My main way of ordering the huge amount of detail I have assembled here is through the database of wireless drama productions. However, Gielgud's words come as a bit of a warning! He said:
A detailed account of plays presented on the British air over a period of roughly thirty years -complete with titles, authors, and casts - would have been boring, if not intolerable, to read.
(Gielgud, 1957, 10)
'The Radio Times' billing is mostly clear. Full-length plays, one acts and sketches were listed either separately or in what were called 'scena' (mixed music and sketch with a theme and linking dialogue), 'features' and the equivalent of mixed theme nights ('Italian Night' 'Down to the Sea in Ships'), up to two hours long, and especially before Daventry 5GB got fully going in August 1927. (See also Briggs, 1961, 282). There was the 'Dramatic Night' for the Glasgow and other Stations.
For high-art and high status plays, and the equivalent of the West End, such as Shakespeare and John Galsworthy, the billing is clear. These included the 'highbrow', and this was a scare word through the 1920s for the B.B.C. But distinctions can break down in variety sketches, which were part of the mix of a variety night at the theatre, staged with scenery, or which were part of a wireless programme. (Nigel Playfair's successful 'Riverside Nights' at his Hammersmith Lyric theatre and the Ambassadors from April 1926 for 238 performances is typical, with four separate playlets (Herbert and Playfair 1926).) So I have sometimes included a sketch listed in a 'Vaudeville Night' in my play schedules, where I have judged it relevant, and this also gives a sense of the range of artists' work. But it is overlapping and fuzzy as a borderline, and there is no escaping that. I have not systematically listed Children's Hour productions, except where necessary, as sometimes for Liverpool. I have listed the drama broadcasts for schools as these were of serious works.
I also approach all this material through the study of production systems and technology, in the regional Stations and overall control in Savoy Hill. Then there are the changes in broadcasting technology as it excitingly evolved into multi-studio production, from 1925. So I have assembled an account of Savoy Hill and the Dramatic Department at work, and the broadcasting chain, from play selection onwards. This also includes guidelines to authors, regulation and censorship. Other factors include the lengths of plays broadcast and cast numbers (surprisingly large in some cases).
I also work through the plays themselves, textually, their styles, production and genres, as also through the playwrights. These latter wrote originally for the wireless, or adapted from the stage or novel, or were translators. I have given special attention to those script originations that have survived, to productions which had most publicity in 'The Radio Times', and to a selection of adaptations. I also look at the spread of plays and their types, in the broadcast schedules.
Another consideration is the relationship of nearly all broadcast plays to the enveloping performance culture in the 1920s, mainly the stage, but including films. So, I argue that the way to understand the first origination, Richard Hughes' 'A Comedy of Danger' (15 January 1924), is both as a one-act 'curtain raiser', squarely conventional, though excitingly for wireless, and through Hughes' relationship with his producer, actor-manager Nigel Playfair (4.2). Until regional output was reduced when programming on Daventry 5GB got fully going in 1927, the B.B.C. Dramatic Department was run as a group of repertory companies, just as theatres and touring were in the 'provinces'. There were the big six Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast, and then another eight Stations, with intermittent output of plays. This I term the Repertory Model for broadcasting.
In this overall context, economic recessions in the London theatre are important, especially in the early 1920s and the General Strike of 1926. There was the arrival of the 'talkies', in September 1928, which must partly explain the rash of B.B.C. resignations in 1928-9 - the cut-off point in my research. But the boycott of the B.B.C., by performing artists and managements, underlies nearly all the Twenties. It was called by the Entertainment Industry Joint Broadcasting Committee on 27 April 1923 and a final agreement about direct relays from theatres was not announced till November 1928. It affected London 2LO production, I claim, and in my account I also note those actors who defied the boycott. Some of them formed the breakaway Stage Guild, in June 1924. So from its birth, the B.B.C. has had an enormous impact on theatres and the 'profession'.
So here are some main ways of approaching wireless plays Savoy Hill, Stations and their production systems, the wireless 'Repertories', technology, scheduling, playwrights, actors and theatre culture. And there were the listeners.
Listeners grew from an estimated ten million in 1925 to 1928's twelve million. I have researched feedback about the plays from listeners' letters, filtered through 'The Radio Times' and its editorial policies. Wireless drama was a particularly contested area, as were also opera, jazz and talks. Audiences, as already mentioned in 1.2.4, were firmly instructed about 'mental tuning-in', constructing 'mind pictures', only to listen to programmes (items) they had pre-selected and to turn off the lights. 'Dark' and 'blind' were key organising concepts here.
My final approach focuses on key individuals, mainly directors (producers, or 'presenters' as they were sometimes called), but also some playwrights, actors and actor-managers. They are what Brandt, in his British Television Drama terms 'authorial' individuals, those who have given an 'innovative response to the limits of current technology' (Brandt, 1981, 16). I have already mentioned R.E. Jeffrey (1.1.2), Cecil A. Lewis, Richard Hughes and Reginald Berkeley.
I must add 'authorial' groups here the 'Station Repertory Company' and 'Station Radio Players' around directors in the regions in the big six (Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast). These directors not only directed (produced, presented) plays, sketches and variety shows, but they acted themselves, and adapted scripts. They managed local wireless repertory companies, casting, rehearsing and paying fees and copyright. They were actor-managers a breed which was dying out in theatres after the First World War (as I will discuss later). So these Station Repertory Companies were run on the Actor-Manager Model.
There was Victor Smythe in Manchester, Edward P. Genn in Liverpool, Stuart Vinden in Birmingham (and often broadcasting through London 2LO and Daventry 5XX from 1927), Gordon McConnel in Cardiff, and George Ross in Glasgow. Gordon Lea as Station Director not only headed up the '5NO' Newcastle Company from 1924, but published the first book on scripting and directing radio plays in December 1926, Radio Drama and How To Write It. (See 6.4 for my analysis of this.) Sal Sturgeon, an actress in this company, also became the first woman director of wireless that I can find.
Who were the members of these Companies and Players? It is over to researchers of provincial repertory stage companies in the future to use this radio database to match up actors, producers and plays. But I have been able to draw comparisons in Birmingham and Liverpool. I consulted Kemp's history of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (Kemp 1943) and Grace Wyndham Goldie's on the Liverpool Repertory Theatre (Goldie 1935), and they both give lists of actors in the resident companies through the Twenties. Key producer E. Stuart Vinden, for example, was on stage in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the early 1920s and by 1925, he became an actor in, and then director of, the wireless Birmingham Repertory Players from Station 5IT. But there are hardly any other matches some eight actors from the Birmingham wireless plays were residents in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre out of fifteen wireless actors overall.
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World Wide view of
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