British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History
by Tim Crook
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The influence of Gielgud and dictatorial Director-Generals
such as John Reith and more recently John Birt raises the issue of ownership
versus control and 'professionalism' within a radio broadcasting culture. In a
sense the shareholders of the BBC are the licence-payers but it is arguable
whether they have any direct control or influence over day to day and yearly
management of the corporation.
Strategy is certainly not directed by licence-payers. The
BBC is only obliged to produce a private company audit to Parliament rather than
the more rigorous reporting demanded of local authorities by the Audit
Commission. The BBC engages in 'audience consultation' campaigns but these have
often been criticised for being palliatives and gestural. In reality
licence-payers are powerless in relation to BBC decision making. BBC managers
and Director-Generals are unique in having allocative as well as operational
control. The analysis of the history of Reith's control over staffing culture
and programming content suggests that there have been and continue to be
powerful conflicts between the skills and expertise of professional values to
which BBC radio programme making personnel aspire and the ideological
intentions, political aspirations and cultural imperatives of senior
In 1977 the academic writer Tom Burns conducted three
hundred interviews with BBC staff and detected a cult of the professional where
references on quality, motivation and objectives had more to do with peer
approval and impression. He found that three imperatives were often in
conflict with one another. They were:
1: Reithian view of public service and responsibility to
2: Referring to fellow professional standards- the cult of
3: Audience ratings as a measurement of judging the
success or failure of the programme.
During Reith's period of stewardship the first imperative
was predominant. Under Sir John Birt , the third and then second imperatives
would appear to be the priorities on the basis of interviews with BBC radio
drama directors past and present.
The post Second World War period has been a particularly rich
one for British radio drama, although in recent years the insecurity engendered
by the digitised and multimedia age has meant that it has become a casualty of
fashion and the BBC's ventures into digital and Internet communications.
The soap opera not only survived but expanded. Drama
director Val Gielgud allowed Mrs Dale's Diary to fill the vacuum left by the
Robinsons. Hilary Kingsley speculated that Gielgud was probably persuaded that
the nice middle-class doctor's wife Mrs Dale was not really a soap person. A
BBC document reveals that they thought Mrs Dale's Diary was 'not a soap opera of
the kind which abounds in American radio.' Mrs Dale outlasted Val Gielgud and
had a twenty one year run between January 1948 and April 1969 where its
popularity after 5,531 episodes was such that Liberal MP Peter Bessell tried to
introduce a parliamentary reprieve.
Dick Barton - Special Agent captivated the imagination and
spirit of adventure during the post war rationing period. The Department of
Agriculture's desire to improve farming efficiency and the demand by listeners
at a public meeting in Birmingham for a rural Dick Barton led to the creation of
'The Archers' which has become the world's longest and most successful soap.
It still commands the highest audiences on the BBC Radio flagship, Radio Four.
It had a slow and somewhat conservative approach to responding to changing
social mores and the changing nature of British society. It was about twenty
years before it recognised the presence of a substantial Asian community in
the Midlands. The 'Usher' character then became something of a cliché for
presenting every kind of racial issue that had been neglected up until her
introduction in the story.
'Waggoners Walk' which started on BBC Radio 2 in April 1969
sought to capture the tensions of student protest, sexual equality,
contraception and a more socially mobile society. It was a product of the
'swinging sixties' 'rebellious youth culture', 'the Beatles' and fall out
from student protests against Britain's support for America in Vietnam. It
featured three young women, Tracey, Lynn and Barbara sharing a flat in
Hampstead. One had an illegitimate child and married a homosexual (who later
'reformed'), another's marriage broke up and the third lived in sin.
Waggoner's Walk threw itself into social problems such as abortion, child
custody, hypothermia, murder, and confrontations of every kind. By 1974 it had
an audience of four million listeners which was much higher than the Archers.
There was even a competition so that listeners could write their own plots. The
suggestion that the whole cast board a bus which was then driven over the edge
of a cliff was somewhat portentous because the series was axed in June 1980 as
part of a money-saving plan.
At a time when television now commanded the centre of
attention in terms of domestic entertainment, it could be argued that
liquidating such a popular story telling form in radio was another example of
the BBC cutting off its nose to spite its face. New attempts to launch soap
operas on the radio by the BBC have been heroic failures. They include
'Citizens' which tried hard to be a radio 'Eastenders' but failed to be eclectic
in its audience objectives, lacked a community cohesion in plot and tried to be
too worthy with contemporary issues at the expense of basic dramatic values.
