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british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook

Page Three

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The major cultural issue concerning radio drama in Britain in the 20th century is why it took so long for the BBC to introduce popular series and serials. The concept of the radio soap opera was invented by the Americans, developed by the Australians and Latin Americans with huge success. Britain's earliest soap, 'The Robinsons' first appeared during the Second World War. It was an import and not a home grown and tried programming product. Canadian comedy writer Alan Melville was directed to devise a radio soap to be broadcast to the United States and Canada on the BBC's North American Service with the political objective of demonstrating British pluck, courage and resistance to Hitler, the Luftwaffe and the Blitz. Its first title was 'Front Line Family' and it showed the Robinson family bravely coping with rationing, bombs, their RAF aircrew son going missing, their daughter Kay falling in and out of love. It was a hit in North America. Other overseas services started to broadcast it and servicemen on leave and dial twiddling Brits were finding it as a welcome alternative to Lord Law-Haw. Dulcie Gray who played the Robinsons' daughter in law said everyone knew that the drama was politically motivated:

'It was classed as propaganda and we knew the aim was to get the Americans into the war. I was very committed. My mother had been killed by the Japanese, my brother was a prisoner of war. My husband was serving in Northern Ireland. Practically everybody we knew was affected by the war in some way. Almost immediately, we got a tremendous number of letters from people in America and all over the Empire. They seemed really moved by the stories. I can't claim we were solely responsible for bringing in the Americans and winning the war, but I feel our little soap opera helped.'

Throughout the 1930s Val Gielgud had prevented the development of a BBC radio soap. He considered it vulgar and a bastard form of drama from the USA. While the Front Line Family was renamed 'The Robinsons' and became a huge success on the Home Service, Gielgud issued a directive to members of the BBC Repertory Company that working in a radio soap would be a breach of contract. The Robinsons ran for six years until 1948 and outlasted the war. It does seem extraordinary that the prejudice, pomposity and elitist discrimination of one man can be responsible for holding back the tide of one of the most significant radio programming forms this century. But Gielgud's belief that soap opera was cheap and nasty was echoed by the BBC's senior management.

The BBC did not need soap operas to survive. There was no competition. The Robinsons mutated as a result of broadcasting becoming an informational propagandist weapon. The audience popularity for dramatic story telling in the soap opera form was a benign and accidental side effect. Gielgud's vituperative and implacable opposition to soaps could be divided into the following arguments:

1: If an actor became a household name in a soap opera he would end up demanding more money until he was being paid as much as the most distinguished repertory thespians.

2: Serial actors were not in the classical thespian league.

3: The soap opera was 'deliberately constructed to hit the very centre of the domestic hearth by playing variations on the theme of all kinds of domestic trivia.

4: The British public would not like it because they would realise that soaps are capable of achieving a quite unreasonable influence.

But it would be wrong to condemn Gielgud's contribution to broadcasting on the basis of his elitist attitude to popular drama. It can also be argued that his commitment to high cultural standards established a more qualitative tradition of writing, direction, production and performance in Britain. The Second World War accelerated changes and accentuated the need for thoughtful and moral enhancing drama. Production expanded. The number of plays and special series increased. There is also evidence that British radio drama sought to challenge the venom of anti-Semitism on at least one occasion.

Gielgud commissioned and produced In The Shadow Of The Swastika which starred Marius Goring in the role of Adolf Hitler. The plot and production offered a humanist challenge to the prejudice engendered by Nazi ideology. The series' strength lay in its use of irony and avoidance of didactic or propagandist explicitness. The drama explored the fate of a Hitler Youth girl whose life is saved by a Jewish surgeon in Berlin. As she drifts into semi-consciousness during anaesthesia she repeatedly mumbles 'kill the Jews' which is overheard by the Jewish doctor who is the only person capable of keeping her alive. He does not flinch from his Hippocratic oath.

The BBC establishment, British Ministry of Information, were very uncomfortable confronting the vista of anti-Semitism and no further broadcasts of this serial were permitted and no more productions like it were ever commissioned during the course of the war. BBC Radio Drama challenged German dramatic propaganda by adopting an approach to classical stories and plays which allegorically and metaphorically symbolised Britain's struggle to win the war and defeat 'the dark forces of evil'. Dorothy L Sayer's dramatisation of the life of Christ, The Man Born To Be King, is an example of this genre. The series, directed and produced by Val Gielgud, echoed the turbulent conflict in which the world was then embroiled.

Radio drama expression has been very much a reflection of the politico-economic story of the twentieth century. Freedom of expression was fiercely controlled in the totalitarian regimes that sought to influence and control the thinking and beliefs of citizens. The broadcast environment here was state controlled. Radio drama was utilised for propaganda purposes. Intelligent and cunning dictators realised that propaganda worked if it was entertaining and floated within a well told story. Nazi Germany used skilful mixtures of popular music and drama to psychologically intimidate Allied troops and civilian populations. They were sometimes aided by American and British fascists who preferred to fight the war in Berlin, rather than London or New York. The American academic Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach used dramatic scripts in overseas English broadcasts to attack the British position in the war. He translated a radio play by Erwin Barth von Wehrenalp called 'Lightning Action' to celebrate the German victory in Norway. Twelve scenes were recorded on 5th April 1941 and the cast included the British film actor Jack Trevor and other ex-patriots. He also satirised Roosevelt's Lease-Lend Bill with a series of dramatic talks called 'British Disregard for American Rights'.

The German actress Gertrud Hahn presented a series 'Hot Off The Wire' where she played the role of a switchboard operator at the Pittsburgh Tribune reading letters from the paper's Berlin correspondent 'Joe'. In his letters Joe eulogised Nazi achievements and condemned the newspaper's editors who were given Jewish names: 'Rosenbloom and Finelstein'. He said they 'change his wires round and won't tell the truth about Germany.' Another very influential American-German academic Otto Koischwitz originated a series called 'Dr Anders and Little Margaret' where the character Little Margaret was an American girl who had come to Germany to see her grandmother and found a delightful daily routine of sumptuous meals, plays, songs and general happiness. In May 1944 Koischwitz wrote a doomsday radio play for the D-Day invasion forces and their families at home which was broadcast by short-wave to the United States. The actress Mildred Gillars played the part of a GI's mother who in a tear-stained monologue predicted disaster and grief:

'Everybody says the invasion is suicide. The simplest person knows that between seventy and ninety per cent of the boys will be killed, or crippled for the rest of their lives!'


© Tim Crook, 1999

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