Val Gielgud and the BBC


Val Gielgud and How to Write Radio Plays


'shadows moving in a world of memories'

(p668, The Wireless Play- VI- A Practical Example, Radio Times, June 28, 1929)


An advert for the valve wireless which by 1929 was becoming the primary item of domestic entertainment furniture. (p 80, The Radio Times, October 11, 1929)


Val 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 Panel.

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 1929.

Gielgud's agenda is dynamic and positive. He is determined to bury radio drama's 'Cinderella' status.

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?'

Similarly Howard 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 War.

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 Wide Audience?'

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.

Rose immediately 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:

'...the literary 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:

'His contributions 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)

Gielgud's reply 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.'

Gielgud scatterguns 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.'

(pp 314 & 357, The Radio Times, November 1, 1929)


The depiction 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)