The output of plays dipped in 1926. Here are the figures, with those from 1925 and 1924 for comparison:
1926 1925 1924 Total of play nights across all Stations: 183 314 46 Total of separate pieces broadcast: 197 335 71 Number of full-length plays: 28 48 18 Number of one-act plays (adapted from the theatre): 156 281 43 Number of originations: 13 17
This was a fall of about 40%. Some reasons can be suggested for this reduction. It was due firstly to more stringent finances in this last year of the B.B.C. as a Company (Briggs, 1961, 384 ff.). Savoy Hill seems to have taken some control in scheduling programmes and imposing a pattern through the week. But the crucial factor was Daventry and the gradual approach to national transmission, and then to central control over the regional repertory companies. On the other hand, this spring 1926 was also the time when the new Studio No. 2 with its effects Studio No. 2 (B) came into operation, and an added 'Echo Room' (Phase Four of Savoy Hill production). Plays of the sea increased, such as Richard Hughes's 'The Rum Runners'. Wireless drama had never sounded so good. Enthusiasm about this will be discussed in 6.3.2.
After the exuberant start-up of 1924-5, where was wireless drama going?
R.E. Jeffrey had named Captain Frank Shaw as a forthcoming contributor to 1926 and added:
Next season's programmes will contain many interesting radio plays, and developments by playwrights, producers, and players may be anticipated.
('The Need for a Radio Drama', 'The Radio Times' 17 July 1925)
Here follows (in 6.1.4) a quick survey of this 1925-7 generation of wireless playwrights as evidenced by 1926. Only three of the newcomers were to broadcast in 1927 and one further in 1928. This information is crucial to the history of radio drama. There was also a dip in regional productions and the use of local radio repertory companies, as mentioned.
1925 audiences were the first to listen-in regularly to plays. There were about two to four play nights a month in Manchester, two in Birmingham, and forty-four in total in London. Then Birmingham suffered a drastic cut back in 1926, with most plays coming S.B. from London and entire months without any drama. Manchester had a poor spring, but improved from August to three a month and more. Crucially, there was no continuity from this first generation of wireless playwrights. None had standing in the theatre world with the exception of John Oswald Francis, in Cardiff and Reginald Berkeley (see below).
What hindered the growth of wireless drama? There was the outright hostility of theatre people. MacQueen-Pope called theatre in 1926 'nearly a blackout' because of the General Strike on 3-12 May (see below), though business bounced back. Also 1926 'saw more short runs than any year preceding it, or since' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 152), though more straight plays had runs and were fighting back against musicals (154). James Agate, in his typical way, cited many causes for the economic stage of theatre in his A Short View of the English Stage 1900-1926, which was published in 1926:
The drama of to-day, then, has to make headway against the syndicating managers, against the degeneration in taste occasioned by the war, against the inventions of wireless and the cinema, against the craze for dancing, against the improved railway facilities which enable the business man to live and maintain his family thirty miles from town, against the taste for motoring and the advent of the motor-bike.
(Agate, 1926, 45)
Arnold Bennett, the playwright, complained in his introduction to another of Agate's books, about theatre rents and the entertainment tax (Agate, 1927, v-vii), though he praised the quality and quantity of playwrights and the new non-commercial managements, and their effect on improving public taste (xv-xvi).
Other hindrances to wireless drama's progress could be given, including the low fees. But the fact remains that the many aspiring playwrights who struggled to get a play produced for one try-out at the Everyman, Globe, Lyric Hammersmith and Regent theatres, for example, and particularly were members of the Sunday theatre societies, did not broadcast. Hardly any followed the lead of Reginald Berkeley, whose one-act 'The Quest of Elizabeth' had premiered on the Birmingham station 11 December 1925 8.45-9.10. It then was repeated in London (5 February 1926 London 8.15-8.45) and made the transition to stage, the Playhouse theatre for six performances (1-6 March 1926). (It must have grown into a bigger play. The wireless version had a cast of seven and the stage a cast of fifteen.)
