Chapter 4


4.2 Richard Hughes, 'A Comedy of Danger'

4.2.3 Burrows, Playfair etc. praise 'Danger'
4.2.4 Printed and Caversham scripts
4.2.5 Characters in 'Danger'
4.2.6 Plot summarised
4.2.8 Hughes's account of the production
4.2.9 Influence of 'Five Birds in a Cage' and Hughes's commission
4.2.10 Hughes: darkness and the rehearsal
4.2.11 The 'Daily Mail'
4.2.12 Archibald Haddon's review broadcast 23 January 1924
4.2.13 Actors in 'Danger'
4.2.14 Analysis of 'Danger'


First origination 'A Comedy of Danger' (Richard Hughes)

Tuesday 15 January 1924 London 7.30-9.15

The first play written for the microphone was in a four-item programme produced by Nigel Playfair. Here is 'The Radio Times' listing:

London 'An Evening of Plays produced by Mr. Nigel Playfair'
Vachel Lindsay, 'The Blacksmith's Serenade';
Jane Austen, 'The Proposal Scene from Pride and Prejudice';
Richard Hughes, 'A Comedy of Danger' (Author of 'The Sisters' Tragedy')
A.P. Herbert, 'Ladies Night or the Annual Dinner of the National Society for Eating Less Meat'
Incidental music by the "2LO" Light Orchestra (S.B. to Glasgow)
Plays arranged and produced by Nigel Playfair

The actors were (source: 'Daily Mail' 16 January 1924 p. 7):

Joyce Kennedy
Kenneth Kent
H.R. Hignett


I will first give an account of the play and of the production of 'A Comedy of Danger', billed also in 'The Radio Times' in some repeats as 'Danger'. More detail has survived about this play than any other before Samuel Beckett, though mostly in entertaining anecdotes by the author and surviving in a B.B.C. radio script for a talk in 1956 and in his private papers, acquired by the Lilly Library, Indiana University (Graves, 1994, 428). Lance Sieveking's autobiography, published less than a year after his retirement, includes a charming and close portrait of his lifelong friend, Richard Hughes, but nothing about B.B.C. broadcasts (Sieveking 1957). He was strategically precluded by B.B.C. rules, within a year of leaving. However, there is also Haddon's broadcast of the play

Hughes claimed to have written 'Danger' overnight after a supper with his producer Nigel Playfair. As his biographer Richard Graves explains:

This version of events is a little speculative … [Hughes] was a fine raconteur … [and] self-publicist … His own accounts of his supper with Playfair etc. vary considerably.
(Graves, 1994, 438 note 43)

I will add some further detail to Graves's careful biography, including a comparison with 'Five Birds in a Cage'. Then I will analyse the play – how radiogenic is it and to what extent does it break away from the stage one-act play? - and include Chothia's discussion (Chothia, 1996, 248-50). Finally I will look at Hughes's achievement.


'Danger' was last repeated by the B.B.C. in 1981. Its status had long been assured via institutional praise. A.R. Burrows, Director of Programmes to the B.B.C., in his The Story of Broadcasting, published in October 1924, was first:

I think all who heard this first attempt at building up a really dramatic situation entirely by sound effects will admit that it was very thrilling and opened up a wide range of possibilities.
(Burrows, 1924, 81)

Actor-manager Nigel Playfair, in a wide-ranging interview on radio drama just as a twenty-eight year old Val Gielgud had taken over as Head of Drama at the beginning of 1929, gave 'A Comedy of Danger' high praise (and he had been its producer and given Hughes the commission):

To my mind, one of the best plays ever broadcast (and I do not say this because I had the pleasure of producing it) was "Danger" by Mr. Richard Hughes. Here was something that was written for wireless only; the scene was in a coal mine, and was meant to be heard and not seen. If this play had been produced in a legitimate theatre the stage would have been in total darkness; the players and the action would remain unseen. It was, therefore, ideal for broadcasting, and probably not so good for use in a theatre. In fact, I think it gained by being broadcast, as a sense of distance for such a setting was an inducement to the right atmosphere.
('Popular Wireless' 9 March 1929)

'The Manchester Guardian' review of the 6 December 1930 revival, directed by Howard Rose, praised it as an 'example of sound wireless craftsmanship', and for its 'surprisingly vigorous psychological fluctuation', 'climax of genuine power', and in total, said that it 'shows a firm grasp of the essentials of wireless drama'. For Gielgud, 1957, 20, it displayed 'a genuine appreciation of the realities and possibilities of the new medium', and he had organised a revival of it in 1956 for which Hughes gave a talk.

Another point here. Gielgud stated that R.E. Jeffrey directed the original 'Danger' (ib.), but the 'The Radio Times' billing for this is 'Plays arranged and produced by Nigel Playfair' and Playfair repeats this in the quote just above. Richard Hughes nowhere mentions that he worked with Jeffrey. I take it that this is another inaccuracy in Gielgud's history.

The temptation is to give 'Danger' a higher classic status than perhaps it deserves and to trace the history of radio drama rather as Renaissance painting used to be explained (as a sudden break-through to masterly naturalism). Chothia, in her history of British drama 1890-1940, summarises:

The characters in Danger are sharply, if simply, delineated and the plot line very clear … Hughes created a model for subsequent radio writing as he traced emotional shifts from levity to panic, resignation and then relief. The dialogue has a realistic edge.
(Chothia, 1996, 249)

Maybe Chothia overestimates the play in her discussion. The missing component here, which I offer, is to place 'Danger' in the context of other one-act plays, including its predecessor, Hughes's 'The Sisters' Tragedy' (written in 1923 and staged by Nigel Playfair in 1924).


I will first give a description of 'Danger', text and production, and then an analysis. It survives both as a printed text in the Hughes collection of four plays (Hughes 1928) and in Caversham, the wireless script, with a note handwritten on the first page, 'broadcast 20.1.25 [and] 25.1.25' and 'Timing about 26 minutes'. (This statement about broadcasts on those dates is not accurate.) There is no difference between the two texts. The Caversham script is not the survivor from the 1925 production. Here is the proof. It is marked up for technical cues and beside 'steps stumbling' and 'A distant explosion' is the note '6D'. '6D' was one of the studios in Broadcasting House used alongside the main drama studio for effects. So this script is post-1932.

The script does not include the preliminary announcement in the printed version (Hughes, 1928, 171). This preliminary was:

The Author was asked by the British Broadcasting Company, in January 1924, to write a play for effect by sound only, in the same way that film plays are written for effect by sight only. This was thus the first "Listening-Play," an experiment in a new medium which has since been considerably developed.
It was first produced by Nigel Playfair, and broadcast from the London Station on January 15th, 1924.
For direct presentation, it should be acted in pitch-darkness, and is thus better suited for performance in a room, without a stage at all, than in even a small theatre.

