Val Gielgud and the BBC

Val Gielgud


Gielgud playing opposite Ian Hunter from a scene in the film


The original novel on which the film was based was co-written by noted radio producer Val Gielgud, the brother of John Gielgud.

Val Gielgud, full name Val Henry Gielgud (28 Apr 1900-30 Nov 1981): British author and actor, brother of great actor Sir John Gielgud; 5 marriages (first 4 dissolved), 2 sons; secretary to a Member of Parliament; subeditor for a comic book/newspaper; staff member London "Radio Times"; Dramatic Director, BBC; Head of Television Drama, BBC; O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire; C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire): * 26 mystery/detective novels with series characters Antony Havilland, Inspector Gregory Pellew & Viscount Clymping, Inspector Simon Spears * 1 mystery/detective story collection * 2 unrelated novels (historical) * 19 plays (and also directed 6 plays and appeared in 6 as actor) * 4 screenplays * 40 radio plays * 7 nonfiction books (playwriting, autobiography) * 2 books edited.

Val Gielgud played a key executive and creative role in the transition of radio drama production in the BBC between 1929 and the year of the film and his steerage of radio drama extended to the early days of television drama in the 1950s. In fact he was responsible for directing the first ever television drama transmitted in the UK in 1930:


An image from the recording of the broadcast


Luigi Pirandello's "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth" was transmitted from the Baird studios in 133 Long Acre, London, on 14th July 1930. For the first play in Baird's modest studio, Val Gielgud, the productions director, chose one with only three on-screen characters:

You can view the archive of the first British TV drama in Real Video

The impact of his contribution and influence over mainstream cultural storytelling in the UK has not been properly explored by academics. Cardiff and Scannell in the Social History of Broadcasting are somewhat weak in this area, but perhaps the limitations of an expensive book publication militated against a chapter on radio drama. Similarly the extent to which Val Gielgud fought against a sense of 'cultural inferiority' that seems present within people who practice and study radio has also been overlooked. Val Gielgud demonstrated through praxis that radio drama was not a Cinderella medium.

Val Gielgud at the Drama Control Panel


It could be argued that Gielgud helped place the resonance of radio drama centrally in the most compelling and influential medium of entertainment of his day and furthermore extended this resonance to the USA where the film had a successful distribution in 1941 with not too disappointing audience figures.

Script adaptation was by Basil Mason from the original novel by Val Gielgud and Holt Marvel.

Gielgud makes a long reference to the film in his autobiography 'Years of the Locust' which was published in 1947 by Nicholson & Watson:

'That something can be done about it when considerations of limited money and time are present - was proved to me some years later, when a small company was formed specially to make a film adaptation of Death at Broadcasting House.

This was a detective story written in collaboration by Eric Maschwitz and myself. As a book it had had a considerable success, and it seemed to our untutored minds that it was from the film point of view "sure-fire".

Broadcasting House, if only as a new building and rather a box of tricks, was still "news". Most people seemed curious to know what went on behind its concrete battlements; seemed eager to enjoy any opportunity of "seeing the wheels go round".

We thought, with comprehensible vanity, that the story, if rather on the complicated side, was both ingenious and exciting. But, even if it were neither, it seemed to us a copper-bottomed commercial proposition, if only because the programmes of the B.B.C. willy-nilly (sic) gave its background daily and nationwide publicity.

Leading British film moguls were not to be persuaded. We tried one well-known company after another without the least success. It was left for three young men, anxious to break new ground on their own, to see the possibilities, and raise what now seems the wretchedly puerile sum of £16,000 to make the picture. I am glad to think that Hugh Perceval, Basil Mason, and Reginald Denham were rewarded for their enterprise. Even in this present year - 1945 - the picture crops up for showing in out-of-the-way houses.

Presumably because the money at their disposal was limited a good deal of care was lavished on the organisation of the unit. The picture was made in a comparatively small studio at Wembley. Scheduled for twenty-eight days' shooting it was made in twenty-nine. I was in the studio almost every one of those days, and on no occasion was the assistant-director unable to let me know on my arrival whether I was safe to make arrangements for dining in town that same evening.

I may add that the moment the story had been sold to Phoenix Films, the moguls, previously disinterested, not only pricked up their ears, but became positively plaintive, if not aggrieved. The best-known of them indeed, on whose desk a copy of the book had reposed - probably unread - for rather over nine months, complained bitterly to Eric Maschwitz that we had been ridiculously over-hasty. A second, not quite so well-known, did his best to make out that he had always intended to make the purchase, and that a telephone conversation in the course of which he had quite clearly said "no", ought to have been interpreted as saying "yes".

