Val Gielgud and the BBC


Going Beyond Praxis Contemporary to 1929


There are certainly gaps in the existing theorising of radio drama practice in 1929 which were not provided to the aspiring writer nor identified as a key recognition of narratological and dramatic potential in the new medium.

There are no references to Aristotle's 'Poetics' nor the key points made by Plato and Horace on the role of story telling in civilised society. Furthermore there is clearly a poverty of imagination and philosophy about the potential of sound drama in the context of a developing modernist world.

A fundamental flaw in all the writings available to us from 1929 is the absence of any references to irony as the writer's most powerful tool and the listener's location for independence of thought and cultural and political resistance. Irony is a location for understanding or applying Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of double voiced heteroglossia. No theorists have successfully articulated the bridge between Bakhtin's definition of the entry of differentiated everyday languages into literary texts and the 'texts' of radio drama. Bakhtin's concept of Dialogism creates roots and chains for mutli-voiced expression in the vocabulary of character and narrators, the relationship between author and character and the links of communication and understanding between listener, characters and authors. How is the chain of culture represented by the intertextuality of radio drama texts?


The Classical References

The body of theoretical discourse on novel prose writing and drama created in the 20th century as well as influential texts from antiquity raise a number of key questions for debate:

To take the tradition of Greek Tragedy as critiqued by Aristotle in Poetics, how does the radio drama production combine the elements of plot, character and 'imaginative spectacle' to produce 'pity and fear' and to what extent is the 'successful' radio drama production determined by a counterpoint of 'pity and fear'?

Can it be argued that the radio drama phenomenon of creation, performance and reception generates a special 'pleasure' in exploring and experiencing the emotional and psychological pain of 'pity and fear'?

Where is the location for mimesis (imitation), harmartia (error) and catharsis in radio drama?

What engagement has there been in the history of radio drama where Plato's belief that 'poetics' in storytelling which generate an excess of emotion should be suppressed whereas Aristotle argues that it is appropriate to feel the right degree of emotion in the right circumstances? How can the catharsis of fear and pity be defined in the process of radio drama and identified as events or process in its history?

Where can we identify a merging of poetics and rhetoric in radio drama and how does the technique of radio drama promote a better and proper understanding of the human soul?

How do we predicate and evaluate radio drama's role in offering a technique which goes beyond the art of persuasion to become a faculty of discovering the available means of persuasion in any particular case?

How does the radio dramatist and producer combine the techniques of audience psychology, human emotions and character, and virtues of clarity and appropriateness?

In the end the Aristotelian issue for radio drama is the interface between a skill dedicated to persuading an audience through rhetoric and the art of poetry which is an imitative art that seeks to produce a particular pleasure.

How has the history and practice of radio drama demonstrated the establishment of Haracian 'organic unity' emphasizing that 'every part and every aspect of that work must be appropriate to the nature of the work as a whole: the choice of subject in relation to the chosen genre, the characterisation, the form, the expression, the metre, the style and the tone'? (pxl Murray, P (2000) Classical Literary Criticism, London, New York: Penguin Classics.)

This clearly has an echo that reverberates with the Gestaltian theory in human psychology. (p 159, Crook, T (1999) Radio Drama, Theory and Practice, London, New York: Routledge.)

There have been elements of these classical principles present in the debate about successful elements in the idea of the microphone play in the articles published in the Radio Times during 1929. Gielgud, Young and Mackenzie counsel against mixing genres and emphasise the value of dramatic characters which are true to life and avoiding characters which lack verisimilitude.

These are key principles in Horace's 'Art of Poetry'. They do not disagree with his homily that 'the skilled imitator should look to human life and character for his models, and from there derive a language that is true to life.' (317-18- p 107 Horace, Art of Poetry, (2000) Classical Literary Criticism, London, New York: Penguin Classics.)

To what extent does Longinus 'On the Sublime' give radio drama the opportunity for analysing itself. Does it fall into his three style of classifying oratory:

grand for rousing the emotions,

plain for setting out arguments,

intermediate for giving pleasure?

