17 October 1922: First experimental broadcast of excerpts from 'Cyrano de Bergerac' by Captain P.P. Eckersley from a wooden hut in Writtle (near Chelmsford, Essex)
Captain Peter P. Eckersley 'radiated' excerpts from the classic French comedy, 'Cyrano de Bergerac' by Edmond Rostand (first performed on the stage in 1898). The hero, Cyrano, was the famous long-nosed poet and had been played in London by the great French actor, Constant-Benoît Coquelin and then Robert Loraine in 1919. Those present also included R.T.B. ('Rolls') Wynn (later Chief Engineer of the B.B.C.), Peter Wynn, actress Agnes 'Uggy' Travers and Ben Travers, the playwright.
Peter P. Eckersley was a wireless engineer in the Royal Flying Corps and became the first Chief Engineer in the British Broadcasting Company which officially started broadcasting on 14 November 1922.
It is useful to put together here the telling and retelling of the 'Cyrano' experiment from Peter Eckersley himself (Eckersley, 1941, 43), later interviewers by his son Myles (Eckersley, 1998, 50), and by Briggs (Briggs, 1961, 70-71). This primal birth scene of British radio drama has however, shifted in and out of recognition. It was codified quickly by a mention in 'The Radio Times' of 31 October 1924:
Captain P.P. Eckersley, now known almost the world over as an engineer - and humorist - happened to be in charge of the research department in question, and on the official receipt of the permit, he began his now famous broadcasts. On October 17th, 1922, Writtle established the record of being the first British station to broadcast a play, excerpts being given on this occasion from 'Cyrano de Bergerac'. In the spring of 1922 a rival to Writtle appeared in the field at uncertain intervals. This was a station known as "2L0", a 100-watt set contained in a small teak cabinet, and housed in the cinema theatre on the top floor of Marconi House, London.
So 'The Radio Times' is quite definite that Eckersley's was the first British experiment. Was this a world first? The wording suggests that this was only a British first. However, 'The Times' of 8 June 1925 reported Captain Eckersley, in a lecture, as apparently claiming precedence:
Captain Eckersley gave a lecture on 'Broadcasting' in Folkestone to two thousand children at the Annual Conference of the South-Eastern Union of Scientific Societies. He said that broadcasting did not begin in America but in Chelmsford and described how the first broadcast play was produced.
It must be acknowledged that this short couple of notes by a journalist cannot count as clear evidence. It is impossible to know now how much of an impetus may have come from American broadcasting, as the evidence on pioneering play production there is not yet in (Crook, 1999, 5). However, Cecil Lewis mentions in his Broadcasting From Within of 1924 that Arthur Burrows (now Director of Programmes and ex-Marconi) and others had been to America and Canada in 1920 (Lewis, 1924, 6-8). Lewis also says, this time under his wireless name of 'Uncle Caractacus', in Hullo Boys! A Budget of Good Things by the Uncles on the Wireless, that:
A number of British engineers went over to America and had a good look around to see exactly what was going on.
Crook mentions a Californian station, KQW, experimenting with the relay of a student play in 1914, and General Electric's New York station WGY in Schenectady in 1922 broadcast a dramatic series (Crook, 1999, 4-5).
But the 'Cyrano' broadcast does not feature in Val Gielgud's British Radio Drama 1922-1956 (Gielgud 1957), which prefers Howard Rose's recollection of 2 September 1922 in Marconi House for the birth. Of course, in May 1929, Peter Eckersley resigned from the B.B.C. 'when he was about to become the guilty party in an action for divorce' (McIntyre, 1993, 171-2, see also Eckersley, 1998, 301-8), and Gielgud's book is dedicated to Reith. I have already given reasons why I think there is no basis in fact for Howard Rose's recollection of 2 September 1922 in Marconi House as the pioneer (2.1.16).
Fortunately, the 'Cyrano' anecdote is in Peter Eckersley's book:
We did a wireless play. We chose the balcony scene from Cyrano: it is played, on the stage, in semi-darkness with virtually stationary players and so it seemed very suitable for broadcasting. 'Uggy' Travers, a young actress, and her brother came to help. We sat round a kitchen table in the middle of the wooden hut, with its shelves and benches packed with prosaic apparatus, and said our passionate lines into the lip of our separate microphones.
