What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.
It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing. It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.
Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes. Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look. I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!
The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year. This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person. It is the image of a mask that is already a persona. In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.
I have long come to the conclusion that I never quite know what I will say next. I am determined however, that whatever I say last shall be more memorable than anything I said first or during any of the intervening years, which is probably not saying much.
So that I don’t end up mouthing what has already been said, I am brushing up on notable quotations to discard. Like ‘I think or not to be,’ for example, which has already been said first by at least two different people.
I also need to brush up on history – roughly from the Common Era to the somewhat less common Golden Age – which is decidedly more challenging, as history mainly consists of memorable things said by people who do not trouble themselves to say them memorably, which is why I tend to recall facts largely fictitiously, to say the least.
The vast majority of histories, especially those I have not consulted, are altogether too long, I find. Things are blow out of all epic proportions, with dates, names and crowned heads – some heavy, some severed – thrust at you, relentlessly (they) and unawares (you), in both quick and bloody succession, ‘succession’ often being synonymous with ‘bloody.’ The saying ‘Uneasy lies the head that facts wear thin’ comes to mind, if vaguely.
At any rate, I am apparently not epicurean enough – or is ‘epidural’ the word? – which is to say that I have been numb to the pleasures of history since birth, an event that occurred so long ago that I have forgotten most of that, too (that last ‘that’ being different from any other ‘that’ in that sentence). I am of an epigrammatical persuasion myself, although more so in my reading than in my writing, I have been told.
Speaking of which (reading, I mean): I was turning the pages of The Murder of My Aunt (1934) the other day (Thursday, I think), and I was reminded by its almost forgotten author, Richard Hull, of a history to end all histories – at least British ones, which used to cover more ground than latterly, with more shrinkage more likely than not. To think that it took a work of detective fiction like Hull’s – which is not, by the way, a continuation of and fatal conclusion to Travels with My Aunt – to point me to a history in which wit is the very soul of brevity, to paraphrase somewhat!
Anyway, according to the narrating nephew of that titular relation, the latter, while yet living (in Wales, no less, to which I can relate, albeit reluctantly at times), had ‘been reading some absurd comic history of England, full, I gather, of elementary humour of the schoolboy variety.’ Apparently, the aunt enjoyed that ‘history’ so much that she named her two dogs after two men – the great and the good – mentioned therein. Just wherein that was the author lacks the accuracy and goodness to state.
The two dogs, meanwhile, are Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth. After several failed attempts at spelling those names correctly, I scoured the internet, filthy place that it is, to discover that they refer to two ancient rulers that most histories have consigned to oblivion, a state that rulers generally make considerable efforts not to end up in, opting – vainly, as it turns out – for largely unread tomes instead.
How could I have never heard of Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, or, having heard, not recall them by name? I am not a native of any of the British Isles, I should point out in my defense – a word, incidentally, that I insist on not spelling with a ‘c,’ as many British people do, unless they are students of mine, in which case they generally do not concern themselves with spelling at all.
But I divagate, as only the Latin still say now. The point is that the history the aunt made such good use of is 1066 and All That and that it is so good I am quite rooting for her now, even though her survival would make Hull’s ostensible Murder mystery somewhat less of one. What I like most about 1066 – as a book, not a date – is that it is a) short, b) determined to be memorable (a word frequently used by the authors, Sellar and Yeatman), and c) interspersed with ‘tests’ to help me remember what I just read.
About Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth, for instance, it asks readers:
Have you the faintest recollection of
1) Ethelbreth? 2) Athelthral? 3) Thruthelthrolth?
I puzzled for a while, but found the next question encouraging: ‘What have you the faintest recollection of?’ Indeed.
1066, somewhat confusingly, was written quite a few years later than its title suggests and published not until 1930, when it must have been hit so hard by the Depression (the great and not so good) that it disappeared under the rock it came to share with me, eventually. Just before that happened, if ever it did, the book was highly regarded by H. V. Kaltenborn, who, in turn, was a big name in the history of radio, which is the only history that I have not only read but written, a fact that should be reassuring to at least someone, surely.
To get back to those last words of mine, for the breathing of which I am rehearsing at present without any particular urgency. Clearly, I need to cross out another two as unusable: Athelthral and Thruthelthrolth. Had I thought of them to begin with, I would have been confident that they had not already been uttered. Not that I am quite capable of uttering them, at least not with any great confidence or without a tissue to hand.
No matter. I am undaunted by the challenge of having those last words ready for folks to go gentle on me on my last good night. After all, who was it that said ‘Fools brush past where angels fear to sled’? Rosebud, I think. Which reminds me to check whether he was Plantagenet or the House of Elsa Lanchester. I am hoping 1066 and All That will have all the answers.
