Towards the end of the year, the B.B.C. celebrated its fifth birthday:
On November 15 the B.B.C. will be exactly five years old. In five years there has arisen a new art, a new entertainment, a new vehicle of knowledge, education and pleasure so quickly and so completely that some of us are already tempted to take it all for granted and to pay no more wondering attention to our wireless sets than we do to such other modern conveniences as bath-taps, light switches, and telephones.
What is this Broadcasting which overnight, so to speak, has come into our lives, stimulating the arts, inaugurating new industries, awakening new thoughts, discovering new personalities?
('The Radio Times' 11 November 1927 p 294)
With growing confidence, and now a Corporation, the listeners were not so much advised as admonished:
.. that the future of Broadcasting lies very largely in the hands of the listeners is a truism which deserves fresh emphasis at this time. As long as the listener continues to treat Broadcasting with the respect he would show to any other form of Art, is critical of what he hears (but not unreasonably), is not indiscriminate in his listening to the point of wearying himself, Broadcasting cannot fail to go ahead.
There was a flood of counselling about the 'Art' and about radio drama, and even more cautions about how to listen. Readers of 'The Radio Times' were told that American women had soothing 'Ironing Day' programmes on the radio(Hamilton Fyfe, 'The Way They Have in America, III. Ironing to Music', 'The Radio Times' 21 January 1927 p 153). By contrast, UK listeners were instructed by Amyas Young, among others in 1927, to turn out the lights, listen 'well and truly' and not to think of the names of the players in the cast until afterwards ('Mental Tuning In. Some Hints on How to Listen to a Wireless Play', 'The Radio Times' 28 January 1927 p 201). For this and other advice about the 'mind picture', see 7.6.
This came at a time when wireless drama surged forward again, after the recession of 1926 (a drop of 40% on the previous year). Here are the figures, with those of 1926 for comparison:
1927 1926 1925 1924 Total of play nights across all Stations: 338 183 314 46 Total of separate pieces broadcast: 354 197 335 71 Number of full-length plays: 33 28 48 18 Number of one-act plays (adapted from the theatre): 264 156 281 43 Number of originations: 12 13 17
This was an increase, overall, over the previous year of some 80%, and a crude 6% increase on 1925. Of course, these comparisons are only part of the story, as there are other obvious factors. These include the range and quality of the plays, 'highbrow' a key word then plays, Daventry and 2LO, and the reach to audiences.
Originations were disappointing again. Seven out of the ten playwrights were one-offs, for they disappeared having broadcast only one play, or in Ida M. Downing's case, two. The most interesting newcomer was Edwin Lewis, a Northern stage playwright, who was to broadcast - inclusive of repeats some twenty seven pieces across 1927-8. Even more unsatisfactorily, little of this involved 2LO. There was Lance Sieveking's 'The Seven Ages of Mechanical Music' (7.5) and 'Shadows' from Valerie Harword, broadcast only once and then she disappeared. Captain Frank Shaw's 'By Virtue of a Broadcast' (7.7) was never broadcast on Daventry or 2LO, and maybe just as well, because it was turgid. Sieveking's and Shaw's scripts were the only to survive. Did R.E. Jeffrey discourage new writing? His paper, 'The Drama Studio', a manifesto for a revolutionary exodus away from Savoy Hill to a theatre (7.4), gives great cause for concern about his commitment to the wireless side of the enterprise. The most activity in 1927 in new work was in Birmingham under Percy Edgar and Stuart Vinden.
The greatest change to the national production and scheduling of plays came with the upgrading of Daventry 5GB and the Regional Scheme. 5GB transmitted the first 'Alternative Programme' on Sunday 21 August 1927 ('The Radio Times' 12 August 1927 p 241). Alternative programmes would now be available to all listeners in the hundred-mile range (Briggs, 1965, 23-4). Wireless World announced:
London now shares with Birmingham the onus of providing 5GB's programmes. This has caused a certain amount of congestion at Savoy Hill, where the seven studios are kept in almost constant use.
Wireless World 31 August 1927 Vol 21 no 9, 286
The Regional Scheme of upgrading the service from the relay stations was gradual and it was not till 1928 onwards that listeners began to cease experiencing heterodyne interference from a local station while trying to tune to Daventry ('The Radio Times' 14 October 1927 p 57). Nightfall was particularly difficult. The result of all this improvement in transmission in England was that the Savoy Hill Production Department started to centralise play production for Daventry mostly in London and Birmingham. Overall, it was the beginning of the process of centralisation (Daventry) and regionalisation (closing down the original provincial stations) which would gather pace in 1928-9 (Briggs, 1965, 323-4).
