Air and Grouses; or, 180 Seconds to Mark 90 Years

“Give’m that off-the-air smile”

When Radio Times magazine announced a few weeks ago that its 10-16 November issue would celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Corporation largely in charge of the medium to which the pages of said venerable British weekly are nominally dedicated, I was very nearly all ears.  That I wasn’t ears entirely is owing to the skepticism I have developed when it comes to the wireless and its status in today’s mass-mediated society.  Sure enough, the Radio Times celebration fell as flat as my introductory sentence.  The promised “Anniversary Special” amounted to little more than a few pages of pictures designed to demonstrate that radio—or, strictly speaking, BBC radio—is very much alive.  Clearly, I haven’t kept my ear to the ground, as most of the personalities depicted are no more familiar to me in appearance or voice than the radio stars of yesterday whose images I put on display here to suggest that commemoration and oblivion are not mutually exclusive and that what is being marked by the “Anniversary Special” is not so much the birth or infancy or longevity of radio but its presence and relevance today.

“Remember what I said?”
“Print, they say, is dying,” news presenter Eddie Mair opens his commemorative Radio Times article, and television programs nowadays are “watched by a fraction of the numbers who used to tune in.”  The wireless, on the other hand on the proverbial dial, he argues to be in “rude health,” ninety years after the BBCs mics first went live” on 14 November in 1922.
No doubt, those words are meant to be eulogistically reassuring, albeit less so to the publishers of an ailing print magazine, in deference to whom Mair distances himself from his opening statement by injecting “they say.”  I might add—and shall—that if “they say” radio is thriving, then why isn’t there a radio on the cover of that ‘anniversary’ issue? It isn’t radio’s age, surely, that made editors decide against a shot of an historic wireless set, a glistening microphone, or any number of radio personalities, living or dead.  After all, the editors chose Sir David Attenborough as their cover boy—and he, at 86, is nearly as old as the BBC.
“Just who do they think we aren’t?”
Why Attenborough? Well, he, too, has a broadcasting anniversary worth celebrating; and, apparently, his sixty years of television are worth more to the BBC than its own ninety years of radio broadcasting, marked in the pages of Radio Times with a slim timeline of scant microphone highlights so miniscule that it, like the fine print in advertising, makes you feel what is really wanting is a microscope.  Could it be that the Corporation toned down its self-glorification in light of the scandal surrounding desanctified saint Jimmy Savile and the efforts to cover up or deal with his posthumously emerging history of pedophilia? While this may not be the time for airs and graces, it does not follow that any self-reflexive, critical history the BBC airs disgraces.
Sure if your face is red, you are not inclined to parade it in public; but that does not quite explain, let alone justify, the way in which the wireless anniversary is scheduled to unfold sonically this afternoon.  At 5:33 PM precisely—the exact time of the first BBC radio broadcast back in 1922—all BBC stations jointly air a newly commissioned composition of music and sound bites, the latter to be contributed by listeners.  However thrilling and noteworthy, the whole rather self-defacing event lasts about three minutes, less time by far than commercial television sets aside for a single block of advertising.
Not quite believing my eyes at the sound of that announcement, I flicked through the pages of Radio Times in search of further commemorative programming.  Alas, it is, for the most part, business as usual.  And even though the “usual” is usually quite satisfactory, the extraordinary sure has a deflated air about it.

Difficult as Pie: A Priestley Postscript

I have never heard J. B. Priestley deliver his famous Postscripts, a series of morale-boosting talks broadcast to the British public during those early, uncertain and hence no doubt most terrifying days of the Second World War.  Many decades later, actor Patrick Stewart returned Priestley’s lines to the airwaves that had once carried them into the homes of millions; but somehow I could not get excited about those recreations.  For, no matter how delayed an originally live broadcast, its recording yet retains the immediacy of a first-hand experience that no re-enactment can approach.

Recently, I came across the published Postscripts(1940).  Unlike Stewart’s voiceovers, the printed speeches are unabridged and, their author insists, “exactly as they were, without a speck of retouching.”  These are “wireless talks and not essays,” Priestley cautions the reader:

If I had my way they would never have re-appeared in this form, to be examined at leisure instead of being caught on the wing every Sunday at nine-fifteen, but the requests for a volume of them have come in so thick and fast during these last three months, that I felt it would be churlish to refuse.  So here they are, and please don’t blame them now, for they have already done the work they were intended to do.

