Tendencies in Radio Drama
by Val Gielgud

Gielgud was appointed, on 1 January 1929, to the post of "Productions Director" - in essence this being Head of Radio Drama - a post he relinquished in April, 1963 upon his retirement, his successor being Martin Esslin. His book entitled "British Radio Drama, 1922-1956" was published in 1957, and has, of course, long been out of print. I am grateful to RC for sending me this article from the June, 1930 edition of "The Gramophone" (born 1923, still going strong), as it is a most interesting commentary on the state of the genre quite early in its life.

In giving me the opportunity to reply in 'The Gramophone' to his criticisms of and recent reflections upon broadcast drama, Mr. Compton Mackenzie has behaved so handsomely that it is difficult for me to write quite as vigorously as my feelings on the subject demand. However, in his article in 'The Radio Times' of May 9th., Mr. Mackenzie has, albeit with all proper forms and ceremonies of a duel between gentlemen, advanced with pistol menacingly levelled, into the open. So I do not propose to fire into the air - if I can help it!

I am frankly a trifle worried about Mr. Mackenzie's attitude over radio drama. His opinion, both as an extraordinary man and as an ordinary listener, carries great weight. He has been an enthusiastic collaborator. I am convinced that he is really interested in wireless as a medium for drama. But I am not at all sure that he has really made up his mind as to what radio drama can or cannot do, should or should not be. That is hardly surprising. Utter certainty in such a matter would be as suspicious as it would be rare. But that is why, with the medium in its present fluid and still experimental condition, while we must not only encourage but welcome ardently all criticism, however violent, of play after play, critical generalising on the subject of radio plays seems to me to be rather unsatisfactory. Dare I go further and accuse Mr. Mackenzie of a muddled mind ? I find that in the same article from his pen, the statement that "you must have radio plays incapable of being as good on the stage of a theatre before you begin to talk about the growth of Radio Drama" and, in close juxtaposition, speaking of Ernst Johansen's 'Brigade Exchange' , "I must maintain that it is a blind alley".

Now it is, of course, not only possible but right that people should disagree about the merits of a particular play. But if Mr. Mackenzie really believes - as he says in the same article - that "it would be possible to claim that 'Brigade Exchange' was as effective over the microphone as it would have been on the stage of a theatre", I can only assume that he did not listen to it with the attention that the play deserved. Such a claim would be possible. It would promptly be disallowed by judges who know their business. The construction of the play alone - including as it did the voices of characters speaking from locations as widely separated in space from, so to speak, the central stage set, as base hospitals and Divisional and Brigade HQ from the first line - would render any purely theatrical presentation of 'Brigade Exchange' starkly impossible. Furthermore, I believe that in this play, even had such a thing been physically feasible, the addition of visuality would only have weakened, as opposed to strengthening, scene and sequence. I do not believe the play lacked characterisation of the type that endures in the mind. I shall not easily forget Schneider the telephonist at the buzzer, with his deep steady voice, his dour middle-aged philosophy, his calm courage. Surely here was the very incarnation of that backbone of the German Army which held against a world in arms for 4 years : no 'shining armour' or 'sabre-rattling' flamboyant nonsense; but a good man doing a dirty job well for the work's sake. It was both heroic and pitiful. I agree that Mr. Marvell and Mr. Mackenzie made a fine radio play out of "Carnival". But "Carnival" in form, in length, even in humanity, was far behind 'Brigade Exchange' from the point of view of the ideal radio play. To begin with, it was written and broadcast over a year ago. That is why I say broadcasting plays are still in the period of transition and experiment. "Squirrel's Cage" was better, "Brigade Exchange" was better still. Yet that is the alley Mr. Mackenzie calls "blind". If after all it is a blind alley - incidentally, I am convinced that it is not! - Mr. Mackenzie himself by his blazing enthusiasm, which did so much for the success of "Carnival", pointed us along it with no uncertain finger.

Luckily the situation is less grim than the May issue of 'The Gramophone' implies. For on May 9th in 'The Radio Times' Mr. Mackenzie says gracefully that between his point of view and mine there is less real difference than I fancy. I expect that is true. We are both, thank goodness, vigorous in controversy, and perhaps inclined to a certain dogmatism of expression. The result is that we both lay ourselves open to the attacks of adversaries who are on the look-out for scoring debating points. I might, for example, confound Mr. Mackenzie's plea that we are not giving our actors and actresses a hard training by giving him a list of the parts which the members of our Repertory Company at Savoy Hill have had to tackle in the course of this year. I think he would be surprised by such a list. If he says that we ought to be giving that hard training to a larger number of actors and actresses, ideally speaking he is right. Personally, I look forward hopefully to a much larger Repertory Company and to the conditions of the new Broadcasting House in which we shall be able to tackle simultaneous productions without the technical difficulties which at present limit our activities owing to considerations merely of studio accommodation, and the fact that we have at present only a single dramatic control panel.

But what is really important is not whether Mr. Mackenzie is right and I am wrong or vice-versa, but as to what in practice is the direction in which radio drama is bound to develop. It would be as absurd for me to say that the category in which I place "Carnival" and "Brigade Exchange" is the only satisfactory line of development, as it would be if Mr. Mackenzie persisted in the contention that late Victorian drtamatic works are the most suitable for microphone presentation - a contention from which I was more than glad to see him withdraw when he said that he was not in the least anxious for radio drama to devote itself entirely to Sardoodledum.

