Gielgud and the Wireless Play
Between May 24th
and June 28th 1929 the Production Director of the BBC Val Gielgud
had published in the Radio Times six articles ‘For the Aspiring Dramatist’
on what was described as ‘The Microphone Play.’
He was setting out
his own independent agenda on radio drama and how to write it. The
last time anything as ambitious as this had been attempted was 1926
when a producer at the BBC's Newcastle station Gordon Lea wrote and
published 'Radio Drama and How to Write It' - London: George Allen
and Unwin. A comprehensive and scholarly evaluation of Lea's book
is available at Chapter 6.4 of Alan Beck's History of Radio Drama
in the UK, Vol 1, 'The Invisible Play' - Radio Drama 1922-8, Kent
University on CD-ROM. Beck states that Reith endorsed the book and
ordered that a copy be provided to every BBC station. But he also
observes that there is no evidence that Lee worked at Savoy Hill and
became familiar with the developing techniques operated by the Control
It is a fact that
Gielgud's entry in 1929 as Productions Director represented a style
of 'Year Zero'. R.A. Jeffrey was history. It could be argued that
his role in originally commissioning Berkeley's 'Machines' could well
have been his nemesis. Reith was ruthless about excising any individual
or issue that compromised the stability and positive profile of the
BBC. Jeffrey's wane subsequent to the row and Reith's decision to
'appoint' Gielgud as Jeffrey's successor seems to coincide neatly
as an explanation of the transition in power. Alan Beck's scholarship
in relation to the Berkeley scandal is a constructive contribution
to assessing the institutional politics of the BBC between 1928 and
is dynamic and positive. He is determined to bury radio drama's 'Cinderella'
It could not be
said that Gielgud did not undergo a baptism of fire in his first year.
There were trenchant attacks from the Press. One such attack prompted
a spirited defence in the Radio Times on November 1st 1929 in an article
entitled 'The Broadcast Plays - Are they Getting Worse?'
Rose who had been in charge of the Great Play series felt compelled
to answer a body of criticism about the relevance and alleged failures
of that project midway through the cycle of 12 productions in February
1929. In the end the BBC regarded this venture as something to avoid
in the future and it was not attempted again before the Second World
Rose took up a letter
from a listener Brabazon Howe from Edgbaston as the cue to his reply
to the rhetorical question 'The Great Plays - Do They Appeal To A
Howe had written:
'As a humble member
of the listening public I am a little at sea with regard to the Twelve
Great Plays. Though interested in all drama and in radio drama in
particular, I am not either literary nor an expert in dramatic technique,
and English writers appeal to me more than foreign. I will, however,
admit that, in comparison with The Passing of the Third Floor Back,
or the radio adaptation of Carnival, I am a little disappointed
by what I have heard of the series already, and slightly apprehensive
of such coming productions as Shakuntala and Electra.
Presumably, the Twelve Great Plays have been chosen for their universal
popular appeal. If my assumption is right, I do not think the choice
has been very successful. I am, however, more than ready to be corrected
if I am looking at the series from a wrong angle. The views of others
of your listeners might be revealing.'
The letter is polite
though in coded language revealing cultural xenophobia. The opinion
understandably has the BBC on the backfoot with regard to its policy
on drama. Without the space for a 'Third Programme' format, the BBC
did not have a separate location for situating 'classical' and educational
drama rather than popular strands of storytelling. The multicultural
agenda inherent in the BBC's good intentions cannot be rationalised
without selecting and producing stories and plays which have popular
appeal to a global audience. Shakespeare's Henry the Eighth was not
exactly an inspired choice to introduce and celebrate the great Elizabethan
playwright. Shakuntala was not adapted, directed or performed by the
people whose culture it represented so it is not surprising that in
the end it lacked a vital charge of human communication. The plays
themselves were very long - sometimes covering nearly 2 hours of broadcast
time and although guides had been published there was little in the
way of contextualised guide to accompany the live transmissions.
