'Danger' talk by Alan Beck for German Radio November 1999
For full details, see - 'The Invisible Play' - B.B.C. Radio Drama 1922-1928 - online book published by Sound Journal
'A Comedy of Danger', Britain's first radio play written specially for radio, famously began in darkness, down a coalmine, and a crisis is about to unfold:
Mary says: 'Hello! What's happened?' and Jack, her young boyfriend replies: 'The lights have gone out!'.
Thus began the broadcast, from London, on 15 January 1924. America claims the first experiment in radio drama in 1914 in California, and by 1923, plays written originally for radio were being broadcast.
'Danger' was about twenty-five minutes long, with just one other character, an old man, and it was a sort of morality play of suffering and redemption. The three are threatened with drowning as the coalmine floods, and they reveal themselves in a tense, personal debate about death and age. The cowardly, cynical old man, at the climax, sacrifices himself by being the last to be hauled up by rescuers, but too late. The point of 'A Comedy of Danger' is - that it is a tragedy.
'Danger' was only half-way to being a true radio play, suspenseful, wordy melodrama though it was. It was one extended scene, so it never faced the problem of leaps in time and space. But the acoustic was challenging - down a coalmine, and there were sound effects. And there was that famous darkness.
We know more about its production than about any other radio play up to Samuel Beckett. That was because the young playwright, Richard Hughes, was a splendid publicist. He published the play in a collection for amateur stage performance, and in 1956, he broadcast his account of the heroic and hilarious story. The actors had to speak with buckets over their heads and the newspaper reporters were tricked. More of that below.
So B.B.C. radio drama began with a bang, not a whimper. The play, 'Danger', recreated the 'blindness' of the listeners' experience. This was a play spectacularly suited to the medium's aesthetic. It pushed forward with sound effects for the first time. Examples are the recreation of voices down a Welsh coal mine - those buckets over the actors' heads, flooding water, and an explosion at the climax. These effects exercised the team at the B.B.C. Savoy Hill studio in London way beyond their limits and the technical bandwidth of 1924 broadcast.
But further, 'Danger' did away with the Narrator.
Playwright Richard Hughes saw this as its greatest achievement, in his 1956 talk:
We thought of using a narrator but agreed it would be a confession of failure. No, we must rely on dramatic speech and sounds entirely -- and it had never been done before.
The London studio had broadcast little drama in the previous eleven months, since it first started such, but two full-length Shakespeares had already been attempted. Presumably, as with the adaptations of novels and one-act stage plays broadcast from B.B.C. radio stations around Britain, there had been regular use of a Narrator, to describe the scene and the characters.
So 'Danger' was a remarkable invention of a new art form in these three following ways:
the scene was in darkness
there were sound effects and characters represented as moving around,
and there was no Narrator.
But nothing arises from nothing, as the Roman philosopher stated. The British novel after all, was born from epic and the letter-writing form, and film arose from theatre and photography.
Richard Hughes' wireless play 'Danger' has its conventional aspects. It was no different from the many one-act stage plays of the time, which were immensely popular and the first item on the theatre programme. They were about twenty minutes long to half an hour and were called 'curtain-raisers' - performed before the main evening piece. In fact, B.B.C. wireless drama of the 1920s flourished because it broadcast about eight hundred of these, adapted from the stage.
So 'Danger' was akin to these curtain-raisers, and indeed, Hughes had started his career writing a couple of them for stage. 'Danger' has continuous action, as has been mentioned.
It was the equivalent in film to continuous shooting without editing, in other words to the 1890s cinema one-reelers.
There are limits to what the early wireless dramatists achieved, and it is not until 1931, seven years after 'Danger', that we have the first truly radiogenic or radiophonic radio play which breaks free of the stage and has a new architecture, form and dynamic suited to the medium.
But on to Richard Hughes' entertaining account of the production of 'Danger'. He was only twenty-four himself, and from a small town in Wales. The other key person in this production was the famous London actor-manager and theatre owner, Nigel Playfair, later Sir Nigel Playfair.