Longinus offers an opportunity to define radio drama as a sublime medium of storytelling and poetic drama. He says that sublimity is marked by an ability to amaze and transport the audience (listener) and overwhelm with its irresistible power. Furthermore he breaks away from the position of Plato, Aristotle and Horace by fusing the nature of poetry and prose and radio drama offers the ideal location for removing the distinction. Longinus offers some comfort to the writer who struggles to maintain an eternity of fame throughout an entire play. As Longinus says no writer can be expected to maintain an unbroken level of sublimity.


Criticism and Modernity

Key and influential texts on modern literary criticism during the 20th Century. How are they relevant to a discourse on Radio Drama? What points did the 1929 theorist/practitioners in radio drama not cover?

The coverage of narrative theory in radio drama in 1929 was generally built around unreferenced allusions and respect to classical Greek writers who populated the ambiance of British Imperial education for the sons and daughters of the elite through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Whilst narrative was understood as a combination of story and plot, there was no awareness of the move in Russia to establish a distinction between Syuzhet and Fabula. These Russian terms were coined by Victor Shklovsky: Fabula meant fable. Syuzhet meant subject. It has been recognised that narrative theory can be applied to both communication of fiction and reality. The opening phrase 'Once upon a time’ is reminiscent of the fairy/folk tale. Most stories relate to the past. Live commentary relates to the present. Tense and mood are changeable.

The Beginning

Asa Berger says the phrase 'Once Upon a time 'situates the story in the past and suggests that it takes place in a different world, one far removed from that of the teller, listener, or reader’. It is a narrative agent on space and time. Mikhail Bakhtin discoursed the concept of 'chronotope' which in terms of its Greek roots means 'chronos' - time and 'topos' space. Bakhtin argued that time-space is inseparable and therefore a consideration of the shifting locations of time-space provide a key to understanding the philosophical geography of prose. The relationship of time and space is therefore relevant in literary criticism. It can be argued that it is fundamentally relevant to any criticism, or theorising on radio drama.

How does storytelling in radio drama dislocate reality? And how do mathematical and scientific theories of relativity and gravity apply?

In addition to Bakhtin's essays published as 'The Dialogic Imagination,' other influential texts on the theory of storytelling which could be worth engaging with the art of radio drama are Vladimir Propp's 'Morphology of the Russian Folktale', Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) and The Typology of Detective Fiction in Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader (New York: Longman White Plains.) Roland Barthes's S/Z published in Oxford by Blackwell is another potentially relevant text.

When the opening phrase 'Once upon a time' is considered further it is possible to recognise its practical purpose. In the context of radio drama does it grab and hold the attention of the listener who for the purposes of the subject of radio drama is 'the receiver of text? Practically speaking it operates as a narrative hook, leading us into a narrative world, setting up the puzzle/enigma, and asking the question.

The theorists cited agree that the audience reads the meaning at different levels. Those levels could be cultural, conscious, subconscious, and political.

Barthes said 'art is a system which is pure, no unit ever goes wasted, however long, however loose, however tenuous may be the thread connecting it to one of the levels of the story. (p 89-90 Barthes, R, (1990) S/Z, Oxford: Blackwell)

Openings sometimes contain seeds of the themes, setting up the dynamic of predictability and orientating the audience so that the following questions arising in the mind of the listener could be typical:

1. Who is the hero and villain? (containing binary code of conflict.)

2. What is the setting?

3. What is the style?

4. Is this going to be satisfying the cultural consensus of convention in storytelling?

Conventional narrative structure appears to be predicated on the idea of cause plus effect equaling motivation.


The nature of genre tends to settle the context of story. This locks into the cultural memory of the audience to engage their ready made framework of understanding the meaning. Non-genre texts raise more enigmatic openings.

There is also the technique of narrative masking. This is where one genre is disguised by another. Reading the text through an invisible genre window sets up a kaleidoscope of conscious and unconscious reading. This is perhaps obvious when it is realised that the opening of the plot or the text is not the same as the beginning or opening of the story/fabula.