It has been sometimes understood that this was the opening announcement for the wireless premiere, though Chothia is commendably accurate in stating that its source is the printed text (Chothia, 1996, 248). However the 'Daily Mail' review the following day gives the evidence:

Listeners-in were advised that as the action of the play took place in the dark, they should hear it in the dark and many adopted the advice and lowered the lights.
'Daily Mail' 16 January 1924 p. 7)

Hughes published the collection for live performance by amateurs and others, and indeed when he was in New York in 1928-9, there were US and Canadian requests for vaudeville rights, and to put 'Danger' into a book of plays for schools (Graves, 1996, 183-4). The play demanded no scenery and only sound effects, and was an attractive curiousity. The Welsh choir effect could be afforded by gramophone records and voices off by assistants. It was a three-hander. Of course it is likely that 1924 listeners-in were requested to turn out the lights and I have traced this motif from 1923 and on to Victor Smythe's and R.E. Jeffrey's articles (4.3, 4.4).


Characters of 'A Comedy of Danger'

Characters (as given in the printed script, (Hughes 1928)):

Jack (a young man)
Mary (a young woman)
Mr. Bax (an elderly man with a gruff voice and rather a stilted manner of speech)
Voices (a party of Welsh miners who say a few words and are heard singing off)

The Caversham script adds for Bax 'an elderly man with a gruff voice and rather a Johnsonian manner of speech'.

The printed script also gives:

The Noises required include an explosion, the rush of water, footsteps, and the sound of a pick. There must be an echo, to give the effect of the tunnel.
Scene: A gallery in a Welsh coal-mine
(Hughes, 1928, 173)


Here is a summary. There are five sections to this plot, though of course it is continuous action. Jack and Mary are caught down a mine while visiting, as the lights go out suddenly, and are joined by Bax. In the second section, Mary's response is frivolous but when there is an explosion and the threat of drowning - third section - the young pair cannot be as stoical about the death facing them as the old man is. They hear the Welsh miners singing off.

The central and fourth part is a debate about death and age, and the seemingly cynical Bax challenges them with the paradox that it is harder to die at sixty than twenty. Facing death in minutes, Jack is irrationally buoyed up on the experience and discovers that his greatest loss, besides Mary, would be his work.

In the last section, the rising water now pushes them to extremes of self-revelation, with cowardly Bax the most terrified and the young couple almost now calm, and winning the ethical argument. Emergency help is heard tapping and then breaks through, and Bax suddenly reverses his fear and sacrifices himself by being the last to be hauled up the rope, and too late.


Here is more detail. In the now-famous opening, the situation is presented suddenly:

Lights out. An Announcer tells the audience that the scene is a coal-mine.
MARY: (sharply) Hello! What's happened?
JACK: The lights have gone out!
MARY: Where are you?
JACK: Here.
(Pause. Steps stumbling.)
MARY: Where? I can't find you.
JACK: Here. I'm holding my hand out.
MARY: I can't find it.
JACK: Why, here!
MARY: (startled) Oh! What's that?
JACK: It's all right: it's only me.
MARY: You did frighten me, touching me suddenly like that in the dark. I'd no idea you were so close.
JACK: Catch hold of my hand. Whatever happens, we mustn't lose each other.
MARY: That's better. - But the lights! Why have they gone out?
JACK: I don't know. I suppose something has gone wrong with the dynamo. They'll turn them up again in a minute.
MARY: Oh, Jack I hate the dark!
JACK: Cheer up, darling! It'll be all right in a minute or two.
MARY: It's so frightfully dark down here.
JACK: No wonder! There must be nearly a thousand feet between us and the daylight. It's not surprising it's a bit dusky!
MARY: I didn't know there could be such utter blackness as this, ever. It's so dark, it's as if there never was such a thing as light anywhere. Oh, Jack, it's like being blind!
(Hughes, 1928, 175-6)

Bax is heard approaching – (Steps heard) - and muttering in complaint, and is recognised by the pair. Is it an accident?

BAX: Goodness knows! I'd expect anything of a country like Wales! They've got a climate like the flood and a language like the Tower of Babel, and then they go and lure us into the bowels of the earth and turn the lights off! Wretched, incompetent - their houses are full of cockroaches - Ugh!

This completes the exposition and we move to the characters' responses in the second section. Mary finds it rather fun being in a pit disaster and introduces a lovers' game:

MARY: Let's pretend it's a real disaster, and we're cooped up here for ever and will never be able to get out.
JACK: Don't joke about it.
MARY: Why not? There's no real danger, is there? Let's get all the thrills we can.
BAX: Well, of all the morbid - Young people nowadays -
MARY: I love thrills! - Let's pretend the roof has fallen in, and they can't get at us.
JACK: (uncomfortably) Very well; but what a baby you are! (In mock solemnity) Here we are, my dear, buried alive!

This almost reads like a modern film script for a disaster movie, where the characters do not yet initially respond to the seriousness of what we know is possible destruction. The crisis always reveals the characters' worth, as in a morality play. Mary continues her game, with a hint of the erotic.

MARY: But I want to pretend! I want to be frightened! Only hold my hand tight, won't you? - Go on.
JACK: We shall suffocate, or starve, or both, my dear, in each others' arms.
MARY: Oh, Jack!
JACK: Even death shall not part us.

Mary is mostly enjoying this:

MARY: Oh, this is fun! I wouldn't have missed this for anything. Won't I make daddie's flesh creep!

Now in the third section of the play, the disaster suddenly becomes serious:

(A distant explosion, with a long echo, swelling in volume.)

And -

(Another explosion nearer, followed by the hiss of water.)
MARY: Oh, the dust! It's choking me! I can't breathe! Oh!
JACK: Stop screaming, you! How can you expect to be able to breathe if you're screaming all the breath out of your body? Quiet!

While -

(Water heard louder.)
Jack (sotto voice) tells Bax not to let the girl know of this other danger while Mary thinks that she hears the rest of their party:
(Voices heard singing: "Ar hyd y Nos".)
MARY: That must be the others. They can't be very far off. Let's call to them.
BAX: Sound carries a long way in a tunnel. But listen.
(More singing.)

After Bax comments on their courage:

JACK: You're finding some good in the Welsh, then, after all?