Rose's defence is
somewhat muted and lacks the 'gung ho' confidence of Gielgud's reply
to a Sunday Express attack in November.
concedes 'Maybe the line of approach to them has not been clear.'
The educational and informational remit of the Reithian 'Wireless
Over Britain' regime is evident in his observation:
'It was never intended
that they should be regarded as popular in any sense of the term.
They were definitely chosen for their literary value... We may fairly
assume that many thousands of listeners who would never get the opportunity
of seeing such plays at The Fantasticks and Life's Dream
are at least pleased to be able to hear them spoken.'
Rose concludes unconvincingly:
stage play - not to be confused with the essentially theatre play
- will always have its interest whatever developments may take place
in writing, or building up, for broadcasting, and however desirable
progress in this direction may be.'
Overall Rose's defence
is rather weak. It could be that he was conceding a defeat on the
indefensible within weeks of Val Gielgud's arrival and everyone in
the Dramatic Productions department was aware that Gielgud thought
BBC Radio Drama was hidebound by a failure to develop the microphone
play rather than aver to literary staged based drama. It is clear
that Rose and Gielgud quickly established a successful working relationship
and in Years of The Locust Gielgud pays him a fulsome tribute:
to radio drama have been no small thing. To him much of the credit
should go for the remarkable popularity of the "Saturday-Night
Theatre" series, and for the successful handling of the serialised
Trollope and Dickens Novels'
(p 72, Gielgud,
V, (1947) Years Of The Locust, London, Brussels: Nicholson & Watson.)
Gielgud also respects
Rose's attitude which must have been an oasis in a desert of resentment:
'Yet some of those
with whom I was to work would have been more than human if they had
not looked upon the possibility of my coming to grief with satisfaction...
And here I would like to take the opportunity to pay a debt of gratitude
to Howard Rose. He was second-in-command to R.E. Jeffrey, who had
just resigned. He might well have assumed that the succession was
his by right. He was a much older man. He had watched the birth of
the radio play, and helped to nurse it through its comfortless teething
troubles. Yet he never displayed a particle of resentment. He gave
me unwavering loyalty and help and support.'
(p 71, ibid)
to the Sunday Express Radio critic 'Mr Swaffer' in November 1929 was,
to say the least, smouldering. Rather than present a rational defence
of radio drama or inspire a vision on the special properties of the
broadcast play, Gielgud goes for the jugular and seeks to patronise
and ridicule the BBC's critic:
'It seems to me
to be a little unfortunate that the critic in question should have
chosen to unmask his guns upon the wrong target. He was abusing a
certain 'feature programme, called "Russian Twilight", 'for
being a bad play'. "Russian Twilight" was not a play; it
had no pretensions to being a play; and was not called a play.'
adjectives to define the newspaper attack as being 'damning', 'pillorying',
'abuse', 'unfair' and having responded in a highly emotional and somewhat
petulant manner declares:
'But I do not propose
to enter into either a debate or a slanging match with Mr Swaffer'.
It is certainly true to say he did not enter into a debate, but it
is not true to say that he avoided a slanging match. Nothing of any
theoretical significance emerges from this article apart from the
statement 'Radio drama is not yet set in any final recognizable mould'.
However he does seek to divide radio drama into three categories:
'first plays, written
directly for the microphone;
secondly, the story
which may in its original form have been either novel or play, adapted
for the microphone;
and thirdly, the
classic drama of the spoken word which, just because it depends upon
the spoken word rather than upon anything else for its merits and
reputation as a classic, can be brought to the microphone almost exactly
as it was written for the stage.'
& 357, The Radio Times, November 1, 1929)
of women in Radio Times advertising represents elements of social
emancipation accelerated by the advance of marketing and commercialisation
of 'exchange value'. This was still the age of 'the flapper'. The
picture of the 'society beauty' with 'a fag' hanging out of her mouth
was regarded as '1920s cool' and the titillating depiction of women
in stylish Vedonis underwear for the winter is positively unVictorian.
(pp 206 and 207, The Radio Times, October 18, 1929)