The word narrative is rooted from the Latin verb 'narare' which is to make known. Narrative could be defined as the presentation of information as a connected sequence of events. Generally the motion is linear and is punctuated or linked by logical causation. One event causes another or the next. This concept is underpinned by linguistics which recognises the grammar of narrative as two clauses. Narrative could be defined as the grammar of development.


Plot is everything that the text explicitly presents. But the story has inferred events within the plot known as ‘back-story’. All this is diegesis. Events and knowledge known to the characters within the plot and story are diegetic. Therefore characters only perceive diegetic material. Audience can perceive everything a text has to offer - including non-diegetic material. The significant space for non-diegetic material which only the audience/receivers know provides the key location for irony. This means to use Bakhtin's terms the polyphonic nature of character's voices a dialogic with the non-diegetic knowledge of the listeners/audience.

Non diegetic material can be part of the plot, but not part of the story for the characters. The narrative world is the diegesis which is also the Greek word for narration.

Todorov distinguished story and plot: ‘the story is what has happened in life, the plot is the way the author presents it to us. The story corresponds to the reality evoked... the plot to the book itself, the narrative, to the literary devices the author employs.’ Further definitions of the nature of plot are that it is the narrative as it is read, seen or heard from the first to the last word or image; that it is, like a signifier - what the reader perceives. Story is the narrative in chronological order, the abstract order of events as they follow each other. That is, like a signified story is what the reader conceives or understands, thereby creating the semiotic sign:- The narrative of the text.

Many narrative theorists emphasise the need for diegetic coherency. It is advised that the writer should avoid discontinuities and illogicalities, should respect the internal and external logic of the play. They need to be consistent.

This means that a temporal plot should proceed from A to D.

An example of a non temporal plot would be Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

Film Studies theorists Bordwell and Thompson define 3 types of temporal durations:

Plot - time covered by the plot.

Story - time covered by the story.

Screen-time taken to show the film or broadcast the radio play.(1993) Film Art, 4th edn (New York: McGraw-Hill)

Aristotle's Poetics has been somewhat belittled into the theory of the beginning, middle, end and this has been somewhat satirised by the Hollywood screenwriter Lew Hunter who explained the process as

'In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.


Todorov introduced the idea of causal transformation.

1. Problem disrupts situation.

2. Resolution of the problem.

3. Reinstatement of equilibrium or initial situation which changes to the world or character.

Initial situation. Disruption. Resolution.

Thesis... antithesis... synthesis...

Todorov went further to set out 5 stages:

1. a state of equilibrium at the outset.

2. a disruption of the equilibrium by some action.

3. a recognition that there has been a disruption.

4. an attempt to repair the disruption.

5. a reinstatement of the equilibrium.

It is worth considering the observation of Branigan: ‘...changes create an overall pattern or ‘transformation’ whereby his third stage is seen as the ‘inverse’ of the first and fifth stages, and the fourth stage the ‘inverse’ of the second (since it attempts to reverse the effects of the disruption). Branigan. E (1992) Narrative Comprehension and Film (London and New York: Routledge)

Todorov's five stages may be symbolised as follows: A, B, -A, -B, A.

The mistake of writers resolving a narrative problem in a somewhat unbelievable way - in a way that can only happen normally in a dream is equivalent to deus ex machina (an act of God).

Radio Drama certainly played its part in moving the concept of storytelling seriality in a capitalist market economic society. Seriality as one overarching narrative which runs through all the episodes was established in the 19th century through magazine publication. Dickens was a master as were thousands of other writers of the technique of the cliffhanger pause or end.

The hero has an immediate problem that must be overcome. Radio successfully created 'a lack' for its audience so it was driven or compelled to listen to the next episode in order to reach the ultimate resolution. Umberto Eco argues that Capitalism has exploited seriality. Audiences are encouraged to find out about the following episodes in order to increase audience. Eco argues seriality generates industralisation of the arts and culture. This is because seriality mimics the production line. Examples would be the increasing phenomenon in the film industry of The Retake, the Sequel, the Prequel and The Remake. The remaking and interpreting of previous texts swamps and crowds out the opportunity to provide space for new texts. The Saga Series exemplified by following the story of families over and across generations creates an agency for confirming and proselytising a cultural consensus. The concept of 'seriality' is not present in the radio drama of 1929, but it would be developed first through adaptation of classical novels during the 1930s. The licence fee funding may have been the politico-economic distancing factor between funding and audience which applied a brake on the capitalist dynamic of narrative seriality as explained by Eco.