As the water is heard louder, and in the fourth section - the largest - the central character-revealing debate is about death and age. Bax cruelly taunts the couple:

BAX: It has got to come some time, young lady; isn't it better for it to happen now, in your lover's arms? Death might have parted you two, instead of which he's simply joining you closer together.

But when Jack rebuffs this and is told behave like a gentleman, Bax reveals the real truth:

BAX: … What's your life to mine? A shadow, sir! Yours, twenty-odd years of imbecile childhood, lunatic youth; the rest a mere rosy presumption of the future! Mine, sixty solid years of solid, real living; no mere rosy dream! Do you think it is as easy for me to leave my solid substance as you to leave your trumpery shadow? ..... If you both die, what loss is that to the world? - Two opposite quantities cancelling out!

Allowing for the style of the 1920s rhetoric, this has a surprisingly recent ring about it, and we could be in a disaster movie, with the characters squabbling in the studio tank under the cameras. While Jack suggests looking for a way out, Bax is insistent that they stay put. Now Mary is really affected by the dark:

MARY: Oh, the dark! I do hate the dark! I think I could go more easily if I could see light just once before it happened. ... Oh, think of dying somewhere out in the open, in the sunlight! Me able to see you, and you able to see me! What bliss it would be!

Jack becomes seemingly light-headed and ecstatic:

JACK: (in a quiet, childlike voice) Mary, do you know I'm beginning to feel as excited about it as a child going to the seaside for the first time. Aren't you?
MARY: Jack, how queer you are! I never looked at it like that!

Jack jokes about forgetting the luggage and 'who'll feed the parrot?' but he reveals his inner worth, contrasting with Bax's previous selfish outbursts:

JACK: .... What do you think I've got to live for, besides myself and Mary? Why, my work! If it wasn't for that, Bax, I'd go to death without caring a tuppenny damn! I'd die just for the fun of the thing, to see what it felt like.
BAX: (sarcastically) I shouldn't worry about that if I was you: the world'll get on all right without you, never you fear!

In the debate, youth has won ethically over age, but suddenly the action shifts into the final section with the flooding water. Mary clutches at Jack as the water threatens to sweep her away, but he has a firm hold:

MARY: Oh, if only I could see you!
JACK: Just think of all the things I had meant to do! (Roars with laughter.)

Bax cries out in cowardice, refusing to die, and then help arrives:

(Tapping heard.)

The excitement builds as the water reaches waist-high and above, Bax panics further, the lovers get closer and Mary's trusts in her faith:

MARY: (quietly) Jack darling, I'll never leave you.
BAX: How do you know they'll let you stay with him, you little fool? What do you know of death? I tell you death isn't heaven and it isn't hell. Death's dying, you young dolts. Death's being nothing - not even a dratted ghost clanking its chains on the staircase.
MARY: My soul's immortal, Mr. Bax: I know that.
BAX: But if your soul's immortal, is your mind immortal? Or is your soul going to wander about without one, like an imbecile? Eh? - You young fools, you've never thought! I have! Oh, my God, I have! These last ten years!


(Sound of strong blows, then of coal falling, cheers.)

Bax calms down when a rope arrives but Mary has fainted. In a last, self-sacrificing revelation, and twist to the plot and the debate, Bax remains last:

BAX: No, my boy, after you; you're more value in the world than I am.

Jack is hauled up and in the final moments:

JACK: I'm all right. Lower away again. Below there, Bax! Catch hold. Have you got it? (Pause.) Hi! (Pause.) Bax! Bax! - Good God, he's gone!



Richard Hughes's account of the 'Danger' production was given in a fourteen-minute talk, 'The Birth of Radio Drama', on the B.B.C. Home Service, 10 May, 1956, before a revival of the play. It had been prompted by a letter of his to Lance Sieveking (letter in the Sieveking file in Caversham), a friend from childhood (Graves, 1996, 166). Hughes was then 56. The Caversham manuscript looks like his own, or the producer's, with emendations and markings. Graves's account is based on an unpublished MS in the Indiana Library Hughes collection, 'Will Radio Develop a Literature of Its Own?' (438).

I will first give an account of the 1956 talk, benefiting from Graves's biography. Hughes explained that he met Nigel Playfair when he had been unexpectedly invited by him to bring down 'The Man Born to be Hanged' from the Portmadoc Players company to the Lyric Hammersmith (24 February 1924, one performance). On Friday, 11 January 1924, he dined with Playfair who was settling his programme for the following Tuesday, and already had three items:

"Wireless is a new kind of entertaining", said Playfair. "Really it wants something specially written, not just adapted."
I agreed - emphatically. Inwardly I was badly wishing I'd had the chance … Playfair cocked his eye at me and said:
"Pity I didn't think of it in time…"
In those days my mind was a ferment of themes and characters for plays. Tomorrow morning was the dead-line, but the loss of a night's sleep wouldn't worry me. He soon got the promise of a new play - a new kind of play - to be delivered at his breakfast-table.

Which of course it was, after a night's work. As mentioned at the top, Graves found Hughes's versions 'speculative', entertaining and varying. Graves points out that Hughes had been working on a radio play over Christmas back in Wales and that he had left the first draft with his mother to read (100). So:

With a play already in draft form (though it seemed politic not to mention this at the time) the opportunity was too good to miss. Diccon [Richard Hughes] modestly hoped that he could write something suitable in the time, and would like to have a try. 'Sir Nigel's eye', as Diccon continues the story, went small; and bland, like the eye of a calculating fish. 'Ten guineas,' he said for all rights.'
'You mayn't 'like my play when you read it. Let's leave terms till the morning' I countered.
But I didn't really 'care about the terms: I was afire with excitement.. . I went home and wrote all night.

And over breakfast the following morning, Hughes was ready to read out his revised and polished work to Playfair. He had called it at first A Comedy of Danger; and then simply Danger. (Graves, 1996, 101)


I have a couple of points to add here. 'Five Birds in a Cage' (29 November 1923 London 7.50-8.25) must have influenced Hughes. The influence is provable by the first lines alone:

SUSAN. Oh, the lights have gone out! We've stopped. Why have we stopped?
('Five Birds in a Cage')
MARY: (sharply) Hello! What's happened?
JACK: The lights have gone out!
('A Comedy of Danger')

I have pressed this further – the contrasting characters, the structure, 'mise en scène', Spot effects, etc. Hughes must have heard the broadcast. He had just moved to 'a tiny and often extremely chilly attic in New Oxford Street (Graves, 1996, 100). Another connection with the B.B.C. was through Nigel Playfair. Hughes was an Oxford student when he first met Playfair, in 1920 (Graves, 1996, 55), and again when Playfair came to see a first night of his at Portmadoc Town Hall on 4 April 1923.

