Lea, Gordon, 1926, Radio Drama and How To Write It, London: George Allen and Unwin.
Extraordinarily, and so early on in the history of radio drama, Gordon Lea published Radio Drama and How To Write It in the Practical Handbooks series, which included How To Write a Film Story and How To Succeed on the Stage. The Foreword was contributed by R.E. Jeffrey, Productions Director, B.B.C. All of Lea's experience had been in the Newcastle station and with fifteen- or thirty-minute plays. In view of rapid changes in production technique and aesthetic just happening, especially multi-studio production in London, it was written too soon perhaps, and it was not revised and reissued. Did Lea ever visit Savoy Hill? There is no evidence in the book, and in the productions cited, to suggest knowledge of the newest technology now being pioneered. There is no listing of Lea as director in 1926, and he does not show knowledge of the newest technology now being pioneered. Lea is silent on the methods of 1924-6, especially the creation of a studio suite, with multi-studio production, fading, echo and the expansion into elaborate effects with a separate effects studio (as Savoy Hill new Studio No. 3 and effects Studio No. 2 (B) from early 1926. His main emphasis on the use or not of the 'Narrator Method' reflects Phase 1 production technology, in one studio only.
What were the production facilities at Newcastle? It had been one of the first regional stations open in the end of 1922. The premiere drama production was on 28 September 1923 (Act III Scene 5 from 'Romeo and Juliet' scheduled for fifteen minutes). According to an account in 'The Times' of Monday, 15 June 1925 (p 8), the first concert from Newcastle was transmitted in a stable yard on a microphone set up on a coal cart, while the performers were surrounded by audience of draught horses. Now in 1925, the Control Room was 150-200 square feet, but the original sound-proof facility was a box, a little larger than the P.O. telephone call box, and in one corner of the studio. The studio had an old-fashioned carbon microphone hanging from the ceiling, which was superseded by Western Electric type of carbon microphone, and then the magnetophone used at all B.B.C. stations. Newcastle conducted one of the earliest experiments in O.B. land-relay, from a picture theatre. For comparison, the Cardiff transmitting room was originally a coal shed, and on its expansion now it had a studio as large as 2LO in London.
The first information available about Gordon Lea is a short publicity biography of him in 'The Radio Times' of 27 June 1924 (p 5), along with a photograph. We are told that he broadcasts from Newcastle and has written several plays 'some of which have been performed locally and one of which is published'. His latest stage play - not broadcast - is 'Reconstruction' which 'deals with the divorce problem in prose'. And it is added, 'His best work is in blank verse'. He had also written a volume of verse, 'Athenais'.
In 1924 he had inaugurated the Repertory Theatre in Newcastle, which fits in with the radio repertory pattern around the regional stations, - that local amateur and professional groups were starting to perform regularly in the studio. The article also gives his education: the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and then Cambridge and he also gained a B.D. degree at Manchester. He then became principal of the North Eastern School of Wireless Telegraphy.
Lea produced a number of dramas from the Newcastle station: 'Tilda's New Hat' a one-act play by George Paston (5 January 1925); 'Playing with Fire', a comedy by Percival White, in a double bill with 'A Game of Chess', a duologue by Alfred Sutro (16 January 1925); 'Shades of Night', a fantasy in one act by Robert Marshall (16 March 1925); and 'Congo Night' by Richard Hughes, in which he also acted the part of Harry, and which was in a double-bill with 'The Perfect Pair', a duologue by Vera Beringer (23 March 1925). In 1926, he had acted the part of Harry in 'The Prince of Nowhere' (18 January) but is not credited with directing. Each of these plays is either thirty minutes, or in case of the double bills, fifteen minutes each.
Reith commended Lea's book in a memo to all Station Directors dated 20 December 1926, along with a copy for each. He had discussed the issues with Jeffrey who agreed 'in the main' with Lea. He added some insightful comments showing a sharp knowledge of what was going on in the studios, and obviously as a result of his consultation with Jeffrey:
It occurs to me that in many of our productions there is too much striving for theatre effect and too little attempt at discovering the actual radio effect when the play is received in distant homes.
Have you or your producers ever sat down to consider seriously whether your performers do not merely bring their acting experience to you and use their arts and tricks in the same way as they would do for the stage? If they do, I consider it to be fundamentally wrong.
The quickest way to alienate sympathy for and interest in radio plays is for any 'staginess' to be suggested, either in characters or method of treatment.
The more the play would be appreciated by studio visitors watching it, the less effective it must be for the listeners outside.
In fact, these comments are sharper than much of Radio Drama and How To Write It. Reith then commended the three articles Jeffrey had published in 'The Radio Times'. Reith's warning about 'staginess' immediately seems to conflict in some ways with Jeffrey's project to transfer Savoy Hill production to an ideal wireless 'theatre' ('The Need for a Radio Drama', 'The Radio Times' 17 July 1925). Here is Jeffrey's suggestion:
In future, also, there may be an actual stage and the players may dress their parts - all with the idea of getting the right "atmosphere".