[This was my eight hundredth post. Most of the others are equal to however you might find this one to be, should you happen to find it at all.]
As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat. Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.
I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time. Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance. Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately. “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:
‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’ Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there. As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.
‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’ To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’
Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’
Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’ Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.
A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.
Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’ Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’ Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.
Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism, provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’ Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.
‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’ The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.
The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’ Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.
Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’
Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future. And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness. As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.
In “‘Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?’: Exits and Recantations,” the final chapter of Immaterial Culture, I briefly discuss how creative talent working in the US broadcasting industry during the 1930s and 1940s tended to recall their experience upon closing the door to the world of radio in order to pursue careers they deemed more lofty and worthy. Few had anything positive to say about that world, and their reminiscences range from ridicule to vitriol.
Within a year or two after the end of the Second World War, attacks on the radio industry became widespread and popular; most notable among them was The Hucksters, a novel by Frederic Wakeman, a former employee of the advertising agency Lord & Thomas. Between 1937 and 1945, Wakeman had developed radio programs and sales campaigns for corporate sponsors, an experience that apparently convinced him to conclude there was ‘no need to caricature radio. All you have to do,’ the author’s fictional spokesperson sneers, ‘is listen to it.’
Such ‘parting shots,’ as I call them in Immaterial Culture, resonated with an audience that, after years of fighting and home front sacrifices, found it sobering that Democratic ideals, the Four Freedoms and the Pursuit of Happiness were being reduced to the right – and duty – to consume. After a period of relative restraint, post-war radio went all out to spread such a message, until television took over and made that message stick with pictures showing the latest goods to get and guard against Communism.
Following – and no doubt encouraged by – the commercial success of The Hucksters, the soap opera writer Robert Hardy Andrews published Legend of a Lady, a novel set, like Wakeman’s fictional exposé, in the world of advertising. Andrews probably calculated that like The Hucksters and owing to it Legend would be adapted for the screen, as his novel Windfall had been.
Unlike in The Hucksters, the industry setting is secondary in Legend of a Lady. Andrews has less to say about radio than he has about women in the workforce. And what he has to say on that subject the dust jacket duly proclaims: ‘Legend of a Lady is the story of pretty, fragile Rita Martin, who beneath her charming exterior is hell-bent for personal success and who tramples with small, well-shod feet on all who stand in her way.’ The publisher insisted that ‘it would be hard to find a more interesting and appalling character.’
I did not read the blurb beforehand, and, knowing little about the novel other than the milieu in which it is set, I was not quite prepared for the treatment the title character receives not only by the men around her but by the author. The Legend of the Lady, which I finished reading yesterday, thinking it might be just the stuff for a reboot of my blog, opens intriguingly, and with cinematic potential, as the Lady in question picks up ‘her famous white-enameled portable typewriter in small but strong hands’ and throws it ‘through the glass in the office widow,’ right down onto Madison Avenue, the artificial heart of the advertising industry.
This is Mad Women, I thought, and looked forward to learning, in flashback, how a ‘small but strong’ female executive gets to weaponise a tool of the trade instead of dutifully sitting in front of it like so many stereotypical office gals. Legend of a Lady is ‘appalling’ indeed, reminding readers that dangerous women may be deceptively diminutive, that they are after the jobs held by their male counterparts, and that, rest assured, dear conservative reader, they will pay for it. In the end, Rita Martin, a single mother trying to gain independence from her husband and making a living during the Great Depression, exists an office ‘she would never enter again.’ Along the way, she loses everything –spoiler alert – from her sanity to her son.
The blurb promises fireworks, but what Legend of a Lady delivers is arson. It is intent on reducing to ashes the aspirational ‘legend’ of women who aim to control their destiny in post-war America. The world of soap opera writing and production serves as mere a backdrop to render such ambitions all the more misguided: soap operas are no more real than the claim that working for them is a meaningful goal. As a writer of serials for mass consumption, Robert Hardy Andrews apparently felt threatened and emasculated working in a business in which women achieved some success in executive roles. In a fiction in which men big and small suffer deaths and fates worth than that at the delicate hand of Rita Martin, Andrews created for himself a neo-romantic alter ego – the rude, nonchalant freelance writer Tay Crofton, who refuses to be dominated by a woman he would like to claim for himself but does not accept as a partner on her own terms, presumably because she cannot be entrusted with the power she succeeds in wresting from the men around her without as much as raising her voice.
Devoid of the trimmings and trappings of Hollywood storytelling, without glamor or camp, without gowns by Adrian or brows by Crawford, Legend of a Lady serves its misogyny straight up – but it couches its caution against ‘small’ women in spurious philosophy by claiming that, for men and women alike, there is life outside the proverbial squirrel cage that Andrews relentlessly rattles for his agonizing spin on the battle of the sexes.
