Avian Flu Threats and “The Birds” on the Wireless

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here, it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”—Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds” (1952).

Lately I have been eyeing our bird feeder with considerable apprehension. Not because I am anticipating some sort of Tippi Hedren incident while taking care of my feathered charge, but because of the recent news about the deadly avian flu that has been spreading in the east. Some time ago, a UN health official warned that a pandemic “could happen at any time” and might “kill between 5 and 150 million people”. Today, the EU decided to “ban all Turkish live bird and feather imports,” after as many as sixty people had succumbed to the disease in Turkey and Romania. Should I banish the feeder from its prominent spot to some remote corner of the garden? Should I stop treating the local tits and finches to their daily allowance of choice peanuts? Back when Daphne du Maurier conjured up ornithological horrors with her short story “The Birds,” at least, the threat was posed by bills and beaks instead of bacteria.

Long before Alfred Hitchcock trained them for his big-screen spectacular, “The Birds” came to US radio in two noteworthy productions by the Lux Radio Theatre (20 July 1953) and Escape (10 July 1954). Unlike Hitchcock’s thriller, both radio versions were remarkably faithful to du Maurier’s simple tale of (wo)man versus nature. The 1953 production, starring Herbert Marshall, was probably one of the most imaginatively soundstaged melodramas ever to be presented on the Lux program. The terror generated by an imaginary army of shrieking birds was a veritable tour de fowl in sound effects engineering. Even Marshall had to admit that he was “scarcely the star of the piece when you consider the gulls and the gannets. Villains that they were, they ran the whole show.”

The story of a family under attack in an avian air raid on a remote farmhouse was rendered more intense by the fact that the terrorized characters, like the listener at home, had only the radio to keep them updated to the minute about the world around them. In du Maurier’s “Birds,” tuning in became disquieting, the wireless a source of anxiety to a public dependent on and attuned to the comforting predictability of the precisely timed broadcast schedule:

. . . they’d been giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light programme. He knew the reason. The usual programmes had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections, and such. . . .

At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. . . . Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. . . .

“This is London,” he said, “A national Emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. . . . The population is asked to remain calm, and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until seven a.m. tomorrow.” 

They played the National Anthem. Nothing more happened. . . .

Here, as in “The War of the Worlds” (the fictional acount of a war won by airborne bacteria, no less), the silencing of the relied-upon media is even more alarming than the tumult and the shouting it carries into our homes. . . .

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