Another Man’s Ptomaine: Was “The Undertaker’s Tale” Worth Exhuming?

Bury this. Apparently, it was with words not much kinder that the aspiring but already middle-aged storyteller Samuel Clemens was told what to do with “The Undertaker’s Tale.” Written in 1877, it was not published until this year, nearly a century after the author’s death. The case of the premature burial has not only been brought to light but, thanks to BBC Radio 4, the disinterred matter has also been exposed to the air (and the breath of reader Hector Elizondo). So, you may ask after being duly impressed by the discovery, does it stink?

To be sure, even the most minor work of a major literary figure is deserving of our attention; and “The Undertaker’s Tale” is decidedly minor. It derives whatever mild titters it might induce from the premise that one man’s meat is another man’s poison or, to put it another way, one man’s dead body is another’s livelihood.

“We did not drop suddenly upon the subject,” the narrator ushers us into the story told to him by his “pleasant new acquaintance,” the undertaker, “but wandered into it, in a natural way.” We should expect slow decay, then, rather than a dramatic exit—and, sure enough, there is little to startle or surprise us here.

There isn’t much of a plot either—but a lot of them. The eponymous character—one Mr. Cadaver—is a kind-hearted chap who cheers at the prospect of an epidemic and who fears for his family business whenever the community is thriving. To him and his lovely, lively tribe there can be no joy greater than the timely demise of an unscrupulous vulture (some simulacrum of a Scrooge), which—death ex machina and Abracacaver!—is just what happens in the end.

In its time, “The Undertaker’s Tale” may have been dismissed as being in poor taste; what is worse, though, is that it is insipid. To bury it was no doubt the right decision as it might have ended Clemens’s literary career before it got underway by poisoning the public’s mind against him. A death sentence of sorts.

It may sound morbid, but, listening to this unengaging trifle, I drifted off in thoughts of home. My future home, that is. No, I am not about to check out; but within a few days now I am going to move to a town known, albeit by very few, as Undertaker’s Paradise.

Back in 2000, the Welsh seaside resort of Aberystwyth served as the setting for a dark comedy thriller with that title. Starring Ben Gazzara, it concerns an undertaker rather more enterprising than Mr. Cadaver in the procuring of bodies. Like Twain’s story before it, the forgotten film is waiting to be dug up and appreciated anew. Unlike Twain’s story, it has no literary pedigree to induce anyone to pick up a shovel. Shame, really. It’s the better yarn of the two.


Related writings
“Mark Twain, Six Feet Under”
“What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air”

” . . . the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”: Conan Doyle at 150

“Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That is how Arthur Conan Doyle, not long before his own death in 1930, announced to his readers that he would put an end to his most robust brainchild, the by now all but immortal Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the figure continues to overshadow every aspect of Dr. Doyle’s career, literary or otherwise. Perhaps, “upstage” is a more precise way of putting it, considering that the venerable sleuth was to enjoy such success in American and British radio drama from the early 1930s to the present day.

“One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination,” Doyle assuaged those among his readers who found it difficult to accept that Holmes’s departure was merely “the way of all flesh.”

To be sure, the earlier incident at the Reichenbach Falls suggested that Holmes was impervious to threats of character assassination, that he could reappear, time and again, in the reminiscences of Doctor Watson. Still, Doyle’s intention to do away with Holmes so early in the detective’s literary career had been no mere publicity stunt. Rather than feeling obliged to supply the public with the puzzles they craved, the author felt that his “energies should not be directed too much into one channel.”

One of the lesser-known alternative channels considered by Doyle has just been reopened for inspection. Today, 22 May, on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth in 1859, BBC Radio Scotland aired “Vote for Conan Doyle!” a biographical sketch “specially commissioned” to mark the occasion. In it, writer and Holmes expert Bert Coules relates how, in 1900, Doyle embarked on a career in politics. He decided to stand for parliament; but the devotees of Sherlock Holmes would not stand for it.

Coules’s play opens right where Doyle had first intended to wash his hands of Holmes—at the Reichenbach Falls. No matter how sincere Doyle was in improving the Empire’s image and the plight of the British’s troops during the Second Boer War, the push hardly met with the approval of the reading public. “How could you!” “How dare you!” “You brute!” the public protested.

