Val Gielgud and the BBC


Evaluating Gielgud's Reputation


Gielgud showed an elitism and snobbery towards popular 'soap operas' which were hugely successful in America and Australia in the 1930s and 40s. (See pp 153-154 Crook, T [1999] Radio Drama Theory & Practice, London, New York: Routledge) There is also evidence that he was bigoted, opinionated, conceited, proud, jealous and used his power ruthlessly. Any tendency on his part to exercise his power to edit history and exclude those people he did not approve of in the narrative and process of radio drama should not preclude academic and cultural consideration of his gifts and contributions to radio drama.

For example Dr Samuel Johnson is not ignored and rubbished because he refused to make references in his English Dictionary to philosophers and writers who were 'deists' and more sceptical of the conservative traditions of the Christian religion. The omission of anything said by Hume and Voltaire does not invalidate his English Dictionary as a significant cultural and literary text of the Enlightenment.

The 'political' power play in Radio Drama must seem rather pathetic to those who see a wider canvas of human suffering and concerns about human rights in world affairs but again evidence abounds of these patterns of social and cultural decision making in other arenas of BBC history. (See A Social History of Broadcasting in the UK Volume 1 by Scannell, P & Cardiff, D (1990) Oxford: Blackwell.)

The exclusion and bullying of directors and producers is certainly extant in academic evaluation of independent production commissioning during the period of management by Director-General John Birt. The issues have been touched upon in a paper on the political economy of UK radio drama presented in the ESRC series of seminars organised by the London School of Economics in 1999. The detailed analysis with a financial breakdown of the BBC's budgeting for radio drama has not been published academically at the time of writing.

A neutral and considered observation could be that an area of creative and artistic programme making which attracts intelligent and intense commitment inevitably abounds with professional and creative alliances, obligations, feuds and disagreements. They seem to become more intense and manifest in publication as an inverse proportion to changes in the political economy or socio-economic conditions for production and broadcast.

The social and economic conditions for production and listening to dramatic productions in 1929 were in a state of exciting flux and accelerated development.

The acquisition of licences within the general population was expanding exponentially. In 1929 the BBC reported a total of 2,956,736 licenced listeners - five times the number of licences bought in 1923. In the next three years another 2 million would be added to this figure largely through the successful marketing of valve radios which began to be advertised in the Radio Times and established 'stand alone' listening through speakers. The figure for 1929 excludes the large number of listeners who had constructed their own radio sets and had therefore avoided paying for the licence. Somewhat overlooked by academic researchers is the fact the substantial numbers of listeners in 1929 listened on headphones. A short article in the Radio Times of May 3rd 1929 'Method of Listening' described one example of how radio was consumed:

'The new year saw the dawning of the seventh year of my almost complete confinement to bed with an illness which disables me physically, but leaves me mentally very much alert to the need of a stimulating occuption... I scan the week's programme as keenly now as I did four years ago... I am always on the look-out for plays and try to obtain the book: many of them can be obtained from the public or other libraries. Do not begin the book until the play commences, and I can assure you that enjoyable revelation will follow... Let me, in conclusion, advise listeners to adopt this slogan, which might very well head every page of the Radio Times. It is just two words: "Tolerance and discrimination."'

The article is signed 'Millwood' and appears on page 263 of the May 3rd edition.


Page 117 Ratio Times for July 19 1929. The central picture shows John Feaver of Bodmin, Cornwall awaiting wireless greetings on the occasion of his second birthday. His listening on headphones was typical of the time and there is at least one other image of a child listening in this fashion in the Radio Times editions for 1929.


The BBC's production headquarters in Savoy Hill had outgrown its capacity and the process of constructing the purpose built Broadcast House at Portland Place was underway.


BBC security guards line up outside the entrance to Savoy Hill H/Q during the General Strike of 1926


The percentage of licences to population was in the region of 8 or 9 per cent for London and Kent. Only Denmark exceeded Britain's ratio of radio licences in the population. By 1932 Denmark had 13.4 % of its population with radio licences and Great Britain had 10.7%. But outside the manipulated evidence of listener opinion in the columns of the Radio Times what evidence exists of how people listened and appreciated the radio drama being broadcast by the BBC? Unfortunately these years were very much 'before Listener Research'. BBC written archives do not help us. There are no files containing letters by listeners.

Structuralist and poststructuralist considerations of the social and cultural nature of BBC radio drama are thereby frustrated. How is it possible to analyse the construction of meaning by audience without the evidence? A potential source for study might be found in the personal diaries of people who listened to the radio in that year. Were such accounts to exist they would have the advantage of not being influenced or edited by the agenda of the agents of production and indicate the degree to which radio drama listening was part of individual and social consciousness.

