scripts and microphones

british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook


'Radio Drama can be produced by anybody with a microphone and a tape-recorder. The time is auspicious for rebirth of American Theatre, and radio could be a good place for it to happen.'- David Mamet 'Writing in Restaurants', Faber & Faber 1986.

It would not be any surprise to the reader that the one character in British broadcasting who would give drama a go on the radio was the charismatic Captain Peter Eckersley. He marshalled his friends in the famous former Royal Flying Corps hut at Writtle near Chelmsford. His own account of the adventure can be found in his 1942 publication 'The Power Behind The Microphone'. In the absence of any other recorded evidence it would appear that he led the first radio drama experiment in British broadcasting history on October 17th 1922 from the research station at Writtle near Chelmsford, Essex in England:

'We did a wireless play. We chose the balcony scene from Cyrano: it is played, on the stage, in semi-darkness with virtually stationary players and so it seemed very suitable for broadcasting. 'Uggy' Travers, a young actress and her brother came to help. We sat round a kitchen table in the middle of the wooden hut, with its shelves and benches packed with prosaic apparatus, and said our passionate lines into the lip of our separate microphones...

It was all rather fun. Doubtless at times I was horribly facetious, but I did try to be friendly and talk with, rather than at, my listeners...We failed to take ourselves seriously, and broadcasting, as we saw it, was nothing more nor less than an entertainment, for us as much as the listeners.'

Two years later the BBC broadcast the first British play written for the radio medium. It was later translated into several different languages and in some countries it became their first radio drama production. Research by Kent University Drama lecturer Alan Beck has revealed important information and background on the cultural and artistic imperatives of story telling in a new medium. It is rather prosaic that Richard Hughes revealed in a 1956 talk that he wrote the play overnight at the request of BBC producer Nigel Playfair. Fortunately parts of the text of his speech were reproduced in the BBC's weekly periodical for the intelligentsia- 'The Listener'. It is now defunct:

'Those were the days of the silent film', he said, 'and our "listening play" (as I dubbed it) would have to be the silent film's missing half, so to speak, telling a complete story by sound alone. Yet even the silent film did not, strictly speaking, rely on pictures only. It used sub-titles. Usually there was a sad man thumping appropriate themes on a piano. Some of the grander cinema-houses even employed an "effects man"; he wound a wind-machine and pattered peas on a drum for the storm scenes; he accompanied the galloping cowboy with clashing coconut shells. We thought of using a narrator but agreed it would be a confession of failure. No, we must rely on dramatic speech and sound entirely- and it had never been done before.

Our audience were used to using their eyes; this was a blind man's world we were introducing them to. In time they would accept its conventions but how would they react on this first occasion? Better make it easy for them, just this once. Something which happens in the dark, for instance, so the characters themselves keep complaining they can't see. Perhaps we could get the listener to turn out his lights and listen in the dark.

"Here's a first line for you", said Playfair. "The Lights have gone out!" Back in my flat in New Oxford Street I turned over possible situations. "The lights have gone out!" Not a bedroom scene- There was Major Reith to consider; nor did I care much about bedrooms, to be candid. An accident in a coal mine? I knew nothing about coal mines either, but it offered what I wanted technically. Total darkness; explosions and rushing water; the picks of the rescue-team, and that stripping of the human soul dramatists delight in. But all miners' voices would be too hard to tell apart. Better a party of visitors- an old man, a young one, a girl. So I wrote all night and Playfair got his play with his morning coffee: "Danger".

With rehearsals and production however, a cold awakening! I had spread myself on sound effects without considering how they were to be done. Someone ran round the corner and enlisted the effects man from a cinema in the Strand- wind machine and all. But still we could make nothing sound as it was meant to sound; even in the studio, and leaving out of account the primitive transmission of those days which reduced all sounds to a single indistinguishable "wump" which might be the buzzing of a gnat, the clash of swords, the roaring of Niagara or the shutting of a door. Moreover the studio was a vast padded cell designed to make voices sound as if they were floating in outer space.

How were we to make our voices sound like an underground tunnel? Playfair solved that one by making his cast put their handsome heads in buckets. And the Welsh choir we had collected (in those days, Welsh miners were singing in the London streets for coppers)- the script called for "distant snatches of hymn-singing", but once started nothing could stop these chaps: only one studio, one microphone- Playfair put them in the corridor outside, with a sound-proof door he could open and shut.

But the climax came when we said we wanted an explosion. The engineers had helped all they could, but this was the last straw. Even popping a paper bag would blow every fuse in Savoy Hill. But Playfair was something of a genius, and utterly unscrupulous. Reporters and critics were going to listen in a room specially provided for them, with its own loud-speaker. It would never do for them to hear no more than the diminutive "phut" like the roaring of a sucking-dove, even if that was all the public would get. So Playfair staged a magnificent "explosion" in the room next door to the press-room. Our "explosion" got top marks with the press. They never discovered they had heard it through the wall.

And so - presumably for the first time in history, anywhere in the world - some sort of "listening play" specially written for sound somehow went on the air, thanks to Playfair's ingenuity and the helping hands of all Savoy Hill. Radio drama had emitted its first, faint, infant wail.'

The broadcast of 'Comedy of Danger' generated coverage in at least one national newspaper. It certainly did not amount to the faint infant wail described by Richard Hughes. The headline in the Daily Mail on Wednesday 16th of January 1924 was 'Drama Thrills by Wireless.'

The play was broadcast from the BBC's London and Glasgow stations so it was not entirely nationwide. One newspaper writer acknowledged that Richard Hughes had to bear in mind that as his audience could not see the play the action had to be represented by sound to represent rushing water, explosions, and pick-axe tappings. Listeners-in were advised that as the action of the play took place in the dark, they should hear it in the dark, and many adopted the advice and lowered the lights. The Daily Mail reporter described the production of the play at Savoy House:

'In a brightly lit room a young woman in evening dress and two men holding sheets of paper in their hands declaimed to a microphone their horror at being imprisoned in the mine. Outside the room a young man sat cross-legged on the floor, with telephone receivers on his ears, and as he heard through the receivers the progress of the piece he signalled to two assistants on a lower landing to make noises to represent the action of the play. In a passage stood five men singing through a partly opened door leading to the broadcasting room. They were a group of "miners" singing in another passage of the mine.'

At the end of the report the journalist observed that 'Miss Joyce Kennedy, Mr. Kenneth Kent, and Mr H. R. Hignett acted very well.'


© Tim Crook, 1999

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