Most of the play originations were transmitted on 2LO eleven of thirteen. Once again, no scripts survive. Richard Hughes contributed 'The Rum Runners' (Saturday 8 May 1926 2LO London 10.20-10.35), but a question hangs over that, according to my research. The other established playwright was Captain Frank Shaw, whose 'Bright Gold' (co-scripted with R.E. Jeffrey) and 'Outward Bound' were broadcast in 1925, along with his episode of the 'The Mayfair Mystery' thriller competition, which invited listeners to contribute. His 'Milestones of Dancing and Romance' (Tuesday 12 January 1926 London 8.5-10), a play with dance music about a 1660 family, was followed by an 1,100-word article, 'Secrets of the Radio Drama', in 'The Radio Times' (discussed in 6.2). His last and most important play was to come the curious 'By Virtue of a Broadcast' (9 February 1927 Manchester 7.45-8.10).
Hilda Chamberlain contributed to another play competition in August, 'Ghostly Fingers' (23 August 1926 London, Daventry, Birmingham 10-11), described as 'A Mystery Play' and the playwright as 'a promising authoress' ('The Radio Times' 20 August 1925 p 340). Her later play, 'Guy Weatherby's Dilemma', not an origination, received three performances in 1927. John Oswald Francis was the author of 'Birds of a Feather' (7 September 1926 Cardiff and Daventry 8.10-8.45), repeated in 1927 along with his 'For France' (not an origination). He was an established Welsh playwright and The Playgoer's Library lists sixteen of his plays in print. Rupert Croft-Cooke's origination was a short play, 'The Telegram' (26 May 1926 London 10-11 (mixed)). Two plays of his, adapted stage plays, were broadcast in 1928 - 'The Three Brothers' (Nottingham station) and 'In the Tunnel' (Birmingham S.B. to Daventry).
The remainder were one-offs: Lester Bidston ('The Golden Buddha' in Birmingham), Ernest Hope ('Wolf! Wolf!', a mystery play in London), J.A.W. Shepherd ('The Test', main character a High Priest of Aztec, London and repeated in 1928), Cameron Taylor ('The Grandfather Clock') and Julius Hare ('Force, Wits and a Woman', set in the days of the Roundheads and Cavaliers, broadcast three times, Belfast, Manchester and Newcastle). J.A.W. Shepherd's 'The Test' (29 June 1926 2LO London 8.15-9.30 (mixed)), 'a short play written specially for broadcasting', was directed by R.E. Jeffrey and had this cast:
A high priest of Aztec W.E. Holloway
Capt in the army of Cortez Henry Oscar
Servant of the temple Gerald Jerome
The 'Radio Times' publicity was the following:
The action of this play takes place in the sixteenth century during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The commander of the Spanish forces was Cortez who was received peaceably by Montezuma, ruler of Mexico. Later both Cortez and his soldiers behaved with such debauchery and treachery that much warfare ensued under the most savage and merciless conditions.
The play concerns the treatment by the Aztec priests of a Spanish officer taken in the act of violating their most sacred altar.
It was repeated later (24 January 1928 Daventry 5GB 10.15-11.15, double bill) and Henry Oscar repeated his role, with Victor Lewisohn as the high priest and Harman Grisewood as the Captain. The latter covers his radio acting in one page with no mention of the period before Val Gielgud (Grisewood, 1968, 78).
Lance Sieveking, who had joined the Company in 1925, broadcast the first of his features:
Friday 3 September 1926 London 11.15-12
'The Wheel of Time' (Lance Sieveking)
A Fantasy in three parts
Presented by Lance Sieveking and J.H. MacDonell
Yesterday Elsa Lancaster
Yesterday Harold Scott
To-day Helen Wilson Barrett
To-day Frank Wilson Barrett
To-morrow Edith Sitwell
To-morrow Osbert Sitwell
To-morrow Constant Lambert
The years roll on. Art and manners change. The Voices of the Past, the Present, and the Future speak out of the void.
It barely gets a mention in his The Stuff of Radio (Sieveking 1934). The B.B.C. Yearbook 1930 commented:
a programme entitled "The Wheel of Time, Yesterday, To-day and To-morrow" (which, besides being intrinsically interesting, was chiefly peculiar for a reading of his own poems by Osbert Sitwell in a manner irresistibly suggestive of a machine-gun barrage)
Probably the script was an anthology of literature as the later Sieveking features. See Scannell, 1991, 135-7 for a devastating and convincing judgement on Sieveking.