At least one such diary has revealed considerable enthusiasm for listening to and critically evaluating dramatic story telling on the radio. Gail Johnson who up until the year 2000 worked in the Corporate Affairs Department of the Woolwich PLC and now lives in Kent discovered such a diary belonging to one of her uncles in the archives of family papers. 'Uncle Jim' was the same age as Val Gielgud in 1929 but like many people of his generation had been bedridden by tuberculosis - a disease which was to kill him prematurely. He was listening using a radio set that provided the sound through headphones in Tunbridge Wells, Kent in 1929. This method of listening involved enhanced concentration and has been defined as 'Elliptical Listening' on page 65 of Radio Drama- Theory and Practice (Crook, T [1999] London, New York: Routledge)-

'The summit of listening consciousness is high but tilted towards the basal orientation of physical listening environment and aural hearing field.'

2 entries are of interest because they coincide with the first month of Gielgud's appointment and the transmission of the production of Compton Mackenzie's novel 'Carnival' which became central in the debates about the future direction of radio drama production of that year.

'Broadcasting Carnival January 9 1929.

This excellent adaptation by Compton Mackenzie and Holt Marvell of the former's novel was proportionally as long as the book. Starting at 9.35 it did not finish until 11.50. Michael Fane and Sylvia Scarlett are together in 1915 in a town just captured by the Bulgarians who can be heard tramping through the streets. Fane starts talking of the past and of Jenny Pearl. The story then follows, consisting of an immense number of small scenes and linked together where necessary by Fane's voice. A novel and very good feature was that whenever Fane was speaking the faint tramp-tramp of the soldiers could be heard. Another excellent innovation was the way in which the introspections of the chief character was shown by scraps of previous conversation repeated in a dreamy fashion, or by the repetition of significant music. The part of Jenny Pearl was taken, I believe by Lilian Harrison who was all that could be desired. She is undoubtedly the finest radio actress the BBC possess. Altogether a most enjoyable affair and one that should contribute quite a lot to the future technic (sic) of radio drama.


The Fantasticks January 16 by Edmund Rostand.

It was a pity that reception of this pleasant little play was spoilt by 2LO being badly heterodyned all the time. Perhaps it was this that prevented me from enjoying it as much as I expected. On reflection, however, I can see what a charming little thing it is - dainty and fragile as best Sunday tea-cups and delicately and lightly played. It is not too well suited for broadcasting and would, I think, "get over" better if played on a summer evening. Lying in bed on a cold January night it was difficult to visualize the warm, sunny, perfumed garden and the dainty costumes etc so necessary to the full appreciation of this "Romantic Comedy".'


Images from the 1933 BBC Year Book of actors auditioning in a studio and the director considering the performance privately in another room. This is clearly a staged photo-shoot for the BBC but gives a flavour of how BBC Productions would go about assessing an actor's ability to create character and performance through voice alone.


Carnival was clearly a successful broadcast notwithstanding the detailed analysis of our independent 1929 diarist. Letters with genuine addresses and attribution were published in the Radio Times in reaction to the first and later broadcast in that year. It is also useful to remember that any 'repeat' involved another separate live performance since radio drama was not pre-recorded regularly until the late 1950s and early 60s.

The association between promotional image provided in the Radio Times and its engagement with the listening experience is worthy of further consideration. The Radio Times would sometimes provide maps and diagrams as well as graphical portaits to accompany dramatic productions. It was an opportunity for the expression of art-deco styles in illustration.

The dramatisation of Carnival was by the original novel author himself and Eric Maschwitz attributed through his pseudonym 'Hold Marvell'. Before Gielgud's aborted experiment with anonymous actors, the cast of Elsa Lanchester, Harman Grisewood, Michael Hogan and Mabel Constanduros was revealed in the listings pages for Tuesday January 8th and Wednesday January 9th 1929.

Grisewood was to have a distinguished career as BBC observer, producer and correspondent. The production would appear to have been premiered through 2 performances on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The first for 5GB in Birmingham and the second from 2LO in London. A unique feature of the broadcast was the involvement of the original author in performance. Compton Mackenzie read the narrative linking passages of his character 'Michael Fane' who is the actual narrator in the novel.

Every aspect of the BBC's presentation of Mackenzie was eulogistic and in the frame of literary celebrity. On January 4th 1929, Arthur Vivian' writes:

"...but the real man, for us, began with 'Carnival' (1912) London was full of 'Carnival' for months - it was the book of the year, and I have always felt, the perfect modern example of artistic balance and completion in a novel... Such a wealth of colour, and of truth in the portrayal - books for happy dipping night after night: the dreaming spires of Oxford, sideshows in the Earl's Court Exhibition, building girls of questionable mothers in West Kensington, bearded decadents in Edwardes Square, prize-fighting bullies in squalid slums, and the good and the bad and the stupid and the lovable sides of the girls of the 'Orient' and the 'Orange.' The 'Orient,' the Alhambra of the vanished promenade and its promiscuous and multi-coloured crowd; and the 'Orange' that 'Carnival' of which a radio version will be broadcast by the BBC on January 8 and 9. 'Carni Vale' indeed - but what a word of flesh and heart and devil, what wealth of human feeling, and how superbly Mackenzie creates characters!'