That would seem to encourage 'staginess'. (See 5.4.4.) Reith also recommended that plays not be scheduled:
in a similar way that musical items are chosen drama requires much more thought and investigation to be given to it to assist its evolution.
Perhaps this means that plays should not just be included in the longer variety evenings as part of a themed programme, the 'Feature' typical of 1925, but that they be given more favourable slots. This memo came at the end of a year when there had been considerable, and at times, drastic cut backs in regional productions.
Lea's book dedication reads:
To the B.B.C. to whose enterprise is due the birth of a new art
R.E. Jeffrey used the Foreword to stress the difficulties attending on the birth of a new art form, repeating some of the thoughts of his November article, 'Seeing with the Mind's Eye':
Radio Drama has a great future. This future lies not only with those lone souls who spend their time and thought in front of the microphone, suffering the slings and arrows of uninformed criticism, but also with those millions to whom the microphone, via transmitter, broadcasts their efforts. The listener's part is in learning " how to listen," a most important point.
It is my hope that Radio Drama in its real form - not a bastard cultivation from the stage - will become a source of inspiration to its heterogeneous broadcast audience. A little has been done; much remains to do. Public-spirited playwrights especially are required; the broadcast has no nightly box-office. A new form of drama cannot be developed without a new form of play as its vehicle.
In this book we have something which will help to realize the high aim which the B.B.C. has set before it in this most difficult branch of radio art. (Lea, 1926, 11-12)
The book builds rather slowly to radio as such, because the first two chapters are about the stage play, and the box-set one-acts of the time (sixteen pages of the ninety-one total). Lea then explains the 'negations' of radio drama: voice alone, 'no scenic artist' and no lighting. Interestingly, he states that the appeal is 'to an individual', - a clear emphasis on lone listening rather than the group. He pushes music and effects:
Such stage-effects as thunder - the racket of a storm - the patter of rain and the swish of the sea are all possible in radio drama, and anything which can be translated into sound.
He has some intelligent and succinct advice:
It is much easier to find the right voice for a part than the right person.
Any scene may be suggested and it will be adequate.
The radio-scene is beyond art - it is reality itself, not an isolated expression of imagination, but imagination itself.
[Of sound effects] An ounce of suggestion is worth a ton of imitation.
If he [the playwright] wishes to set his play in the heart of a buttercup, the imagination of his hearer will provide the setting.
This opens a new world to the dreamer of dreams, and releases for drama all the things which are difficult, if not impossible, on the stage.
Lea has two main suggestions about technique. He describes, or rather hints at 'we go with', but spends most time on whether to include the Narrator Method in adapted stage plays and in writing originations. This method consists of giving a synopsis of the plot at the top and other inserts, especially at the top of a new scene. The alternative was the 'Self-Contained Method', which builds description of 'mise en scène' and character appearance into the script itself.
On 'we go with' he points out that the stage play's structure of scenes and acts is not necessary on wireless and that there are other possibilities of moving through changes of scene locations:
A change of scene can be accomplished instantaneously without a break [in the radio play]. Suppose the characters to be leaving home by motor for the theatre. In a stage-play, you would see them leave the house - hear (off stage) the bark of a motorhorn and then wait till they changed the scene to show them again at the theatre. If an accident happens en route, you learn of it in the theatre scene - you are not present at it except in retrospect. In the radio-play, however, you would accompany the parties all the way and be present at the accident and hear all that happened between the house and the theatre. Illusion once created need never be broken in the radio-play. The dramatist can be as extensive as he likes, since the whole world or any part of it can be his setting.
He explains no more than that and does not illustrate it. He does not link this to production techniques, such as fading and cross-fading between studios which was now possible in Savoy Hill. He does not give an illustration of the contrasting protocols.
Lea then turns to description and explains it is essential 'to indicate somehow in the text of the play the scenery and surroundings of the action of the play'; and 'all action must somehow be indicated in the text' (45). He explains the formal Narrator Method:
After the announcement of title and cast, which is the present method of introducing a play, taking the place of a programme in a theatre, the Narrator's part begins.
He reads a mind-picture and gives such indications of the dramatic situation and of the characters as prepare the listener for the fullest appreciation of the opening of the play. This mind-picture takes the place of scenery and setting, and then the actors act the play.
If the play is cast in the form of episodes, comparable with the acts and scenes of a stage-play, then the Narrator bridges each episode with suitable description. In this way, the action is never actually dropped. The interest is carried on from the end of one episode to the beginning of the next by the Narrator.
In order to present sufficient of the story to make the episodes chosen understandable, the play is introduced by a synopsis, in narrative form, leading up to the first scene. Continuity of action is also ensured by linking up each episode with the one immediately following by means of a brief narration of events.