The Daventry transmitter promised more than it delivered for only 10% if listeners could receive both 2LO and Daventry 5XX (388). It started out transmitting three daily programmes (schedules) a week which differed from the London programme and this was reduced to one. After complaints, this was raised to two days a week, one on Mondays from London and the second, on Thursdays, 'from each provincial station in turn' (C.A. Lewis, 'Building Better Programmes', 'The Radio Times' 8 January 1926 p. 98).
This had an effect on scheduling. London only rarely transmitted drama on these Monday nights to this wider audience. The few examples are the following and an indication of a belief in their attractiveness. There was the fourth repeat of 'The Dweller in the Darkness' (Reginald Berkeley) (Monday 4 January 1926 2LO London S.B. Bournemouth Glasgow Birmingham 10.30-11) and also 'Ghostly Fingers' (Hilda Chamberlain), 'A Mystery Play specially written for broadcasting' (Monday 23 August 1926 London, Daventry, Birmingham S.B. all stations 10-11), both presented by R.E. Jeffrey. The provincial stations had to schedule their drama around these two Daventry days of the week, and also when it came to their turn to broadcast S.B. to all stations. Lewis, who continued as Head of the Programme Board till May 1926, announced another change in the timing of 'Feature programmes':
In the old days, we used to put on two-hour programmes, sometimes two and a half, with the same theme running through them. The lack of contrast was obvious, and now, as every listener knows, few programmes last more than an hour in length, and, as far as possible, the hours contrast with each other.
(C.A. Lewis, 'Building Better Programmes', 'The Radio Times' 8 January 1926 p. 98)
So drama broke free of these 'theme nights'. The new slot for the week's Feature was to be on Friday, 9-10 pm. And Friday was a popular day for plays, often in the hour running up to the Feature, such as 8.30-8.50 or 8.10-8.30 pm. Cardiff had a preference for Wednesdays, but there was a great deal of variation.
Lewis also announced:
London has agreed to leave provincial stations free from S.B. on Wednesdays. Therefore, provincial listeners, expect your best local programmes on a Wednesday! Relay station listeners, expect your local programmes on Wednesdays in future, instead of Fridays!
Once this change came through, drama was rarely broadcast on a Wednesday, because the regional station broadcast its best, popular variety. But Cardiff, for example, transmitted 'An Elder of the Kirk' (Allan MacBeth) (Wednesday 18 August 1926 Cardiff 8.30-9). This was one of the most popular one-act plays on the wireless.
Lewis raised the issue of the choice of plays in drama, with a hint at high versus popular culture:
There is something to be said for a published syllabus such as the educational department follows in school transmissions, and the more serious series of talks. Listeners may sometimes have wondered whether a similar principle was employed in our musical and dramatic departments. The truth is that we have been learning so fast and expanding do rapidly, that to formulate a policy would have been, in many cases, to break it before it could be carried into effect. We do intend in the coming years to put out certain standard classical works, both in music and literature, so that every consistent listener can, if he wishes, be sure of hearing regularly the world's masterpieces.
Presumably he meant that there was no connected series of plays, but all were transmitted as one-offs. It may have been a hint at the future 'Twelve Great Plays' Series which was announced in August 1928 and ran monthly into 1929.
Briggs quotes a memorandum from B.B.C. programme planners after complaints from the Company's directors. The paper is undated, but could be some time after March 1925 but probably into 1926 (Briggs, 1961, 387-8). Lewis's article quoted above ('Building Better Programmes', 'The Radio Times' 8 January 1926) seems to be related to an internal management appraisal. The one success reported in this paper is from the Research Department, in drama, it said:
for plays the problem is being successfully handled by using one studio for speech, an adjoining room for noise effects, and a microphone in the corner for echo.
This was still in what I have called Phases 2 and 3 of Savoy Hill production, from Autumn 1924 to early 1926. From early 1926, the next phase began with the new Studio No. 2 and the separate effects Studio No. 2 (B), with the separate 'Echo room' (1.4).