He was involved as actor and producer from the start of B.B.C. wireless drama, and he had invited Hughes to bring up his company from Wales to perform in his theatre the following month, that is, February 1924.
Hughes's story is that he got the commission from Playfair:
' " Here's a first line for you ", said Playfair. " ' The lights have gone out! '"
He wrote the play overnight in his attic flat in Oxford Street, and as he puts it, 'Playfair got his play with his morning coffee'.
I do not want to belittle his achievement and his entertaining broadcast talk, but there are two inaccuracies here, from my research.
Firstly, 'The Radio Times' has the play down in its listing for that day in January 1924. The copy for the B.B.C. weekly had to be submitted three weeks before publication. So Richard Hughes could not have been given his commission that late and that weekend. But it's a great anecdote.
The second point is about Danger's first line: 'The lights have gone out!' It turns out that this is not original.
It comes from a stage one-act curtain raiser, which had been broadcast as an adaptation from the B.B.C. London studio only six weeks before. It must have been well known to the listeners.
This play was called 'Five Birds in a Cage', and was by the well-known Gertrude Jennings, and had its stage premiere in 1915. It had begun:
SUSAN (THE DUCHESS OF WILTSHIRE) . Oh, the lights have gone out! We've stopped. Why have we stopped?
And then there is the stage direction:
[The curtain, now up, shows the stage to be in darkness.]
The action takes place, after an accident, in a London Underground station lift. In contrast to 'A Comedy of Danger', this is a sophisticated social comedy.
Nothing comes from nothing. The talent-spotting commission for the first radio play came from Nigel Playfair, and he and Richard Hughes were artists of their time who improvised and exploited popular stage culture.
The 'jeu d'esprit' or jolly caprice pioneered by 'Five Birds in a Cage' - that the theatre audience watch a one-acter with the stage lights dimmed till the rescue of those caught in the lift - is transferred to the radio play and becomes 'Danger'.
And a new art form is born. Being the young playwright Hughes, the plot situation is grim and metaphysical, just like his first stage play, 'The Sisters' Tragedy', which climaxes on the drowning of a dumb and disabled brother.
Once into production on that January in 1924, the B.B.C. team tried desperately to achieve the atmosphere of a coal mine. Hughes tells us:
Someone ran round the corner and enlisted the effects man from a cinema in the Strand -- wind machine and all.
That was a failure. Especially as - quote - 'the studio was a vast padded cell designed to make voices sound as if they were floating in Outer Space'.
Here was the solution. Nigel Playfair made 'his cast put their handsome heads in buckets'.
Hughes collected a Welsh choir from the London street as with the economic depression of the early 1920s, they had emigrated to the capital, singing and begging. They had to be put in the corridor outside, as they were too exuberant.
Lastly there was the coal mine explosion demanded at the end of 'Danger'. Hughes says that the engineers tried everything in vain, including popping a paper bag. He says that Playfair was 'something of a genius and utterly unscrupulous'. He put the newspaper reporters in a separate listening room and staged a magnificent explosion in the room next door to the press-room, even though this could not go out on air. The press never discovered they had heard it through the wall.
Next day, the 'Daily Mail' was full of praise and described how:
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 there stood five men singing through a partly-opened door leading to the broadcasting room.
The great achievement of Hughes and Nigel Playfair was to bring to birth the radio play even though it was decades before broadcasting technology was invented that could answer fully to their demands.
Hughes was too skilled to write a mere 'talking-heads' play. Like the early formalists of film, he tilted at some of the elements that make up the radiophonic: a strong aural sense of space, movement, energetic dialogue, emotion and action, and the overall shape of the piece.
The B.B.C.'s own 'Radio Times' did not list it as the first original radio play, but Hughes and Nigel Playfair were enthusiastic publicists, and though B.B.C. radio drama was later given the title of Cinderella, for being neglected, this was not the lesson of the first original production.
The lights went out at the beginning of the 'Danger' script and lit up the whole future of writing for radio drama.
More on Richard Hughes
To 'The Invisible Play' - B.B.C. Radio Drama 1922-1928 - online book published by Sound Journal
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