Val Gielgud and the BBC

 

Val Gielgud and 1929

 

'The stage can show you the face. But the microphone can show you the working of the mind behind the face.'- page 499, The Radio Times, March 1, 1929.

 

Val Gielgud took command of BBC Productions in January 1929, barely 6 years after the BBC had begun transmitting in the United Kingdom scheduled dramatised stories on the new electronic broadcast medium of radio. He was only 28 years old.

It could be argued that Gielgud's appointment at the BBC and the year were marked by key artistic, social and cultural developments which are concatenated by the evolution and progress of radio drama in this year:

1: Gielgud published in the Radio Times a series of six articles setting out a central leadership and manifesto for radio drama writing and production.

 

Page 397, The Radio Times, May 24, 1929.

 

2: With his friend and co-writer Eric Maschwitz, who was editor of the Radio Times, he was part of a cultural celebration and promotion of radio drama as a significant dramatic art form. This is exemplified in an entire issue of the Radio Times being devoted to Radio Drama on March 1st 1929.

3: Radio Drama was the primary medium of electronic broadcast storytelling to an audience of at least 3 million listeners.

4: Radio Drama did not have any competition although 1929 was the year when the cinematic 'Talkie' began to draw significant audiences in the picture palaces. The introduction of speech and dialogue to what had been a medium of visual storytelling was interpolated by the development and growing maturity of speech only entertainment and drama on the BBC.

6: The Listener Magazine began publication. This provided another space for debating and critically evaluating the performance of radio drama as well as the Radio Times.

7: 1929 saw the completion of an ambitious 12 part 'Great Play' series supported by BBC merchandising of printed scripts and guides sold from the BBC Bookshop at Savoy Hill. The series was also underpinned by qualitative and considerable editorial coverage in the Radio Times and the Listener. The project led by director Howard Rose provided a location for the production of Russian, Indian, Scandinavian, English and German classical texts. The series resonated the role of radio in 'globalising' storytelling traditions, but it was criticised for the unevenness of the productions and the effectiveness of the broadcasts as entertainment for listeners.

8: BBC broadcasting of radio plays was clearly contextualised in a 'global' field of Empire and multicultural diversity. BBC dramatic productions, graphical design and text articles about them in the Radio Times provided an intriguing location of cross-cultural experience and visual cues and memory reference points to accompany transmission and listening. This was the year the BBC broadcast Paul Robeson live from Bournemouth and although displaying signs of what would be now described as 'Orientalism', celebrated African American 'Negro spirituals', Hebrew folk music, and classical Indian literature.

 

Page 236, Radio Times, May 3, 1929. Eric Maschwitz's adaptation of 'The Prisoner of Zenda' is accompanied by a detailed plan of the Castle and Chateau of Zenda as well as an action short illustration from the original novel.

 

9: The year was characterised by recognised landmarks in radio drama production such as Compton Mackenzie's 'Carnival', Tyrone Guthrie's 'Squirrel's Cage', Robert Cedric Sheriff's 'Journey's End', L. Du Garde Peach's 'Ingredient X' as well as abstract audio drama experiments by Lance Sieveking.

 

The listings and art-deco illustrative promotion of L. Du Garde Peach's 'Ingredient X' for July 31st 1929. Page 192, Radio Times, July 26, 1929. This is emphasised as a play specially written for broadcasting. It contains narrative techniques recognised at the time and subsequently explored academically which fused modernist structure with the intrinsic potential of the radio medium. Switching between locations, and time transepts describe the story and evolution of 'Ingredient X'- a mysterious substance used in the formation of a synthetic rubber that is to make or mar the fortunes of what would be recognised now as a 'global' corporation. To use the language of the Radio Times of July 19th 1929 'While men with complete detachment discuss its possibilities, other men are giving their lives for this mysterious ingredient.'