There was evidence that the output and scheduling were more 'polished' in 1926 (Briggs, 1961, 389). The London Radio Dance Band got going (February). The jazz versus classical music debate began in 'The Radio Times' and in broadcast talks. Relays of operas continued. The ban on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas was relaxed with a relay of 'The Mikado', Act 1, from the Prince's Theatre.
Listening changed as B.B.C. technology reached out from Savoy Hill.
and O.B. (outside broadcast) commentaries were started. There was an O.B. on the Gaumont Studio filming of 'Whirlpool' (6 March) and another of a boxing match (17 March), for example. The wireless audience could hear the sounds of the fight and the crowd. It became possible to link up with live sounds, as the sea waves on Plymouth shore were relayed into a programme (30 April). 'The Ceremony of the Keys' was relayed from the Tower of London (9 December). For the first time, there were hints in the published listeners' letters of a further aesthetic of listening:
I wonder if there is anyone who, having compared the reception from the Grand Hotel Eastbourne why not more from here? with that from the average B.B.C. studio, is not reminded of the analogy between an ordinary and a stereoscopic photo, the one flat and requiring imagination to interpret its beauties and the other an immediate revelation of depth and tone. I venture to suggest that a discussion on this point in your columns would be of general interest.
Harold F. Bassano, Grove House, Ventnor, I.W.
('The Radio Times' 20 August 1926 Letters p 334)
This seems to be a complaint against the overly-damped and neutral acoustic of the studios, versus naturalism of sound - the liveness of speech within its habitat, and much else, captured by O.B. The Grand Hotel Eastbourne gave a sense of sound inhabiting space and of volume, with a variety of textures.
Once O.B. started, the listeners' ears were opened to new expectations and needs. 'The Ceremony of the Keys' was broadcast by O.B. again in 1928 from the Byward Tower, Tower of London (16 January 1928 London and Daventry 9.45-11), with another improvement in technology and an unsigned comment in 'Both Sides of the Microphone' explained:
Various Microphones conveyed to the distant listener the sounds of the ceremony the tramp of the Guard, the challenge of the sentries, the rumbling of the heavy doors, the clash of the closing locks, the wistful echo of the Last Post.
('The Radio Times' 13 July1928 p 57, 'A Postscript. The Possibilities of Artistic Development')
And further in a section on 'The Art of "Sound Painting"':
One may call it 'painting in sound'. Is it possible to paint in sound? To visit a scene aurally as one would visit it in the flesh? So that one might say, 'Oh yes, I've heard the Tower of London' with as much conviction as the more usual 'I've seen the Tower of London'. Any experience appeals in a varying degree to all the five senses. Of these the usual sense is the most highly developed by common use with the result that people will say: 'I saw that opera in Paris last year', though the majority part of the experience was one of hearing.
It is impossible to know now how the Dramatic Department responded to these technical possibilities, but Cecil Lewis's 'Pursuit' in 1928 is one such result.
The most dramatic event of the year was the General Strike from 3-12 May 1926. The strike focused the attention of the nation on the B.B.C. because, with the usual newspapers not available, broadcasting supplied news (Briggs, 1961, 360-384; Scannell, 1991, 32). Julian Symons's account of the Strike says that only eight London theatres closed, while most who stayed open did very good business (Symons, 1959, 153-4). And that in the provinces, cinemas and theatres were full. Countering this, MacQueen-Pope gives a dramatic account of those who volunteered against the Strike - he travelled into the West End in a hearse - and comments:
There were no audiences save for a sprinkling of foreigners and other visitors stranded in London. .. All contract and agreements were suspended It caused repercussions throughout the whole year.
(MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 153)
Transport unions, including the NUR and ASLEF went on strike, as well as the four thousand buses of the London General Omnibus Company, and then the taxis (Symons, 1959, 68, 154). Symons also adds that the influence exerted by the B.B.C. during the strike was immense (182).
What happened in the Dramatic Department? Copy for 'The Radio Times' had to be in three weeks in advance and obviously planning in the Dramatic Department was long before this. Five productions were listed during the famous nine days. Did they take place? Symons mentions that Lewis Casson, then playing 'Saint Joan' with his wife, Sybil Thorndike, at the Lyceum, was one of the comparatively few theatre people to be involved in the Strike (153-4). The pair had broadcast last on 24 January in Shakespeare excerpts, but they were not due to broadcast during this period anyway, because they were not available.
