even managed, twice, to steal a glance out into the studio and to my great joy, saw that the Stage Manager was chuckling like anything.  This was a great encouragement, 'cos I reckoned he must be pretty hard-boiled with watching shows of one kind and another all day and every day and if we could amuse him, we weren't doing too badly.

Having lowered the curtain at the end, I was made to jump nearly out of my skin by Jan's voice booming through a loudspeaker: "Wallace - that's fine - but this afternoon, I want you to come in front again at the end and bow to the camera!"  In two minutes he was down on the floor with us and said it had "come over  splendidly" and there was no need for any further rehearsal and that those two items would be just the thing - and now, would we care to watch the rehearsal of the television play that was going to be done that afternoon, because if so, he would see about getting the necessary permission from the Stage Manager for us to be in the studio.

Of course, we said we should love it, but we did want a drink first.  However, there was plenty of time for that, because the rehearsal wouldn't be starting for at last half an hour.  So down we went, Dodie and I, into the great open spaces of the main building, and eventually found a bar.  Then we couldn't find our way back, so I asked a youth - a clerk, I guess - which was the way into the Television Studios.  "Oh", says he, reaching for the roof with his nose "You won't get in there!"  I said "Sorry, but I'm afraid we've got to, we are artists", whereupon the lad came to earth with a bump.

When we got back into the studio, we were shown a very steep ladder leading to the top of the booby hutch and there we sat like mice.  It was all jolly interesting, but we could hardly make head or tail of it.  First a group of actors in one corner would come to life and start spouting, then they would dry up and another bunch in another part of the studio would begin.  Actually, of course, the Producer was switching from one camera to another.

In the afternoon, after our show, we were able to nip down to a viewing room in the basement and see on a television screen, the play we had seen rehearsed in the morning and all the bits of the puzzle dropped into place, with the scenes fading out and fading in just like the flicks.  The trouble is that the focal area of the camera is so small, if they show a person full length all facial expression is lost and four people standing shoulder to shoulder is as much as they can possibly get on the screen at once.  The result is that it is all close-ups.  That's why puppet shows are so popular.  Our Stage Manager told us that they had had lots there, but ours was the best yet.  We pulled his leg and said we supposed he told 'em all that, but he protested that although he has to be tactful, he needn't and didn't make any comments at all if he didn't feel like it.

We had lunch in the Studio Restaurant in the basement (run on cafeteria lines) and jolly good too.  We had roast chicken and ham and vegetables and meringues and coffee - all very reasonable.

Our show was exactly like the rehearsal in the morning, only more nerve-wracking, because we knew we were really "on the air" and not disporting ourselves merely for the benefit of the Producer and a few BBC blokes.

I had to be "made up" (handsome men are slightly sunburnt) and was secretly much amused because I was asked to sign the make-up girls' autograph album.

While hanging about, we had a long and interesting jaw with an actor who was in the play.  He does a good deal of film work.  We got away about 5 pm and back to Rickmansworth and could hardly get into the house because David was so eager to tell us what it had looked and sounded like.  All of them except the Vicar (who, poor chap, was laid up with lumbago) had been to see it at the local Radio Dealer's place:  Phil, Margy, Binks, the Curate and David.  It seemed so rum that they had seen and heard us although we hadn't seen them since early that morning.

The sound comes over about four times more accurately and clearly with television than with ordinary broadcasting.  They said it was just like listening to our real voices.  In spite of the make-up I appeared rather pale and haggard and at the end, bowed right out of the picture! - because it was only head and shoulders - that bit had not been rehearsed, you remember.

But the opinion of the family was that on the whole it was pretty good, so coming from that source, I suppose it was fairly satisfactory.  Anyhow, Jan Bussell seemed genuinely pleased with it, so I hope we shall be asked to go again.

Now don't say I haven't told you all about it!  I don't often write, but by jingo when I do .....!

Lots of love from us both.

Blue Plaque
Plaque commemorating the BBC's early TV broadcasts