Narrative links with musical theory in considering the process of an essential factor as the key scheme, the creation of tension by modulation away from the tonal and the resolution of tension by returning to the tonic. Symmetrical structures are common in music and so is the perception of Gestalt patterns which appear to require the restoration of the equilibrium. It is not unusual to interpret in music the process of

'Initial situation: exposition Disruption: development. Resolution: recapitulation.

Further points made by Todorov were that everything within a text should be intended to contribute towards narrative development. Redundancy should be avoided and he argued that all narrative texts effectively deal with the following abstracts:

1. the quest.

2. the redemption.

3. journey to another world.

4. the beast transformed by love.

5. the solving of riddles.

6. the biter-bit

7: the rise and fall.


Propp’s Morphology of the Russian Folktale was originally written and published in 1928 but not introduced to western readers and academics through translation until 1958. It has become an influential text on defining and explaining the ‘shape’ of narrative or storytelling. The object for analysis was Russian folktales so it would be wise not to use his approach as a straightjacket for all kinds or forms of storytelling. He has made a major contribution on the structure of narratives and the function of characters within them.

Rather than concentrating on the motivation and internal psychological ‘ticking’ of a character, Propp was more concerned about the function of characterisation in the narrative. His approach could be explained in this way:

1: Actions of Character in the Story.

2: Consequences of these Actions for the Story.

Propp identified a range of storytelling functions in folktales. He said that not all these functions had to be present. He said that several functions could be grouped together to form a set of ‘Moves’. For example he defined the first 7 functions as ‘Preparation’ and that many ‘plot/narratives’ actually began at function 8 where the disruption or crisis manifests itself. Some writers have convincingly argued that Propp’s approach equates to that of Todorov in the following way:

Todorov 1: Propp 0 to 7/ a state of equilibrium at the outset.

Todorov 2: Propp at 8/ a disruption of the equilibrium by some action.

Todorov 3: Propp at 9/ a recognition that there has been a disruption.

Todorov 4: Propp 10 to 17/ an attempt to repair the disruption.

Todorov 5. Propp 18 to 31/ a reinstatement of the equilibrium.

Propp’s functions: -

0 INITIAL SITUATION. members of the family are introduced; hero is introduced.

1 ABSENTATION. One of the members of the family absents himself or herself.

2 INTERDICTION. Interdiction addressed to hero (can be reversed)

3. VIOLATION. Interdiction is violated.

4. RECONNAISSANCE. Villain makes attempt to get information.

5. DELIVERY. Villain gets information about victim.

6. TRICKERY. Villain tries to deceive victim.

7. COMPLICITY. Victim is deceived.

8. VILLAINY. Villain causes harm to a member of the family; or lack. Member of the family lacks something, desires something.

9. MEDIATION. Misfortune made known; hero is dispatched.

10. COUNTERACTION. Hero (seeker) agrees to counteraction.

11. DEPARTURE. Hero leaves home.

12: FIRST DONOR FUNCTION. Hero tested, receives magical agent or helper.

13: HERO’S REACTION. Hero reacts to agent or donor.

14. RECEIPT OF AGENT. Hero acquires use of magical agent.

15. SPATIAL CHANGE. Hero led to object of search.

16. STRUGGLE. Hero and villain join in direct combat.

17. BRANDING. Hero is branded.

18. VICTORY. Villain is defeated.

19. LIQUIDATION. Initial misfortune or lack is liquidated.

20. RETURN. Hero returns.

21. PURSUIT, CHASE. Hero is pursued.

22. RESCUE. Hero is rescued from pursuit.

23. UNRECOGNISED ARRIVAL. Hero, unrecognised, arrives home or elsewhere.

24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS. False hero presents unfounded claims.

