Those who start things should not be forgotten even if those who come later go further.
(Lord Reith to Cecil A. Lewis in a taxi in 1938, inviting him to return to the B.B.C., Lewis, 1974, 64)
Val Gielgud's obituary in 'The Times' dismissed radio drama before he arrived as Productions Director, at the beginning of 1929:
When he began, the broadcast play was an undistinguished affair.
('The Times', 1 December 1981, 12f).
Gielgud himself claimed:
I saw the broadcasting of plays grow from an indifferent joke to professional maturity
Previously, he had claimed that the 'main period of technical experimentation' lasted from 1928 to 1932 (Gielgud, 1946, vii). The case for and against 'undistinguished' or 'joke' radio drama from 1922-8 cannot be proven now, mainly because the original productions have vanished forever into the ether, having been broadcast live. They belong to what historians call 'the world we have lost'. Workable technology for recording did not then exist. The total of broadcast plays (including some sketches) for 1923-1928 is some 1,300, of which only about fifty-five were originations (or plays written originally for radio). The other loss is those originations which no longer survive as scripts.
This study will attempt to show that wireless drama grew and flourished in its first seven years. There were key technical and aesthetic achievements. Multi-studio production, for example, was pioneered from 1925 (in Phase Three of Savoy Hill, 1.4.1), along with the earliest Control Panel, even though Howard Rose later made his own claim to this, falsely, in my opinion (2.1.16).
Research here has been through an exhaustive search of scripts, through' The Radio Times', and other evidence such as practitioners' autobiographies. Wearing's valuable database of stage productions in London, The London Stage, has aided me in establishing the credits of actors and directors, also indicating their status and connections with each other (Wearing, 1984, Vols. 1 and 2). Further, it has also become possible through what I can only describe as detective work, and often through Wearing, to question the veracity of the most authoritative source for early wireless drama. This latter is Val Gielgud's British Radio Drama 1922-1956 (Gielgud 1927). In particular, I build up a case that the 'birth' of radio drama given there (Gielgud, 1957, 17 ff.) is an impressive diplomatic fiction (3.2).
I also re-evaluate the 'Dramatic Director', R.E. Jeffrey, the first head of B.B.C. radio drama (1924-8), and suggest a portrait a bit more favourable than that in Gielgud (Gielgud, 1957, 25-6). Indeed, it is only through a couple of friendly letters surviving in the B.B.C. Written Archives at Caversham that his familiar name can now be known 'Jeff'.
On the credit side, R.E. Jeffrey was enormously successful in founding his Department, with a total of over 1,300 separate pieces broadcast from 1924 through to 1928, and some 1,200 play nights. (I collate full-length plays, one act plays and significant sketches in this way as 'pieces', and also 'play nights' containing either a single play, or a double-bill, or more.) There was the boom of 1925, when play production increased by 500% over the previous year (335 pieces broadcast), as a result of Jeffrey's supervision. 1926 saw a dip (down 40%), but with the B.B.C. now a Corporation, 1927 saw an 80% increase, topping the 1925 total, and so on to 1928.
The broadcasting of wireless drama began to be centralised from mid 1927. Daventry 5GB was upgraded, and the Savoy Hill studios were responsible for 2LO and also mostly Daventry 5GB and 5XX stations. The Regional Scheme spread relay stations (7.1.4) and listening-in to the growing national stations became freer of interference (or oscillation). Large plays were more and more the responsibility of London, as a policy. Adaptations grew more prestigious and casts larger, as 'Trilby', 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and 'Tilly of Bloomsbury' in 1927, and in the following year, 'Mr. Wu', 'Rampa', and the beginning of the Twelve Great Plays series - 'King Lear' in September, 'The Betrothal' (Maeterlinck) in October, etc. And there were the Shakespeares.
But on the debit side, and in spite of the growing debate about radio drama as the new 'art form', Jeffrey succeeded in commissioning few originations (original plays for radio). There were seventeen in 1925, mostly short pieces, and a falling total in 1926 and 1927. The main contributor, from his adaptation of Conrad's 'Lord Jim' in early 1927 onwards, was Cecil A. Lewis ('Pursuit', 'The Night Fighters', 'Good Breeding', 'Montezuma' of 1928). (I have hailed Lewis as the alchemist of radio drama (7.5.10).) Why did Jeffrey fail to encourage a new school of playwrights, while too many of those who did broadcast failed to return to the microphone?
Devastatingly, the play that Jeffrey commissioned from Reginald Berkeley in 1927, 'Machines', was banned as being 'controversial' (8.4). My research has revealed that this was the first play censored by the B.B.C. Further, Jeffrey proposed in an internal planning paper, 'The Drama Studio', that his Department migrate from Savoy Hill to an adapted theatre, with production confined to the stage, though a silent audience would be present (April 1927, 7.4). This was bizarre. It would throw away the critical mass now assembled in Savoy Hill, with engineers, artists and management in the same building and studios, and with growing technical achievements. Jeffrey published only about an article a year in 'The Radio Times' championing wireless drama (4.4, 5.4, 6.3.7, 8.5). His style was turgid and his agenda narrow. Maybe Gielgud's damning verdict was all too true:
Jeffrey was far more 'of the theatre,' far less 'of the world'
(Gielgud, 1957, 26)
This Volume is the beginning of my ongoing project the History of Radio Drama in the UK. Drakakis was the first to give a fuller account of radio drama and it is excellent, and contained in the opening chapter of British Radio Drama. He first noted the 'sporadic and incomplete history of the radio play' (Drakakis, 1981, 1). I believe we have been at a stop after the key analytical work of Drakakis, and of Briggs, Crisell, Crook, etc.