Critical evaluation of a detailed and reflective kind appeared as the first editorial feature/article for the Radio Times on January 25th 1929. Filson Young reported 'Broadcast Drama:, A record of Progress' and this theme was structured around a profound and intriguing analysis of Carnival as a rise in the ground 'that we are able to look back and measure the distance we have come'. Young continued:

'In the history of the development of radio drama, the recent broadcasting of Carnival was one such eminence from which we are enabled to realise how genuinely the new art of radio drama has been developed during the last five years...



At first reading there would be some justification for taking a rather sceptical approach to the value of this article as objective evidence of the success and importance of 'Carnival'. At no point does the Radio Times reveal that the main scriptwriter of the production Holt Marvell is in fact the Editor of the Radio Times Eric Maschwitz. The conceit here is almost as disingenuous as Val Gielgud fabricating letters to represent false opinion on BBC programmes.

However, Filson Young was by no means 'a lackey' of 'The Polish Corridor' at Savoy Hill. As Lord Asa Briggs explains in 'The Golden Age of Wireless 1927-1939' Filson Young was the most important of the BBC's paid advisors. He was a kind of resident consultant employed to criticise and evaluate programmes independently of the programme making people. (p 64, Briggs, A (1995) The Golden Age of Wireless 1927-1939 - The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, London, Oxford: Oxford University Press). Young's grasp of the imperatives of radio drama in the 1929 Radio Times article are prescient and modern. In fact other advice he offered BBC executives in 1934 had considerable relevance to decision making in subsequent BBC history. As quoted on page 69 of Briggs's volume:

'Young believed that as the BBC grew in size, 'the science of administration' had 'to some extent overlaid the essentially creative side of broadcasting, to its disadvantage'. p 69 [Young to Dawnay, 5 Mar. 1934]


Original studio at Savoy Hill. Picture taken 1928


Filson Young's criticism is also markedly more helpful than that of George Bernard Shaw who in July 1925 had informed C.A. Lewis that having installed a Burndept four-valve wireless set and loudspeaker, his opinion of plays broadcast by the BBC could be expressed in one word: 'damnable'. (pp 62 & 63 ibid)

Young's analysis is characterised by logic and commonsense:

'the problem has been to find a suitable medium by which to excite the imagination of the listener and make it function in place of optical vision. In the case of 'Lord Jim' the dramatic effect was almost entirely produced by narrative. In the case of the Nativity Play the problem was different, and, in a way, easy. The story was already present in the mind of the audience; all that was necessary, therefore, was a brief, but very carefully-worded, description of the scene, and an occasional interpolation of a word or two directing the listener's attention to a movement or a scene. The success of these devices was certified by the fact that thousands (literally) of letters were received in which the writers expressed their sense of having been present; and quite unconsciously and artlessly used phrases that had been used in introducing the play - phrases so purposely intended to sow ideas and pictures in the mind of the audience that they literally adopted them as their own, and showed that they had been duly innoculated with the desired impression.'


Studio 1 at BBC Savoy Hill


Young's theoretical observation about the importance of cultural memory cueing and 'seeding' of imagery or association through introduction and contextualisation is supported by pp 53-69 Crook, T (1999) Radio Drama- Theory & Practice, London, New York: Routledge, and the conclusions of Pear, T. H (1931) Voice and Personality.

Young makes the following detailed evaluation of Carnival:

'In Carnival all these developments were used with a skill on the part of the producer which revealed the extent of the progress made at Savoy Hill during the last four years. The production of Carnival was the result of a combination of good brains, infinite enthusiasm, imagination, and great skill. Something like genius inspired the selection of the forty-eight scenes in the text. Sometimes these 'scenes' lasted less than a minute; they never went on a moment after the listener had grasped their significance on the development of the story. The change was sometimes as rapid as that in a cinematograph, and infinitely more artistic. We all know the awful boredom of having to look at, say, a caption on the screen for the time it would take the most illiterate person in the audience to spell it out twice over letter by letter. We also know the irritation of a beautiful scene - say, a picture of breaking waves - being whisked away from our vision, when the eye would like to dwell on it. No such feeling was discernible in Carnival, and the restlessness produced by the effect of so many kaleidoscopic scenes was averted by the rest and refreshment to the imagination afforded by the charming narrative interludes read by the author himself.'


Studio 3 at BBC Savoy Hill


Young makes a significant contribution to the theory of radio drama in an article that has not been referenced by any existing literature on the subject:

'You can sit down by the fireside and think over the memory of a lifetime. It will all pass before you, or rather not all, but only the essential part of it; a year may be passed over in a second; or a minute may be dwelt upon for half-an-hour. The difference between that and the actual enactment of the scenes of a lifetime is equivalent to the difference between the functioning of memory and the reading over of an elaborate and meticulous diary in which every event has been recorded. The diary gives equal emphasis to everything, the significant and insignificant; the memory retains only the essentials, and blurs or eliminates all the rest. Thus the development of radio drama up to the moment may be said to have been in the direction of a technique which functions like the human memory - not attempting to represent life, but to telescope the memories and impressions of a life or a story into the dream vision of an hour or two.'