Although it was not this perceived case of filicide that did him in, Doyle proved unsuccessful in his campaign—and that despite support from Dr. Bell, who served as an inspiration for Holmes. After his defeat, Doyle “bowed to the inevitable—and back the man came.”

When the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, Doyle dropped the man once more, albeit in a gentler fashion. To assuage loyal followers, he fancied Holmes and Watson in some “humble corner” of the “Valhalla” of British literature. Little did he know that the “fantastic limbo” in which the two were to linger would be that in-between realm of radio, a sphere removed from both stage and page—but nearer than either to the infinite “O” between our ears.

It hardly surprises that, Radio Scotland’s efforts to get out the “Vote for” and let us walk “In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle” aside, most of the programs presumably devoted to Doyle are concerned instead with “The Voice of Sherlock Holmes” and the “Game” that is “Afoot” when thespians like Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison approach the original. It is not Doyle’s life that is celebrated in these broadcasts, but Holmes’s afterlife.

True, to the aficionados of Doyle’s fiction, Sherlock Holmes has never been in need of resuscitation. Yet, as Jeffrey Richards remarked in “The Voice” (first aired in 1998),

[r]adio has always been a particularly effective medium for evoking the world of Holmes and Watson. The clatter of horses hoofs on cobbled streets, the howl of the wind on lonely moors, and the sinister creaks and groans of ancient manor houses steeped in history and crime.

The game may be afoot once more when Holmes returns to the screen this year; but, outside the pages that could never quite contain him, it is the “fantastic limbo” of radio that kept the Reichenbach Falls survivor afloat. It is for the aural medium—the Scotland yardstick for fidelity in literary adaptation—that all of his cases have been dramatized and that, in splendid pastiches like “The Abergavenny Murder,” the figure of Sherlock Holmes has remained within earshot all these years.


Related writings
“‘What monstrous place is this?’: Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge”
“Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the ‘Devil’s Foot’”
Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium for American Ho(l)mes

So to Speke

When not at work on our new old house—where the floorboards are up in anticipation of central heating—we are on the road and down narrow country lanes to get our calloused hands on the pieces of antique furniture that we acquired, in 21st-century style, by way of online auction. In order to create the illusion that we are getting out of the house, rather than just something into it, and to put our own restoration project into a perspective from which it looks more dollhouse than madhouse, we make stopovers at nearby National Trust properties like Chirk Castle or Speke Hall. The latter (pictured above) is a Tudor mansion that, like some superannuated craft, sits sidelined along Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, formerly known as RAF Speke. The architecture of the Hall, from the openings under the eaves that allowed those within to spy on the potentially hostile droppers-in without to the hole into which a Catholic priest could be lowered to escape Protestant persecution, bespeaks a history of keeping mum.

Some such mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior was of Audley Court, the fictional setting of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational crime novel Lady Audley’s Secret. The hugely popular thriller was first serialized beginning in 1861 and subsequently adapted for the stage. Resuscitated for a ten-part serial currently aired on BBC Radio 4, the eponymous “lady”—a gold digger, bigamist, and arsonist whose ambitions are famously diagnosed as the mark of “latent insanity”—can now be eavesdropped on as she, sounding rather more demure than she appeared to my mind’s ear, attempts to keep up appearances, even if it means having to make her first husband, a gold digger in his own right, disappear down a well.

As if the house, Audley Court, did not have a checkered past of its own—

a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, [ . . . ] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county of Essex.

“Of course,” the narrator insists,

in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one. A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below—a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests’ vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.

Loose floorboards we’ve got plenty in our own domicile, and room enough for a holy manhole below. It being a late-Victorian townhouse, though, the hidden story we laid bare is that of the upstairs-downstairs variety. At the back, in the part of the house where the servants labored and lived, there once was a separate staircase, long since dismantled. It was by way of those steep steps that the maid, having performed her chores out of the family’s sight and earshot, withdrew, latently insane or otherwise, into the modest quarters allotted to her. I wonder whether she read, if indeed she read at all, Lady Audley’s Secret, and whether she read it as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one—as the story of a woman who dared to rewrite her own destiny:

“No more dependency, no more drudgery, no more humiliations,” Lucy exclaimed secretly, “every trace of the old life melted away—every clue to identity buried and forgotten—except . . .

