Back from Oblivion I: Evening Primrose (1966)

December 10, 2010 | By

When a TV series – or a singular episode – from the early days of the idiot box is found to have survived studios & networks junking old kinescopes, re-using video stock, or the dumpster (very real threats that eliminated whole chunks of early TV history), it’s kind of an expected miracle, because many productions from the era of live TV are known / expected to be rare: productions like the dramatic anthology series Playhouse 90 were broadcast live, and filmed kinescopes were used for rebroadcasts. If there were no ‘kinnies,’ that episode is lost once the last person with a memory of that broadcast is six feet under.

What we don’t expect is TV from the late sixties to be rare. Most shows were shot on 35mm film, and 16mm prints were used for syndicated runs (which is how many grew up watching The Invaders, The Brady Bunch, and other shows of the sixties and seventies), if not colour video dubs for syndication.

But there are exceptions. The hit gothic daytime series Dark Shadows was filmed on videotape, and when the series switched to early colour, the results weren’t exactly perfect. The same can be said of the BBC’s Doctor Who, which for DVD, underwent extensive restoration because some of the subsequent colour broadcast masters no longer existed or were in bad shape.

Neither series is that old when compared to late forties and early fifties series, but it seems absurd that ABC’s Stage 67 is rare when Hawaii Five-0 or Bonanza aren’t. They were all present on the boob tube in 1967, but they were filmed on different mediums, and the respective success of the latter ensured they wouldn’t be forgotten, whereas Stage 67 failed to make a splash, and was dead after one season.

That failure may have sealed the fate of Stephen Sondheim’s contribution, a musical version of John Collier’s story Evening Primrose [M] , previously adapted for radio in 1947. The music lived on in live performances and CD recordings, and eventually a CD release [M] of the original score and four songs, but the actual episode – broadcast one, and then buried – has been commercially unavailable for 44 years.

The reasons seem to be a mix of simply being forgotten, a perception of there being little demand to warrant a search for surviving elements, music rights issues, licensing issues, and releasing the episode on DVD –  a format that’s not going great as most studios have halted or radically curtailed premiere DVD releases of back catalogue items or things not tied to a humpable franchise.

TV is a bit weirder, in the sense of recognizable favourites, cult shows, and junk being released, but Primrose is a niche product. The reason it finally made it to DVD is because it simply had to. It’s Sondheim, it stars a post-Psycho Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr (The Sound of Music) in one of two roles before she retired from acting, it was written by playwright James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), and under the umbrella of the Archive of American Television (distributed by E1), it’s another notable effort in releasing rare TV to connoisseurs of vintage television.

Not much live and early TV exists on DVD, which is why these releases are buyer-friendly instead of rental worthy. You want to own it because you will watch it, most likely more than once because like a good book or a visceral play, it’s worth experiencing again.

There’s also the discovery of famous talents in early or unusual roles, which is more impressive than reality junk. Everything has a place in pop culture, but it’s fair to say after you’ve seen a grow-op house restored to something livable, an ugly duckling plasticized into a looker, a band train and perform their debut CD before evaporating, fashion wannabes coming in second in a formulaic contest, a star showing off his / her recipe for marinated chicken breasts, or Kim Kardashian feeling unloved because no one gets her need to own a Bentley, it all fades from memory.

To paraphrase Stephen King, that stuff is all hamburger meat that has an initial appeal but isn’t anything special. An Emmy-winning drama by Rod Serling has a bit more cultural relevance in terms of inspiring other writers to tackle hot button subjects on TV.

HBO would not exist without the playwrights who honed their craft on live TV, because they proved what could be accomplished in spite of sponsor restrictions, network Standards & Practices guidelines, and stupid demands that diluted messages or realistic characters in kitchen sink dramas. What we see today are the dramas and experimentation pioneered on live TV, except unfettered by the heavier rules designed to make TV kiddie-safe.

‘Nuff said.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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