(Eckersley, 1941, 43)
There was only one translation available (Thomas and Guillemard 1898) and the balcony scene was a combination of Act 3 Scene 6 (pages 157-69) and Scenes 8-9 (171-5). Myles Eckersley, Peter's son, in the biography of his father, expands this:
Forty years later Peter and Rolls Wynn recalled the broadcast. They rehearsed sitting round a table at 'Deodora', a house in which Rolls had digs. The cast included Agnes 'Uggy' Travers, an actress, and Ben Travers, the playwright, distinguished in the war as an RFC pilot who had shot down a Zeppelin.
Peter took the part of Cyrano; Ben the part of Christian and 'Uggy' was Roxane. Rolls took the part of the rustling leaves. At the rehearsal around the table, a spoon took the part of the microphone, which was handed round in turn. Peter remembered gazing at: 'That very lovely girl Uggy and saying: "Oh! I love YOU!"' and flinging out a hand with the spoon in it. . . and then apologising. "Sorry, sorry! I forgot the spoon was the microphone".'
The script that they used still exists. It began with special greetings to Gerald Marcuse who was at a radio society gathering in Croydon. Peter then introduced the plot of the play and the broadcast began. The first broadcast in Britain of part of a play was a great success.
(Eckersley, 1998, 50)
The 'rustling leaves' were the Spot effects required both of Christian, when, according to the stage direction 'He kisses passionately one of the hanging tendrils' (Thomas and Guillemard, 1898, 167) and then when 'Christian springs forward, and by means of the bench, the branches, and the pillars, climbs to the balcony and strides over it' (173).
Asa Briggs quotes R.T.B. Wynn, one of Eckersley's staff (the 'Rolls' or 'Rolly' of Myles Eckersley's account), who was to become Chief Engineer of the B.B.C.:
Some time on Tuesday afternoon the piano would be trundled into the hut, and we would receive a bunch of records - most of which were rejected as being too highbrow! Programme planning was done at the 'Cock and Bull' up the road, about half an hour beforehand. We had artistic ambitions - for example we put on 'Cyrano de Bergerac' - the first play ever to be broadcast in this country. I well remember our sitting around the table in my digs, reading our scripts (my part was to produce rustling leaves) with spoons held to our mouths in simulation of the hand microphones we had to use. There were more players than microphones, so much of the rehearsal consisted of practising the passing of a spoon from one to another at the right moment without dropping it. But our star was Eckersley. He'd go up to the microphone, and apparently without effort, be spontaneously funny for ten minutes at a time. He talked to our listeners as if he'd lived next door to them for years, and they loved it. (London Calling, 10 October 1946)
(Briggs, 1961, 70-71)
The spoon simulated the early microphone, a telephone mouthpiece, and later, Laidman Browne described actors in the Newcastle Station in 1923 'jockeying for position like the players in a game of bob-apple' ('The Radio Times' 26 July 1946 p 4 and quoted previously in 1.4). The 'long, low hut' at Writtle is now preserved in Sanford Mill Museum (photos in Eckersley, 1998, 43 and 46). Maurice Gorham in his Broadcasting and Television since 1900 gives a general description:
The first authorised broadcast was made from Writtle on February 14, 1922, and with Writtle, the name of P.P. Eckersley enters the history of broadcasting, of which he was to be one of the most effective pioneers.
Eckersley was a bit of an engineer, but he did not confine his ideas about broadcasting to the technical side. Also he was a bit of a performer himself and took kindly to the microphone. Instead of "station identification" messages alternating with gramophone records, Eckersley broadcast songs, parodies, even a scene from a play. The programmes from Writtle were largely amateur fooling, which was much to the taste of the amateur radio fans, but they were the first radio transmissions in Britain that could fairly be called programmes at all.
(Gorham, 1952, 25)
Ian McIntyre, in his biography of Reith, explains the jolly and creative atmosphere of Writtle:
the band of exuberant young men who had been playing gramophone records and improvising broadcast entertainment from an army hut in a field near Writtle. Such programme planning as there was usually took place about half an hour ahead of transmission in the nearby 'Cock and Bull'. The offerings included a five-minute Children's Hour, signed off with a theme sound which Eckersley sang in a high tenor voice to the tune of Tosti's 'Goodbye'. They were also pioneers in the broadcasting of live music. Lauritz Melchior came to sing for them, and imagined that the louder he sang, the further his voice would carry. He particularly wanted to be heard at home in Denmark; his opening note shattered the microphone and shut down the generator.