25. DIFFICULT TASK. Difficult task is proposed to hero.

26. SOLUTION. Task is proposed to hero.

27. RECOGNITION. Hero is recognised.

28. EXPOSURE. False hero or villain is exposed.

29. TRANSFIGURATION. Hero is given a new appearance.

30. PUNISHMENT. Villain is punished.

31. WEDDING. Hero is married, ascends the throne.






20-26 RETURN.


Propp advanced the idea that there are 7 spheres of action, or narrative functions which are advanced by certain categories of character:

1. The Villain who creates the narrative complication.

2. The Donor who gives the hero something which aids in the process and resolution of narrative.

3. The Helper who supports the hero in the struggle to restore the equilibrium.

4. The Princess - The character most threatened by the villain and who has to be saved by the hero. ( The father usually gives the princess away in the role of King at the end of the plot).

5. The Dispatcher sends or launches the hero on his or her 'holy grail' or 'journey'.

6. The Hero/Heroine is the characterisation force who restores the narrative equilibrium - usually through searching and saving the princess. Propp subdivides the hero/heroine into Victim Hero - the object of villain's malice and subterfuge. Seeker Hero - the character who help others who are victims of the villain. The hero is often the central character and plot protagonist.

7. False Hero. Facade of goodness but is revealed as the wolf in sheep's clothing.

Character functions can overlap. Propp and Todorov defined general and conventional narrative structures. Hollywood and most popular forms of entertainment embrace them. However, not all narratives end in resolutions and the restoration of equilibrium. Propp and Todorov really belong to a structuralist tradition where narrative codes and functions are really signs with meaning derived from context (syntagmatic dimension) and that context tends to be binary oppositions. It is a system of differences. French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that binary oppositions are at the heart of people's attempts to come to terms with reality. They do this by creating myths through storytelling. Myth is an anxiety-reducing mechanism that deals with unresolvable contradictions in a culture and imaginative ways of living with them. The heart of conflict in storytelling proves this point. Binary oppositions include: Heroes to Villains. Helpers to Henchmen. Princesses (love objects) to Sirens (sexual objects) Magicians (good/white magic) to Sorcerers (evil/black magic) Donors of magic objects to Preventers/hinderers of donors. Dispatchers of heroes to Captors of heroes. Seekers to Avoiders. Seeming Villains who turn out to be good to False Heroes who turn out to be bad.

These binary forces have been categorised as bipolar oppositions by a narrative theorist Asa Berger in 'Narratives in Popular Culture, Media and Everyday Life' published by Sage in 1997.

Good/White Force Bad/Black Force.

Cooperate versus Compete.

Help v Hinder.

Escape v Imprison.

Defend v Attack.

Initiate v Respond.

Uncover v Disguise.

Reveal v Pretend.

Love v Hate and lust.

Unravel v Mystify.

Pursue v Evade.

Search for v Evade.

Tell Truth v Lie.

Allow v Prohibit.

Question v Answer.

Rescue v Endanger.

Protect v Threaten.

Punish v Suffer.

Dispatch v Summon.

Allow v Interdict.

Retain v Lose.


Ideology of Writing

Binary oppositions represent a process of privileging factors and setting up hierarchies. Normally the hero represents the triumph of what society holds to be good. The guarantee of success is part of the function of entertainment. Media narratives are delusionary. When in life good often fails, storytelling serves to reassure us about the uncertainties and injustices of life. How do we judge the ideological direction of a narrative?

It could be argued that a writer should answer these four key questions:

1. What has changed in the world of the story?

2. What has been transformed?

3. What has been added or lost in the process/plot development?

4. How have the characters' relative positions and status or their hierarchy changed?

It could be argued that a process of answering these questions helps provide writers with the interrogative tool to understand their own ideological objectives and purposes.


Roland Barthes set up an inter-relational nexus of narrative codes through the complex study he did of Balzac’s short story Sarrasine which was published as ‘S/Z’. Barthes aligns himself closely with Bertolt Brecht’s view of the bourgeois conceit in the pretence of ‘reality’ in dramatic entertainment and communication. The ‘realist’ text is in fact a braid or interweaving of different narrative codes. The importance is in the way that they are combined to provide ‘an impression or representation of reality.’