Graves says 'by Christmas 1923 not a single play had been broadcast … Hughes had become intrigued by the possibilities' (100). (Presumably this means no origination had been broadcast.) This puts the initial impulse to write in this new medium onto Hughes alone – he wrote on spec, and there was no pre-Christmas 1923 commission from Playfair. I consider I have disproved this. The influence of 'Five Birds in a Cage' is much more interesting and chimes with the often collective nature of theatre-making. As the Roman philosopher, Lucretius, said: 'Nothing comes from nothing'. It was well-known, a little later in Hughes's career, that he was a slow writer. (Sieveking quotes Hughes on the three years his famous novel 'A High Wind in Jamaica' took, published in 1929 (Sieveking, 1957, 186).)

Playfair's B.B.C. credits through 1923 are crucial and extensive, especially in view of the boycott. He was theatre producer of 'Polly', the musical at the Kingsway Theatre which made broadcasting history as the first relay of a complete performance (10 March 1923 2LO 8.15). He then gave a speech from Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' for the broadcast on 23 April 1923 (British Empire Shakespeare Society – 3.2.23), was Sir Andrew Aguecheek in 'Twelfth Night' (28 May 1923), Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (25 July 1923) and was theatre producer involved with another relay, Scenes 2, 4 and 5 from 'Robert E. Lee' (31 August 1923), at the Regent Theatre, King's Cross. And Playfair was the producer for the 'Shakespeare series', according to Cecil Lewis (Lewis, 1974, 68).

I have one other piece of detective information to add to Hughes's anecdote of the play-in-a-night. Copy for 'The Radio Times' had to be in three weeks before broadcast and 'A Comedy of Danger' was there in the listings.


In the 1956 talk script, Hughes then goes through his aims in writing:

Those were the days of the silent film and our "listening play" (as I dubbed it) would have to be the silent film's missing half, so to speak, telling a complete story by sound alone. Yet even the silent film didn't, strictly speaking, rely on pictures only. It used subtitles. Usually there was a sad man thumping appropriate themes on a piano. Some of the grander cinemahouses even employed an " effects man "; he wound a windmachine and pattered peas on a drum for the storm scenes; he accompanied the galloping cowboy with clashing coconut shells. 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 idea of darkness came up.

Our audience were used to using their eyes; this was a blind man's world we were introducing them to. In time they would accept its conventions but how would they react on this first occasion? Better make it easy for them, just this once. Something which happens in the dark, for instance, so the characters themselves keep complaining they can't see. Perhaps we could get the listener to turn out his lights and listen in the dark.
"Here's a first line for you ", said Playfair. "The lights have gone out!"

Hughes then describes the rehearsals, which must have gone on from the Saturday.

With rehearsals and production however, a cold awakening! I had spread myself on sound effects without considering how they were to be done.
How were we to make our voices sound like an underground tunnel? Playfair solved that one by making his cast put their handsome heads in buckets. And the Welsh choir we had collected (in those days, Welsh miners were singing in the London streets for coppers) - the script called for "distant snatches of hymnsinging", but once started nothing could stop these chaps: only one studio, one microphone - Playfair put them in the corridor outside, with a soundproof door he could open and shut.
That's what we did for "echo" and "volume control". Playfair was in the studio with his cast.


Playfair had also brought in the press:

But the climax came when we said we wanted an explosion. The engineers had helped all they could, but this was the last straw! Even popping a paper bag would blow every fuse in Savoy Hill! But Playfair was something of a genius, and utterly unscrupulous. Reporters and critics were going to listen in a room specially provided for them, with its own loudspeaker. It would never do for them to hear no more than the diminutive "phut" like the roaring of a suckingdove, even if that was all the public would get. So Playfair staged a magnificent "explosion" in the room next door to the pressroom. Our "explosion" got top marks with the press: they never discovered they had heard it through the wall.

This is entertainingly corroborated by a report in Wednesday's 'Daily Mail' for the 16 January 1924, page 7, with the headlines:

Broadcast Play
Drama Thrills by Wireless
How It Was Done

The enthusiastic reporter was totally taken up with the experience and the explosions:

Thousands of people in darkened rooms last night listened-in to the play 'A Comedy of Danger' by Richard Hughes, which was broadcast from the London and Glasgow stations of the B.B.C.
It is the first play written specially for broadcasting and deals with the experiences of a woman and two men trapped in a flooded coal mine.
The writer had to bear in mind that as his audience could not see the play the action had to be represented by sounds to represent rushing water, explosions and pick-axe tappings.
Listeners-in were advised that as the action of the play took place in the dark, they should hear it in the dark and many adopted the advice and lowered the lights.
A 'Daily Mail' reporter saw the play produced at the London broadcasting station. 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. They were a group of "miners" singing in another passage in the mine. Miss Joyce Kennedy, Mr. Kenneth Kent and Mr. H.R. Hignett acted very well.

The mention of the effects assistants 'on a lower landing' would suggest that the production was in Studio No. 3, on the third floor.


Archibald Haddon's review was broadcast on 23 January 1924 in another 'Hullo Playgoers!' talk of his titled 'Radioplay development' (Haddon, 1924, 160-3). His previous reviews have been discussed at 3.1.17 (Shakespeare) and 3.2.29 ('Five Birds in a Cage'). This is the most valuable. He was able to hail 'Danger' as 'the first radioplay' and 'a triumph of the broadcaster's art' (160), and that 'undoubtedly the listener was thrilled'. He gives a moving tribute:

Many of us, listening hundreds of miles away, with our eyes closed and our pulses beating, were there in spirit beside those agonised people in the stricken coal-mine. My wireless reception was working well when the woman in the mine exclaimed that the water was up to her waist, and she said "Good-bye, Jack dear". The young man who lost his nerve, played by Mr. Kenneth Kent, was particularly good when he gave way to hysterical laughter. The occasional bits of humour got over, too. I remember laughing heartily when the young man said he wrote poetry and his elderly companion retorted, "Good God! And you call that work!".

He then gets down to his negative criticisms. His first concern, as a drama critic was his uncertainty about whether what he heard at his 'headphone' reflected faithfully the London transmission:

For my part, I hesitate to criticise a radioplay unless I am positive that the reception does justice to the performance.

Following that, his worry about effects amusingly corroborates Hughes – that Playfair had managed the explosion for the benefit of the press and not for the listeners:

In places, perhaps, the noises off might have been more convincing – notably at the moment of the coal-mine explosion – but I may attribute the failing to stagecraft, or transmission, or reception.