Studio 5 at BBC Savoy Hill


A more modern reference to the significance of 'Carnival' is to be found in the potted biography of its dramatiser Eric Maschwitz or Holt Marvell:

'One of his first ventures, at Gielgud's behest, was to convert Compton Mackenzie's novel Carnival into a complicated radio play with a hundred scenes. It ran for over two hours, involved two orchestras, and used all the Savoy Hill studios linked together. Carnival was very popular and rebroadcast many times. In 1932 Gielgud wanted to mount a radio operetta using the same techniques.' (p 36 Miall, L (1994) Inside the BBC- British Broadcasting Characters, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.)

This would be the hugely successful 'Good Night Vienna' that was to become the first British musical talkie film starring Maschwitz's first wife Anna Neagle and Jack Buchanon. Maschwitz was to enjoy great success with the composition of popular songs such as 'A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square' and scriptwriting in Hollywood which included a significant writing credit for 'Goodbye, Mr Chips'.

The Radio Times 'What The Other Listener Thinks' column for January 18th 1929 published the following letter which because of its initials 'F.H.A, Northampton' may have been an apocryphal rather than genuine reaction to the broadcast:

'The Triumph of "Carnival"

"Carnival" is over. The hour is late. But it has set memory and emotion tingling. I do not know how it was contrived. I do not know how that fast moving shuttle of voice and music wove the pattern gay and sombre and complete. The pitiful little history of Jenny, now in sun and now in shade, came before us as a living thing and moved to its climax as inexorably as Greek tragedy. "Carnival" is a tale for many of us of our own age, and our thanks must go to this very virile present for their delicate art in bringing the past before us once again.'

It is impossible to authenticate this letter, but it could be argued to have an articulacy and hyperbole which is beyond what could be expected from an unsolicited letter.

'Carnival' and Compton Mackenzie are the 2 symbols or factors which frame and structure the first 'Radio Drama Number' of the Radio Times published on March 1st 1929. There have been few times when a high selling magazine has been committed to a celebration and debate about Radio Drama as an instrinsic art form and force of storytelling and 'popular culture'.


The art-deco design references the titles of what were clearly regarded as key productions in the relatively short history of BBC Radio Drama and include: Mr Wu, The White Chateau, Peer Gynt, The Kaleidoscope, Speed, Lord Jim, R.U.R., Way of an Eagle, Prunella, The Wandering Jew and Rampa. This intricate design by Eric Fraser is described as 'based upon the mechanics of Radio Play production as explained in an article on page 498. It shows seven studios in use, controlled bythe producer at the Dramatic Control Panel!'


Compton Mackenzie is given 'the front page' as it were with the first article on 'The Future of the Broadcast Play'. It is editorial and advert and brimming with confidence, hope and a tendency to chauvinism and arrogance.

As early as the first paragraph George Bernard Shaw was likely to burst a blood vessel when he contemplated the bold opinion that his plays 'are not great plays' and that on three occasions Compton Mackenzie had fallen asleep in the box when seeing them acted. Whereas Ibsen requires the theatre and his 'plays are almost unreadable, and the marvellous way they come to life when interpreted, as they so often are, by inferior actors and actresses, is the most convincing proof of his supreme dramatic genius.'

For Mackenzie the beginning of the 20th century was the age of the novel and he argues convincingly of the link and dramatic potential of fusing the force of effective novelistic storytelling with the new art of radio drama although this link is articulate through a vicarious channel of personal experience. Chauvinism manifests itself with the assertion that British Broadcasting is superior to that of any other country and probably of all other countries put together. The usual swipe and condemnation of the print media for neglecting radio drama - the new art form:

'with one or two honourable exceptions, not a single London newspaper has condescended to criticize these experiments with as much attention as it will devote to some trumpery film...'

He makes a point previously made and subsequently echoed up until the present day:

'the future of broadcast drama lies with authors who are prepared to write directly for the microphone.'

He condemns contemporary productions of Shakespeare as failures largely because 'We are paying now for the Irving and Tree mistake of presenting Shakespeare too exclusively for the eyes and not the ears of an audience.'

He makes a point about the integrity of purpose in writing and performance which has survived through to the present day:

'I believe that if one word be sought to state one permanently indispensable necessity for Radio Drama, that word will be "sincerity".'

Content and emotional purpose should rule over style and artifice:

'However ingenious the effects, however neat the construction, however well written the dialogue, no Radio Drama which diverges into mere cleverness without the fullest inspiration of life will ever get across to that immense audience - that so much greater audience than any dramatist has ever had to face before, even in the mighty fifth century B.C.'

Mackenzie also pointed up an essential similarity between the Ancient Greek dramatic tradition and that of modernist electro-magnetic radio drama. The mass appeal of the ancient Greeks was secured through the voices of the players speaking through megaphones 'with their faces hidden by tragic masks and their stature raised to more than mortal size by buskins so that they must have appeared to the audience as inhuman as our loud-speakers of today.'