Suppose we examine the actual record of broadcast drama during the last 18 months or so. We are not so satisfied with ourselves, or so convinced that we know all there is to be known about the best possible choice of plays for broadcast purposes as to believe that we have produced a long series of unbroken successes. We know only too well, for example, that whereas some novel adaptations, e.g. "Carnival" and "The Wrecker" were outstaning successes, others such as "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Salving a Derelict" were failures. "Pompey the Great" was a success; "Philip the King" was a failure. Apart from "Brigade Exchange", probably Mr. Shaw's "St. Joan" marks the peak of radio dramatic achievement. It is impossible to lay down a fixed rule. There is not the slightest doubt that some stage plays have been as successful, if not more successful, than plays that have been written directly for the microphone; but the reason for this is the most obvious and most simple of all reasons. Such plays have been the work of writers not only of great reputation but of genuine literary ability. And in spite of Mr. Mackenzie's natural predilection for acting and actors, I am bound to maintain that in my view a play, and particularly a broadcast play, must depend more upon its writing than upon its acting for success.

At present, it is almost impossible, considering the relative economic rewards of directing literary ability into the channels of books, plays and microphone plays, to induce established authors of repute to write directly for the microphone. Like everybody else, they are human, and they prefer to use their talents in exploiting mediums in which in the first place they have trained themselves during many arduous years, and in the second which will bring them in the most money. Therefore, it is only when we can find some work by Mr. Shaw or Mr. Masefield, by Chekhov or Shakespeare or Sophocles, which fortunately can be transferred straight to the microphone, without losing any of its essential qualities, that we can make use of writers of the ideal standard. If Mr. Mackenzie argues that Mr. Guthrie cannot write plays as good as Mr. Bernard Shaw, the answer is "obviously". But it is surely our business to try to encourage Mr. Guthrie, as the most promising exponent to date of the wireless as opposed to the stage play, to go on writing in the hope that he may, when he attains Mr. Shaw's years, also attain a measure of Mr. Shaw's reputation and success.

I am inclined to feel that it is the possibility that Television may suddenly arrive to readjust all our preconceived notions about broadcast plays that is influencing Mr. Mackenzie's judgment. But with that possibility, I am not at the moment concerned. We have to face the facts of the case as they are at the moment, and of these facts the most important is that the broadcast play has to find a substitute for visual appeal, and that the ordinary stage play depends upon visual appeal for at the very least 30 per cent of its total appeal. I do not believe for one moment that people listen to broadcast plays for the same reason that they go to the theatre. They must be disappointed if they do. It is, of course, true that both activities are a search for entertainment, but they are different activities and a search for different entertainment.

We have got to think in terms of the ears of our audience and an audience which stretches far beyond the confines of any ordinary theatre. Mr. Mackenzie accuses me of pandering to Chelsea and Hampstead. If it were true, it would be bad, but when he goes on to say that he prefers instead that I should pander to the towns of Northern England visited by the smaller theatrical touring companies, I am frankly unable to follow him. Deliberately to sectionalise one's appeal is as bad in one case as in the other. Two blacks do not make a white, and if Wigan does not like "Squirrel's Cage", I cannot see that any improvement can be secured by doing some late Victorian masterpiece which would be odious to the inhabitants of King's Road, Chelsea !

One of the greatest disadvantages under which we are bound to labour at Savoy Hill is our comparative ignorance of the true reaction that is achieved by any of our productions. To judge by correspondence is fallacious and misleading, and at present no other way has been evolved for finding out exactly what the normal listener all over the country actually does think when he turns off his set at the end of a play and goes to bed. While it is impossible to be certain, I cannot help feeling that the majority of the radio play audience consists of people who, for one reason or another, hardly go to the theatre at all, and who are gradually learning to appreciate their share of drama by its reception through the medium of their wireless set, without the continual qualification that "of course, it is not so bad, but it's a great pity that we cannot see the lady with such a nice voice".

When I speak of a sophisticated generation, I can assure Mr. Mackenzie that I am not referring to certain half-baked inhabitants of Bloomsbury, who think that life is a cross between a sex novel and a League of Nations pamphlet. But I do not believe that simply because people live in the depths of the country happily remote from cinematographs and trams, they are necessarily simple-minded to the verge of dementia. I do not believe in trotting out old hacks of the dramatic stables because my audience is an ingenuous one. To listen to a broadcast play at all requires so much real effort and concentration that no one who is really satisfied with the second-rate is going to take the trouble. I believe that the audience for radio plays is a serious-minded audience, a growing audience, and an audience drawn from every section of the listening public; and while I think that the production of classic plays of every period is undoubtedly one of our most important functions, to neglect the undeniable possibilities of wireless as a medium for an entirely new type of drama, simply because the use of that medium is difficult and complex, is as mistaken as it is impossible.

Mr. Mackenzie has accused certain young men at Savoy Hill of persisting in a desire to "Úpater les bourgeois". I do not say that there have been no grounds for such a charge, but I do deny that they persist any longer, for this reason, if no other : that it is impossible for any such would-be bright young persons to know whether they succeed in their aim or not. However young we may be, we no longer regard our job as a means by which we may shock our elders and betters. And the occasional misuse of a new thing does not necessarily imply that there can be no proper use for it.

Finally, let me say that no one will welcome more than I a new radio collaboration between Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Marvell, histrionic tricks and all !


Article sent to me by Roger Bickerton, who wrote the intro..... ND....

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