He has problems with other effects too:

With regard to the noises-off, the muffled sound of miners singing in another part of the coal-mine was admirably conveyed, but I doubt whether the rushing-in of the water would have been realistic without the explanatory dialogue. Effects of this description may be the ABC of stagecraft in the
theatre, but their production in the broadcasting studio would present some difficulty to the theatrical stage-manager and his assistant, the property-man.

Haddon is obviously using the only vocabulary available, which was to describe the 'radioplay' production process in theatrical terms. That of course makes more than sense when one puts together Hughes's anecdotes and what was improvised in Savoy Hill. From our modern perspective, what Haddon is saying as the B.B.C. Dramatic Critic and representative listener is that sound effects he had heard many times in the theatre, and which were, as he jokingly explains the 'trade secret machinery' there, need different balancing as Spot effects on radio. Even an experienced stage crew could not bring this off in the wireless studio. As usual, his approach is more than sympathetic to the B.B.C. and this review is unusual for the detail of the negative criticism. He then moves on to a new insight on radio drama, which he develops further in a further talk. How is the listener to know when the play begins and its finale?

The ending of the play seemed too abrupt, and the beginning too sudden – a criticism which is more or less applicable to the other radioplays in the same programme. In this respect it may be instructive to consider what would have happened in a theatre. After appropriate music from the orchestra the curtain would have risen on a darkened stage, and its slow rising would have imparted to the onlooker the psychological sense of atmosphere incident to the particular scene presented. That would be the result of visual impression, unattainable in the production of a radioplay, but surely something in the way of an equivalent effect can be devised for the faculty of hearing? In the French theatre the audience is prepared for the rising of the curtain by the stage-manager giving three deliberate and resounding knocks on the floor of the stage with a stick. The method is effective, .. its adaptation to the radioplay may be advisable, and perhaps a similar expedient would solve the problem of a radio-equivalent for the falling of the curtain. I suggest that a single stroke on a deep-toned gong is likely to meet the case.

This is an important point offered to wireless Stations about presentation and especially for listeners whose expectations were those of the rituals of live theatre. Haddon then returns to praise and the point which arose in his review of 'Five Birds in a Cage', here about the 'clear and incisive differentiation of character by the employment of vocal tones alone'. Nancy Atkin had been doubled in two roles, Elisabeth Bennet in the 'Pride and Prejudice' episode and 'the strongly contrasted part of the gushing after-dinner speaker in the amusing burlesque of an annual dinner entitled "Ladies ' night" by Mr. A.P. Herbert'. Doubling is frequent in theatre for economic reasons, as the Wearing listings for 1920s London productions show, and it is subject to theatrical conventions of costume and technique. Audiences expect doubling. Haddon now explains Playfair's successful use of this in wireless:

The actress's voice was the same in both instances, but the tones were endowed with so much inflexional variety that each character reached the mind's eye absolutely distinct from the other.

Finally, there is more praise for:

… Mr. Nigel Playfair's expressive delivery of Mr. Collins' speeches in 'Pride and Prejudice". Here again, the performer's elasticity of enunciation made the character live before us, although our eyes were closed. We could almost "see" the conceited toady pompously joining his forefingers as he made his inflated proposal of marriage.


This is the point to consider the three actors. Again it is useful to illustrate the work of wireless actors. Joyce Kennedy (1900-1943) was the same age as Hughes. She has no other radio credits. She has thirteen acting credits for 1920-4 in Wearing's The London Stage. They include the following:

Hippolyta in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (Shakespeare) in the Court Theatre 4 December 1920 to 12 February 1921
Virginia Cavender in 'Zack' (Harold Brighouse) in the Comedy 23 April 1922 (one performance) produced by Harold Brighouse
Staff in 'The Dover Road' (A.A. Milne) in the Haymarket 7 June 1922 to 13 January 1923 produced by Sir Charles Hawtrey (268 performances)
Dorothea Osborne in 'Biters Bitten' (Noel Shannon) at the Strand 11 June 1922 (one performance?)
Veronica Mendle in 'Little Lovers' (Esme Wynne-Tyson) at the Aldwych 22 October 1922 (one performance)
Phyllis Bickenhall in 'The Smiths of Surbiton' ("Keble Howard") at the New 19 November 1922 (one performance)
Alice in 'Isabel, Edward, and Anne' (Elizabeth Jennings) at the Haymarket 31 March1923 to 16 June 1923
Freda Mannock in 'Success' (A.A. Milne) at the Haymarket 21 June 1923 to 4 August 1923
Helen Thorburn in 'The Conquering Hero' (Allan Monkhouse) at the Aldwych 23 March 1924 (one performance) produced by Milton Rosmer.

Kenneth (later Keneth) Kent (1892-1963), playing Jack in 'A Comedy of Danger', subsequently became a producer:

Pierre in 'The Orphans' (1874 French play by Cormon brothers) at the Lyceum 28 February 1923 to 7 April 1923
Arthur Dawson in 'The K.C.' (Dion Titheradge) at the Kingsway 17 June 1923 (one performance)
English Soldier in 'Saint Joan' (Bernard Shaw) at the New 26 March 1924 to 25 October 1924.

Kenneth Kent had previously been in one of the wireless Shakespeares, under Nigel Playfair, as one of the lovers:

Wednesday 25 July 1923 London 8-10
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Lysander - Kenneth Kent

'The Times' listing for the previous 'Romeo and Juliet' (5 July 1923 London 8.0-10.0) does not list him in the cast, but the B.B.C. Programme Records does (p 22). I take 'The Times' to be more authoritative, as it would have received the copy from Savoy Hill possibly as late as the day before transmission. Kent's other radio credit is:

Monday 6 October 1924 9-9.30
Winner of competition
Prize Winning Play
* 'Hunt the Tiger' (H.A. Hering of London)
£50 prize plot of a very novel character peculiarly suited for wireless transmission
Monsieur Jules (an inventor) - Fisher White
Edmond Savine (a poet from Brittany) - Kenneth Kent
scene: Paris The drawing-room in the House of Mons December 1781
Mademoiselle de Vincennes (a lady of the court) - Irene Rooke
Monsieur Jules finds a would-be suicide on the streets of Paris, invites them to his flat and suggests his novel way of relieving them of the burden of life.

