Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the "Devil’s Foot"

St. Michael's Mount
St. Michael’s Mount

Well, I am back from my weeklong tour of the south-western most extremity of England. As it turns out, even in a place as remote and ancient as Cornwall—where I was deprived of a wireless network that might have permitted me to continue the broadcastellan journal on location—it is impossible not to be reminded of broadcasting. Especially not Cornwall, I should say. I had forgotten just how intimately the Cornish coast is connected with the efforts of wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. It was on Mount’s Bay (pictured, left, in my snapshot of St. Michael’s Mount) that the first successful transatlantic transmission of a wireless signal took place on 12 December 1901. Having set up his station near Poldhu in Cornwall—away from the prying eyes of his competitors—Marconi received a signal from there all the way across the Atlantic at his post on Signal Hill, St. John’s, in Newfoundland, Canada. And it was near Poldhu, also, that the great Sherlock Holmes—who went on the air some three decades after this momentous event in wireless technology—solved one of his most puzzling cases: “The Devil’s Foot” or “The Cornish Horror.”

Having been prescribed “complete rest” by his Harley Street physician after his iron consitution was beginning to show signs of wear, Holmes travelled to Cornwall in March 1897 to recuperate and, as American radio listeners were left unaware, to engage in some philological studies. Surrounded by “weird ruins” and “strange monuments of stone” suggesting ancient pagan rituals and devil worship, the little whitewashed cottage Holmes and Watson shared on Mount’s Bay was hardly the right spot to ensure quiet study or relaxation. The scene was “grim” and “foreboding,” as Dr. Watson recalled in 1910 (and several radio broadcasts); the “old death trap” of Mount’s Bay looked positively menacing—a “sinister semicircle” with a “fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs.”

“Bleak is putting it mildly,” Dr. Watson responded to radio announcer Joseph Bell on both 30 May 1936 and 11 January 1947, albeit in different voices (Harry West’s in the former broadcast, Nigel Bruce’s in the latter). Now, this is not the Cornwall I encountered on my first visit; instead, the scenery was invitingly fresh, bright—and, notwithstanding a late frost that had done some harm to the Camellias and Magnolia blossoms in the celebrated Cornish gardens—colorful and downright subtropically lush. Still, having seen the cliffs at Land’s End, the hidden villages along the Helford, the narrow streets of Mousehole and St. Ives, and the view of St. Michael’s Mount from Marazion, I can picture Holmes and Watson in their “Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” of which I first partook thanks to the legacy of Marconi.

Radio plays, especially traditional American radio plays, often dispense with longer exposition; short on descriptive narration, they unfold mostly in dialogue, verbal exchanges supported by sound effects to establish background or enhance atmosphere. This gives listeners the opportunity to paint their own pictures of the surroundings in which characters are dwelling, moving and thinking. With this freedom, as with all freedoms, come responsibilities and challenges. Do we paint indiscriminately, according to our own fancy? Do we leave the brush alone or turn, perhaps, to other sources to assist us in creating a fit impression of costumes and scenery.

Working on the imagination, radio drama is not always the most reliable educator. It invites us to fill in the blanks—a task not readily accomplished with a clean slate, let alone in an obnubilated state of “Cornish Horror” as experienced by the impressionable, intoxicated Dr. Watson.

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