I hope it will not be considered presumptuous to suggest that the Death at Broadcasting House picture and its making offers lessons worth study by those interested in small-scale films. Expenditure was very sensibly allotted rather to the settings than to the cast, which, apart from Mr. Ian Hunter, was made up of actors, admirable, but not "stars".

It was remarkable how everyone who saw the film took it as a matter of course that it had been almost entirely "shot" inside Broadcasting House - which even if desirable, would have been physically impossible.

Then the original story was very largely adhered to - and where changes were desired the original authors were consulted as to their making. It is true that an evil tradition added some indifferent low-comedy relief. A good deal of the dialogue seemed to have little relation to characterisation. But as I was playing a fairly important part in the picture, and was therefore present at the taking of a large number of scenes, it was not difficult for me to restore quite a good deal of the book's original dialogue on the grounds that, as an actor, I found it easier to speak.

The engagement of a first-rate cameraman, who had learned his business in the German UFA studios at Neubabelsburg under Fritz Lang, ensured the giving of full value to the film's pictorial possibilities. Reginald Denham - whose first picture-directing assignment I believe it to have been - did not conceive it as his business to teach his experts their jobs. And the general atmosphere during production was one of keen and business-like cooperation, which made taking a share in it a pleasure. '

[Gielgud, Val. 'Years of the Locust': Nicholson & Watson, London (1947) pp. 132-134]

There is evidence that Val Gielgud (his middle name was Henry) collaborated with Holt Marvell (pseudonym of Eric Maschwitz} in the writing of a previous novel:


Eric Maschwitz & Val Gielgud

'Under London' in 1933 and the theme of burlesque thriller built around a murder extended across a trilogy of books:

Death At Broadcasting House [1934]

Death As An Extra [1935]

Death In Budapest [1937]

The other novels do not appear to have been made into films.'

He also wrote the commentary for an early British documentary: WHITE EAGLE, THE (Concanen). Production: Derrick de Marney, for the Polish M.0.I. Direction: Eugene Cekalski. Commentary written by Val Gielgud, and spoken by Leslie Howard. (August, 1941.)

Has it been made into a BBC Radio Play? There appears to be evidence of a production of

"Death At Broadcasting House" by Val Gielgud & Holt Marvell broadcast on BBC Radio 4 3/2/96 (Stereo) 90 min.

University Lecturer and Sunday Times Radio critic Ken Garner recalls the broadcast and was delighted to find

a copy of the original novel in a second hand bookshop:

'I just picked up for £3 today in a bargain-basement, second-hand crime/fantasy bookshop in Glasgow the following text: Gielgud, Val, and Marvell, Holt (1934). Death At Broadcasting House. London: Rich & Cowan Ltd. [3rd reprint, 1935] This is a thinly-novelised (i.e. heavy on dialogue) version of a drama about a murder in the then new home of the BBC. It also features lovely Cluedo-esque maps and diagrams of the building, studios, and recording logs for the fake drama being broadcast when the murder occurred - "The Scarlet Highwayman". The dedication at the beginning is a peach: "Dedicated impenitently by the authors to those critics who persistently deny that the radio play exists, has existed, or ever can exist". I seem to recall there was a BBC Radio 4 revival production only a year or two ago one bank holiday afternoon.'

Garner, K, (November 2000) Radio Studies

Reference to Val Gielgud in a history of the West Country Writers' Association

The Association held its first Congress, attended by some sixty members, in Bath, when the Guest of Honour was Compton Mackenzie. Other venues over the years have been Plymouth, Salisbury, Torquay, Bristol, Falmouth and Cheltenham. Speakers have included Cecil Day Lewis, L A G Strong, Jacquetta Hawkes, Eric Linklater, C S Forrester, Val Gielgud, Vera Brittain, J B Priestley and Maeve Binchy.

Today, there are 280 members, who are kept in touch by newsletters and regularly up-dated address lists.

In addition, regional meetings are held at various venues during the year.

He was chair of the Crime Writers' Association in 1961


Private collectors have copies of BBC programmes and the following is listed in a database presumably stored on CD CD204 BBC Wild Justice by Val Gielgud eps.1-6

There is a reference to Val Gielgud in a journal article from Canadian Journal of Communication: Volume 16, Number 2, 1991 © Canadian Journal of Communication National Culture:

A Contradiction in Terms?

Richard Collins Goldsmiths' College, University of London

'The BBC purchased 35 dramas from CBC in Canada and hired the executive producer behind them, Sydney Newman. Newman, and the dramas he had developed in Canada, were attractive to the BBC because the competition from ITV which faced the BBC found a model. Newman's legacy was complex but central to it was his orientation to the popular. His assumption was that: "The cost of art in our kind of society has to be in relation to the number of people whose imagination it will excite'' (Newman interviewed in Cinema Canada, no. 15, 1974).