Indeed, reading those scripts aloud now, I can, even in my own indifferent, untrained voice, hear them doing their work.  Priestley indulges in none of the hysterics and hyperboles that so often render alienating what is meant to be persuasive speech.  They are sentimental, these talks, and they are sane. 

As Priestley puts it in the Preface, the

tricks of the writing trade and some fortunate accidents of voice and manner are all very well, but what really holds the attention of most decent folk is a genuine sharing of feelings and views on the part of the broadcaster.  He must talk as if he were among serious friends….

Cover of Postscripts (1940) by J. B. Priestley

Priestley’s Postscripts are simply words of encouragement, gentle reminders that much of our seemingly inconsequential everyday is worth holding on to as it defines who we are, that the loss of even the slightest thing may be keenly felt as a threat to our identity.  Take a piece of pie, for instance—and make it a fake one.

That is just what Priestley did, on this day, 29 September, in 1940, when he talked about returning home to Bradford, the “solid real place” of his childhood.  The seemingly random devastation caused by a recent air raid, though far less grand in scale than the attacks on London, “made a far deeper impression” on Priestley “because it somehow brought together two entirely different worlds; the safe and shining world of my childhood, and this insecure and lunatic world of to-day.”

The local bakery, too, had suffered during the raid; but there, in the broken, half boarded up window, could still be glimpsed at the giant pie that had fascinated Priestley when, as a child, he saw emanating from it a steady flow of “fine rich appetising steam.” A wondrous, awe-inspiring sight it was to Priestley, the boy—and a wonder it was now to Priestley, the man, that, after all those years and after all those hours of bombing, the pie was still in its place, still in one piece, and still steaming away.

Mindful of the prosaic souls who needed to have their lessons spelled out for them, and who may well have resented as this “yapping about . . . pies and nonsense” at a time of acute crisis, Priestley added the reminder to “keep burnished the bright little thread of our common humanity,” a world in which that particular pie had “its own proper place.”

If only we had heard a voice like that during the dark days after 9/11, an opportunity seized by warmongers and profiteers.  If only there had been that sane and gentle voice, the raising of which in a time of terror is as difficult as pie.

“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

Once Upon a Time in Radioland: A Kind of Ruritanian Romance

The other day, at my favorite bookstore here in Aberystwyth, I was caught in the eye by what struck me as a highly unusual cover for a 1938 edition of Anthony Hope’s fanciful pageturner The Prisoner of Zenda. Mind you, I’m not likely to turns those pages any time soon. I’m not one for Graustarkian excursions. That I found the old chestnut so arresting is due to the way in which it was sold anew to an audience of Britons to whom such a mode of escape from the crisis-ridden everyday must have been sufficiently attractive already. This was the 92nd impression of Zenda; and, with Europe at the brink of war, Ruritania must have sounded to those who prefer to face the future with their head in the hourglass contents of yesteryear like a travel deal too hard to resist.

My copy of the book

Now, the publishers, Arrowsmith, weren’t taking any chances.  Judging by the cover telling as much, they were looking for novel ways of repackaging a familiar volume that few British public and private libraries could have been wanting at the time.

British moviegoers had just seen Ruritania appear before their very eyes in the 1937 screen version of the romance, which make dashing Ronald Colman an obvious salesperson and accounts for his presence on the dust jacket.  It is the line underneath, though, that made me look: “The Book of the Radio Broadcast,” the advertising slogan reads.  Desperate, anachronistic, and now altogether unthinkable, these words reminded me just how far removed we are from those olden days when radio ruled the waves.

The Prisoner of Zenda was recently the subject of a highly successful film,” the copy on the inside states somewhat pointlessly in the face of the faces on the cover.  What’s more, it continues, a “further mark of its popularity” was the story’s “selection by the BBC as a radio serial broadcast on the National Programme.”  To this day, the BBC produces and airs a great number of serial adaptations of classic, popular or just plain old literature; but, however reassuring this continuation of a once prominent storytelling tradition may be, a reminder of the fact that books are still turned into sound-only dramas would hardly sell copies these days.  Radio still sells merchandise—but a line along the lines of “as heard on radio” is pretty much unheard of in advertising these days.

From my collection of Cinegrams.