H.R. Hignett (1870-1959) played Bax:

Mr. Bollon in 'A Roof and Four Walls' (E. Temple Thurston) at the Apollo 16 January 1923 to 12 May 1923
Tribulation in 'The Alchemist' at the Regent 18-19 March 1923
Old Reaper in 'The Machine-Wreckers' (Ernst Toller) at the Kingsway 6-7 May 1923
Joseph in 'Stop Flirting' (musical by George Gershwin) at the Shaftesbury 30 May 1923 to 28 June 1923, Queen's 30 June 1923 to 20 October 1923, Strand 22 October 1923 to 15 December 1923, licensee George Grossmith
Dr. Franks in 'The Forest' (John Galsworthy) at the St. Martin's 6 March 1924 to 26 April 1924.

He has one other radio credit:

Friday 23 July 1926 2LO London 8-8.30
'Five Birds in a Cage' (Elizabeth Jennings)
presented by R.E. Jeffrey
Leonard – H.R. Hignett


I will now analyse 'Danger' and recognise Hughes's achievement, above all in bringing to birth the 'Self-Contained Method', that is, dispensing with the Narrator-Announcer. This was its greatest achievement, as Hughes explained 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 result was that Hughes was the first radio playwright to deal with description - building into the script descriptions of events and the 'mise en scène'. These served to compensate for the single-modality medium. And he did it rather well:

MARY. I didn't know there could be such utter blackness as this, ever. It's so dark, it's as if there never was such a thing as light anywhere. Oh, Jack, it's like being blind!

MARY. Oh, it's up to my knees!
JACK [very quietly]. Don't clutch at me like that, Mary; it won't do any good.
MARY. But the water-the current's washing me away
JACK. I've got you! And I've got my other arm round the wooden thing!
MARY. Hold tight, then!
JACK. I've got you tight!
MARY. Oh, if only I could see you!
JACK. Just think of all the things I had meant to do!
[Roars with laughter.]


Looking back from the perspective of over seventy-five years distance, 'A Comedy of Danger' was the first with some aspects of the radio aesthetic, and remarkably so. This art form began with a bang, not with a whimper. Richard Hughes came up with a truly 'radiogenic' play - the French were shortly to invent the word - one spectacularly suited to the medium. We can parallel it with other novice art forms in other leaps of technology, such as Seventies experiments with Super-8 film. But radio drama had a genesis that was far more attractive and transmissible than film's Lumière Brothers and their Cinematographe.

'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. Dialogue was placed in a very distinctive ambience, the echoing mine, at least in the script. There was a continuous soundscape. This acoustic was challenging, especially in the severely-dampened Savoy Hill studio and that makes the use of 'buckets' over the actors' heads not so ridiculous. There were Spot effects. And there was that famous darkness. Technically, it pushed far ahead with sound effects, exercising the production team, the Savoy Hill studio and the transmission bandwidth way beyond their limits. That will be explained below and the effects demanded – 'achieved' or not – in 'Five Birds in a Cage' (29 November 1923 London 7.50-8.25) have been already noted (3.1.13-15), as the pioneer.


Let me return to my discussion of Cecil Lewis's Broadcasting from Within and the section titled 'A New Art' (3.1.7 onwards). What did Lewis have to say to Nigel Playfair as they must have plotted – or so it is permissible to speculate - the commission for Richard Hughes together? Following Lewis's protocols, Hughes's play was short, 'largely narrative in form' and developed quickly (Lewis, 1924, 121). Also 'each voice character .. [was] sharply contrasted in tone'. The cast numbers were 'very limited'. But the Narrator was not there - 'a Voice which carries story and action forward' (ib.) – and there was not the rapid succession of scenes. Very positively, there was the attempt at wireless 'mise en scène':

No imagination can picture the scene unless the background of sound is there from out of which the voices speak.

So Hughes succeeded in pushing forward the dynamic of the three-hander situation into more than a morality play of suffering, social satire and redemption through sacrifice. It is more than the presentation and climax of a single situation, more than a sort of pre-Sartrean 'Huis Clos' down a mine, before its time. But 'Danger' is not a Christian play of sin, redemption and sermon. By 1920 Hughes and his group of friends had turned from God to Freud (Graves, 1996, 54).

Hughes explored different twists of psychology as each of the three had a series of minor falls and redemptions, and self-revelations. Also, this is more than a 'talking-heads' play, because the five-part structure - though it is a fully unified one-acter - demands of each character a changing physicalisation. The other technical achievement was that characters not only moved to and from the microphone, but that the lines demanded they embodied the action into their acting of the script, as the water rose and rose. Sometimes the writing does not engage enough verbally with each crisis twist, for example as the first explosion is heard:

MARY. Oh, Jack! Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack!
(Hughes, 1928, 179)

It also rather lurches into the first long debate between Bax and Jack (181-3).


Again one turns to the famous darkness of that Welsh mine. From our modern perspective, this makes the first origination so experimental. The ontology of listening is built into the play scenario, it is also engaging, a two-way approach to this new audience, and it is also part of the fictional game. One thinks of 'scratch-and-sniff' cards used in horror movies and 3-D cardboard glasses. The sound pictures of the play, and there is obviously more in this play for the listener than darkness, can be potentially replicated in the domestic 'listening zone'. 'Danger' offered an attempt to break through the barrier of broadcasting, through the aural frame, and minimise the physical difficulties and remoteness of 'listening-in'. In my article 'Is radio blind or invisible?' (Beck 1999), I have analysed the topic and the possible creative reductionism of blind radio characters.

But back in January 1924, the audience may well have thrilled – as Haddon says he did – to the play and Nigel Playfair's announcement. My research has added 'Five Birds in a Cage' to the equation and that may have had a similar announcement. So that robs Hughes of absolute precedence. The Richard Hughes myth, so wittily encouraged by the writer, is that 'Danger' sprang unaided to wireless. My research unveils some of the process of his creativity, and of the Savoy Hill team, of Nigel Playfair and Cecil Lewis. I think that does them even more credit. That brings me on to a view of the conventional aspects of 'Danger' which have not been investigated.


'Danger' is of its time. It could be analysed as another stage 'curtain-raiser', albeit successfully transposed to another medium. Hughes came up with a one-act play, one scene of continuous action, as many others did at this time, but he did it for the wireless. There is an observable continuity with Hughes's previous one-act stage play, his first, and written when an Oxford undergraduate. This was 'The Sisters' Tragedy', premiered on 24 January 1922 and then professionally performed in Louis Casson's 'Grand Guignol' season at the Little Theatre, Adelphi, in the West End. The three sisters in the play are precipitated into final tragedy when the thirteen-year old allows their deaf mute brother, whose care is holding back their lives, to blunder into a pond and be drowned. (A summary is in Graves, 1996, 71-2 and the text is in Hughes 1928.)