The origination of new BBC soaps has been the preserve of the BBC World Service
where the objective has been to promote an image of a new multi-cultural
Britain. Other motives have been to 'help third world countries' devise
popular soaps that promulgate social action and education. Exports of the
British radio soap opera tradition have taken root in Moscow where Prime
Minister Tony Blair was persuaded to play a cameo role on a visit to Russia,
Afghanistan, and parts of Africa.
The post war establishment of the Third Programme, later
becoming Radio Three provided a platform for more abstract and experimental
explorations of the audio drama story telling form. Combined with the scope and
soundscape for popular and challenging writing on the Home Service, later to
become Radio Four, BBC Radio Drama enjoyed something of a golden age during the
50s 60s and 70s. Indeed the inauguration of Independent television in 1955 was
upstaged and overshadowed by the death of Grace Archer in a dramatic episode of
the Archers on the Home Service.
In this period British radio drama developed confidence in
its exceptional and intrinsic characteristics:
A: Narration was employed more fully in radio
communication. It has not been a popular story telling device in cinema and was
rather rare in Western theatre. It borrowed from the tradition of the Chorus in
Greek tragedy and Brecht's pioneering work with Berliner Ensemble who was
introduced to Britain along with Samuel Beckett through theatre clubs and the
enthusiastic critical evangelism of Martin Esslin and Kenneth Tynan.
B: Narration marked the natural and elegant symbiosis
between radio playwriting and literary prose. Its power is directly linked to
the ability of radio to render the speaker invisible.
C: The logic of narrative voice in radio drama
stimulated a diametric rebellion by avant-garde and experimental writers who
derived their inspiration from the absurdists. Samuel Beckett's 'All That Fall'
directed by Donald McWinnie in 1957 is an example of this. The need to
establish notions of realistic sound as symbols gave birth to the BBC
D: Narration as a story telling concept was explored in
unique ways such as 'Under Milk Wood' where it functioned as a verbal camera.
The Greek choral narrative structure in independent radio's dramatisation of
Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in 1990 was another example of radio
narration serving the purpose of verbal camera.
E: The narrative long shot in radio could establish with a
few words and within a few seconds a fictional reality that would be financially
prohibitive in any other medium.
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1978 which was
produced by the Light Entertainment department acquired cult status and had
been substantially constructed by the writer Douglas Adams through narrative
framework and imagery which was as rich and imaginative as any cinematic science
fiction blockbuster such as 2001 or the Star Wars Trilogy.
The production challenge of establishing the world of
self-parodying cosmic fantasy, weird life forms, time warps, a major character
with two heads, visits to bizarre planets, interactive and loquacious computers
became an opportunity in the radio medium. The transfer to television was a
failure. Imaginative stimulation on the radio turned out to be tacky and
unrewarding in a modestly budgeted studio based drama shot on video.
F: In radio drama fantastic and symbolic worlds with
characters and creatures never visually realised found their home. Mervyn
Peake's Gormenghast novels transferred into audio dramatisation with energy and
verve during the 1980s. It can be argued that Henry Reed's 1947 radio
adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick was more effective than the John
Huston film that struggled to transform the novel's allegorical texture into
special effects and superficial representations of reality.
G: Radio drama could give life to inanimate objects and it
could be argued that a postmodernist tradition took root in the work of Don
Haworth whose 1975 play 'On a Day in a Garden in Summer' was populated with
vocalised 'characters' who were in fact plants. A 1998 BBC radio drama
production anthropomorphised two goldfish with cognition and imagination. (The
Goldfish Bowl by Shaun Prendergast).
H: Radio Drama was a natural home for Elizabethan and
Jacobean tragedy, where ghostly apparitions resonate fully with the listener's
imagination so that Hamlet's father and Banquo are I: The century's progress
in psychiatry, psycho-analysis, psychology and psycho-pathology find in radio
drama the most flexible medium of expression. What better space than the
theatre of the mind? Louis MacNeice's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's
'The Waves' which requires the expression of six disembodied consciousnesses
belonged in radio rather than film, television or theatre. The composer John
Cage created 'Roaratoria- An Irish Circus' out of James Joyce's 'Finnegan's
So the post war period fostered the recognition and
development of leading playwrights in a modest and growingly self-confident
milieu. Samuel Beckett produced a canon of radio plays for the BBC which
are substantial contributions to his cultural value as a writer. His respect
for the medium is such that he left a codicil in his will preventing the stage
adaptation of his radio texts.
© Tim Crook, 1999
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