“This book is the original story on which the broadcast was based,” the dust jacket blurb concludes.  I, for one, would have been more thrilled to get my hands or ears on the adaptation, considering that all we have left of much of the BBC’s output of aural drama is such ocular proof of radio’s diminished status and pop-cultural clout.

Perhaps, my enthusiasm at this find was too much tempered with the frustration and regret such a nostalgic tease provokes.  At any rate, I very nearly left Ystwyth Books without the volume in my hands. That I walked off with it after all is owing to our friend, novelist Lynda Waterhouse, who saw me giving it the eye and made me a handsome present of it.  And there it sits now on my bookshelf, a tattered metaphor of my existence: I am stuck in a past that was never mine to outlive, grasping at second-hand-me-downs and gasping for recycled air . . . a prisoner of a Zenda of my own unmaking.

Smoke Gets in Your Ears; or, What Price “Butch" and "George”?

A keepsake that hasn’t been looked after
The other day, Bob and I drove down to Leominster, England.  The objective was to pick up a painting at a local auction house; but we made a day of it, during which we discovered Leominster to be a great town for antiquing.  Now, when it comes to treasure hunts, my definition of “priceless” is “unvalued,” a label (or stigma) attached to objects that somehow don’t matter much and therefore sell for next to nothing.  It is to those less prized items that I tend to be drawn—provided they have something to do with the undervalued performance art of radio.  So, for about one hundredth of the cost of our latest oil, I took home a complete if somewhat tatty album of cigarette cards dating from 1934.  Since it was issued in Britain (by W. D. & H. O. Wills), the “celebrities” displayed in it are all folks heard on the BBC at the time—and rarely heard of thereafter.

Unlike their American counterparts, whose voices or musical talents are preserved on recordings anyone can readily retrieve online, most of these BBC personalities would be truly forgotten today if they had not made a name for themselves in other media.  Yet even if we remember the performer we are likely to be ignorant of the performance that brought them fame on the air.

A few years ago, Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse happened upon the same album now in my hands and remarked that the “world seen in [it] is as unfamiliar as the clipped tones of the celebrities it contains.”  Flicking through these pages means facing indifference and neglect.  How can we presume to know the 1930s if we can’t recall the names that then were household words, let alone put a voice to them?

Radio Celebritiesan oxymoron, perhaps?

Back then, the reverse was to be accomplished by those cigarette card collectibles: to put a face to the unseen visitors that millions welcomed into their homes.  No doubt, the chief purpose was to sell tobacco products—but aside from fueling an addiction these albums satisfied the need to turn word to flesh and hold on to fleeting sound by way of printed image.  “For many years,” the “Radio Celebrities” album reminded the purchaser, anno 1934, “broadcasting artistes, announcers and speakers remained rather mysteriously aloof—in the air, as it were!” No more.  The “Wireless” and their personalities were becoming “increasingly popular”; and the portraits to be collected and appreciated in this way were meant to “add a personal touch to names” that were already so “familiar to listeners.”

From time to time, I shall return to this album to report on the radio careers of Clapham & Dwyer, “Butch” and “George,” Jeanne De Casalis, and the forty-seven other “Radio Celebrities” that hit it big on the Beeb.

Time and the Airwaves: Notes on a Priestley Season

Both BBC Radio 4 and 7 are in the thick of a J. B. Priestley festival, a spate of programs ranging from serial dramatizations of early novels (The Good Companions and Bright Day) and adaptations of key plays (Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls), to readings from his travelogue English Journey and a documentary about the writer’s troubled radio days. Now, I don’t know just what might be the occasion for such a retrospective, since nothing on the calendar coincides with the dates of Priestley’s birth or death. Perhaps, it is the connection with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, an event on which Priestley embroidered in June 1941 for one of his Postscript broadcasts, that recalled him to the minds of those in charge of BBC radio programming.

Never mind the wherefores and whys. Any chance of catching up with Priestley is welcome, especially when the invitation is extended by way of the wireless, the means and medium by which his voice and words reached vast audiences during the 1930s and early 1940s, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

For all his experience as a broadcaster, though, Priestley, who was not so highbrow as to high-hat the mass market of motion pictures, never explored radio as a playwright’s medium, as a potential everyman’s theater on whose boards to try his combined radiogenic skills of novelist, dramatist, and essayist for the purpose of constructing the kind of aural plays that are radio’s most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature—the plays of ideas.

