Night Falls on Budapest: An Experiment in Broadcasting

I’ve been told to stay away from district eight; but I don’t suppose I’ll return home with impressions so graphic or lurid as to feel compelled to pen a thriller titled Murder in Budapest. BBC radio producer Val Gielgud did just that, back in 1937, after his return from the Hungarian capital. Val, brother of famed thespian Sir John Gielgud, was in town in the early fall of 1936 to accompany his colleague and friend Eric Maschwitz (both pictured above, on location) to “give a broadcasting impression of night-life in the Hungarian capital.”

Now, as I shared in one of the earliest entries into this journal, I have always been fascinated by these portraits in sound; and I intend to take my Micromemo iPod recorder around town to capture the city’s voices and noises, considering that there are plenty of photographers better qualified to supply the images; Zsolt’s splendid photo journal, for instance, to which I was referred after reading the impressions of an American visitor (attending an Arthur Miller play in Hungarian, no less).

“Budapest is—or was—a delightful and lovely city in which to spend a holiday,” Gielgud reminisced in his Years of the Locust (1947), a book I have raided on numerous occasions. He was not on holiday, though, and putting together a four-part radio documentary like Night Falls on Budapest in less than a fortnight proved a challenging undertaking. It “was an elaborate affair” that “began in old Buda, where up on the battlements Eric Maschwitz discoursed on their historic past to the accompaniment of the choir of the Garrison Church.” However enthusiastic and supportive, Hungarian broadcasters were ill equipped to handle the sound collages Gielgud and his crew had in mind.

“There were, of course, compensations,” Gielgud conceded:

It was a new experience to be driven at speed in an official motor-car, with a flag flying on the bonnet, and motor-cyclist outriders clearing the way. Just for a moment one felt it might be fun to be a dictator after all! It was strange and rather exciting to be caricatured in the newspapers, and become a central figure in an anti-semitic “incident,” when a Jewish-owned dance band declined to take part in one of the programmes. It made one feel important to be told so often and so emphatically that one was contributing to an improvement in Anglo-Hungarian relations. And, for a short period, working against time and ‘off the cuff’ could not fail to be exhilarating, especially in such surroundings. But speaking for myself, the time came which I felt that I could not face one more glass of barack, listen to one more tzigane orchestra, nor conceal from one more patriotic Magyar my profound ignorance of the detail of the Treaty of Trianon. I was not exactly encouraged to be told, after the broadcast of the second programme of the four, that the Czechs, regarding the whole affair as a diabolical piece of pro-Hungarian propaganda, had interfered with the land-line carrying the programme through Prague, and most successfully ruined the transmission.

What Gielgud took away from the experience was the “very real camaraderie and mutual sympathy that immediately prevailed between professional broadcasters regardless of nationality.” So, I’m not sure why he ended up writing Murder in Budapest; but then again, even my neck of the woods has inspired a series of neo-noir thrillers, the most recent one being Don’t Cry for Me Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce (whose previous Louie Knight mystery I am clutching here).

I’m not sure what I’ll be taking away from my visit to Budapest next week; but I’m sure grabbing the opportunity to be there.

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