Birmingham 5IT and its radio plays make a case study. It was one of the winners from centralisation. Percy Edgar, the Station Director, had acted in scenes from Dickens' 'The Christmas Carol' back in 1923, preceded by a ghost story (22 December 1923 7.45 onwards). That was 5IT's premiere. The first full-length play was the 1867 stage classic, 'Caste' (T.W. Robertson) (4 October 1924 7.30-9.30), with Edgar again and Stuart Vinden, Edna Godfrey-Turner and William Macready. The Birmingham Station Players were to flourish with William Macready as Dramatic Producer ('The Radio Times' 21 November 1924 p 385). The 5IT new building opened in June 1925, in the premises in Broad Street, with a main studio (48 feet by 40 feet, capacity for 200) and a second studio (18 feet by 14 feet, capacity for 60), and a control room. Joseph Lewis joined Percy Edgar and Macready as producer, and in 1925, there were twenty-five play nights and thirty-five pieces broadcast. In 1927, up to the beginning of September, that is, when Daventry Experimental 5GB took over, there was a progressive increase in output of plays and originations. The total is twenty-six pieces broadcast and twenty-five play nights. Three of these were S.B. from London.
Under Daventry centralisation, Birmingham production now continued, with the transmission via Daventry Experimental 5GB, and so a much wider reach. There were seventeen pieces broadcast and fourteen play nights. The lengths of productions grew from the many half-hour one-act plays of the first half of the year. By December, there were one-hour pieces ('The Masque of Comus' (John Milton), 'Cinderella Married' (Rachel Lyman Field)) and 'A Pickwick Party' (23 December 1927 Daventry 5GB 8-9.30), and 'The Lost Silk Hat' (Lord Dunsany) (29 December 1927 10.30-11). So Birmingham production totalled forty three pieces for 1927, on 5IT first and then transferring over to Daventry 5GB.
Manchester Station broadcast sixty pieces in total for 1927, over forty-nine play nights. There had been only twelve play nights in the previous year, 1926. Again the growth at the end of the year was to longer plays and longer double-bills. The '2ZY' Dramatic Company was directed by Victor Smythe mostly, in so far as billing is given.
The most important centralisation was still to happen. At a special meeting in London in December 1927:
All agreed that the production of important long plays should be left to London
(Source: Caversham, Play Library Docs 1 February 1928 letter from RHE A.C. (P) to Station Directors)
However, this had little impact in 1928 and awaited regionalisation (closing down the original provincial stations) from 1929 onwards, which involved the end of Birmingham 5IT (Briggs, 1965, 323-4) into the North.
The length of plays continued as a matter of popular controvery. Wireless World was not sympathetic to the B.B.C. and in its regular comment column said:
The Long Play v. Short Play controversy is ending in favour of the short play, the consensus of opinion pointing to a preference for "short and snappy" works of between twenty and thirty minutes duration. Hear! Hear! It takes an extraordinarily good broadcast play to retain a listener's interest for more than thirty minutes, and extraordinarily good broadcast plays can be numbered on the fingers of one hand.
No man can hope to make a livelihood by writing short plays for the B.B.C. For the ordinary "thriller" lasting, say, twenty minutes, the Corporation may offer five or even seven guineas. The B.B.C. buys the play outright and the B.B.C. may produce it as many times as they like without further payment.
Wireless World 28 September 1927 p 461 Vol 21 no 13
In fact the trend, in 2LO and in Daventry 5GB, was to longer plays, and as has been illustrated above, in the regional stations too. Cardiff also contributed infrequently to Daventry and its Welsh Harvest Programme was as follows:
Wednesday 4 October 1927 London and Daventry 5XX 7.45-9 (mixed)
A Welsh Harvest Programme
S.B. from Cardiff
'The Harvest Mare' (Megfam)
It later broadcast 'Ricochets' (C.H. Brewer), an hour-and-a-half play (Monday 7 November 1927 Cardiff 9.35-11), 'A War-Time Cameo written and produced by C.H. Brewer'. The rest of its fare was the twenty-thirty minute one-act play.
Main Index | Chapter 7 Index | Section 7.2