As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality. Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so. As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies. Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.
No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study. As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947). I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”). The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.
Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal. In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa. It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.
As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?
Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.
Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa. Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong. The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”
Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity. Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography. There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage. Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.
Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow. Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory. What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary. She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.
I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different. Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.
Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged. If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation. They are like irony in that respect. You just can’t be ironic all by yourself. Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.
As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.
Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience. Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.
Buying the lot is something I rarely do. I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations. And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp. Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.
Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.” Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent. The question is: what are and what ain’t they?
Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here. No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle. And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct. The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken. Words that create images or match stored ones. Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought. Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it. After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss. I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles. Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.
Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse. Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …
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….
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.
When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least. I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward. Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.
Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.” Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker. In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”
“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:
Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).
Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay. Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:
Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour. And Fenwick needn’t think he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either. You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.
Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.
“Have voice, will travel.” That was the line my history of broadcasting professor Frank Kahn used to advertise his vocal services in the trade papers of yesteryear. And a voice for radio he did have, even though what he said and how he brought it across was appreciated by next to no one at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he ended up teaching in the cable TV age. Kahn was out of touch and, no doubt, keenly aware of it, incapable or unwilling though he was to do anything about it. “Have voice, will travel”? I mean, who among his students even got this sly reference to a time when the medium of radio was being challenged by sharp-shooting television? “Have voice, will travel.” The line came to mind when, some time ago, I read Douglas Gilbert’s biography Floyd Gibbons: Knight of the Air (1930). You don’t have to be out of touch to appreciate it, though it sure doesn’t hurt any if you catch up with someone whose fifteen minutes of fame (and airtime) was up nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
“There is no one in the world who can talk like Floyd Gibbons,” his biographer marvelled:
He speaks at a maximum speed of 245 words a minute and at an average speed of 216 words a minute and every word is clearly pronounced, completely enunciated, readily understood. He dramatizes his speech, just as he dramatizes the news.
Gilbert, in turn, “dramatizes” Gibbons’s career. Indeed, he melo-dramatizes it. The biographer seems determined to turn the journalist into a swashbuckler and to imbue with romance what, on the air, was down-to-earth and up-to-date.
“He could, and often does, wear any sort of costume,” Gilbert says about Gibbons, “and when he does, he has an air. It is a negligent and yet perfect air.” Shown with his signature patch (Gibbons lost one eye while, as a newspaper journalist, he was reporting from French battlefields during the First World War), the so-called “Headline Hunter,” then middle-aged, certainly has that “air” of romance about him.
According to Gilbert, Gibbons was through being a roving reporter at the age of forty. His latest book, The Red Napoleon, which he was in the process of completing back in 1928, was a “prophesy of the next world war and the part radio was to play in it.” To make such a prophesy, Gibbons consulted NBC president M. H. Aylesworth; and out of his luncheon with the radio executive there “developed the ‘Headline Hunter’ and the ‘Prohibition Poller’ and news gatherer that ma[de] the Literary Digest’s fifteen minutes over WJZ a radio ‘front page.’”
At 40 through with roving? Today at 42 he’s just begun—roaming for fifteen-million persons—their vicarious vagabond of the air, satisfying the gypsy lust of those of us who have never traveled.
“He’s radio’s knight errant,” Gilbert insists, “the listener’s passport to uncharted harbors; their open sesame to Cathay; their vista of a world whose only boundaries are the poles.”
For his audition, performed in front of an “unseen audience of Aylesworth and other NBC officials,” Gibbons recounted his “most exciting experience”—being aboard the Laconia when she was torpedoed. The event had taken place over a decade earlier, on 25 February 1917; but Gibbons managed to bring it to life and to lend it urgency through the power of his voice.
Back in 1917,
Gibbons had had a hunch, a newspaper man’s hunch when he took the Laconia. He had been ordered to France as war correspondent. He refused to go on the ship on which Von Bernsdorff [German ambassador to the US] was sailing because he knew no harm would come to that ship from the Germans. He chose the Laconia, having a hunch she would be sunk and that he would escape and file a story of the sinking.
In the late 1920s, there was no indication that radio, too, was a ship under fire. As Gilbert suggests, Gibbons would have gotten aboard anyway, had he known just how much danger lay ahead. Not many people beside Gibbons imagined in 1930 that radio would become the medium most called upon for up-to-date accounts of warfare. Had he been born a decade or two later—and not died in 1939—Gibbons would have gone straight into the thick of it and brought his spitfire delivery to a medium to which his voice was so adequately equipped. Living too early, living too late? All we can hope is that our voices will travel some distance once we are convinced we have something to say . . .
“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.”