Priestley prominently installed a wireless set in Dangerous Corner, a stage thriller whose characters gather to listen to a thriller broadcast. Later, he read his controversial wartime commentaries (titled Postscripts) to a vast radio audience. He even went on one of Rudy Vallee’s variety programs to discuss the fourth dimension. Yet the medium that relied entirely on that dimension, to the contemplation of which he devoted many of his stage plays—Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before among them—did not intrigue Priestley to make time and create plays especially for the air.

To be sure, his falling out with the BBC in 1941 (as outlined in Martin Wainwright’s radio documentary about the Postscript broadcasts) did little to foster Priestley’s appreciation of the radiodramatic arts. Yet the indifference is apparent long before his relationship with Auntie soured. When interviewed for the 1 September 1939 issue of the Radio Times about his novel Let the People Sing, which was to be read serially on the BBC before it appeared in print, Priestley dismissed the idea that he had written it with broadcasting in mind:

I realised, of course, that the theme must appeal to the big majority. But apart from that, I thought it better to let myself go and leave the BBC to make it into twelve radio episodes. It would otherwise have cramped my style.

To Priestley, the “experiment” of broadcasting his novel lay in the marketing “gamble” of making it publicly available prior to publication, a challenge of turning publishing conventions upside down by effectively turning the printed book into a sort of postscript. Clearly, he looked upon radio a means of distribution rather than a medium of artistic expression.

Reading I Have Been Here Before and listening to the radio adaptation of Time and the Conways, I realized now little either is suited to the time art of aural play. Whereas the Hörspiel or audio play invites the utter disregard for the dramatic unities of time and space, Priestley relied on the latter to make time visible or apparent for us on the stage.

The Conways, like the characters of Dangerous Corner before them, are brought before us in two temporal versions, a contrast designed to explore how destinies depend on single moments in time—moments in which an utterance or an action brings about change—and how such moments might be recaptured or rewritten to prevent time from being, in Hamlet’s words, “out of joint.”

“Time’s only a dream,” Alan Conway insists. “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on—in this life—from one peep-hole to the next.” Our past selves are “real and existing. We’re seeing another bit of the view—a bad bit, if you like—but the whole landscape’s still there.”

In Priestley’s plays, it is the scenery, the landscape of stagecraft, that remains there, “whole” and virtually unchanged. The unity of space is adhered to so as to show up changes in attitudes and relationships and to maintain cohesion in the absence or disruption of continuity. In radio’s lyrical time plays, by comparison, neither time nor place need be of any moment. It is the moment alone that matters on the air, an urgency that Priestley, the essayist and wartime commentator, must surely have sensed. Priestley, the novelist and playwright did or could not. Too few ever did. To this day, a whole aural landscape is biding its time . . .

“Marching backwards”: “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial” Is Back on the Air

The Darwin bicentenary is drawing to a close. Throughout the year, exhibitions were staged all over Britain to commemorate the achievements of the scientist and the controversy his theories wrought; numerous plays and documentaries were presented on stage, screen and radio, including a new production of Inherit the Wind (1955), currently on at the Old Vic. I was hoping to catch up with it when next I am in London; but, just like last month, I my hopes went the way of all dodos as only those survive the box office onslaught who see it fit to book early.

Not that setting foot on the stage of the Darwin debate requires any great effort or investment once you are in the great metropolis. During my last visit to the kingdom’s capital, I found myself—that is to say, I was caught unawares as I walked through the halls of the Royal Academy of Arts—in the very spot where, back in 1858, the papers that evolved into The Origin of Species were first presented.

This week, BBC Radio 4 is transporting us back to a rather less dignified scene down in Dayton, Tennessee, where, in the summer of 1925, the theory of evolution was being put on trial, with Clarence Darrow taking the floor for the defense. Peter Goodchild, a writer-producer who served as researcher for and became editor of the British television series on which the American broadcast institution Nova was modeled, adapted court transcripts to recreate the media event billed, somewhat prematurely, as the “trial of the century.”

