Lance Sieveking, “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth”

Let me be the first to admit my ignorance. The world being largely ignorant of me, I simply cannot depend on anyone else to do so. That said, I might as well turn the keeping of this journal (complicated as it was today by internet-disrupting hailstorms) into occasions to pick up a little something rather than disperse whatever scraps of knowledge I may already lay claim to after years of study (or intellectual loafing).

One such occasion might be the birthday of British radio and television pioneer Lancelot Sieveking, born, as the Internet Movie Database informed me, on this day, 19 March, back in 1896. Sure, I had come across his name during my research for Etherized Victorians; but, concentrating my efforts on American radio dramatics, I had conveniently overlooked Sieveking’s accomplishments. Even the folks over at the Database have yet to catch up with this man of all media; at least, his death (back in 1972) has thus far escaped them.

It is no overstatement to say that the author of The Stuff of Radio (1934) is a neglected figure today; his name has most recently been dropped in connection to Disney’s first entry in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Narnia author C. S. Lewis had approved of Sieveking’s radio dramatization but dismissed the idea of a film adaptation. During the first season of BBC2 television’s Oxford English Dictionary challenge Balderdash and Piffle, there was some debate about the origin of the phrase “back to square one,” which was argued to lie in an eight-squared drawing meant to assist BBC radio’s football commentators back in 1927. That design, as it turns out, was Sieveking’s.

Fellow BBC radio drama producer Val Gielgud had this to say about the “not altogether fortunate” Sieveking: “He was perhaps over much influenced during his most impressionable years by G. K. Chesterton, and by the theory of that master of paradox that because some things were better looked at inside out or upside down such a viewpoint should invariably be adopted. Talented and imaginative beyond the ordinary, his eyes gazing towards distant horizons, he was liable to neglect what lay immediately before his feet.”

In other words, Sieveking was an audio-visionary, a trier of radiogenic techniques at whom actors and colleagues would “gaze with a certain dumb bewilderment” as he “exhorted them to play ‘in a deep-green mood,’ or spoke with fluent enthusiasm of ‘playing the dramatic-control panel, as one plays an organ.” There was not much use for such an one in radio. As Gielgud put it, even British radio broadcasting, “provided him with no laboratory in which experiments could be carried out.”

In 1930, when radio drama was still in its protracted infancy (despite earlier trials-by-air like the aforementioned “Comedy of Danger”), Sieveking found a “laboratory” in the still newer medium of television. He collaborated with Gielgud in bringing to British television “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth.” An adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s short play L’uomo dal fiore in bocca (1923), it aired on 14 July 1930.

Little remains today of Sieveking’s work in sound and images, aside from its blueprints—long-out-of-print scripts and theories. Now, I live in a town with a five-million-volume copyright library (which celebrated its 100th anniversary today); but for a snippet of sound, you might as well saunter over to tvdawn.com, where you may hear Sieveking’s spoken introduction to “The Man.”

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