. . . that wedding ring, wrapped in paper. It’s enough to make a priest turn in his hole.

“Alone Together”: A Portrait of the Artist as an Artist’s Spouse

“So, here he is. My father. In a churchyard in the furthest tip of Llŷn. Eighty years old. Wild hair blowing in the wind. Overcoat that could belong to a tramp. Face like something hewn out of stone, staring into the distance.” The man observing is Gwydion, the middle-aged son of R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)—“Poet. Priest. Birdwatcher. Scourge of the English. The Ogre of Wales.” With this terse description opens Neil McKay’s “Alone Together,” a radio play first aired last Sunday on BBC Radio 3 (and available online until 28 March).

The voice of the Nobel Prize nominated poet (as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) is heard reading lines from his works, the words that are, to us, a stand-in for the man. None of them escape the commentary of his estranged son: “Yes, you could tell yourself this is him, the real R. S. Thomas,” the observer, filial yet unloving, remarks. “But you’d be entirely wrong.” As his father’s old voice keeps on reciting, he adds: “Oh, he’d be happy enough for you to fall for it . . . and to fall for the version he tells of his own life.”

What compels the son to revise this “version” of a life is the life of another, a figure that, to his mind, is concealed or mispresented in the autobiography of the father. The figure is Elsi, the Welsh poet’s English wife (1909-1991), whose fifty-year-relationship with R. S. was compressed by him in these lines:

She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.

Speaking of their first encounter, R. S. introduces Elsi as “a girl who was lodging fairly close by,” the kind of icy understatement with which Thomas, writing about himself in the third person, kept his distance from his readers, just as the people he knew and wrote about were turned into abstracts on a page. “He doesn’t even give her a name,” the son comments, “and that’s where it starts to unravel.”

The churchyard in which we are introduced to the father is Elsi’s burial place; it is Gwydion’s ambition and quest to bring her to life for us, to let us see her in something other than the austere words of an introverted, discontented, and tormented man—an Anglican rector who sought isolation in the remote west of “the real Wales,” who, advocating Welsh independence and separation from England, was consumed by what the Welsh call “Hiraeth”: a longing for home. In how far did this longing, this radical yet futile attempt at forging an identity alien to him, prevent R. S. from making a home for the two, the three, of them?

Searing, severe, yet profoundly moving, “Alone Together” is a compelling play at biography; listening to it, I was reminded of the above self-portrait of Elsi, who, as an artist, was known as Mildred Eldridge, respected and sought-after long before R. S. published a line of poetry. Until now, whenever I looked at it, hanging there on a wall of our home, I have never considered it as an autobiographical act.

Both their approaches to rendering the self seem indirect, his being the third person singular, hers a reflection. Eldridge does not assume the center of the frame; nor does she give us a close-up of the face in the looking-glass; and yet, her self-portrait, tentative as it may be, allows us a glimpse at her perception. The distant self in her husband’s performance, by comparison, seems a construct, the artifice of an entire controlled performance. Unlike her husband, Eldridge appears before us the first person singular, letting us see her as only she sees herself: a mirror image.

In how far are written or spoken words a path to—or a vessel for—the essence of the one writing or speaking? Is anyone knowable through the vocables that are a locum for self and experience? Cautioned not to take a father’s word for whatever “it” amounts to verity, can we now trust the estranged son in his voice-over, his over-writing of the words he claims to be false or misleading?

“Alone Together” suggests that, for all his accomplishments as a writer, R. S. Thomas—who yearned to be Welsh but could not speak it, who, as Elsi puts it, “adopted the vowels of an Oxford Don” to hide the shame of being, as he puts it, an “ignorant Taff from Cardiff”—envied the ease with which his accomplished artist wife communicated in a language beyond words, expressed herself freely on a blank canvas . . . and felt at home there.