(McIntyre, 1993, 120)
So the 'Cyrano' was a combination of amateur theatricals, though with the young actress, Dora 'Uggy' Travers and the up-and-coming playwright, Ben Travers. Dora Travers made only two London stage appearances in the 1920s: an extra in 'The Royal Visitor' (His Majesty's Theatre, nine performances, 27 September 1924 4 October) and Freda in 'Lightnin'' at the Shaftesbury (27 January 1925 6 June, 149 performances). Ben Travers, however, (1886-1980), was already launching his famously successful career as a playwright and on screen, with his farces. The first of these was 'The Dippers' (Criterion 22 August 1922 20 January 1923, 174 performances) and then the Aldwych farces. So the thirty-year old Peter Eckersley and the thirty-six year old Ben Travers were at the launch of careers which were to go on a speedy 1920s trajectory. In his autobiography (Travers 1957), Travers outlines what he was doing at that time a wife and baby daughter, his first novel published and then turned into a farce starring Binnie Hale ('The Dippers'), and then his second novel, A Cuckoo In The Nest (88-112). He makes no mention of Eckersley and Writtle, and none of Dora 'Uggy' Travers. The friendship had begun through Violet Travers, Ben's wife, and Stella, Peter Eckersley's then wife, who had known each other since childhood (Eckersley, 1998, 52 note 18).
Why the choice of Rostand's 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and its most popular balcony scene? Obviously because of its immediate success from 1897 in Paris, with Constant-Benoît Coquelin (1841-1909) in the title role, and then Coquelin's subsequent appearance in London's Lyceum Theatre (Wilson, 1952, 17). This was one of the greatest theatre events of the time. The famous theatre critic James Agate praised him for 'hanging out the verse against the sky' (Agate, 1944, 152). The English version with the glamorous Robert Loraine filled the Garrick Theatre and then Drury Lane in 1919 (Loraine, 1938, 248-66) and was designed by Dulac, and Loraine described his performance as 'swashbuckling, self-hogging, bombastic and rhetorical' (360). Archibald Haddon, drama critic to the 'Daily Express' and about to become Dramatic Critic to the B.B.C., said the balcony scene 'as interpreted by Robert Loraine, is one of the greatest in modern drama' (Haddon, 1922, 226).
Winifred Loraine wrote her husband's biography and she describes the balcony scene feelingly (Loraine 1938). Cyrano disguises his voice for Christian, when Roxane is on the balcony, so that she believes the verbally ineffective Christian is responsible for the poetic wooing. Cyrano, though heartbroken, urges:
Climb, you sluggard, climb.
Climb . . climb . . . climb.
- to take the kiss which his - Cyrano's - words had won for him. And then as Christian climbs:
Aie, strange pain that wrings my heart!
The kiss, love's feast, so near! I, Lazarus,
Lie at the gate in darkness. Yet, to me
Falls still a crumb from the rich man's board -
'Tis my heart receives thee, Roxane, mine!
For on the lips you press, you kiss as well
The words I spoke just now. My words - my words.
(Loraine, 1938, 258)
The translation used (Thomas and Guillemard 1898) was the only available, as Winifred Loraine says, and this was what Peter Eckersley used. Robert Loraine subsequently starred again in the role on the London Station, 2LO, on Monday 11 April 1927 London.
So that is the first answer to the choice of 'Cyrano' and the balcony scene it was famous, starry and emotional. 'The Times' review of Loraine's stage performance in the Apollo Theatre in the 1927 revival, in the balcony scene, gives a later and lyrical tribute to the scene:
See how he [Cyrano] stands behind Roxane's balcony, his great nose concealed from her, speaking for Christian, whose face is beautiful, the winged words of love that Christian could never have found for himself. The stars glitter behind him; Roxane unseeing, looks down from above his own soul goes out to her in his words the soul which in daylight, his deformity forbids him to confess.
('The Times' 10 November 1927 p 12)
The second reason for the choice of the balcony scene is that its emotional focus is on listening and on the seduction of speech. Each of the characters are engaged in different functions of listening. Roxanne is courted and deceived when the voice (Cyrano) is disembodied from the lover (Christian), and the separation works its spell. Christian is effectively silenced but at the end, clambers up for his prize. Cyrano uses the darkness, the space hidden under the balcony and his poetic gifts for a courtship, which, tragically, he will not finally win. And the audience are the final listeners, understanding all through the darkness and the final object of courtship themselves. Eckersley made a deeply satisfying choice of script that still resonates today.
His Writtle audience were 'listeners to the listening'.
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