Eric Maschwitz somewhat disingenuously offers an analysis of the lessons of the success of 'Carnival' and the centre of the text is marked by a page from the production script: 'On the left will be seen notes in the producer's handwriting of the various 'fades' between studios demanded in the space of one page alone, though it must be admitted that the page was a more than usually complicated one being descriptive of the vague reminiscent thoughts which drifted through the heroine's mind at a critical moment in her brief life.'

The article is disingenuous because it is authored as 'Holt Marvell' - the declared adaptor of 'Carnival' - but nowhere are the readers informed that Holt Marvell is also the editor of the Radio Times himself - Eric Maschwitz.

Maschwitz aka Holt Marvell makes the following points:

1: The fact that the microphone cannot enable its audiences to see is its only one limitation.

2: One should look to the novelist for the microphone play because it is the ideal medium for an unshackled form of drama.

3: The Dramatic Control Panel with its mechanical potential to mix and cross fade scenes has liberated drama of the last cramping limitations of stage form. He is in a sense talking about the topography, environment or geography of dramatic imagination which has been expanded and extended by the ability to fade from one scene to another, superimpose one body of sound upon another, introduce music and sound effects for background.

4: He defines the contribution of the Control Panel as introducing 'Expressionism' to radio drama. The radio playwright can use sound as the film producer uses light.

5: It is important to emphasise the retention of 'the human element' and not sacrifice 'the play' to the medium.

6: The 'fluid quality' of sound mixing compares exactly with the novel than with the stage play because in the novel the drama flows with the imagination seeing it develop 'step by step, like the drama of real life.'

7: Maschwitz somewhat controversially advances the view that radio drama can achieve greater realism than stage drama.

8: Maschwitz is optimistic about radio drama being 'a drama of large scope, realistic in all that it implies to the imagination, picturing as wide a section of existence as is artifically possible, discarding the limitations of the theatre, heightening its emotions by the sparing use of music and expressionism.'

9: Maschwitz recognises the emotional potential of radio as a storytelling medium when he says 'The microphone brings its listeners very close to the heart of the drama which is being given in the studios.

10: Maschwitz raises the critical question of how much should be left to the listener's imagination which has been explored as the fifth dimension of narrative direction in radio drama or the imaginative spectacle in 'Radio Drama - Theory and Practice'.


In 'Carnival' Maschwitz claimed that he and Compton Mackenzie 'left almost everything to the listener.. scene succeeded scene without explanation, one drifting into another, and yet, among the letters received by the BBC and the authors following the broadcast, there was not one which complained that the development of the story was not sufficiently clear.'

He concluded that 'each reader, or listener creates for himself his own idea of what "So-and-so" looks like, and it rests with the skill of the author and the producer to make these thousands of images resemble as closely as possible the "master image" which is in their mind.'

The director of 'Carnival' who seems to have a subsidiary role in the promotion and marketing of the production was Peter Creswell. He contributed an article 'On Casting For Broadcasting' in the March 1st Radio Times 'Radio Drama Number'.

Creswell said the 'most important pigment' in the painting of the mental picture of radio drama 'is the human voice'

1: The human voice is one of the loveliest of musical instruments.

2: The role of the producer is to disembody the voices he thinks of using.

3: He does this by listening to it with closed eyes or better still over a loud-speaker in another room.

4: The radio producer has to recapture that invaluable first impression of the listener's point of view: perhaps one should rather say 'point of hearing'.

5: Another consideration is the transmission of personality over the ether. He discovers this when he ceases taking notes when listening at an audition. Instead 'I heard and saw!'. Transmission of personality is achieved when the listener instantly sees gestures, carriage, colour of hair and eyes.

6: The technique of radio acting depends on understanding the extreme sensitivity of the microphone. Theatrics have to be avoided and the naturalistic or natural needs to be adopted. 'Character' acting on the radio is a redundant concept and practice. Creswell advocated a striving for realism in his appeal to actors not to come to BBC Savoy Hill with a tendency to 'elocute'. He complained of the suffocating experience of hearing 'a terrible unreality about their up-and-down sing-song delivery.'

The March 1st Radio Drama Number also offered Val Gielgud the opportunity to make his first contribution on his thoughts about the future of radio drama after less than 2 months in the job he later admitted to being thoroughly unqualified for. Gielgud approached the debate from the point of view of 'writing techniques in 'Leave The Stage Alone - Limitations of the Theatre and Scope of the studio.' (Page 499, The Radio Times, March 1, 1929)

The centre piece for his article was undoubtedly the celebration of the writer through the photographic portraits of six men described as 'Six Famous Radio Playwrights:

' William Gerbardi and Ashley Dukes, well known as novelist and dramatist respectively, whose first plays for the microphone will be heard by listeners in the near future; Richard Hughes, author of Congo Night and Danger. Compton Mackenzie, adapter of his own novel, 'Carnival'; Cecil Lewis, author of Pursuit and other radio plays and adapter of 'Rampa', 'Through The Looking Glass' etc; and Reginald Berkeley whose war-play, The White Chateau, is a classic of radio drama.'