The productions listed for broadcast were: a one-act 'Cruel Coppinger', with all the roles played by the same 'famous protean actor', R.A. Roberts (8 May 1926 London 8-8.30); an origination by Richard Hughes, 'The Rum Runners' (8 May 1926 London 10.20-10.35), directed by R.E. Jeffrey, no actors listed; Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Lady Macbeth (9 May London 5,30-6); and a double bill on 10 May 1926. This latter included a competition organised by Pearson's Weekly, 'What Would You Do?'. Actors listed were six: Theo Charlton, Michael Hogan, Phyllis Panting, Miriam Ferris, Henry Oscar and Philip Wade.
Were these productions transmitted? The first problem was transport and the B.B.C. made special arrangements for its own staff to work (Briggs, 1961, 367), and changed its schedules so that five news bulletins were broadcast a day. Two of the Strike productions required only one actor. The double bill of Monday 10 May, was made up of four sketches with the six actors, and was fifty minutes in length. It demanded more resources. It is down in 'The Radio Times' again, as a repeat, on 6 July 1926 2LO London 8-8.45. That suggests that the original was transmitted. It was near the end of the Strike. The partisan tone of MacQueen-Pope's account of his actions during the Strike is an example of those in the theatre who volunteered on the side opposing to Lewis Casson:
It was a tremendous victory for the ordinary citizens of this land, whose voluntary efforts had won this battle. it hit the theatre very hard indeed.
(MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 153)
That leaves Hughes's play and here is the listing in 'The Radio Times':
Saturday 8 May 1926 2LO London 10.20-10.35
'The Rum Runners' (Richard Hughes)
A listening-play written for broadcasting
Presented by R.E. Jeffrey
The Captain of a rum-runner schooner
Mr. Harris (the Schooner's mate)
A pirate (whose voice is heard through a megaphone)
All up and down the coast of the Eastern States of America from off New York to the end of Long Island there now stretches what is called Rum Row; it is a mixed collection of the vessels of every nations, from battered old wind-jammers to tramps and even yachts.
The boat that you will board tonight is a small fast-sailing schooner which has left the Row itself, and in order to cut the profits of the motor-launch, the middle-man has gone up north to run its cargo ashore. The night is wild and squally with a high sea running. The desperate little vessel has successfully put into shore, landed her cargo, and is now beating for the open sea.
So there are three named characters and extras for this fifteen-minute play. Unfortunately, the script does not survive and Graves makes no mention of it in his biography. The other curious circumstance is that this is the only play of Hughes not to have a repeat at all. This is the only listing of it. The use of a megaphone by 'A pirate' and the sea effects are intriguing.
In these months, Hughes was recovering from a complete nervous breakdown. His marriage, which should have taken place on 27 February 1926 had collapsed (Graves, 1994, 148-50). He sailed as a deck-hand on a cargo-carrying ketch, bound for Ireland, on 21 May. So 'The Rum Runners' is a bit of a mystery. R.E. Jeffrey must have had the script before he put the listing in 'The Radio Times'. Did it go ahead? It may have needed too many resources during the Strike. But it is anomalous that it did not receive a repeat broadcast.
The publicity copy for plays in 'The Radio Times' changed and became more elaborate. Here are the details for a play mentioned above, a four-character origination, 'Birds of a Feather' (John Oswald Francis), which was a Welsh comedy in one act (7 September 1926 Cardiff and Daventry 8.10-8.45):
Mind picture: - Imagine that you are looking at a country road running from left to right before your line of vision. In the background trees in full summer foliage divide the road from a moor. It is eleven o'clock on a bright moonlight night.
Close to a roadside fire there are two old boxes. On one of these sits Twm Tinker, a vagrant poacher of about forty-five. On the ground at his feet is a frying pan containing steak and onions. As he finishes his supper he soliloquizes and almost immediately Dickey Bach Dwl, another poacher, is heard singing not far away.