Under That Hat: The Life and Breath of Carmen Miranda

So iconic is this technicolorful Latina that she might not strike you, on the face of it, as the ideal subject for a sound-only documentary; but there she is, the life of Russell Davies’s “Carmen Miranda: The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.” Once you remove that hat, you will find much to tip yours to as you listen to Ruby Wax, assisted by biographers Helena Solberg and Martha Gil-Montero, unravel the story of Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, born one hundred years ago in the small town of Marco de Canaveses, Portugal. As Carmen Miranda, she came to represent not just her non-native Brazil, to which her family emigrated, but the whole of Latin America; and while what she became was larger-than-life, the “Brazilian bombshell” was not quite so large as to cover—or level—quite so much ground. It is the leveling that those proud of their origins and culture resent—and Brazilians, in particular, came to dismiss Hollywood’s All South-American girl as inauthentic, irregular, and downright ignominious.

The United States, of course, was counting on what it hoped to be a Pan-American appeal; it is what made the former milliner’s apprentice such a sought-after commodity during the Second World War. At the end of the war, she was reputedly the highest paid woman in the United States.

A romance born of hardship and ingenuity, a glittering success tarnished by rejection, an identity challenged by dislocation and enfranchisement, a glamorous life culminating in early death, the one-of-a-kind yet kind of universal story of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” is the stuff of legend. Sure enough, that is what, according to the Internet Movie Database is what is about to come out of Hollywood any day now: Maracas: The Carmen Miranda Story.

The samba-infused first installment of this three-parter makes ample use of original recordings to highlight the performer’s early musical career. Considering that the next chapter is going to transport listeners from Rio to Hollywood, I wonder whether it is going to draw on the one source that, aside from shellac, is best suited to the medium—the sounds of Carmen Miranda’s life on the air: her samba lesson for Orson Welles; her dramatic scenes with Charlie McCarthy, or her joking with Tallulah Bankhead, Judy Holliday and Rex Harrison on The Big Show. Never mind that hat. She was the Lady with the Tutti Frutti voice, which is why she had her own radio program down south.

Carmen Miranda died on 4 August 1955, within hours after suffering a heart attack while performing on Jimmy Durante’s live television program. Could it be that our demand for visuals, our insistence to be shown what can be heard and felt more keenly in darkness, is what caused Carmen Miranda’s heart to stop its rhythmic beatings? A program like “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” offers us a chance to bring her into our presence, take her in as the voice, the breath that gave her life. We only need to make the effort to be all ears . . .


Related recordings
Hello Americans (15 November 1942)
The Charlie McCarthy Show (23 November 1947)
The Big Show (25 March 1951)

The Whole Ball of Wax: “Life With Lucy and Desi”

She wasn’t funny, and she wasn’t all that nice. That’s what those stepping behind the microphone for a new hour-long BBC radio documentary have to say about the “real” Lucille Ball, comedienne, businesswoman, and small-screen icon. Not exactly a revelation, to be sure; but you might expect less after reading the blurb on the BBC’s webpage for the program, which revises history by calling I Love Lucy “a zany television series which ran for twenty five years.” Well, let’s not heckle and jibe. The anecdotal impressions of those who can justly claim to have seen both sides of Ms. Ball make “Life With Lucy and Desi” a diverting biographical sketch, however moth-balled the gossip some twenty years after the actress’s death.

“She wasn’t the nicest person all the time,” biographer Tom Gilbert puts it mildly; but to say even that much apparently triggers complaints from many Lucy lovers, to whom journalist Mariella Frostrup apologizes in advance. Frostrup’s voice is enough to win anyone over, even though it might make at once forgive and forget what she is saying. Hers has been called the “sexiest female voice on [British] TV”—and the hot medium of radio only accentuates her seductive powers. So, where was I?

Right, “Life With Lucy and Desi.” It wasn’t all love and laughter—especially not for children. Actress Morgan Brittany recalls a scene on the set of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) in which Ball lost her temper when one of the kids dared to laugh and ruin a difficult take. Native Americans in traditional garb and images of birds likewise irritated her, as did bodily contact. “She didn’t like people being near her,” Gilbert observes.

She seemed somewhat out of touch as well, even though she got to run the run-down RKO and signed off on Star Trek, a program she assumed, as Gilbert asserts, to be about performers entertaining the troops during the Second World War.

