Curtains Up and "Down the Wires"

Well, aren’t we rather quaint in our high-tech ways? Getting our entertainment via cable? Subscribing to so-called premium channels? Pshaw, old hat! Even Queen Victoria had a home entertainment center. Called the Electrophone, it was a service that allowed those who signed up to tune in to theatrical performances live—not time delayed—from the London Stage. No need to sit through commercials or settle for anything not worth your while. You simply selected a program, dialed in and an operator standing by connected you to the opera, the theater, or—who’s going to tell—a bawdy music hall.

I became aware of this state-of-the-dramatic arts 19th-century invention while researching for my doctoral study, in which I mentioned it in passing as a precursor to radio’s earliest theatrical entertainments, which relied rather heavily on such stage hook-ups. The BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour presentation of “Down the Wires” provides a thorough—and thoroughly engrossing—introduction to the Electrophone’s dial-up service, which gave audiences access to operatic performances, political speeches, and religious services, piped into the sitting room (or wherever you chose to have it installed). In this fashion, live theater was being made available to home listeners in the 1880s France and 1890s Britain and America. Matthew Parris’s “Down the Wires” (which is once again available online until Saturday), features rare recordings of early 20th-century performers, reformers, and politicians, including the voice of Teddy Roosevelt.

There are accounts as well of those who used this service, which, in the UK, was available for over twenty-five years, until the wireless cut those wires in the mid-1920s. Now, I’m not the nostalgic sort, really, but right now I’m thinking of all the thrilling plays that I might have caught over the phone (that fickle and fiendish device featured in my latest old-time radio podcast) had I been able to afford the considerable fee of £10 per annum for the service, in addition to the charge for the equipment.

Using my horn-honed imagination, which you’d need to flesh out what the stage business did not render intelligible to the home listener, I might have been able to take in sensational melodramas like The Worst Woman in London (1899) or The Ugliest Woman on Earth (1904)—the original Desperate Housewives. The title character of the former is a siren who blackmails her ex-lover, sets fire to his new home, disguises herself as a man and fights it out with his new bride whom she drags by the hair, onto the rooftops of London, until the virtuous rival manages to escape by tip-toeing to safety on a telegraph wire. Now, with my mind supplying the props, that’s an act fit to go “Down the Wires.”

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