MY MEMORIES OF BBC RADIO DRAMA 195l -1957
I became secretary to E.J. King Bull at the age of 21 for the last seven years of his time at the BBC until he retired in 1957 at the age of 60. He had joined the Corporation in 1927 in Savoy Hill and was part of a Research Team which included Lance Sieveking, Archie Harding and Mary Hope Allen. In his book “Years in a Mirror” published in 1965, Val Gielgud describes the work of this Team which was to research ways in which radio could develop uniquely without copying anything from stage, concert hall or lecture platform. To develop “pure radio”. Although he praises the work of this group he says it turned out not to be practical because the facilities were not available and he was told – he says in confidence – to take the Research Section under his wing or disband it. Gielgud did take it under his wing and it became Drama Department – and I quote “the resulting atmosphere was not pleasant. In one quarter it was never wholly dispelled”.
That quarter was E.J. King Bull – known usually as KB. When I joined Drama Val Gielgud was Head of Television Drama but probably was not very successful and returned in 1952 to Radio as Head of Drama replacing Archie Harding who had been Acting Head whilst Val Gielgud was away.
Gielgud was primarily a man of the theatre unlike many of the Drama and Features producers in Sound Radio. In Drama department there were producers whose output was mainly straightforward drama which gained very little from the fact that they were only heard and not seen and there were those who produced plays which gained enormously from the fact that the listeners’ imagination played as important a part in the drama as the play itself. Both types of productions were directed by most of the department. However producers like KB and Wilfred Grantham and Raymond Raikes, Donald McWhinnie and Frank Hauser tended to be a bit more adventurous.
Other names come to mind such as Peter Watts and Martyn C. Webster.
In Features Department there was a different division. Many produced factual dramatised accounts of events and then there were those who produced more imaginative fare. Alan Burgess used to produce many famous wartime escape stories. Whereas Louis MacNeice and Douglas Cleverdon and Rayner Heppenstal – Christopher Sykes and many others produced far more original programmes. Great fun were Henry Reed’s satirical programmes narrated by Hugh Burden
and produced by Douglas Cleverdon
Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood” was commissioned and written for the BBC. It was completed a month before Thomas died on 9th November 1953 and first performed on radio on 25th January 1954 produced by Douglas Cleverdon.
R.D. Smith (Reggie to all and sundry) was a Features Producer who had worked for the British Council and was also a paid-up member of the Communist Party. When the Cold War started in the 50s it became difficult for him to remain in Features because he would not be acceptable in many places and might be a security risk. So the remedy was to transfer him to Drama Department and to relocate KB (Val’s bete noir) to Features. And so it was we both became members of Features Department.
After KB retired and while I was waiting to become a Studio Manager, I had a very interesting time working as a relief Secretary for many different producers when their secretaries went on holiday.
FROM SCRIPT TO TRANSMISSION
This is only the way I saw it as KBs Secretary.
KB would get an idea and put it to the Head of Department or at a meeting with the Script Unit (Cynthia Pugh, Mollie Greenhalgh and Peggy Wells) and Department Heads. If agreed he would be given a budget and a possible date. There were three networks to fill – Home, Light and Third.
If the script was already in existence – i.e. Eliot’s Cocktail Party then the work was much simpler with just casting, and maybe minor adaptation and incidental music. We would find out who was free in the Rep – which was full of really good people and then we would chew over all the most suitable names for the leading parts. We would also talk to Drama Bookings who looked after outside thespians. I remember we poured over “Spotlight” – the directory of working actors.
If music was needed we had to decide whether it was possible and justified to commission music or use recorded music. Gramophone Library, which was presided over by Peggy Lenihan, was a great source and inspiration. KB would send her a script or go upstairs to talk to her and listen to her ideas.
Both Features, Drama and Gramophone Library plus some other smaller departments were all in Rothwell House, New Cavendish Street between Portland Place and Great Portland Place. It was quite a luxurious block of flats which I think must have been requisitioned by the BBC during or after the war.
If, on the other hand, the script was to be an adaptation or a translation then of course it would take much longer. Many adaptations were by outside hands and of course translations. One translator was Rosamund Heywood – but I can’t remember what she translated. Facts do pop up every now and then and when they do I’ll insert them
In those days the final production script was typed by us onto Roneo sheets which were waxed and the typewriter keys would cut the letters through the wax. The sheets were then rolled on an inked cylinder and lo and behold you had your pages of script.
Read-through rooms and studios had to be booked and as all Third Programme productions went out live we had no choice of dates. Usually with KB the first day’s rehearsal was round a table and then we would decamp to the Studio. Unlike many producers we usually had at least five days in the Studio and we always tried to get Studio 8 Broadcasting House. This was a big roomy studio at the top of the building.
The Studio Managers (SMs) became involved fairly early on. There were always three – the main one managed the control panel – which was a bit like being an orchestral conductor – although this may be a bit misleading. Then there was Grams – which is self-explanatory – but a good grams SM was a miracle worker. As an SM myself I appreciated even more the fantastic montages they built up, and of course this was all with 78s in early days. We used yellow chinagraph crayons to mark the groove on the disc that was needed – and counting turns of labels so that we brought up the required word or note at the correct moment. The third SM was called Spot – and this was the one who did the cocoanut shells to imitate horses hooves; sometimes opened and closed doors; clinked glasses and teacups – I am sure you can imagine the rest
There were also ways of altering atmospheres. This could be by accoustic screens depending on which way you turned them – there was also an echo chamber which could be very useful in many ways.