“Life” is further enlivened by numerous recordings from Ball’s career in television, film and radio. My Favorite Husband, I am pleased to note, has not been left out of this phono-biographic grab bag, even though the snippet from the radio forerunner to I Love Lucy airs without commentary; nor is it always clear what it is that we are hearing—no dates or episode titles are mentioned—the clip from My Favorite Husband, for instance, is not identified as being been taken from the 4 March 1949 episode—and the selections seem not merely random, but hardly representative of Ball’s finest moments in this or any medium. When you hear her sing “It’s Today” (from the stage hit turned film dud Mame), you’d wish someone would “strike the band up” to drown out the wrong notes.

The argument this documentary seems to make is that Lucy would not have been Lucy if Desi had not been Ricky. Ball had talent, Brittany concedes, but might have ended up like “Baby” June Havoc, whom Brittany portrayed in Gyspy—a fine performer who never quite reached stardom and who, though still living, is not nearly so well remembered today as to be celebrated—or critiqued—in a radio documentary of her own. She might just have remained the “Queen of the B’s.”

The inevitable Robert Osborne aside, the lineup of folks who knew or at any rate worked with Ball also includes “Little Ricky” Keith Thibodeaux, Peter Marshall (who walked out on a chance of working with Ball), Allan Rich (who played a Judge on Life with Lucy; not, as Frostrup has it, on the Lucy Show) and writer Madelyn Davis (formerly Pugh), who still gets fan mail for having created the durable caricatures that were “Lucy.”

No mention, of course, is made of Hoppla Lucy, viewings of which constitute my earliest television memories (Hoppla being the German dubbing of The Lucy Show). Long before I had breakfast with Lucy when truncated (make that mutilated) episode of her first and finest television series aired on New York’s Fox Five every weekday morning, a truncated version of myself sat down to watch Lucy bake a cake and making a mess of it. I haven’t watched it since, but can still tune in the laugh it produced. Who cares whether or not what I saw was the real Ball. I sure was having one.


Related recordings
My Favorite Husband (4 March 1949)

Related writing
“Havoc in ‘Subway’ Gives Commuters Ideas”
“‘But some people ain’t me!’: Arthur Laurents and ‘The Face’ Behind Gypsy

Re: Boot (A Mental Effort Involving Distant Cousins)

Like many a woebegone youth of my generation—once known as the No Future generation—I entered the crumbling empire of Evelyn Waugh’s fictions by way of that lush, languid serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It wasn’t so much what I saw as what I had missed that made me pick up the book. Owing to my mother’s loyalty to Dynasty, which aired opposite Brideshead on West German television back in the early 1980s, I was obliged to fill whatever holes our weekly appointment with the Carringtons had blasted into Waugh’s plot. Even more circuitous was my subsequent introduction to A Handful of Dust. In keeping with the title—and in poor housekeeping besides—a tatty paperback of it had been cast to steady a wonky table in the community room of a nurse’s residence at the hospital where I carried out such duties as were imposed on me during the mandatory twenty-month stretch of civil service any boy not inclined to be trained for military action was expected to fulfill.

For twenty months, I, who ought to have been eating strawberries with Charles Ryder, served canteen slop and sanitized bedpans at a Cologne hospital. Was there ever a locality less deserving of the name it gave to the art of concealing our stenches, of which Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once “counted two and seventy” in Cologne alone? My head was not held very high during those days, which probably led me to investigate just what propped up that misshapen piece of furniture. For once, though, I had reason to lament being downcast. A Handful of Dust turned out to be a rare find.

Counting the weeks to my release, I could sympathized with its anti-hero, the hapless Tony Last, trapped as he was in the wilds of the Amazon, forced to read the works of Charles Dickens to the one man who could have returned him to civilization but, enjoying his literary escapes, refused to release him—a scenario familiar to regular listeners of thriller anthologies Suspense and Escape.) Like Mr. Last, I had gotten myself in an awful fix—and up a creek that smelled the part.

So, when I think of Evelyn Waugh’s early fictions now, at a time in my life when I can more closely associate with his later Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, what comes to mind is the comparative misery of my youth and the pleasures derived from the incongruities at the heart of his late-1920s and 1930s novels, satires like Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932). While not inclined to relive those days by revisiting such titles, I could not turn down the chance of another Scoop (1937), the first installment of a two-part adaptation of which is being presented this week by BBC Radio 4.