There are many instances of these listings in 'The Radio Times' and they are on the same protocol. Firstly, this is the 'Stage Model' for wireless drama, understandable as so many of the broadcast plays were one-acts adapted from the theatre. The action is within the box set and the audience are positioned centrally in front of it and rather rigidly ('running from left to right in your line of vision'). The listeners are in a sound 'theatre'. Secondly, there is the phrase 'Mind picture'. As in R.E. Jeffrey's few articles on radio drama, the listeners are urged to use their visual imaginations in particular ways. They are to replicate the stage 'mise en scène'.
And finally, the listing protocol confines itself to the opening image of the play, just as in the theatre the lights go up for the first time. Again this keeps with the 'Stage Model'. Printed scripts of the time always gave an elaborate description of the stage for the needs of stage management in future productions, which is after all what these books are selling. But there could be also some narrative and intriguing details for the aid of the reader. So that copy was immediately available for 'The Radio Times' listings and presumably the responsibility for putting in this copy was with the Dramatic Department, just as it is still today in the B.B.C. But this 'Mind picture' is a rigid formula which often did not indicate the genre of the play nor did it offer any more enticement to listen. In reading issue after issue of 'The Radio Times', this amounts to poor publicity.
This obtained too long. The change when Val Gielgud was working in 'The Radio Times' later in 1928, and then when he took over in 1929 was startling. Not only was he successful in interesting the press, but more varied listings and articles started up in 'The Radio Times'. Listeners were offered other possibilities than the rigid 'Stage Model' and the demand that they form their 'mind pictures' in a formulaic way.
An article in the 'Evening News', 'New Ideas for Wireless Plays.
Opportunities that are missed' of 2 September 1926 was nearly the first in a rising tide of discontent. It was by 'our wireless correspondent', unnamed. Firstly there was a general condemnation that among the drama output there was little that was specifically 'wireless' (that is, radiogenic). The correspondent supposed that by now the number of plays 'specially written for broadcasting' must 'run into scores'. (In fact the figure was about thirty-two.) But:
there seems to be little about any of them to suggest that they are in any special sense wireless plays.
Most of them - with one or two noticeable exceptions, such as "The White Chateau" - display very little imagination, as may readily be seen from the form in which they are presented in the programme description.
Then the article attacks the 'Radio Times' listings, including for originations:
How often one reads this sort of thing: "Scene: the kitchen of Giles' cottage. A bright fire is burning in the hearth, and Gaffer Giles is seated on an oak settle in front of it. It is twenty-five minutes past six on a foggy October evening".
In conception, in fact, the play is a perfectly ordinary little one-act affair, capable of being performed on the visible stage without one work of alteration, addition or explanation.
This is not a regular piece of newspaper knocking copy and the wireless correspondent intelligently goes on:
It seems strange, that with the cinema to help them, these playwrights do not break away to some extent from the straightforward.
There is no more need in broadcasting than the cinema for the action of the play to occur in one place all the time. Yet nobody seems to have written a play in which, say, two men are walking home, talking as they go.
Apparently an imaginary curtain has to go up on a set scene and the characters must enter and leave as in a play. What a waste of opportunity, when the listener can follow the speaker wherever he may be supposed to be going.
So far, broadcasts of well-known plays have in my opinion, been easily the most successful of the B.B.C.'s dramatic efforts, but it cannot be long before some author really discovers how to write for broadcasting.
This is a remarkable break-through. The way it is phrased is as an obvious insight: why cannot wireless drama follow the lead of the silent cinema, have multiple 'mise en scène' after 'mise en scène', and the technique called today 'we go with' (or the moving sound centre). (This technique was raised in the analysis of 'The White Chateau' (5.6.22)). The correspondent has phrased this clearly and in a matter-of-fact way. Perhaps 'we go with' had been debated in the Dramatic Department and who knows if someone like Cecil Lewis had an input into this article. His 'Pursuit' was mostly one long 'we go with'. But the break-through statement of this new radiogenic aesthetic came in an article in the 'Evening News' and not in 'The Radio Times', nor in surviving articles by R.E. Jeffrey. In Jeffrey's case, rather the opposite and Gielgud's unflattering portrait:
while he could appreciate the need for experiment in the new medium the experiments made tended not to go far enough because of the restricted facilities available at the time Jeffrey was far more 'of the theatre,' far less 'of the world,' than Lewis.
(Gielgud, 1957, 6)
When was it to be that 'some author really discovers how to write for broadcasting'?
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