Lea illustrates the formal 'Narrator Method' by quoting a plot synopsis given by a Narrator as the play begins, here 'Under Two Flags'. This play opening is about a page and a half of script (48-9). That amounts to some 440 words and would take four minutes for the Narrator to read, going at 100-110 words a minute. (See Beck, 1997, 104 on word strike.) Following this, he gives the 220-word introduction to the second episode Each scene is prefaced by the Narrator who also gives an epilogue, another page of script.
'Under Two Flags' was an adaptation of the Ouida novel and the only transmission of this I can find is from a Play Night at Birmingham in 1924, directed by William Macready (27 June 1924 Birmingham 8-10). So quite a portion of 'Under Two Flags' consisted of the Narrator reading passages from Ouida's novel. Lea does not recommend the Narrator Method, especially for aspiring radio playwrights:
But why consider such a method, when it is only useful for adapting stage-plays to the requirements of radio?
The Narrator Method went in and out of favour, particularly in reaction against its formal use in Phase 1 of wireless drama. Richard Hughes and Nigel Playfair called it 'an admission of failure'. Tyrone Guthrie's 'The Squirrel's Cage' (4 and 6 March 1929) was publicised for surpassing the Narrator:
An interesting novelty is the entire elimination of explanatory or 'linking' narrative - a move comparable to that which the cinema is now making towards films without captions.
('The Radio Times' 22 February 1929 p 439)
A piece of publicity for the 1930 origination 'Exiles' (Val Gielgud) also sees the end of the Narrator:
Wireless drama has taken definitive form. Two or three authors have successfully tackled the difficulties of writing a self-explanatory text which has no need of an "announcer" to butt in at intervals with crisp phrases to serve as "business" or scenery.
All that hampers the flow of imagination is the need of preserving continuity, of making every transition from scene to scene evident to the meanest intelligence.
('The Daily Telegraph' 22 May 1930)
Alternatively, the adaptation of Compton Mackenzie's 'Carnival' (9 January 1929 London 5XX 9.35-11), Val Gielgud first play as director, used the author himself as Narrator, and that was highly praised.
Lea's recommendation is 'The Self-Contained Method', the main message of his book and his Chapter 5:
It will indicate scenery, character, costume, all action - everything in fact which is necessary to the complete mental vision of the play, in the text of the play itself, with such additional help as may be required from music and sound-effects.
This is the drama that is " overheard." It can be made as startling and realistic as if the listener were overhearing something in the next room through a half-open door-with this advantage, that the people in the next room obligingly let the eavesdropper know all about it.
This was the method used by Lea in his productions of one-acters:
When I first produced radio-plays, I started out with the theory that plays which depended mainly on witty dialogue and very little on action would be more intelligible to the listener and so be more successful. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the contrary was the case. By a mistake, the first play I produced for radio was one full of action. The dialogue did not give much indication of the action, but it did give some. I added certain other necessary sign-posts to guide the imagination of the listener. ...Better still, indicate action in the dialogue, then reinforce that spoken indication by sound-effects.
This is the first citing I have found of the term 'signposting', though not in its subsequently established meaning of establishing the location at the top of each scene. Lea uses it in the wider sense of (what I term) description.
Lea's one other contribution was a policy of not broadcasting the names of the players:
In the interests of art, I do not think it advisable to announce casts - as, if listeners should know any of the players, they will visualize them as they last saw them and possibly so spoil illusion.
The 'No Names' policy was to be taken up at national level. In March 1929, having recently taken over as Productions Director, Val Gielgud started the policy of keeping casts nameless, firstly by not naming the actors at all in 'The Radio Times' and then by listing characters and actors separately, so that the listener could not link them up. Black, 1972, 39-40 gives an account of the outrage that greeted this.
Conditions at Newcastle cannot have been the same as for Val Gielgud in his 1929 experiment. So why Lea's 'No Names' policy? Obviously, one must take Lea at his word. He believed that identifying actors with their radio roles would break the illusion. There may have been other factors, as with the limited number of actors used in the '5NO' Station Repertory Company and their audience on what became the Monday night play. Regular actors included Jennie Stevens and Sal Sturgeon, both of whom directed as well, Fred Patterson, Kendrew Milson, Norman Firman, Mary Pettie and Gordon Lea himself. Listeners could well know actors from the Newcastle repertory theatres, where they would see them regularly in a variety of plays and connect them with certain types of roles. This was the notorious fault of the theatre repertory system and perhaps that is the last reason for Lea's policy. He wished to avoid on wireless the fault he saw in the Newcastle Repertory Theatre he had inaugurated in 1924. The 'No Names' policy was started in the Newcastle listings in 'The Radio Times' from May 1925 and lasted till January 1926.
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