Ever topical, Scoop is a satire on journalism, war and the money to be made in the Hearstian enterprise of making the news that sells. Finding himself in the midst of it all is William Boot, whose sole contribution to the field of journalism is a “bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature.” Decidedly not mightier than the sword, his pen produced lines like “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole. . . .” Not the rugged, muscular prose you’d expect from a war correspondent.

It was all a deuced mistake, of course, this business of sending Boot to report on the crisis in Ishmaelia, a “hitherto happy commonwealth” whose Westernized natives no longer “publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.” The chap who was meant and eager to go among them was William’s namesake, one John Courteney Boot, a fashionable novelist who “kept his name sweet in intellectual circles with unprofitable but modish works on history and travel,” works like “Waste of Time, a studiously modest description of some harrowing months among the Patagonian Indians.”

Absurd situations and wicked caricatures aside, it is Waugh’s prose—the pith of impish phrases like “studiously modest”—that makes a novel like Scoop such a font of literary Schadenfreude. “Amusingly unkind,” the London Times Literary Supplement called it. As it turns out, the joke’s on us once the narration is removed.

Condensing the wild plot in suitably madcap speed, Jeremy Front’s radio adaptation retains little of the narration, sacrificing not only wit but clarity to boot. What is left of the Waugh’s exposition may well lead the listener to believe that John, not William, is the central character. Indeed, like Waugh’s dimwitted Lord Copper, head of the Megalopolitan Newpaper Corporation, listeners are apt to (con)fuse the two.

Unlike Front, Waugh takes great pains to set up the farcical plot, dropping first one Boot, then another, and makes it clear just how the unequal pair are matched:

“The fashionable John Courtney Boot was a remote cousin [of William],” Waugh’s narrator informs us, but they “had never met.” Too eager to get on with the story, Front omits these line, relying solely on the juxtaposition of the two characters, who, during those first few minutes of the play, are little more than names to us.

However bootless the lament, I wish those stepping into the wooden O of radio today would put themselves in the shoes of their listener. Before experimenting with fancy footwork, they should consult a few classics to arrive at the proper balance between dialogue and narration. Otherwise, a potential Scoop can seem like such a Waste of Time—especially to those whose concentration is impaired by plot-obstructive reminiscences . . .


Related recordings
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Suspense (9 Oct. 1947)
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Escape (21 December 1952)

Together . . . to Gaza? The Media and the Worthy Cause

The British Broadcasting Corporation has had its share of problems lately, what with its use of licensee fees to indulge celebrity clowns in their juvenile follies. Now, the BBC, which is a non-profit public service broadcaster established by Royal Charter, is coming under attack for what the paying multitudes do not get to see and hear, specifically for its refusal to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for aid to Gaza. According to the BBC, the decision was made to “avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story.” To be sure, if the story weren’t “ongoing,” the need for financial support could hardly be argued to be quite as pressing.

In its long history, the BBC has often made its facilities available for the making of appeals and thereby assisted in the raising of funds for causes deemed worthy by those who approached the microphone for that purpose. Indeed, BBC radio used to schedule weekly “Good Cause” broadcasts to create or increase public awareness of crises big and small. Listener pledges were duly recorded in the annual BBC Handbook. From the 1940 edition I glean, for instance, that on this day, 29 January, in 1939, two “scholars” raised the amount of £1,310 for a London orphanage. Later that year, an “unknown cripple” raised £768, while singer-comedienne Gracie Fields’s speech on behalf of the Manchester Royal Infirmary brought in £2,315. The pleas weren’t all in the name of infants and invalids, either. The Student Movement House generated funds by using BBC microphones, as did the Hedingham Scout Training Scheme.

While money for Gaza remains unraised, the decision not to get involved in the conflict raises questions as to the role of the BBC, its ethics, and its ostensible partiality. Just what constitutes a “worthy” cause? Does the support for the civilian casualties of war signal an endorsement of the government of the nation at war? Is it possible to separate humanitarian aid from politics?