A drama or text has its own internal logic of combined narrative codes and references to other existing storytelling/communication texts. This reference to other texts is known as ‘intertextuality’.

Barthes believed that the audience becomes a ‘writer/reader’ which coincides with the theory of the radio listener engaging with a fifth dimension stream or direction of narrative understanding - the Imaginative Spectacle of the Listener - a combination of mind’s eye and powerful human emotions. (pp 53-69) Crook, T (1999) Radio Drama-Theory & Practice, London, New York: Routledge.

1. Hermeneutic Code or Enigma Code. These are the questions raised in the mind of the listener/audience. When the answer is delayed there is an enigma and the internal logic of the play requires a solution. The narratives capture the audience by making them want to know what is going to happen next. The delay between proposition and resolution of this code motivates ‘reading’. It is the Motor of the Narrative. Hermeneutics is a Greek term which relates to the philosophy of interpreting texts.

2. Semic Code. The way characters, objects and settings take on particular meanings. This equates with Propp’s spheres of action.

3. Symbolic Code. Signs which signify binary oppositions e.g. good/bad youth/adult etc. This code provides a map of the antitheses in the play and how these reflect cultural aspect or society. They appear natural enough in the ‘realistic’ setting. It is a code which sets out a narrative of oppositions.

4. Proarietic or Action Code. These are action tags. Things are done, normally at the end of scenes to predict what is likely to happen next. It’s a shorthand way of advancing the action. These codes determine whether it is acceptable to show certain kinds of action and serve the interests of censorship by implying or being implicit without being explicit or presentational. You get a throwahead of intimacy or sexual relations but are not actually shown what happens in detail.

5. Cultural or Referential Codes. This does not belong to the actual narrative of the radio play or text but belongs Outside the text. It is one step beyond diegetic engagement because although not part of the play’s language it is present in the understanding, interpretation by the audience. It lies with the meaning experienced by the audience and depends on the common stock of politics, art, ethics, history and psychology of the listeners. It can be argued that the Semic and Cultural Codes amount to the same thing. Barthes called units of meaning lexias. The illusion of realism is founded on the integrated functioning of these five levels of codes. They all combine together to create meaning. It has been argued that storytelling is a psychological and cultural mechanism to perpetuate mental equilibrium, self actualisation and social harmony.

Irony and Bakhtin

The power and value of irony in writing, construction and interpretation of meaning on the part of the audience was not explored at all by published radio drama theorists in 1929 and tends to be an understated factor in the synergy of dramatic writing and audio drama production.

The subtlety of engagement and appreciation provides an exquisite bonding between writer, performers and listeners.

Irony can be located on a number of dimensions:

1. Coincidence recognised by characters and/or audience.

2. Understanding and knowledge restricted to audience so that the characters have an unwitting and symbolic journey.

3. Understanding and knowledge located between audience and a restricted character or number of characters within the syuzhet.

4. The idea that the exact opposite is happening and being meant but remains oblivious to one or more characters in the syuzhet.

5. Irony offers a dimension for hypocrisy, self realisation, self deception on the part of character/characters.

6. It is the striking of a note of wry humour/comedy. Irony works well in dialogue and action and when it is multi-layered because the playing tends to be against the cultural/constructed meaning by audience.

The engagement of theoretical concepts of The Dialogic Imagination by Mikhail Bakhtin provide a rich source of definition of ironic spaciality in radio drama. The principles of Dialogism, Polyphony, The Chronotope, and Heteroglossia are potentially interfacial and interleaving in ironic reality and expressionism in radio drama. Bakhtin writes:

'Oppositions between individuals are only surface upheavals of the untamed elements in social heteroglossia, surface manifestations of those elements that play on such individual oppositions, make them contradictory'

(p326, Bakhtin, M, M (1981) Discourse in the Novel in The Dialogic Imagination, Texas, USA: University of Texas Press.)

If radio drama can be recognised as a rich territory for utterance then it is the arena for struggle over consciousness, time and place and multi-voiced characterisation as well as the construction of meaning for listeners who in their own memory and imagination resonate chains of cultural identity.