British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History
by Tim Crook
'Radio Drama can be produced by anybody with a microphone
and a tape-recorder. The time is auspicious for rebirth of American Theatre,
and radio could be a good place for it to happen.'- David Mamet 'Writing in
Restaurants', Faber & Faber 1986.
It would not be any surprise to the reader that the one
character in British broadcasting who would give drama a go on the radio was the
charismatic Captain Peter Eckersley. He marshalled his friends in the famous
former Royal Flying Corps hut at Writtle near Chelmsford. His own account of
the adventure can be found in his 1942 publication 'The Power Behind The
Microphone'. In the absence of any other recorded evidence it would appear
that he led the first radio drama experiment in British broadcasting history
on October 17th 1922 from the research station at Writtle near Chelmsford, Essex
'We did a wireless play. We chose the balcony scene from
Cyrano: it is played, on the stage, in semi-darkness with virtually stationary
players and so it seemed very suitable for broadcasting. 'Uggy' Travers, a
young actress and her brother came to help. We sat round a kitchen table in
the middle of the wooden hut, with its shelves and benches packed with prosaic
apparatus, and said our passionate lines into the lip of our separate
It was all rather fun. Doubtless at times I was horribly
facetious, but I did try to be friendly and talk with, rather than at, my
listeners...We failed to take ourselves seriously, and broadcasting, as we saw
it, was nothing more nor less than an entertainment, for us as much as the
Two years later the BBC broadcast the first British play
written for the radio medium. It was later translated into several different
languages and in some countries it became their first radio drama production.
Research by Kent University Drama lecturer Alan Beck has revealed important
information and background on the cultural and artistic imperatives of story
telling in a new medium. It is rather prosaic that Richard Hughes revealed in
a 1956 talk that he wrote the play overnight at the request of BBC producer
Nigel Playfair. Fortunately parts of the text of his speech were
reproduced in the BBC's weekly periodical for the intelligentsia- 'The
Listener'. It is now defunct:
'Those were the days of the silent film', he said, '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 did not, strictly speaking, rely on pictures only. It used
sub-titles. Usually there was a sad man thumping appropriate themes on a piano.
Some of the grander cinema-houses even employed an "effects man"; he
wound a wind-machine 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 sound entirely- and it had never been done before.
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!" Back in my flat in New Oxford Street I turned over
possible situations. "The lights have gone out!" Not a bedroom scene-
There was Major Reith to consider; nor did I care much about bedrooms, to be
candid. An accident in a coal mine? I knew nothing about coal mines either,
but it offered what I wanted technically. Total darkness; explosions and
rushing water; the picks of the rescue-team, and that stripping of the human
soul dramatists delight in. But all miners' voices would be too hard to tell
apart. Better a party of visitors- an old man, a young one, a girl. So I wrote
all night and Playfair got his play with his morning coffee: "Danger".
With rehearsals and production however, a cold awakening!
I had spread myself on sound effects without considering how they were to be
done. Someone ran round the corner and enlisted the effects man from a cinema in
the Strand- wind machine and all. But still we could make nothing sound as it
was meant to sound; even in the studio, and leaving out of account the primitive
transmission of those days which reduced all sounds to a single
indistinguishable "wump" which might be the buzzing of a gnat, the
clash of swords, the roaring of Niagara or the shutting of a door. Moreover
the studio was a vast padded cell designed to make voices sound as if they were
floating in outer space.
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 hymn-singing", but once started nothing could stop these
chaps: only one studio, one microphone- Playfair put them in the corridor
outside, with a sound-proof door he could open and shut.
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
loud-speaker. It would never do for them to hear no more than the diminutive "phut"
like the roaring of a sucking-dove, even if that was all the public would get.
So Playfair staged a magnificent "explosion" in the room next door
to the press-room. Our "explosion" got top marks with the press. They
never discovered they had heard it through the wall.
And so - presumably for the first time in history,
anywhere in the world - some sort of "listening play" specially
written for sound somehow went on the air, thanks to Playfair's ingenuity and
the helping hands of all Savoy Hill. Radio drama had emitted its first, faint,
The broadcast of 'Comedy of Danger' generated coverage
in at least one national newspaper. It certainly did not amount to the faint
infant wail described by Richard Hughes. The headline in the Daily Mail on
Wednesday 16th of January 1924 was 'Drama Thrills by Wireless.'
The play was broadcast from the BBC's London and Glasgow
stations so it was not entirely nationwide. One newspaper writer acknowledged
that Richard Hughes had to bear in mind that as his audience could not see the
play the action had to be represented by sound 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. The Daily Mail reporter described
the production of the play at Savoy House:
'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 stood five men singing through a partly opened door leading
to the broadcasting room. They were a group of "miners" singing in
another passage of the mine.'
At the end of the report the journalist observed that
'Miss Joyce Kennedy, Mr. Kenneth Kent, and Mr H. R. Hignett acted very well.'
© Tim Crook, 1999
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