scripts and microphones

british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook

Page Two

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Radio Drama throughout the 1920s and 30s was heavily influenced by theatre. It is interesting that the story of the production of 'the Comedy of Danger' demonstrates that live sound design for silent cinema brought an acoustic inspiration into the radio studios at Savoy Hill and the BBC's purpose built 'broadcast liner' in Portland Place. But the absence of talking cinema until the early 1930s meant that text and performance style tended to be declamatory and either suited to the projection of the voice in a large space to a live audience or highly literate and narrative voice based. Unlike the American and Australian radio stations the BBC had no direct competition for dramatic entertainment. There was no management pressure to compete for audience and ratings. When it came from the continental commercial stations, many of which transmitted American radio soap operas, the BBC doggedly pursued the established Reithian tradition of giving the audience what the BBC believes it needs rather than what it perceives to be its wants. This was always done with 'Received Pronunciation'- a Home Counties upper middle class, public school and Oxbridge educated accent. Regional accents in presentation were only permitted during the Second World War years. By the time Wilfred Pickles presented the news in a Yorkshire accent Sir John Reith had left the BBC and was making his contribution to public life as the Minister for Transport.

In the inter-war years the distinction between radio drama and the dramatic feature was somewhat blurred. It is now very difficult to distinguish the fiction from the non fiction since all documentary production and 'talks' were heavily censored and ad-libbed spontaneous radio communication was not permitted. It was a far cry from Peter Eckersley's charismatic performances in the 2MT hut in Writtle in 1922, which infuriated the bureaucrats in Marconi, the BBC and Post Office, but captivated the imagination of listeners. Even when the BBC invited 'real' people into the studio or sought to transmit the voices of the working classes, initial interviews had to be transcribed by secretaries, edited by producers and editorial managers and then given back to the original subjects to reproduce for live or pre-recorded broadcast usually with wooden and self-conscious presentation. Any departures from the agreed script would be faded out and the subversive miscreant discreetly shown the door of Broadcasting House.

There was a substantial dishonesty in this infrastructure of communication. It could be argued that the audience was not being 'educated' and 'enlightened' but culturally brain-washed and socially propagandised. Communist or left wing producers such as Archie Harding who caused trouble were despatched to Manchester by Director General Sir John Reith where if they continued to cause any trouble they would not be heard by the establishment. An ironic result of this radio-phonic Gulag Archipelago was that BBC Manchester features became the centre for pioneering and innovative programmes which sought wider representation of the people of Britain.

From the 1930s, the Features Department of the BBC existed alongside the Drama Department before they were eventually merged in 1967. The credit for exploring the unique dramatic potential of radio during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s belongs to Features rather than to Drama under Lord John Gielgud's brother Val which tended to concentrate on book dramatisations or adaptations of theatre productions.

Early exponents of radio's experimental sound potential were Lance Sieveking and Tyrone Guthrie. The radio feature sought to recreate real-life stories using radio drama techniques. The form attracted significant poets some of whom became staff writer-producers such as Louis MacNeice.

Significant productions by Features which have been repeatedly cited by critics include D. G. Bridson's The March of the '45 (1936) and MacNeice's Christopher Columbus (1942). They resemble Elizabethan chronicle history plays in existing as both dramatised history and poetic drama, documentary and fiction. The Features Department also produced plays specifically written for radio which have become somewhat iconic. They include Louis MacNeice's The Dark Tower (1946) and Dylan Thomas's much revered Under Milk Wood (1954) that has become a standard text for English and Drama curriculum. The narrative performance by Richard Burton contributed to its success. It won the prestigious Prix Italia prize for radio fiction, has been made into a film and had many theatre presentations- the more recent in 1995 being presented on the Olivier stage of the Royal National Theatre.

It would be right to ask the question why such successful works emanated from Features rather than Val Gielgud's Radio Drama Department. It has been argued somewhat convincingly that Radio Drama tended to be hidebound by the conventions and codes of conventional theatre and dramatic narrative. Since the term 'feature' was so nebulous, producers and writers in this area of the BBC were in a better position to subvert production orthodoxy and discover and experiment with the potential of radio's imaginative spectacle. They reflected the literary experiments in form advanced by James Joyce and the exploration of psychology and neuroses inherent in Franz Kafka's work. There were attempts to assert the radiogenic rather than cinegenic. MacNeice sculpted his writing so that it carried the charge of a poetic, saga-like quest. Dylan Thomas used a traditional narrative framework to exquisitely celebrate the onomatopoetic riches of characterisation through voice.

But it would be wrong to condemn the work of Radio Drama as pedestrian and ineffective. The high brow objectives of the BBC embraced a production of T S Elliott's verse play 'Murder in the Cathedral' which like Harold Pinter's work of the 1960s probably worked better with the aural-flexibility of the radio medium than the physical spatiality of stage theatre.

Val Gielgud worked hard to develop specific radio performance skills. He formed a Radio Drama company of actors to be available to perform in BBC productions, but more importantly to specialise and develop in a new drama performance medium. He and his directors consolidated radio's intrinsic techniques of texture and narrative. They found little difficulty expressing the equivalence of moving from long shot to close-up in sound by using the intimate space and closeness of microphone performance. Radio could enter the minds of characters much more readily than the visual media.

The stage device of soliloquy and aside which sometimes appears clumsy and artificial in the modern proscenium-arch theatre found its natural environment in radio where the microphone can focus very naturally on the interior workings of consciousness. Intimate emotion and mental turmoil can communicate to the listener with ease. Gielgud realised that as the listener cannot see the actor speaking, the words seem to come straight from the mind, not the mouth.

Tyrone Guthrie went on to establish his reputation in film and theatre. Indeed he founded the Stratford theatre festival in Canada. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a producer at the BBC. His career as a radio playwright was cut short by personality clashes with Gielgud which resulted in a form of 'cultural black-listing' which is not an uncommon factor in the under-representation of a considerable number of playwrights, authors and directors. His play 'The Flowers Are Not for You to Pick' (1930), demonstrated that cinematic methods of montage, cross-fading and representing past, present, future, inner and outer consciousness had a place in the sound medium. The play exploited radio's novelistic ability to dramatise the inner lives of people. Guthrie's play is all in the mind of its central character, who as a drowning man in the middle of an ocean is located realistically in a position unrealisable in the theatre, except in a highly stylised way.

Guthrie conveyed the central character's review of his entire life through a series of flashbacks and audio collage of memories flitting through rapid transitions of time and place. Lance Sieveking was busy pushing the radiophonic boundaries so that much of his work would never have worked on the stage. His 'Kaleidoscope I' broadcast in 1928 represented a brave experiment in montaging speech and sound and its pace resembled the style of visual editing in cinema. Avant-garde auteurs such as Guthrie and Sieveking had to work with live performances and primitive monophonic technology. Scene changes and segueing could only be achieved by switching between studios. Magnetic tape, invented and developed by the Germans, was not available in radio production until the middle to late 1950s.

© Tim Crook, 1999

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