 

Link to Electronic Journal article by University of Kent lecturer Alan Beck on significance of 'Ingredient X' and an extract from the script. 'Cognitive Mapping and Radio Drama' - Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 1 Number 2, July 2000

10: The Radio Times was a philosophical context for radio drama information which explored prophesies about the future of radio and radio drama 50 years hence to 1979, discussed the role of radio in terms of communication/social media history, the future uses of broadcasting in war, and the publication of radio poetry and radio drama scripts.

11: It could be argued that radio drama 'became of age' in 1929 because the productions and output clearly resonated in alternative media and generated a debate about its role and value in newspapers and lecture halls. Many of the theoretical points made about radio drama in the context of its practice ring true today and echo the writing and utterances of audio drama producers, writers and performers since.

12: These broadcast developments in terms of content and structure coincided and refracted key political and social events such as the Labour Party's victory in the 1929 General Election which had also equalised the franchise for women voters aged 21.

There is clear evidence of space being given to feminist political and social perspectives in BBC broadcast and in the Radio Times.

It was also the year of the Wall Street crash and Britain's weakened Imperial economy would begin to send ripples of economic recession and 'protectionism' throughout all levels of British society.

It was a time when appeasement and the avoidance of future war was a social and cultural preoccupation. The polarisation between communism and fascism would begin to concretise throughout Europe and isolationism would abrogate US intervention in the growing chaos and disintegration of European economies and societies. To what extent was the censorship row the previous year surrounding Reginald Berkeley's 'Machines' a manifestation of this tension? The narrative is comprehensively covered by Alan Beck in Chapter 8.4 of his CD Rom History of Radio Drama in the UK Vol 1, 'The Invisible Play'. Berkeley's own publication of the rejected script and the correspondence between him and the BBC is also worthy of consideration: Berkeley, R, (1928) Machines, A Symphony of Modern Life, London: Robert Holden and Co. Ltd.

The fact that the content of radio drama becomes a subject for political struggle and a location for forces of censorship are pointers to its developing cultural maturity. The BBC's vulnerability was predicated by its handicap of having to tread warily on matters of political controversy. It had only been a year since the granting of the Royal Charter and 2 years since it had survived a potential takeover by government during the General Strike although it has been convincingly argued that it was fatally compromised as an agent of the State. (pp 71-76 Crook, T (1997) International Radio Journalism - History, Theory & Practice, London, New York: Routledge) Censorship of radio plays has become a rich subsequent history. The 1933 BBC Yearbook provided a detailed list of cancellations and postponements on the grounds of politics and taste:

'Then there was Filson Young's play "Titanic", the protests about which were remarkable as they referred purely to the subject, the play itself not having been written at the time, and the author having publicly stated that the actual sinking of the ship did not figure in the play. This protest was all the more remarkable in that some of the most successful broadcasts of the past have been plays like "Journey's End" and "Brigade Exchange," which must have aroused many more sorrowful memories than the sinking of the "Titanic". In this case the BBC decided to abandon the projected broadcast, as it felt that the play would not obtain a fair hearing and would be prejudiced by the misrepresentation to which it had been subject.

On the other hand, there have been postponements on the BBC's own initiative where circumstances beyond its control have made the broadcast of a particular play inopportune or tactless. Two examples may be given: the postponement of Galsworthy's "Escape," the broadcast of which had been arranged for a date which happened to come just after the Dartmoor mutiny. Similarly when a Welsh mine disaster occurred a few days before the date of the broadcast from Cardiff of Richard Hughes' mining play "Danger", the BBC felt it right to cancel the programme.' (p 132, The BBC Yearbook 1933, London: British Broadcasting Corporation)

Examples of censorship nearer the time of writing include the decision by BBC R4 controller James Boyle to cancel transmission of a satirical drama series on the National Health Service during the campaign for the May 1997 General Election. His attention was prompted by the Sunday Times and his decision was subsequently applauded by the same newspaper.

It could be argued that a more effective social and cultural meaning for the radio drama of 1929 can be achieved through a more profound consideration of its social and cultural context.