The Revenge, a radio play without words, written and performed by Andrew Sachs in 1978
Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 51 ff - Shingler, Martin and Wieringa, Cindy, On Air. Methods and Meanings of Radio (London: Arnold, 1998)
Do non-verbal sounds really need words to render them meaningful? Could a range of natural noises not provide meaningful entertainment? Some years ago the BBC commissioned a short radio play to explore this very issue. The results sounded something like this.
From silence there emerges the sound of birdsong and then a faint humming noise which could be running water somewhere in the distance. A siren wails, shattering the tranquillity of this pastoral scene and a man's breathing is simultaneously heard in close-up, panting and pained. Footfalls are heard moving over soft ground, accompanied by the rustle of clothing and the panting of breath. In the distance, along with the birdsong, men's voices are heard shouting inarticulately, accompanied by dogs barking. Close-up, the man's breathing is laboured with intermittent gasps of pain. Each breath is forced out. It's the sound of fear. Feet running, distant voices shouting, dogs barking and, in the foreground, the continuing struggle for breath. The footfalls and the breathing become faster, more determined, even desperate. Then the sound of footfalls change, becoming softer. They rustle upon leaves. Branches snap under foot. They slow down and stop. The man catches his breath and sighs heavily. The shouts and barks seem all around. Running water can be heard more distinctly now. The footfalls resume and change their sound once again. They squelch. Then they splash, moving through water, first shallow but with each step becoming deeper and more laboured. The man grunts as he wades into the watery depths. The water surges, bubbles and plops. The man pants, filling his lungs with air. Suddenly he takes a deep breath. There is a subdued splash followed by a bubbling noise and at that moment all the other sounds become strangely muffled and distorted. The dogs and the men's voices are now heard through the water, gradually diminishing and leaving only the sound of the water itself. The water ripples around us (in stereo) until there is a brutal burst of sound, immediately followed by the man gasping for air. Panting and splashing follow. The sound of the men and their dogs are now far off. The breathing slows, becomes more rhythmic. Footfalls sound, squelching upon a soft carpet of leaves, hesitantly at first but gathering into a steady pace. There is no longer any sound of men's voices or dogs barking. The man sighs. A bird sings. The steady breathing and footfalls fade to silence.
This is the first scene of The Revenge, a play without words, written and performed by Andrew Sachs in 1978. This play, about a man on the run (presumably having escaped from prison) who eludes his pursuers, steals a motorbike, breaks into a house in a remote rural location and there drowns another man in his bathtub, was produced with sound effects alone: no words, no music. It constructed its simple narrative through environmental sounds (e.g., birdsong, water, gravel pathways, traffic noises), through the sound of objects (e.g., doors, telephones, motorbike engines, sirens, cigarette lighters, breaking glass, clock chimes, ticking watches) and through bodily noises (e.g., sighs, panting, breathing, grunting, the rustle of clothing, footfalls, exclamations, humming, inarticulate shouting, meows). In so doing, the play sought to exploit the dramatic possibilities of non-verbal sounds (namely sound effects and acoustics) and prove that a story could be told and, more particularly, could be understood without using any recognisable words. Yet if it had not been called The Revenge, and if the announcer had not proclaimed it to be The Revenge before and after the play, would any of its listeners have had any clue that these actions were motivated by vengeance? As it stands, The Revenge demonstrates that audiences can recognise certain actions solely through their sound: e.g., the man being pursued across the countryside, his success in eluding the police, steal-
mg a motorbike, breaking into a house, stealing up on and drowning another man in his bathtub. But what it also demonstrates is the limitation of non-verbal sound to evoke a drama: that whilst sound effects and acoustics can successfully convey something of the what, the where and the how, they are incapable of dealing with the why. By the end of the play, we know what has happened, how it happened and where it happened but have no sense of who the characters are, what their relationship is (or was) to each other nor what motivated this act of revenge. In other words, we have only half of a story.