The next step can only be by time-consuming research, that is by building a database of all B.B.C. drama productions. The model is Wearing's ongoing project for the London stage, as mentioned above (Wearing 1984 for the 1920s). Some interesting results emerge from my research. The 'incomplete' history of radio drama has neglected the regional Stations, and indeed, Gielgud failed to acknowledge them, shifting the story of wireless drama to Savoy Hill exclusively (2.1). London was slow in play production, probably because of the boycott by management and artists against the B.B.C., launched in April 1923 and not fully resolved till 1928 (Introduction 2.6). (Again, this was passed over in silence by Gielgud.)
Attempting to 'complete' the history of radio drama, I emphasise the relationship with 1920s theatre, and especially wireless adaptations of one-act plays, or 'curtain-raisers', and some variety sketches. They number about a thousand across 1924 to 1928, that is, just on 75% of all broadcast drama. They provided a treasure trove for wireless, being popular in professional theatre till the late 1920s, and continuingly so in new and thriving amateur groups. Many were available in print for sale, especially to amateurs. Indeed, the database here of broadcast one-acters provides a useful means of comparison alongside theatre production listings, and especially those of regional repertory theatres. Presumably a broadcast indicates the popularity of the play at that time. One-act plays were admirably suitable for broadcast as they were twenty to thirty minutes long, so much part of contemporary popular culture and even today, highly enjoyable to read.
That is why this history builds on a close analysis of two of the earliest one-act adaptations. The first is 'Five Birds in a Cage' (Gertrude Jennings), a 1915 stage play, a social comedy, and broadcast 29 November1923 London 7.50-8.25 (3.1.13-18). Whatever the technical aspects of such a pioneering broadcast or how much was what I term 'unachieved', 'Five Birds in a Cage' points to an exciting future. The characters are trapped in a lift in a London Underground train station, and eventually rescued, and the play begins with a blackout. The Duchess of Wiltshire exclaims:
SUSAN. Oh, the lights have gone out! We've stopped. Why have we stopped?
The script offers many opportunities in aural scenery, or wireless 'mise en scène', as I term it. There is the lift ambience, the surround-sound of effects and echoing in the lift shaft, and there is perspective as rescuers shout 'off'. Character should not inhabit a neutral acoustic but rather they are placed in a challenging sound environment.
Just six weeks later, the same opening line announced Richard Hughes's 'A Comedy of Danger' (4.2), the first radio drama origination:
MARY: (sharply) Hello! What's happened?
JACK: The lights have gone out!
MARY: Where are you?
(Pause. Steps stumbling.)
(Broadcast 15 January 1924 London 7.30-9.15)
In my analysis of 'Danger', I compare it with its direct source of influence, 'Five Birds in a Cage', and assess the limited degree to which it breaks free of what I term the 'fixed-stage model'. 'Danger' is the first wireless play, and must be celebrated as such, but it fails to break free of the single 'mise en scène' and of the continuous 'real time' of the stage one-act play.
The other stage one-act play analysed as a companion to 'Five Birds in a Cage', and broadcast only two weeks later, is 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' (Norman McKinnel) (3.1.19-20). This premiered in 1901, and was broadcast on 15 December 1923 Bournemouth 8. It points in a more conservative direction. There is little action, though a strong narrative, and the focus is almost totally on the dialogue, indeed on the confrontation between a charitable Bishop and a Convict. The 'mise en scène' is simple. The staging requires only a box set (the cottage interior). Little effects are needed to bring this to the microphone. However, 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' is toughly written, being adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables, and genuinely builds to a gripping climax.
'Five Birds in a Cage' and 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' already point down the two paths of radio drama: the 'sound brigade' and the 'word lobby'. These are critic Anne Karpf's handy terms relating to radio drama of today. One sort of production makes the most of effects and digital opportunities in the 'mise en scène'. The other is 'packed with words', as Karpf says. (See Beck, 2000b, 1.1).
Richard Hughes, Reginald Berkeley in his 'The White Chateau', the first one-hour wireless play (11 November 1925), and above all, Cecil Lewis in 'Pursuit' (6-7 January 1928), were the first 'sound brigade', though strong writers of dialogue. The pity is that Berkeley's 'Machines' was banned in 1927-8. It offered a startling contrast in 'mise en scène' after 'mise en scène' through fourteen scenes and along with this, a monumental political parable, the rise and fall of Jimmy Mansell from peaceful factory worker to champion of labour and an MP, and then his execution. It was years before its time and would have been acclaimed in the 1930s theatre of the left, though Berkeley died in 1935. 'Machines' should have founded the 'National Theatre of the Air'. But as playwright David Pownall commented to me: 'The B.B.C. were not able to deal with political polarities'. (See 3.2.27 for his play 'An Epiphanous Use of the Microphone'.)
I must return again to my use of Wearing and The London Stage database.
It is now clear through my work how early 2LO productions made use of high-status actors, and crucially, in my history, I have investigated those who defied the boycott against the B.B.C. (from 27 April 1923 till 1928). It is also interesting to trace the previous and current stage work of, for example, producer Howard Rose, and groupings such as those around Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike, Donald Calthrop, Nigel Playfair, etc., and to consider whether all cast in Shakespeare productions had previous 'form' in such or not. Those actors whose credits are examined in detail also give an idea of the working life of the successful (and not so successful). A surprising number of London productions were single performances, or a couple, yet obviously entailing rehearsal work and the memorizing of lines. This meant there was an acting pool who were skilled potentially in adapting fast to the requirements of Savoy Hill, in one-off productions or those aired twice.
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