We had technical rehearsals where KB would go through the script with the SMs sharing his ideas with theirs. Of course there was also the music to fit in. If this had been specially written it would have been pre-recorded with an ad hoc set of musicians and usually conducted by the composer. The three we mainly used were John Hotchkiss, John Buckland and Norman Demuth and I believe once we used Peter Crossley-Holland ( who I think was head of music).. His son is a well known childrens writer, Kevin Crossley-Holland. The Music Department SMs would be in charge of the recording which was either in the Concert Hall at BH or in one of the Studios at Maida Vale. We had to be careful not to over-run one session – which was for 3 hours – or we would have to pay the players for another full session. This was the Musicians Union ruling.
Sometimes we would need short recording sessions to dub (copy) a montage of effects. This had to be booked because one needed an engineer for the actual recording. These were situated elsewhere and of course you linked up with them.
The next thing was to match the effects with the script and cast. If you had an author it was a good idea not to encourage him to be in the studio. Every line cut was painful to many, but not all. Eventually there was a complete run-through of all the parts. Many notes were made and then producer, secretary and cast and SMs would sit round and go through them all. Timing of course was important but not so important on the Third as on the Home Service. At last, final run-through and then “10 seconds to go” ; red light on outside Studio to show we were on air. In Control room with Producer and SMs and Secretary careful to take note of any bad fluffs or other unwanted material. Also to watch the timing. I remember occasional interval talks when KB would go into the Studio and tell them how wonderful they were.
If we thought we were over-running we would ‘phone through to the Announcer in the Continuity Suite to warn him that he might have to do some juggling.
At last all is finished and we are off the air. The Recording Engineer would OK the recording and that would be that. Sometimes, however, there were some retakes because of some script errors in performance, and these would be recorded and then worked in miraculously afterwards. Before tape very large discs were used. I am not sure if they were slow speed or not. I am sure there were some slow speed discs.
This of course is how KB worked. I did spend time in the studio with Douglas Cleverdon and he worked very differently. He would record in short scenes or snatches and sometimes out of sequence and then fit it together with the recording engineer.
I worked once with Reggie – and he was lying on the studio floor trying to finish the script! I marvelled.
Once with Terence Tiller – he was working on a script about GBS – and I had the fascinating job of going through years of “Punch” to see how their attitude to GBS had changed.
Also with Terence Tiller we spent a whole weekend with Cyril Cusack recording the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins. It was a very special programme – I enoyed it tremendously listening to how Cusack and Tiller teased the meaning out.
The actors definitely did not dress up for rehearsals or transmissions. When I was training to be an SM I worked on Mrs. Dales Diary – a long-running soap. And the actress who played Mrs. Dale (Ellis Powel) always put on full makeup for transmission.
Wilfred Grantham produced an adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. He asked me – as an average listener – to come and listen to a run through to hear if it made sense. I think I said it did!
All the plays on my list were produced by KB. He was a slim dapper man with a monocle. He took snuff! And often before the final production or even earlier in the week he would get his doctor to prescribe phenol barbitone to calm his nerves! I don’t know what that would make him today! He was popular with most actors. I got a collection together at their suggestion to buy him something super when he retired and they all gave very generously. I think we bought him a smashing watch plus one or two other things.
Sometimes there was a party atmosphere. Esme Percy was a great favourite and Robert Farquharson was a hoot. There was some extraordinary stories going around. They used to send each other telegrams because the telegrams boys were so pretty!! Oh dear.
The Third was definitely very different in terms or Drama, Features, Talks, Music. Some of the talks were given by very intellectual refugees with very heavy accents, and the joke was that you didn’t know what they were about until you read them in “The Listener”. (A much missed journal)
Paul Scofield commented after 10 Episodes of “Portrait of a Lady” that he enjoyed every moment except Wendy Hiller’s hats and shoes.
Peter Coke was a lovely chap and so was Robert Harris and many others. After rehearsals and transmissions most of the cast and KB would go to the “Dover Castle” in Weymouth Mews presided over by Mooney – a lovely large Irish lady with a wall Eye. It had, and most likely still does, a strip of mirror between the public bar and the saloon so that the coachmen could see when it was time to go outside and get ready for the journey.
How did people react to productions like “Voyage to Arcturus”? This was the most way-out of KB’s productions. He made a script from the novel by David Lindsay. It had music by John Buckland and a large cast. It was broadcast live on 24th June 1956 from 8.10 to 10.55 with a 15 minute interval. A recording was broadcast on 30th June. Well the critics hardly ever took any notice – television was all that mattered. Of course there was Audience Research but it was mainly how the other people in the Department reacted. Difficult when you put so much into a production. However, I think that there was definitely a sense of prestige – of something good – in the work done by so many of these producers and I know actors liked working in that world.
Many thanks to Jocelyne Tobin for compiling these fascinating memories for us ...... ND.
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