Jonathan Raban, writer of many radio plays produced by the BBC, has called The Revenge a 'wordless sequence of noises' and denounced it as 'a well-puffed curiosity' (Raban 1981: 80). He has criticised the play on the grounds that its assemblage of grunts, thuds, crunches, gratings and footfalls is ambiguous and confusing. For him, it stands for all that is wrong in contemporary radio drama. He sees it as the fruition of a trend in radio drama which has increasingly been putting sound effects before dialogue and attempting to evoke the sounds of the real world over and above an articulation of ideas (reality before art). Raban sees such a project as the product of producers and technicians rather than writers, whose primary objective is to create something along the lines of a sound cinema. Opposed to this, Raban claims, is another (older) tradition of radio drama in which writers approach the radio play as if it were an audible version of the printed page. Raban describes the major difference between these two approaches in terms of icon and symbol. The producer-technician creation he calls iconic, since it is concerned with sounding real and using real sounds, and the writer's creation he calls symbolic, given that it is concerned with conveying ideas through a set of conventional practices and codes of representation that substitute for reality (rather than replicate reality). He points out that for a long time radio was a writer's medium in which words ruled and sound effects performed an essentially supportive role, as little more than an embellishment. Moreover, the sound effects that were used were themselves symbolic rather than realistic, requiring the listener to interpret artifical noises (e.g., coconut shells for horses' hooves, drumbeats for heartbeats or footsteps). But, according to Raban, all that changed with the advancements in radio technology, most notably the introduction of VHF and stereo, which saw radio begin to 'manufacture its own iconic version of reality' (Raban, 1981: 83). In other words, radio began to replicate the world of everyday (or natural) sounds rather than create an intelligible (but artificial) representation of it. In the shift from symbolic to iconic representation, noises and sound effects assumed a greater role than words or music.
Beck, Alan, 1999, 'Is radio blind or invisible? A call for a wider debate on listening-in', World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), electronic publication,
So, to take up my main argument: should it be blindness or invisibility or should it be something else? Shingler's preference is for invisibility and he is perceptive in pointing to a possible conceptual misalignment here. In the carefully argued Chapter 4, 'The mind's eye', the 'invisible' should be substituted for 'blind' (to repeat the quote):
Why, in other words, define radio's status as a non-visual medium in terms connoting impairment, disability and lack rather than positive attributes such as power and magic? The repeated use of the words 'blind' and 'blindness' to describe radio would suggest that those writing about radio consider its lack of visuals to be a problem rather than a positive attribute: as something to be overcome rather than exploited.
Blindness - pathological blindness - is certainly equated with total visual loss, and therefore in radio audiences with the inability to 'see', and in radiowriting, sometimes with an overcompensatory emphasis on those radio texts which typify this ('pure radio', the 'radiogenic', blind characters in radio drama, occurrences of the almost totally aural 'mise en scène', etc.).
Let me trace the blindness trope back to other main sources of radiowriting prior to Crisell, and Shingler and Wieringa, and to a collection of essays, Radio Drama (Lewis, 1981) and British Radio Drama (Drakakis, 1981). Here is David Wade, radio critic first of the B.B.C. weekly publication, The Listener and then of The Times, raging against the coming of stereo in radio drama:
But why was it ever felt necessary to do so? The placing effect attempts to compensate for the blindness of radio as a medium, yet - as I hope I have shown - that blindness was and still is one of radio drama's greatest assets.
(Wade, 1981a, 243)
Wade's, and indeed Raban's chapters in the Lewis, 1981 collection and Wade again in Drakakis, 1981, might be regarded as examples of what psychoanalysts would call splitting - 'good object' (wireless drama pre-stereo) / 'bad object' (the new age of stereo). Whatever their insights, and especially those valuable ones of Raban's, they emerge as pessimistic and backward-looking in attitude, and more so in hindsight now, and in a category of radiowriting frequently encountered that I term the Primal Paradigm, or radio's 'enemies of the future'. They exploit the paranoid-ish trope of listeners-as-victims and are resentful of paradigm shifts in technology, as indeed were and are many radio practitioners either retraining or leaving the industry. This Primal Paradigm has also been influential in UK radio journalism and reviewing.
Let me respond immediately to Wade's technological, indeed Luddite, point of view. In a discussion of painting, 'Art Narrowly and Broadly Speaking', Dickie, 1968 says that we sometimes admire skill if done before materials were developed which would have made the painting easier to produce, and we know the obstacles overcome. But he notes that although 'we do seem to appreciate a painting more if it requires skills', this leads to the 'rather silly position':
... that if painters want to paint better pictures they ought to use the most difficult and usually older techniques.
(Dickie, 1968, 76)
We all have experienced the split in opinion between listening to vinyl ('warmer') and CDs, and between analogue tape and the shift to digital production.
Wade's Luddite posing, or what I regard as such in his most waspish comments, comes down to an essentialist claim on radio as paradigmatic wireless. It is noticeable that the Primal Paradigm group, in their attempts to position radio drama as an aesthetic, champion a small range of avant-garde, relatively representational pieces over the mainstream of broadcast popular culture.
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