Gielgud and 1929
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
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.
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
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.
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.'
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
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.