Like the LA Theatre Works production before it, this new Radio Wales/Cymru presentation boasts a pedigree cast including tyro octogenarians Jerry Hardin as Judge John Raulston and Ed Asner as William Jennings Bryan, John de Lancie as Clarence Darrow, Stacy Keach as Dudley Field Malone, and Neil Patrick Harris as young biology teacher John Scopes, the knowing if rather naive lawbreaker at the nominal center of the proceedings who gets to tell us about it all.

“I was enjoying myself,” the defendant nostalgically recalls his life and times, anno 1925, as he ushers us into the courtroom, for the ensuing drama in which he was little more than a supporting player. “It was the year of the Charleston,” of Louis Armstrong’s first recordings, “the year The Great Gatsby was written.” Not that marching backwards to the so-called “Monkey trial” is—or should ever become—the stuff of wistful reminiscences. “But, in the same year, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, Scopes adds, “and in Tennessee, they passed the Butler Act.”

Darrow called the ban on evolution as a high school subject—and any subsequent criminalization of intellectual discourse and expressed beliefs—the “setting of man against man and creed against creed” that, if unchallenged, would go on “until with flying banners and beating drums, we are marching backwards to the 16th century.”

He was not, of course, referring to the Renaissance; rather, he was dreading a rebirth of the age of witch-hunts, superstitions and religious persecution. “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all,” Darrow declared.

It is a line you won’t hear in the play; yet, however condensed it might be, the radio dramatization is as close as we get nowadays to the experience of listening to the trial back in 1925, when it was remote broadcast over WGN, Chicago, at the considerable cost of $1000 per day for wire charges. According to Slate and Cook’s It Sounds Impossible, the courtroom was “rearranged to accommodate the microphones,” which only heightened the theatricality of the event.

I have never thought of radio drama as ersatz; in this case, certainly, getting an earful of the Darrow-Bryan exchange does not sound like a booby prize for having missed out on the staging and fictionalization of the trial as Inherit the Wind.

Related post
“Inherit the . . . Air: Dialing for Darwin on His 200th Birthday”

“. . . reduced, blended, modernised”: The Wireless Reconstitution of Printed Matter

Nearly two centuries ago, young Rebecca Sharp marked her entrance into the world by hurling a book out of a coach window. That book, reluctantly gifted to her by the proprietress of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, was Johnson’s dictionary, a volume for which Ms. Sharp had little use, given that she was rarely at a loss for words. By the time her story became known, in 1847, words in print had become a rather less precious commodity, especially after the British stamp tax was abolished in 1835, which, in turn, made the emergence of the penny press possible. Publications were becoming more frequent—and decidedly more frivolous.

Gone were the days when a teenager like Mary Jones, whose story I encountered on a trip to the Welsh town of Bala last weekend, walked twenty-five miles, barefooted, for the privilege of owning a Bible. Sure, I enjoy the occasional daytrip to Hay-on-Wye, the renowned “Town of Books” near the English border where, earlier this month, I snatched up a copy of the BBC’s 1952 Year Book (pictured). Still, ever since the time of the great Victorian novelists, the reading public has been walking no further than the local lending library or wherever periodicals were sold to catch up on the latest fictions and follow the exploits of heroines like Becky Sharp in monthly installments.

In Victorian times, the demand for stories was so great that poorly paid writers were expected to churn them out with ever greater rapidity, which left those associated with the literary trade to ponder new ways of meeting the supply. In Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), a young woman assisting her scholarly papa is startled by an

advertisement in the newspaper, headed “Literary Machine”; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to [. . .] turn out books and articles? Alas! The machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.

Barbara Cartland notwithstanding, such a “true automaton” has not yet hit the market; but the recycling of old stories for a modern audience had already become a veritable industry by the beginning of the second quarter of the 20th century, during which “golden age” the wireless served as both home theater and ersatz library for the entertainment and distraction craving multitudes.

A medium of—and only potentially for—modernity, radio has always culled much of its material from the past, “Return with us now” being one of the phrases most associated with aural storytelling. It is a phenomenon that led me to write my doctoral study Etherized Victorians, in which I relate the demise of American radio dramatics to the failure to establish or encourage its own, autochthonous, that is, strictly aural life form.

Sure, the works of Victorian authors are in the public domain; as such, they are cheap, plentiful, and, which is convenient as well, fairly innocuous. And yet, for reasons other than economics, they strike us as radiogenic. Like the train whistle of the horse-drawn carriage, they seem to be the very stuff of radio—a medium that was quaint and antiquated from the onset, when television was announced as being “just around the corner.”