The 'stage' aspects of 'Danger' can be seen in two ways: Hughes's use of stage sound effects and his handling of the climax. There are important off-stage sound cues in 'The Sisters' Tragedy', some six of them in this hour-long play. In fact, Hughes makes relatively successful use of off-stage sounds to enable the most important plot events (first entrances, and the drowning of the dumb and disabled brother which takes place just 'off' in the garden), and to extend his narrative space. Such aural sensitivity may have been partly behind the talent-spotting commission for 'Danger' that came from Nigel Playfair.


So looking at 'A Comedy of Danger' for continuities transposed from theatre, there is also here the aural 'on' narrative space and the 'off', corresponding to the stage frame: the visible territory within the stage's 'mise en scene' and the off-stage. It may seem surprising to define 'on' and 'off' relating to a radio play, and especially one where the lights have gone out and sound pictures may not be then afforded to the listeners. The opposite is the case. The audience is given more than enough description and movement to visualise actions. When the flood happens, the characters cling to their one location and shout to the rescuers to find them:

JACK: My God! It's someone tapping. (Shouts) We're here! Farther along!

'Danger' defines its space, though aurally, on the model of the stage. The sounds cues in the script are all 'off' - and there are at least fifteen of them - expressing miners' singing, explosions and water, and then the rescuers. The sound centre stays fixed at the one place in the listener's sound picture, there in the mine gallery where the three are stalled. Although in strict logic the characters cannot see, they touch and they contact each other and their environment with their constant descriptions, creating a habitable space with their words. Even though 'on' is script-wise not visible, it is so to the audience, and it is tangible to the characters, and so the 'off' sound events can be defined as 'off' and therefore 'acousmatic' to use Michel Chion's term from sound theory. Acousmatic sound events are those which we hear but whose source we do not see. (I have discussed the theoretical aspects of 'frame', 'on' and 'off' in Beck 1998.)

In his transposition of stage technique, Hughes has here pioneered a sophisticated radio drama technique - the extension of narrative out from the 'on' diegetic' space within the sound picture through to the 'off' space (the acousmatic). Action is not confined to the inner frame of the sound picture - the limit of the aurally 'visible' is not the final boundary; but action happens also outside, in the outer acousmatic frame. The end climax of 'Danger' is when the rescuers penetrate the boundary and come 'in' from the 'off' acousmatic, or just about:

JACK: They're through!
VOICES: Quick, below there! Catch on to the rope!

Most radio scenes, especially those of domestic realism, dwell successfully within the single frame and need no extension. But aural technique at times needs to fill that mysterious outer acousmatic space.

Hughes transposed or translated the machinery of stage into radio drama. We can see this already in the two main one-acters broadcast during 1922. 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' stays nearly totally within the box set frame. The only 'off' sounds are the conventional means of alerting the audience to the arrival of a new character. But 'Five Birds in a Cage' made more sophisticated use of light/darkness – the trick at the beginning and characters carrying lamps, and with this, a heightened use of sound effects. It is quite a noisy play and kept stage management busy.


The 'Danger' darkness has had most of the attention, but it is also an enabling mechanism for another essential radio technique - description. The characters let us in continually on their situation through voicing the changes in their environment. So Mary leads Jack on in a mock-comic response to their emergency situation:

MARY: But I want to pretend! I want to be frightened! Only hold my hand tight, won't you? - Go on.
JACK: We shall suffocate, or starve, or both, my dear, in each other's arms.

Then shortly afterwards, on the first explosion:

MARY: Oh, Jack! Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack!
JACK: Quiet, you little fool! Let go! You're throttling me! Let go of me!

When the situation becomes even more desperate:

MARY: Oh, Jack, the water's coming! It's over my feet! Oh!


MARY: But the water - the current's washing me away -
JACK: I've got you! And I've got my other arm round the wooden thing!
MARY: Hold tight, then!
JACK: I've got you tight!

Sometimes description can be the weakest link in a radio dramatist's technique, but here Hughes has made it the leading element in the dialogue. It gives the strongest push to the plot and aids us directly with our own visualisation.


Here was a beginning, though it was modest, and the play was robust as a play of ideas and of situation. It was also a young man's play. Hughes made some explorations in the discovery of radio drama space, but limited only to 'on' and 'off'. As to perspective, he achieved little, for his 'lights out' situation conveniently kept the three characters in one tight location, by the microphone. There were the rescuers and the singers however. He did not explore the representation of time, because this was a continuous action one-act play. Allowing for the blindness device, 'Danger' is still closest to the stage. Indeed the printed edition seems to be for enterprising amateurs to perform without the need of a theatre, and in a drawing-room. As Hughes said in his 1956 talk:

America's N.B.C. network gave 'Danger' its first trans-Atlantic airing. Various European stations followed with translations. Amateurs started performing it - it was a godsend to get a play with no stage, no costumes, no set - all you had to do was turn out the lights.

It was left to 'The White Chateau' of 11 November 1925, to conquer the medium more fully. For example, the script of 'Danger' as we have it, fails to establish the location and sound environment clearly and quickly enough at the top, even over-judging it in modern terms of what can be represented in stereo FM. Archibald Haddon responded to this need for wireless exposition, as discussed in 4.2.12, though he saw the solution as the need to replicate the ritual of the stage.

Hughes's successful stage technique was to open with a burst of energetic action and intrigue, grabbing his audience from the top. For example, 'The Sisters' Tragedy' (first performed 24 January 1922) starts:

(PHILLIPA discovered at window, looking out, one arm in a half-darned stocking.)
PHILLIPA: Kill it, Chattie, kill it!
CHARLOTTE: (without; exasperated) I can't.
(Hughes 1928, 7)

We eventually learn the 'it' is a pet rabbit, mauled by a cat. 'The Man Born to be Hanged' (premiered at Portmadoc and then at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 26 February 1924) begins with Davey, drunk, forcing his way through the house wooden door in splinters (ib., 149).


As can be seen from surviving radio scripts of the 1920s and 1930s, and especially those adapted from stage plays, the usual custom was to give the play's situation through a Narrator at the top, and sometimes with a speech which fills most of page one. 'The Billiard Room Mystery' (V.C. Clinton-Baddeley) of 1929 is typical:

ANNOUNCER: The Billiard Room in the house of the late Kivas Kelly. The Inspector - a typical uniformed official - a pathetic fellow - and Transome Kent - a typical unofficial Investigator - are in the room together.
KENT: H'm. Then you're baffled by this mystery Inspector?