It strikes me that the attempt to staying well out of it is going to influence history as much as it would to make airtime available for an appeal. In other words, the saving of lives need not be hindered by the pledged commitment to report news rather than make it.

Impartiality and service in the public interest were principles to which the US networks were expected to adhere as well, however different their operations were from those of the BBC. In 1941, the FCC prohibited a station or network from speaking “in its own person,” from editorializing, e.g. urging voters to support a particular Presidential candidate; it ruled that “the broadcaster cannot be an advocate”; but this did not mean that airtime, which could be bought to advertise wares and services, could not be purchased as well for the promotion of ideas, ideals, and ideologies. The broadcasting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats or his public addresses on behalf of the March of Dimes and the War Loan Drives did not imply the broadcasters’ favoring of the man or the cause.

On this day in 1944, all four major networks allotted time for the special America Salutes the President’s Birthday. Never mind that it wasn’t even FDR’s birthday until a day later. The cause was the fight against infantile paralysis; but that did not prevent Bob Hope from making a few jokes at the expense of the Republicans, who, he quipped, had all “mailed their dimes to President Roosevelt in Washington. It’s the only change they get to see any change in the White House.”

A little change can bring about big changes; but, as a result of the BBC’s position on “impartiality,” much of that change seems to remain in the pockets of the public it presumes to inform rather than influence.


Related recording
America Salutes the President’s Birthday, currently in my online library
My library of books on radio

Related writings
Go Tell Auntie: Listener Complaints Create Drama at BBC
Election Day Special: Could This Hollywood Heavy Push You to the Polls?

The Sound of Second-Hand Clapping: In Town To-Night

I enjoy spending time by myself. It’s a good thing I do, considering that I am pretty much on my own in my enthusiasm for old and largely obscure radio programs, especially those that I only get to hear about. Listening, like reading, is a solitary experience; to share your thoughts about what went on in your head can be as difficult and frustrating as it is to put into words the visions and voices of a dream. Besides, unless you are talking to somebody who gets paid to listen, your dreams and reveries are rarely as stimulating to others as they are to yourself. This isn’t exactly a dream, much less one come true—but it’s a jolly good facsimile thereof.

A few weeks ago, I walked into a second-hand bookstore in Hampstead, London. Second hands down, a used bookshop is the place to be initiated into worlds you cannot experience firsthand, no matter how deep you dig or vigorously you claw. The volume I had my dusty hands on was a signed copy of In Town To-Night, a truly forgotten book promising, as the subtitle has it, “The Story of the Popular BBC Feature Told from Within.” In other words, a close-up of something quite out of reach.

The compendium was published in 1935, at a time when dramatics had not yet come to the fore on American radio. According to a 1938 study by William Albig, a researcher who compiled data to establish the percentages of airtime devoted to various types of programs on nine American radio stations between 1925 to 1935, dramatic broadcasts (including plays, sketches, and serials) were not a significant aspect of programming, even though they had increased considerably in frequency during that period, namely from 0.13% in February 1922 to 8.85% in July 1934. Radio plays were even less frequently heard on the BBC; nor were there any signs of change. Dramatic programs constituted 2.14% of the BBC’s offerings in February 1925, as compared to 2.04% in July 1934.

So, what kind of program was In Town To-Night? “[A]s every one knows,” the blurb on the dust jacket reads, it is what the BBC called a “feature,” a highly inclusive term for a series of broadcasts produced or written by the same team or featuring the same host. While rather more formulaic, Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight came to mind, as did many of the hour-long variety programs broadcast in the US during the mid- to late 1930s.

In Town To-Night prided itself on being a program of many voices. Whatever the sound produced by such friction may be, it was on this feature that chimney-sweeps were heard

rubb[ing] shoulders with film-stars, and cat’s-meat merchants with peers of the realm. Poets, down and outs, playwrights, pearly kings and queens, and interesting people from all parts of the world have been gathered within its framework.

J. C. Cannell, the author of the book, was a talent scout for the Saturday night feature, which, at the time of publication, was in its third season; his role was to ensure a “queer medley” of personalities,

chosen with haste, though with care. A mixed lot, picked as though from a lucky dip, surprising because listeners did not know beforehand whom they would hear, and nearly always, I think, delightful for some reason or other.