Perhaps, the followers of Becky Sharp should not toss out their books yet; as American radio playwright Robert Lewis Shayon pointed out, the business of adaptation is fraught with “artistic problems and dangers.” He argued that he “would rather be briefed on a novel’s outline, told something about its untransferable qualities, and have one scene accurately and fully done than be given a fast, ragged, frustrating whirl down plot-skeleton alley.”

It was precisely for this circumscribed path, though, that American handbooks like Jame Whipple’s How to Write for Radio (1938) or Josephina Niggli’s Pointers on Radio Writing (1946) prepared prospective adapters, reminding them that, for the sake of action, they needed to “retain just sufficient characters and situations to present the skeleton plot” and that they could not “afford to waste even thirty seconds on beautiful descriptive passages.”

As I pointed out in Etherized, broadcast writers were advised to “free [themselves] first from the enchantment of the author’s style” and to “outline the action from memory.” Illustrating the technique, Niggli reduced Jane Eyre—one of the most frequently radio-readied narratives—to a number of plot points, “bald statements” designed to “eliminate the non-essential.” Only the dialogue of the original text was to be restored whenever possible, although here, too, paraphrases were generally required to clarify action or to shorten scenes. Indeed, as Waldo Abbot’s Handbook of Broadcasting (1941) recommended, dialogue had to be “invented to take care of essential description.”

To this day, radio dramatics in Britain, where non-visual broadcasting has remained a viable means of telling stories, the BBC relies on 19th-century classics to fill much of its schedule. The detective stories of Conan Doyle aside, BBC Radio 7 has just presented adaptations of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), featuring the aforementioned Ms. Sharp, and currently reruns Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (1855-67). The skeletons are rather more complete, though, as both novels were radio-dramatized in twenty installments, and, in the case of Trollope’s six-novel series, in hour-long parts.

BBC Radio 4, meanwhile, has recently aired serializations of Trollope’s Orley Farm (1862), Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Next week, it is presenting both Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (both 1853), the former in ten fifteen minute chapters, the latter in three hour-long parts.

Radio playwright True Boardman once complained that adaptations for the aural medium bear as close a relation to the original as “powdered milk does to the stuff that comes out of cows.” They are culture reconstituted. “[R]educed, blended, [and] modernised“, they don’t get a chance to curdle . . .

Note: Etherised Victorians was itself ‘reduced and blended,’ and published as Immaterial Culture in 2013.

Related writings (on Victorian literature, culture and their recycling)
“Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit
“Valentine Vox Pop; or, Revisiting the Un-Classics”
“Curtains Up and ‘Down the Wires'”
Eyrebrushing: The BBC’s Dull New Copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Bold Portrait”

His Words, Her Voice: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and the Resonance of “Enough”

“Oh, I have seen enough and done enough and been places enough and livened my senses enough and dulled my senses enough and probed enough and laughed enough and wept more than most people would suspect.” This line, as long and plodding as a life gone wearisome, was recently uttered by screen legend Olivia de Havilland, now in her 90s. You may well think that, at her age, she had reason enough for saying as much; but Ms. de Havilland was not reminiscing about her own experiences in and beyond Hollywood. She was reciting the words of one of her most virile, dashing, and troubled contemporaries: Errol Flynn, who was born one hundred years ago, on 20 June 1909, and apparently had “enough” of it all before he turned fifty, a milestone he did not live to enjoy.

In her brief talk with BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves host Matthew Sweet, de Havilland talks candidly, yet ever so decorously, about her swash-buckled, devil-may-careworn co-star, about his temperament, his aspirations, his fears. Hers is an aged voice that has a tone of knowing in it. A mellow, benevolent voice that bespeaks understanding. A voice that comforts in its conveyance not of weariness but of awareness, a life well lived and not yet spent.

I could listen for hours to such a voice. I might not care for, learn from or morally improve by hearing what is said—but the timbre gives a meaning to “enough” that the forty-something Flynn never lived to express or have impressed upon him. It is the “enough” of serenity, the “enough” of gratitude, the “enough” of not asking for more and yet not asking less . . . or stop asking at all.

