Radio Plays on the way out (1949)


This is the title of an article in a magazine entitled "Strand", from late 1949 and I am obliged to Donald Campbell for sending this on to me. What stimulated this piece was the perceived threat from TV, whose influence was about to be increased by the projected opening of the Sutton Coldfield transmitter just before Christmas, 1949. The complete article now follows. (R.B.)


A book entitled "The Radio Play" by Felix Felton, one of the BBC's best drama producers, was published recently. It is probably the last word on radio plays : the last word, not only because no-one is likely to improve upon its clear and lively detail, but because the subject itself is nearly in its grave.


When television began its post-war boom, few people realised that they were witnessing a revolution parallel to the one of 20 years ago when "talkies" were born. Some daring spirits said that in a couple of years there would be few, if any, silent pictures left, except as museum pieces, and others thought them crazy. Only the bravest would say now that the days of the "sound radio" play were so short in number as that, but few would deny that they are numbered. With BBC TV due to cover the bulk of the British Isles by 1953, no one who can see a play as well as hear it will be content with sound alone. He will discard the medium that gave him as much pleasure as lightly as the film-goer forgot the silent days. And, like the film-goer, he will gain much, but lose a lot as well.


There is a parallel with actors, too; those who were literally 'beautiful but dumb' can commiserate with the articulate but invisible artists who crop up so often in broadcast plays. The listener may enjoy Miss X in 5 different parts a fortnight : the viewer will hardly stand her once a month. Anyway, she would find that hard to manage, for the average TV play is rehearsed for 2 to 3 weeks and the average radio play for 2 to 3 days. And how that difference in time affects her financially! A popular radio actress can earn 250 per month through several different plays, but TV won't pay her anything like that for one part only.


"Sound radio" has had 25 years to build up its dramatic technique and has used those years well, so that now the audience to 'Saturday Night Theatre' or 'Curtain Up' can run as high as 13 million. TV drama is still uncertain of itself and it is still experimenting.


The extra dimension of sight has taken away some of the discipline that came from the use of sound alone. But, paradoxically, it has given the TV producer headaches that his radio colleague never knew. If the latter wants to change his scene from Albany to the Albert Hall, he can do so by a hundred tricks of sound and of suggestion : the TV man has got to make you see the change and. what's more, move his actors as well as his audience's imagination. No ranging through the whole of Space-Time in 90 minutes for him; no 'retakes', as in the movies; no chance, even, as in the theatre, of using the two convenient intervals to change his actors' appearance 20 years forward or backward in time.


The technique of TV drama is a curious blend of stage and screen. Most actors - certainly those with a good stage training - prefer TV to the films (money questions apart). They can get a "run on the part" in a continuous 90-minute performance which is impossible with the movies. TV has an advantage over the stage - that of "close-up". Subtle shades of expression, invisible in the theatre, can be conveyed by the TV cameras (which explains why plays of atmosphere and character like Charles Morgan's 'The Flashing Stream' are often better on TV than on the stage). And the microphone above the actor's head dispenses with the necessity for him to 'project' his voice to the back of the gallery and lets a quiet scene be really quiet.


It is a little sad to think that "sound radio" plays are already obsolescent and that the exciting work of pioneers like Richard Hughes, Tyrone Guthrie and Patrick Hamilton will soon be forgotten by all but a few specialists. For it is true that the better a story is for a radio play, the less likely it is to succeed in any other medium. Its very excellence in sound alone, conjuring up a picture slightly different to each listener's imagination, renders it as much of a disappointment when seen as are new illustrations of one's favourite characters in fiction. Let us hope that the millions of enthusiasts for radio plays will find as much pleasure when the mass switch-over to TV comes along, will find new writers as ingenious and exciting as the old masters of the microphone, and will be served by new producers who understand that TV technique is something of its own, owing much to stage and screen, but little to the radio.


Reproduced by permission of VRPCC

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