Gielgud's key point was that the biggest risk to radio drama was listeners and writers continuing to think of radio drama as 'the Cinderella of the ordinary stage.'

1: Tyrone Guthrie's 'Squirrel's Cage' was a play written for the microphone and impossible for performance on the stage because the cast is practically unlimited,

it can use as many voices as the studio can accommodate, or the Corporation pay,

it shifts from suburban dining-room to school, from school to office, from office to 9.15 train, with a rapidity only paralleled on the screen,

And it covers in an hour the greater part of a man's psychological development.

2: Gielgud repeats points about the relative strengths and weakness of stage and microphone plays but achieves a fine and elegant precision with his point:

'The stage can show you the face. But the microphone can show you the working of the mind behind the face.'

3. After replicating points about casting and acting made by Peter Creswell, Gielgud concluded his contribution by describing radio drama being 'in its last experimental stage.' Again the tone is optimistic and positive:

'It has been abundantly shown that a new field has been opened to writers, actors, and producers, and if they are to take advantage of it they must realize that they are dealing with a new thing and not with an inferior substitute for an old thing. Once that is realized we can go ahead.' (pp 499 & 502, The Radio Times, March 1, 1929)

Two further articles which highlighted the culture of BBC radio drama production in 1929 was a piece by Howard Rose on 'The Seven Ages of Radio Production' and Mary Hope Allen on 'A Shoe Shop Full of Plays - A Word about the Ever-growing Play library at Savoy Hill' which may or may not be of some comfort to subsequent generations of radio drama departments who have had to cope with the BBC's popularity as the destination of hopeful unsolicited dramatists.

Carnival was repeated on November 4th and 6th 1929 with an additional frisson of promotion and hyperbole that was likely to boost sales of the novel. The provision of visual cueing - particularly for the central character Jenny would have been risque for the time in the extent of the depiction of a naked woman's back:


Page 340 of Radio Times November 1st 1929


On Page 331 of the same edition of the Radio Times the BBC announces that 'Carnival' is being 'revived' at the request of many listeners who were unable to hear it on the first occasion:

'The experiment of presenting the complete life-story of a character in a play of more than two hours in length, was a daring one. That it succeeded so admirably was mainly due to the special qualities of Mr Mackenzie's story with its back of London bohemian life. The play produced by Peter Creswell.'

The production as in January had a first broadcast on the Monday on 5GB in Birmingham and then on all other stations, including 2LO on the Wednesday. Wilfred Rooke-Ley published a full page literary promotion of the original novel on page 315 of the Radio Times edition for November 1st 1929. A consideration of the opening paragraph:

'It is not often that a novel - which mirrors so faithfully as "Carnival" a particular moment of contemporary life - survives the generation about whom and for whose delight it was written'

and the final paragraph:

'"Carnival" is a late flowering of that period whose youth and enthusiasm Mr Mackenzie inherited. I should not wonder if Posterity takes the view so neatly expressed by a contemporary reviewer, one of Mr Punch's Learned Clerks: "I shall put 'Carnival' upon the small and by no means crowded shelf that I reserve for 'keeps'"'

provide the flavour of admiration and fawning present throughout the article. The fact of the matter is that 'Carnival' did not endure as a key text of Compton Mackenzie's literary output. In the present age (2001) he is vaguely recollected as the author of 'Whiskey Galore' - a story whose resonance probably owes more to the film medium rather than that of the novel. Wilfred Rooke-Ley compares the prose and characters with those created by Dickens and Chaucer:

'Jenny herself is incarnate London: the London that bred Chaucer and Dickens. She is the latest of the long gallery of London characters, which include Caddy Jellyby-Dickens's solitary heroine, perhaps, who is really flesh and blood - and Sam Weller. Dickens and the creator of Jenny have much in common: that constant, untiring awareness of character, of all that is odd and whimsical in the world. But Mr Mackenzie's humour never deserts him, as it sometimes deserted Dickens, and it may be said that it is humour on the one hand and intense virility on the other that save him from the pitfalls which the poetic treatment of "Carnival" might have involved.'

The article incredibly but predictably continues to place the author on the same literary pedestal as the poet Keats.



Number 1 studio BBC Savoy Hill


It is not the first time the idea of the virile and virility has been used in respect of 'criticism' or more appropriately 'unqualified applause' for this novel. It was suspiciously present in the apparent letter from F.H.A in Northampton. The language of 'virility' is a thin mask for the sexuality of the story which is very much an Edwardian nostalgic and masculine construction of the fin de siecle female - 'Jenny Pearl'. This might account for the fact that the novel and story lost fashion and cultural resonance as society became more predicated on women authors empowering the characterisation of women's psyche.