Heard on this rehearsed and scripted variety program were many familiar voices from Broadway, Hollywood, and the West End; among them Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore, Paul Muni, Johnny Weissmuller, Vivien Leigh, Polly Moran, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Ida Lupino was interviewed by her actor-father Stanley; and Hermione Gingold was heard in conversation with her dresser.

Jimmy Walker, formerly Mayor of New York City, was featured, as were movie director James Whale, author Algernon Blackwood, and Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was “anxious to talk about his constant search for interesting screen personalities.”

Cab Calloway performed, as did Leonard Hawke, the first man ever to sing on a BBC program, along with assorted groups of Welsh miners and Swiss yodelers. Wilhelm Grosz, composer of “Isle of Capri,” played a medley of Strauss waltzes he had discovered in a bookshop in Venice.

The greater attractions, though, were the real folks and the curious ones telling their stories, many of which are retold in Cannell’s illustrated account. As the program found its voice, the stars made way for the stories of everyday—or not so everyday—folk, their struggles and successes. There was Pan The Ming, for instance, who stopped by while touring the world on foot (apart from brief intervals on his bicycle); there was a singing laundryman, a woman detective, a one-armed parachutist, as well as “one hundred grandfathers from the Upper Holloway Baptist Grandfathers’ Club”; Molly Moore, a knocker-up from Limehouse; Mrs. Wheelabread, “The Chocolate Lady” from Kensington Gardens, and Jack Morgan, “The Boy with the Large Ears.”

And then there was a visit from Clayton “Peg” Bates, the one-legged tap dancer who inspired listeners with his philosophy when he urged them to “forget” their “self-pity and go right ahead and do as other men do.”

In Town To-Night sounds like a program to stay in for—not just for the stories, which Cannell can recount, but for the voices that he cannot. Say, what is the sound of second-hand clapping?

"Samson, made captive, blind": Milton on the Wireless

BBC Radio 3 is in the middle of a Milton season, designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth. This week, Milton’s works are the subject of The Essay; his views, their significance and influence, are discussed on this week’s Sunday Feature, while excerpts from his poetry are recited on Words and Music. On 14 December, a new production of Milton’s Samson Agonistes will be presented by Drama on 3.

The wireless gave birth to the career of many a Milton, from announcers Milton Cross and John Milton Kennedy to comic Milton Berle. Among its writers numbers Milton Geiger, a playwright whom Best Broadcasts anthologist Max Wylie singled out for his ability to bring “reality and movement to a property that is in every sense an allegory.” More than any of those Miltons on the air, John, the poet and essayist, is truly in his element in the so-called blind medium of radio. His struggle to combat metaphorical blindness while being afflicted with physical sightlessness—a challenge that became the subject of a radio play (previously discussed here) was frequently the theme of his poetry, from “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner Upon His Blindness” to Paradise Lost and, finally, Samson Agonistes:

“O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!” the captured Samson, blinded and bereft of his powers, laments:

Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
Inferior to the vilest now become
Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own—
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half

As a political writer eager to get his word out, Milton might have embraced the swift spreading of ideas that wireless technology makes possible. He would have seen in broadcasting the dissemination of so much good mingled “almost inseparably” with so much evil, from which the good is “hardly to be discerned.” To him, though, discernment was not the result of a shutting out of anything potentially harmful or ostensibly bad, but of a taking in of it all and an informed judging of its qualities. He would have welcomed the chance to have his words reach the ears of the multitude in a single broadcast, and of hearing the voices of others in an open forum.

Yet was there ever such a forum on the air? As he did in his Areopagitica, Milton would have objected to the licensing and censorship that threaten and curtail the freedom of speech. Commercial broadcasting, he might have argued, is not unlike Samson, betrayed, imprisoned and abused: “in power of others, never in [its] own,” a “moving grave” awaiting death by television. Even when it was still capable of bringing down the house, radio, like Samson, went down in the process before ever entirely convincing anyone of the power and virtue of sightless vision.

So, if Samson is Radio, who is his Delilah? Would it be television, the sponsors, radio executives, or, perhaps, the Philistine public at large?