Such priorities were very different to those which prevailed in the BBC before it was exposed to competition. Val Gielgud, the head of BBC TV drama from 1949-52 (and the effective head of BBC radio drama since 1929), found the BBC's radio soap Mrs Dale's Diary ``socially corrupting by its monstrous flattery of the ego of the `common man' and soul destroying to the actors, authors and producers concerned'' (cited in Briggs, 1979, p. 699).'


Article on British Television drama

'Réponse de la BBC : " The Wednesday Play " et : " The Sunday Night Theater " (produit par Val Gielgud, disciple de Reith). En 1963, Newman passe à la BBC. et sous sa direction, " The Wednesday Play " réalise régulièrement des audiences de 10 à 12 millions de téléspectateurs. Dominante de pièces contemporaines, mais également quelques sujets historiques : The White Falcon, 1956 (amours d’Henry VIII et d’Ann Boleyn) The Trial of Mary Lafargue, 1957 (histoire d’une assassine dans le Paris de 1840) '

Indiana University has the full collection of the papers of BBC producer Douglas Cleverdon which include some 22,000 items

More information on the Cleverdon archive

It would appear to include an obituary article he wrote on Val Gielgud's death on December 2nd 1981.

Two years after his appointment as Productions Director in January 1929 Val Gielgud published 2 books on radio drama entitled: "The Actor and the Broadcast Play" and 'How to Write Broadcast Plays' which contained three of his own plays: Exiles, Red Tabs and Friday Morning. Both books were published in 1931.

In 1946 he edited and wrote the foreword for another collection of radio plays 'Radio Theatre' with texts by Val Gielgud himself, Norman Edwards, Emery Bonett, Margaret Gore-Brown, Ursula Bloom, Mabel Constanduros and Howard Agg.

In 1957 he wrote and published a single volume history on BBC Radio Drama from 1922 to 1955.

Reference in BBC Annual Report for 1933

'Steady progress then commenced, one of the results of which was the broadcasting of the play "The Man with the Flower in his Mouth" which was due to the united efforts of Mr. Sydney A. Moseley, Mr. Val Gielgud, and Mr. Lance Sieveking.'

Reference in career of PETER BRIDGE

'He began management in 1947, presenting RAIN BEFORE SEVEN, by Diana Morgan with Ronald Ward, Marian Spencer and Joyce Heron, DEADLOCK with Mervyn Johns, Freda Jackson and Laurence Naismith, and later Val Gielgud's PARTY MANNERS with Michael Hordern and Raymond Lovell.

He was also associated with work at the Arts Theatre Club and the Winter Garden Season under Alec Clunes.'

Notation in Journal article about children's radio drama in the 1920s and 30s

'Val Gielgud, in 1930, called for 'some sort of systematic research into the social psychology of regular listening' (quoted in Briggs, op. cit. (1965), p. 256). McCulloch and Robert Silvey, head of listener research, had engaged in discussion about how to gain information about the child audience using survey techniques in 1947. Davis, in 1957, after discussing how to approach this audience asked 'how do we know what our audience wants' and referred to information gained from surveys conducted by the now renamed Audience Research Department (Davis, op. cit. (1957), BBC WAC R11/51/3).'

Interview with film music composer James Bernard

'What was your first film score?

Paul [Dehn] was writing a lot of radio plays for the BBC, and it was radio, coincidentally, that gave me my first commission. It was a play by Patric Dickinson called The Death of Hector. He knew I was longing for a professional assignment and asked to try me out. The producer, Val Gielgud [John's older brother] agreed and I remember we played the music live in the studio. Val Gielgud, who was the head of radio drama at the BBC, liked what I'd done, so he put the word around amongst other radio producers and I subsequently did a number of scores for the BBC.

Many of these were quite unlike the scores I became known for later; some of them were high comedy. But then I did a score for Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, which is of course a kind of horror story. It had an excellent cast - Peggy Ashcroft played the Duchess and Paul Scofield her wicked brother.

I scored the music for strings and percussion and John Hollingsworth conducted. I'd met John socially in my latter days in the Air Force. When I started writing these scores for radio I naturally rang John and asked him if he would conduct for me.'

Val Gielgud and Proverbs

Val Gielgud's detective novel writing has also spawned an academic debate over the changing of a famous proverb originally attributed to Benjamin Franklin.


An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies VOLUME 1 - Number 1 - 1995 ISSN 1323-4633 URL



In Val Gielgud's (1900-1981) detective novel The Ruse of the Vanished Women (1934) there is a quite similar passage that has reduced the long proverb to a mere "early to bed", but the introductory formula identifying this mere remnant as an "old adage" assures its recognition as proverbial wisdom: "We drove into the village of Ilkley a little after ten o'clock. It was evident that its few inhabitants believed firmly in the old adage of early to bed, for it was dark and deserted".