Studio 7 at BBC Savoy Hill


The 1929 production and broadcast of 'Carnival' is also an interesting model of how the early BBC set up the concept of a contemporary 'celebrity' in the uncritical signposting of Compton Mackenzie as champion and hero of radio drama and popular literature. For the issue of January 4th the following 'diary' item appeared on the page 'The Other Side of the Microphone':

'Siamese, Spies and Scotland.

Can it be that anyone has got more out of life than Compton Mackenzie? As son of the famous actor Edward Compton, he knew, as a youth, all the famous people of the '90s. After a brilliant career at Oxford he took to writing and astonished us, in 1910 and 1912, with 'The Passionate Elopement' and 'Carnival' following these first books with 'Sinister Street'. After seeing service in Gallipoli, he became our Secret Agent at Athens. His adventures in the Intelligence provided him with enough material for a hundred novels. He has already published one book based upon them, 'Extremes Meet'; a second, 'The Three Couriers,' will shortly appear. His passion for islands is well known. After living on Capri, he moved nearer home, to Jethou, in the Channel group. Here he now dwells with the Siamese cats he told us of in a recent talk. There are eleven of them, divided into two rival camps. Their owner is President of the Siamese Cat Club. When not writing on Jethou, Mackenzie is dashing up to Scotland. He is standing for Parliament in the next election as a Scottish Nationalist. A member of the Clan Mackenzie, he is a passionate Nationalist. If ever we see a Stuart on the throne of Scotland, we may be sure that he has had something to do with it. He has recently acquired two more islands off the west coast of Scotland on one of which, he is thinking of breeding reindeer. A fascinating personality, with his lively knowledge of the classics, cats, music, the stage, and the demi-monde. A fascinating figure with restless eyes, a mouth that is two sides of a triangle, and a suit of Harris tweed the colours of which must be stolen from some sombre northern rainbow. As perfectly a young man of 1929 as he was a young man of 1909.'


Compton Mackenzie - the Secret Agent. The portrait and inside page of a rare copy of 'Greek Memories' which was actually suppressed under the Official Secrets Act on publication in 1932. The Author himself was prosecuted 'In Camera' and fined for revealing sensitive information about British espionage activity in Greece and the Balkans during the First World War. Rupert Allason and Tam Dalyell have speculated that the prosecution was largely the result of a personality clash and 'falling out' with people in MI5 and MI6.


Here we have a model of the 'Richard Hannay' Buchanesque hero of the period between the two wars. He was an Intelligence agent and adventurer in the Greek Islands during the First World War. He is so rich he lives as a tax exile in the Channel Islands and can buy 2 islands off the West Coast of Scotland to embellish his identity as the romantic modern 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'.

He is the glorious aristocratic amateur adventurer of Imperialist Britain. Standing for Parliament, classically and Oxford educated, 'Our Secret Agent in Athens', not so much the careerist and workaholic that he cannot be president of the Siamese Cat Club. A romantic and Byronesque emblem of establishment culture who is also the habitue of the demi-monde when he needs to be for King, Country, Empire and Art.


Compton Mackenzie - very much the 'Richard Hannay' Buchanesque swashbuckling hero of his time. 'Dashing up' to Scotland to breed reindeer and fulfil his role as the modern Stuart of Scotland.


Mackenzie becomes the hero of BBC radio drama, transcending his role as writer to be the player in his own novel and the champion of the art. When the British Drama League Club Room organises the discussion on the artistic value of the broadcast play on April 8th 1929, it is Compton Mackenzie who mounts the white stallion on behalf of the BBC and radio drama.

On May 1st in the Listener it would be reported:

'Mr Compton Mackenzie made a shrewd hit when he urged that it encouraged individualism and, therefore, intelligence in its audiences. A wireless play must make its appeal direct to the individual listener without any adventitious aids, either of previous criticism, hearsay or mass suggestion. This is, indeed, a feature which is common to all the activities of broadcasting. There is a certain artistic puritanism here which, if it can find the right forms, is capable of that self-discipline which breeds great art. More than this no advocate of wireless drama world claims.' (Pate 590, column 2, 2nd paragraph, The Listener, May 1, 1929)

The debate during which Mackenzie was pitched against the woman dramatist Naomi Royde-Smith was broadcast live by the BBC. Royde-Smith spoke for the motion 'The Broadcast Play is an unsatisfactory Form of Art' and she carried her resolution by a majority of three to one. She had argued that to use H. G Wells' phrase the radio play 'teaches us what life must be for the blind':

'Why listen to several people speaking with intermittent distinctness an abbreviated play when you can either go to the theatre and see a play, or stay at home and read it in full for yourself? Not only is the broadcast play an unsatisfactory form of art. It is a dangerous one. It is not even good substitution. All listeners should be warned against it.'

(Page 555, Column 1 Paragraph 5, April 24, 1929, The Listener.)