My own life is marked and marred by a certain lack of inquisitiveness, it sometimes strikes me. Being blasé is one of the first masks we don not to let on that we don’t know enough, that we know as much, but don’t know enough simply to ask. I wore such a mask of vainglory when I set out in life, the dullest of lives it seemed to me. My fellow employees had a nickname for me then. It was my moustache that inspired it. Errol Flynn they called me. Little did they know that, even at age 20, I felt that I had “enough” even though I so keenly felt that I had not had much of anything at all. I simply had enough of not even coming close to the glass of which I might one day have had my fill; but, for three long years, I did not have sense enough to leave that dulling life behind. No voice could talk me out of that barren existence but my own.

It was not easy for me to regain a sense of curiosity; it was as if the pores beneath the mask had been clogged after being concealed so long, my skin no longer alive to the breeze and its promises. I had brushed off more than I dared to absorb. One morning, I took a walk around Central Park with one of Errol Flynn’s leading ladies, and was neither startled nor thrilled; nor did I not seize the opportunity to inquire about her past or permit her to draw me into her presence as she offered me advice and assistance. Instead, I preserved the sound of her voice on the tape of my answering machine—like a butterfly beyond the magic of flight—her words saying that she had enough of me was dispensing of my humble services as her dog walker. I am left with canned breath, quite beyond the chance of living what might have been a great story.

Enough of my regrets. I can only hope that, when next I feel that I had “enough,” the word will sound as if it were uttered in what I shall henceforth refer to as a de Havilland sense, with dignity, insight and calm—and an acceptance that is not resignation.

Tonight at 8:30 (or Whenever It’s Convenient)

“You can’t do without it. Supposing you wanna hear Jack Benny, see? But you can’t be at home at that hour. So you tell the maid to turn the radio on when Jack Benny comes on, and this automatically goes on with the radio. . . .” That is how big shot Howard Wagner goes on about his new wire recorder—shortly before giving his old employee the ax. The employee is Willy Loman, the scene from Death of a Salesman. It is one of the references that came as a surprise to me yesterday morning when I reread the play I thought I was done with by the time I left college. At the time he wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, Miller had not long gotten out of the radio game and was rejoicing in his newfound artistic freedom; so he gives the speech—and the speech recording device—to the bad guy. Having previously gone on record to dismiss radio as commercial and corrupt, Miller now suggested how the medium was about to get worse—that is, farther removed from live theater, from the immediate, the communal, and the relevant.

This “wonderful machine”—for which Mr. Wagner is ready let go of “all [his] hobbies”—is a metaphor for the selfishness of a society that was moving so fast, it could not even give the time of day to its most beloved entertainers—let alone a tired old man like Willy Loman. If Mr. Benny wanted to talk to Howard Wagner, he, like everyone else, had to wait for the hour appointed to him by the big noise.

“You can come home at twelve o’clock, one o’clock, any time you like, and you get yourself a Coke and sit yourself down, throw the switch, and there’s Jack Benny’s program in the middle of the night!”—all for “only a hundred and a half,” an amount for which Willy Loman is willing to work for three weeks and a half.

For decades to come, it was the industry that benefitted most from this new recording technology. Bing Crosby could walk into the studio when it suited his own schedule, rather than having to be there for the public who sat by the radio, as of old, to hear his program go on the air. Nowadays, the Willy Lomans are in charge of scheduling, of making time for whoever vies for their attention.

I would not go so far as to say that I “can’t do without” the latest recording software. It sure makes it easier for me to enjoy more of what I enjoy, though. The BBC’s iPlayer has greatly changed my listening habits and increased the number of plays, documentaries, and musical selections I take in. Currently, I am listening to “The Better Half,” a cheeky if dated sex comedy by Noel Coward. Written and performed in 1922, the unpublished one-acter about “modern” marriage (in the traditional sense we can’t seem to get past) was not staged again until 2007. Earlier this week, it had its broadcast debut on BBC Radio 4.

Okay, so the leading lady is not Gertrude Lawrence (star of radio’s Revlon Revue back in 1943)—but at least I won’t have to listen to Mr. Wagner’s precious offspring (“Listen to that kid whistle”) while begging for a moment of his time. After all, most of us don’t get the impression that, as Noel Coward puts it in “This is a Changing World” (with which the radio adaptation of “The Better Half” opens), “[t]ime is your tenderest friend.” So, it feels good to push a few buttons and get the better of it . . .

Related recording
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)