Val Gielgud and the BBC


Val Gielgud is 'appointed' rather than applies to be 'BBC Head of Productions'


By his own admission in Val Gielgud's autobiography published in 1947 (Years of the Locust) 'there was as little chance of my directing radio drama as of superseding Sir John Reith himself.'


Val Gielgud directing 'The Man Born To Be King' by Dorothy L Sayers which was immensely popular during the Second World War.


He had little status from his own sphere of activity having been the editorial assistant to Eric Maschwitz - the editor of the Radio Times.

He had none whatever in Programmes.

He knew nothing of the Dramatic department.

Several members regarded him with a mixture of suspicion and dislike.

He had assumed fake identities in the correspondence columns of the Radio Times to indulge in a certain amount of criticism of their policy and methods. (pp 70-72 Gielgud, V (1947) Years of the Locust, London & Brussels: Nicholson and Watson) : In Chapter 3 of his own history of BBC Radio Drama 1922 to 1956 entitled 'Almost Too Personal' published in 1957, he confessed to writing:

'under a pseudonym - a number of letters to the Radio Times dealing, I fear rather critically, with certain aspects of the work of R.E. Jeffrey's department'. R.E. Jeffrey was Gielgud's predecessor.

Alan Beck in Chapter 2 of his exhaustive and scholarly volume 1 of History of Radio Drama in the UK 1922-28 offers speculation that letters from A.E.A of Barnstable and R. de B.S. from Warwicks which contained expressions such as 'we switch off', 'only a very second best affair... a hotchpotch of different voices' were from Gielgud's pen.

It is intriguing that significant criticisms of BBC radio drama continued to be published in the correspondence columns from writers who gave only their initials and a large generic location. Could it be that Gielgud continued the artifice even after he had assumed control of a role he later confessed to being unqualified for in order to seed debate and highlight areas in need of reform? It is significant that correspondence on other matters was stylistically authored with full names and even the house numbers of specific addresses. Correspondents were informed that they had to give real and permanent addresses for their letters to be considered but there is no indication of the protocol by which their identities and origin were withheld on publication.

The artifice of using fake identities to seed debates and opinions and mask attacks on adversaries is an exercise of cultural power which Gielgud was able to originate and develop since his first responsibility at the Radio Times was to be in charge of listeners' correspondence.

However, there is another dimension to the exercise and 'abuse' of cultural power which resides in the concept of 'cultural networking.'

Gielgud and Maschwitz had a close creative and personal friendship which included co-writing detective novels as well as travelling together. Not only does this union of kindred spirits provide an explanation for the priority and cultural respect that radio drama continued to have in the Radio Times in 1929, but it would also explain the remarkable location for critical and Socratic debate over radio drama's effectiveness and direction. It is as though Gielgud had made for him a mask to perform in a Greek amphitheatre. One moment he would be interrogated by his own characters and then reveal his answers full face, if he had any answer at all. This would be supported by Maschwitz who remained editor of the Radio Times until 1933 when he was invited and sponsored by Gielgud to take on the role of Head of Variety programming.

But the foundation of their friendship and networking was also cultural as well as personal.

Leonard Miall writes on page 32 of 'Inside the BBC', (1994) Eric Maschwitz, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson:

'Eric Maschwitz and Val Gielgud, an elder brother of Sir John, were both descended from Polish military families, and were collectively known in the BBC as the Polish Corridor. Maschwitz's grandfather had emigrated to Birmingham in the middle of the nineteenth century.'

A further link in the cultural network which can begin to explain the power structure within the BBC at that time is further revealed by Miall on the same page:

'Much of his time at the university (Cambridge) was spent in acting and journalism. One of his closet friends there was Lance Sieveking, the tall, good-looking godson of G.K Chesterton.'

It could not be said that Val Gielgud obtained his first job at the BBC as a result of meritocracy and he admits this by implication in his autobiography 'Years of the Locust':

'It might perhaps be more strictly true to say that two very good friends of mine were both anxious for my welfare - and perhaps both thought that the amenities of their work would be increased by my official society. Lance Sieveking urged my intelligence upon Roger Eckersley, at that time Director of Programmes. Eric Maschwitz murmured of my merits into the ear of Gladstone Murray, Director of Public Relations.'

p 67, Gielgud, V (1947) Years of the Locust, London, Brussels: Nicholson & Watson.

It also seems that meritocracy was hardly the explanation for his meteoric rise to the position of Head of Productions in January 1929 which was not a post that had been externally advertised. Miall in his 1994 book offers an explanation:

'...Val Gielgud who was soon promoted from the Listeners' Letters page to become Director of Productions. This move followed Gielgud's skilful direction of a BBC staff amateur dramatic show in which Reith gave a surprisingly comic performance as a drunken broker's man.'

p 34 Miall, L (1994) 'Inside The BBC, British Broadcasting Characters', London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

More amplification on how Gielgud successfully inveigled himself into John Reith's affections is provided on page 71 of 'Years of the Locust':

'True, I had at the end of 1928 produced a cast of amateurs, including Sir John Reith and Admiral Carpendale, in Tilly of Bloomsbury at the Rudolf Steiner Hall. It seemed to go pretty well, without most of the devastating incidents so common to most amateur theatricals. And there were those who said that Sir John must have considered that if I had had the nerve to tell him what to do on a stage, I ought to be able to do likewise with actors in a studio!'


'Tilly of Bloomsbury'- B.B.C. Amateur Dramatic Society, 1928. Reith is standing back row fourth from left. Gielgud is sitting down first row, first on the left.


Gielgud had never produced a radio play.

He was by his own admission 'profoundly ignorant of the department's problems'.

He evaluated his attitude towards broadcast drama as that of an average supercilious listener who believed that a play 'that could only be heard must have something basically inadequate about it. '

Alan Beck postulates that there is considerable evidence that Gielgud had set about soundly trashing the work and reputation of R E Jeffrey. The use of expressions such as:

'I saw the broadcasting of plays grow from an indifferent joke to professional maturity..' p 8, Gielgud, V (1957) British Radio Drama 1922-56, London: Harrap)

'Production methods were largely those of trial and error' (p 4, Gielgud V, [10/01/1947] London: The Radio Times

'It could not but seem that an appointment of such a youthful "outsider" must imply a reflection upon the department in general, and upon its older hands in particular... R E Jeffrey and Cecil Lewis had proved that a drama, which should be a genuine drama of the air, was a real and exciting possibility.' (pp 71-72 Gielgud, V (1947) Years of the Locust, London & Brussels: Nicholson and Watson)

Beck is convincing in his research and argument that Gielgud sought to praise and elevate the achievements of Jeffrey's second-in-command Howard Rose even to the extent of crediting Rose with landmark developments which other sources indicate belong to Jeffrey. These include the director's credit for Reginald Berkeley's 'The White Chateau' and being the first to use the dramatic mixing panel in a dramatic production.