The wireless audience must be settled into the play and this had to be through two further techniques, firstly, of signposting - where is the location?, and, secondly, of the hook - gaining the audience's interest and favour (so they do not switch off). Because it was not yet possible in the broadcasting technology of 1924, and Hughes made no attempt to establish a location. Later, Reginald Berkeley was to experiment with fading in and establishing an exceptional atmos for a location through music and elaborate use of effects on gramophone records. It was also hardly possible to establish a character's presence through their paralanguage, before he or she starts on the text.


Thus Hughes gives us rather too sudden a plunge into the play for the listener's comprehension. Even in a production of today, it would demand quite a lot before Mary speaks: a clear Narrator's announcement to place the location, some signposting (with paralanguage) to establish the presence of Mary and Jack in the coal gallery and their different perspectival positions in relation to the sound centre, perhaps an aural 'flash' effect to indicate the lights have gone out, and some more establishing reactions from the pair to this disaster. Then Mary can speak. That is what is needed, I suggest, to translate 'A Comedy of Danger' into today's conventions of radio drama.

So here are my suggestions. My additional notes are not underlined, while the original production notes are underlined.

ANNOUNCER: We present a new production of the world's first radio drama, 'A Comedy of Danger' by Richard Hughes. The action takes place deep down a Welsh coal-mine, where a young couple are on a visit and have fallen behind their companions.
What's happened?
JACK: (NEARER TO US ON LEFT) The lights have gone out!
MARY: (CALLING) Where are you?
MARY: Where? I can't find you.
JACK: (CLOSE TO MICROPHONE) Here. I'm holding my hand out.
JACK: (INTIMATE) It's all right: it's only me.
MARY. (NOW CLOSE TO HIM) You did frighten me, touching me suddenly like that in the dark. I'd no idea you were so close.
JACK. (INTIMATE) Catch hold of my hand. Whatever happens, we mustn't lose each other.


In the next surviving wireless play by Hughes, 'The War In Spain' (7 December 1925 Cardiff 8.45-9.5), the problem Haddon had complained of, signposting, that of signalling to the audience that the play has begun, was solved by monologue. The Dreamer introduces and explains: 'Let me say straight off, this is a dream'.

I am near the end of my analysis of 'A Comedy of Danger' and it remains to compare it with some aspects of early films and a manual on play construction. I suggest that 'A Comedy of Danger' is also to be compared with the American one-reel film and British equivalents.


I begin with a typical and influential manual, Alfred Hennequin's The Art of Play Writing (Hennequin 1890). Hennequin was a French playwright, mainly of farces, who died in 1926. Hennequin was not the only one to explain these ideas and popularise them. I do not argue here that Hughes wrote his early one-act plays by this manual, but that Hennequin summarises a popular craft. This was also an age when manuals for creative writing became widespread. (See Haddon, 1922, 97-8 for a review of yet another, Miss Agnes Platt's Hints on Playwriting.)

Hennequin's opening point is the conflict between one character striving to accomplish some purpose in which he is thwarted by another character. This initial situation is developed purely by a logical process of cause and effect. Variation of mood was most important, both from scene to scene, and also within scenes. Hennequin advises:

Pathos must be followed by humour, wit by eloquence, talky passages by quick-succeeding scenes of incident, soliloquies by the rapid give-and-take of dialogue. The entire act should be a rapidly shifting kaleidoscope, presenting new features at every turn.
(Hennequin, 1890, 3)

Hennequin also called for a succession of climaxes, and each act should have lesser climaxes 'scattered through it' and that each act should end 'with one of great importance' (6). Also:

Toward the end of the play should occur the great climax in the technical sense of the word, i.e. the point at which the interest of the play reaches its highest stage.


Another topic noted by Hennequin was what he termed the 'heart interest'. This phrase lasted until after World War 1. This required that the hero, as well as solving his problem, or defeating the villain, should also get the girl. So I argue that as well as theatre one-act plays, advice such as that contained in Hennequin, and the love interest of film one-reelers may have been background influences on Hughes. The mood of each succeeding 'beat' or section, in the five sections of 'A Comedy of Danger', is varied and there is the 'heart interest'. Salt, 1996, 179 relates Hennequin to early film and I am indebted to him for the discovery. Salt also points out:

All of these theories [of play and film construction] were variants and adaptations of the basic ideas that had developed in the nineteenth century about writing stage plays.


'Danger' had continuous action, from a single sound centre, and it did not explore the dimensions of time or moving across scene boundaries. It was the equivalent in film history of continuous shooting without editing. There was complete temporal-spatial continuity and strict containment – the latter because there was no ellipse, no cutting and no scene boundary. A good portion of the elements which would later define the radio play as a specific language or grammar were to come later, with L. du Garde Peach's 'Ingredient X' of 1929.

Let me draw another comparison with film's pioneer apparatus. The Lumière Cinematographe afforded the continuous shooting of successive images of a single event seen from a single and unique point of view. Visually, this imposed a fixed point of view on the audience – a single and unique point of view. The same 'single-viewpointedness', if that is what it can be called, applied to each member of the theatre audience, typically looking at a box set from their seat.

Again as with film and the Lumière Cinematographe, Hughes as the earliest practitioner of radio drama writing was a slave of the apparatus (here the wireless apparatus). He demanded a fixity in the positioning of the listener, and I have linked this to both early film and to the theatre audience and such experience of the 'mise en scène' there. The advance in the wireless 'mise en scène' was to be from single-viewpointedness to multi-view-pointedness. (I make use of Gaudreault's terminology here regarding early film (Gaudreault, 1996, 73-4).)

Multi-view-pointedness – cutting across scene boundaries, varying microphone positions and making more use of 'moves off', balancing more exciting atmoses against the dialogue, montage etc., - was to come with advances in technology. Already, as has been noted in 4.1, Eckersley revealed the invention of 'the fade-in and the fade-out, the dissolving view where one sound picture merges into another' at the end of 1924 ('The Radio Times' 19 December 1924 p 574). The next step was to be production in more than one studio simultaneously and microphone successors to the Western Electric. Montage was attempted in 'The White Chateau' (11 November 1925), etc.


Wireless drama had not only been born in the sense that 'Danger' was the first origination, but also in that it had broken free from the stage form, from crudely transforming stage plays into texts read to the microphone with a Narrator for the stage directions. This was a further attempt at a realist aesthetic, even if with more than a touch of melodrama. True, much of the script was 'unachieved', and Hughes and Playfair far outran the technology of their time. 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 radiogenic: a strong aural sense of space, inner and outer frames, 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. 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.

Main Index | Chapter 4 Index | Section 4.3


World Wide view of jack and hughes
Secure FTPS (SSL) anywhere, FREE Go FTP Program