Featuring the live debate on Radio Drama on page 93 Radio Times April 12th 1929


'Both Sides of the Microphone' authored by Eric Maschwitz reported on April 5th that Compton Mackenzie:

'will be heard at 8.00 p.m. from 5GB debating with Naomi Royde-Smith. Miss Royde-Smith will maintain "That the Broadcast Play is not a satisfactory form of art"- an assertion which Mr Mackenzie is well equipped to combat, for his interest in radio drama is of long standing and found practical expression in the recently-broadcast adaptation of one of his novels. His opponent, on the other hand, is a stage playwright of some experience - and stage writers are not usually kind to broadcasting. In view of the present interest in radio plays and the recent transmission of several successful experiments this debate should appeal to a large section of our audience. The debate has been arranged by the Drama League, and will be relayed from their premises in Adelphi Terrace.' (Page 4, column 2, paragraph 1, Radio Times, April 5, 1929)

In September Compton Mackenzie continued to spring to Radio Drama's defence in the face of an attack by Gordon Craig which was described as 'outspoken' by the Radio Times. In reality Craig's article was badly argued and unevenly written with rather poor analogies:

'So when you ask me as to the possible future development of the drama as affected by broadcasting, I can only say that I see no development possible whatever, because drama is one of those eternal things which never changes. Broadcasting can of course affect the sale of some drama and the fashions in drama: it can even affect the spread of bad drama but it can in no way help to develop or to retard the development of the drama, because the drama is unaffected by whatever happens. In fact, drama is a big thing and broadcasting only looks like a big thing.' (first paragraph, column 1, page 666, Radio Times, September 1929)


Compton Mackenzie's further defence of Radio Drama in the Radio Times September 27, 1929, page 667

Compton Mackenzie argued that radio drama had advanced the interests of the storytelling artist to a point not experienced since the age of the epic narrators of Greek literature:

'I have realised that radio is going to give the artist the greatest opportunity he has had since the days of Homer to express himself without the mechanical barrier which the progress of human inventiveness has raised higher and higher between the artist and his audience.'

But the final paragraph of his defence introduces a personal element of attack which introduces a patronising, superior and somewhat emotional dimension to the debate.

'For Mr Gordon Craig to write in one sentence "the radio, the movie-tones, the cinema and all these things," argues such a confusion of mind, such a failure of imagination, and so much ill-informed prejudice as to make it seem hardly worth while for an intelligent man to argue with him. Nevertheless, if Mr Gordon Craig will give himself the trouble to listen intelligently to radio for a whole year, I will debate with him before the microphone at the end of that year, with one proviso, which is, that there shall not sit between us and the real audience a small visible audience ready to titter at any jokes he may make about curates and so render serious debating an impossibility.' (column 3, paragraph 2, page 667, The Radio Times, September 27, 1929)


Our Man In Athens. Compton Mackenzie after visiting the French Consul-General 14/07/1917. From page 315 'Aegean Memories' published in London by Chatto and Windus in 1940. The book also discusses the activities of the Serbian Secret Society which was called 'The Black Hand.' It is coincidental that John Buchan's malign enemy in 'The Thirty Nine Steps' which threatens world peace and is involved in the assassination of a Greek Prime Minister' Karolides' was called 'The Black Stone'. 'The Thirty Nine Steps' was originally published in 1913.


Compton Mackenzie's Official Secrets Act prosecution was mentioned in a Hansard debate on a new Official Secrets Act in 1989

Extract from Hansard

Mr Rupert Allason: There was very little after his revelations of the Secret Intelligence Service's operations in the first world war until shortly before the second world war, when Sir Compton Mackenzie was prosecuted for revealing various desperately secret details such as the fact that the chief of the secret intelligence service was known by the letter "C". As was pointed out in Committee when the Security Service Bill was being debated, the judge observed that if it was so deadly secret that the chief of the secret intelligence service was known as "C", why had he not changed it to "D" or "E" and had there not been some 20 years for him to do that? The key to the Compton Mackenzie prosecution, however, is the little-known fact that the deputy director-general of the Security Service at that time not only authorised publication of the book -- he was a great friend of Compton Mackenzie -- but was himself a somewhat vain individual and was terribly flattered by the references to himself. This was part of the reason, I suspect, why the prosecution did not press the case very hard and why Compton Mackenzie, although convicted, was given a very small fine.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman but I hope that he was not calling Compton Mackenzie a vain individual. I knew him very well and he was not vain.

Mr. Allason : No, I was not suggesting that. The then deputy director-general of the Security Service was a very vain individual and he was terribly flattered by what Compton Mackenzie had written, hence his motive in authorising this particular disclosure and hence the appalling mess that the Government got themselves into at the time.

Mr. Dalyell : The hon. Gentleman must be a little careful in going into this particular example because Compton Mackenzie used to hold court in his house in Drummond Place in Edinburgh and told, at some length, all who would listen that he felt that he was being got at on personal grounds, and that much of the case was connected with issues of personality rather than with the prosecution of the law.

Mr. Allason : That may be so. The fact remains that he was convicted and fined.


Compton Mackenzie links:

A potted biography

Links and a short biography

Audio extract of spoken word product of Whiskey Galore

Another short biog

Famous Scots

A page on his second hand books

Page on his espionage career with MI5

University of Archive papers