My cut-off point for this Volume 1 is a decisive one. R.E. Jeffrey had suddenly resigned and a couple of years before, the British Broadcasting Corporation had been reshaped from a financially failing Company (7.1.1). Wireless drama was moving away from the 'Theatre Model' as I call it, and the whole drama system, both artistic policy and production, was being centralised in Savoy Hill. The 'talkies' had arrived to London in September 1928 and some key personnel left the B.B.C. rather publicly in 1928-9.
In discussing this research with John Theocaris who joined the B.B.C. as radio drama producer in 1961, he wisely said to me:
The history of radio is that of rediscovery. You often find the work you are doing has been done before.
So rediscovery is a second impetus to this project. Film-making and criticism were rejuvenated by the centenary of the Lumière brothers (1895-1995), and so I hope that radio drama can return to its roots, creatively. The B.B.C. Radio Drama Department's commissioning and broadcasting of David Pownall's 'An Epiphanous Use of the Microphone', about the first full-length Shakespeare play broadcast (15 May 1923 - 15 May 1998), realised this to stunning effect. (See Crook, 1999, 252, note 12.)
The history of radio is contested, particularly as the B.B.C. has been through its seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations (see Beck, 2000b, Introduction 1-2) and is planning its eightieth. Radio practitioners and listeners form in a way their own subcultural groups and radio is a site of memory for many (Nachman 1998). Detailed research in this project of mine may not always be comfortable for some memories.
This 'eighth art', as I term radio drama (Beck, 1998, 1.1; Crook, 1999, 7) was both invented and it was not. It resulted from technological advances in the Second Industrial Revolution. These included the gramophone, electrification and the telephone, from the 1870s and 1880s onwards, and then in the direct relay of West End stage performances to privileged telephone subscribers via the Electrophone Company. There is a full account in Crook, 1999, 15-20. For the first time it was possible to listen-in to the mediated voice, to distantly-relayed live performance and also to recording on the gramophone.
Because my detailed research into both plays and practitioners leads me to emphasise the links between wireless drama and popular performance, I have argued against, for example, Drakakis's linking of wireless Shakespeares with early Modernist aesthetics (3.1.9, 3.2.22).
Wireless became a new structure of knowledge and perception, part of a gradual enfranchisement of the population. This was especially so in the 1920s, when the foundations of so much of the popular culture we know were being laid.
Radio drama played a key role in the emergence of the B.B.C. in the 1920s, especially as a prestigious part of its speech quotient. It also afforded a new aesthetic of listening, new sensorial experiences and through fictional narratives, a remapping of the sensory landscape. 'The Radio Times' advised often about listening, not least because it had to give direct instructions coping with oscillation, not annoying the neighbours, siting an aerial, and on the controversy of valve radio versus crystal. The majority of this listening advice seems to have been about wireless drama and the strict subject positioning of the listener, and the subjection of the listener to the receiving apparatus. This material opens out new areas in radio reception theory and radio apparatus theory.
So wireless drama in the 1920s played a significant role in the change in the aural landscape, not least because it made claims to being a 'new art' and to the high status and aesthetics of the stage, with Shakespeare as paradigm. The change in the aural landscape was two-way, of course, between the new media and culture, each influencing the other.
Claims were regularly made about the ability of wireless to give an objective representation of reality. Here is 'The Times' on the first outside broadcast from a station (King's Cross) in 1925 and the accompanying sketches written by L. du Garde Peach:
The listener had only to shut his eyes to imagine that he was actually on the station platform, whence whistling, puffing, shouts and the clanging of bells were broadcast with the utmost clarity. Against this background the few words of dialogue spoken from the footplate of the locomotive attached to the 8.15 Aberdeen express before the train left the station, and the sketch, 'The Parting', sounded well
'The Times' 1 July 1925 p 10
In 'The Radio Times', listeners were again and again urged to respond as if there was a slippage between fiction, representation and reality, and as if this was non-mediated experience (7.1.1). Listeners' letters back these responses. Of course the novelty and pleasures of first-generation mediated listening go some way to explaining this (Nachman, 1998, 4-5). Some opinions counter to this get through, however. Sydney A. Moseley's article, 'Does Realism Get Across?' ('The Radio Times' 18 February 1927 p 361), is discussed in 7.8. And far from 'Mental Tuning-in' and turning out the lights, Hamilton Fyfe explained from America how housewives there had 'Ironing Day' programmes and used radio as entertainment to their main tasks (7.1.1).
Main Index | Chapter 1 Index | Section 1.3
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