'Playing by ear'

Section 3



3.1 Radio avant-garde and the Academy: Sound-Houses

I now turn to future lines of research, looking partly to my own work. What of the role of the Academy in encouraging a subject area? Journals can be leaders and that is the hope for Sound Journal. Consider how Screen's playing up of analysis on avant-garde film, to the alleged exclusion of popular film, was a forcing house for the growth of film studies departments in the 1970s and 1980s, and consider also the role of STP since 1990. Fortunately there are innovative courses on sound design and multi-media, as now in the London College of Printing (LCP), with composers and sound installation artists contributing. But we still need firstly, laboratories of avant-garde work and secondly, festivals, along with opportunities for students' and teachers' work to be heard and passed around, on CDs and the Internet. Note 1



What I and others can work at, is, of course, just these sound laboratories. Francis Bacon, back in 1626, futuristically wrote of 'Sound-Houses', which he would instal in his utopian colleges 'wher wee practise and demonstrate all Sounds, and their Generation' (Smith, 1999, 49, Crook, 1999, 30-1). Note 2

This vision was rightly taken as a founding charter for the B.B.C. Radiophonic Workshop, according to a broadcast feature (Smee and Briscoe 1979).



What can radio teachers do? We must open up opportunities for experiments which are epistemically distanced from the radio mainstream. We could attempt to discover new patterns of verbal perceptual intelligibility, in non-standard ways. There could be pieces which acknowledge the inadequacy of radio drama's verbal structures, as Andrew Sach's 'The Revenge' pioneered in 1978. We are now in the digital age when post-production, sound capturing and sampling are so much more plentiful. 'Sound-Houses' could attempt the counter-cultural in this radio medium where such experiments are almost solely in the domain of music and installations.



The problem is: where this can fit into an undergraduate course? Here are my solutions, such as they are, and more details are on the Radio Drama site. (I outline only aspects of my radio course here, and issues raised by radio plays are discussed in weekly lectures and seminars.) Students first go through what I call the 'nursery slopes' and have grasped main techniques. They include the need to bring the actor's performance 'down' for the microphone and that work with the voice is minutely detailed. Also students have to learn how to let radio do its work, as often, less is more. They now undertake short theory-and-practice exercises. They form into teams and select from a list of key terms such as the following: soundscape, montage, acousmatic sounds, pre-verbal sounds, finding the middle ground between foreground-background perspective, the moving sound centre. We then go on a trip with our mini-disks and microphones. It's a visit to the exciting Fire Procession at Lewes, near Brighton, on Guy Fawke's Night. Students capture live aural material (fireworks, procession bands, crowds) and they interview participants.

 Fire procession at Lewes, Sussex

Capturing audio at Lewes


But instead of turning this material into the sort of radio packages you would hear broadcast on B.B.C. local radio, the students are required to transform this intensely visual carnival into two-minute exercises. Each of these is focused on an aesthetic aspect of sound and its reception from the given list. The result is laboratory work and not for broadcast; and it needs a particular focus, where theory informs creativity. The student teams have to display a range of formalist techniques. They make presentations and so build an aesthetic-technical vocabulary. These experiments will inform their later work.

Fire procession at Lewes, Sussex - burning crosses


3.2 Radio and the Digital Age

I talked above about radio drama Cinderella and if she ever gets to the ball, it has to be now. Radio is into its third technological revolution: the digital. Scholars – and I put myself into the firing line first - have not yet responded with digital production studies and theorising. Note 3

Also, as we are now in the cinema 'Dolby era' (Sergi, 1998, 156), radio drama productions are hard put to play 'catch up' with cinema's digital six or eight channels, higher than ever aural expectations from the 'super-listener', and rival domestic Home THX and Digital sound systems (Sergi 1999). This is what Marshall McLuhan had already identified: the ongoing shift in the human sensorium, the 'massaging of the ratio of the senses' (McLuhan, 1967, 68 and compare phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962). Are there any examples of filmic and postmodernist radio dramas in the UK? (That is part of my ongoing research.) Our theory evolves in response to, and must lag behind, radio praxis and technology.


3.3 Extending the vocabulary

Radio, overall, is still under-theorised (Lewis and Booth, 1989, xii-xiii and 3), and needs to draw on other disciplines, film especially in my opinion. I describe film as 'radio drama's significant other'. My preference among the all-too-few current theorists in film sound is for Michel Chion (Chion 1994; Crook, 1999, 70, 81-9), Edward Brannigan, Murray Smith and Gianluca Sergi. (A reading list is available on the Radio Theory site.) Many radio drama listeners have their aural skills refined in the cinema, as I outlined above.

Further, as I touched on above, radio has not a descriptive, critical, artistic and theoretical vocabulary as evolved and precise for its many tasks as we would wish it. The complaint goes back to Arnheim, 1936, 17. Sergi 1998 starts his study of film sound with a regret about 'the lack of a proper vocabulary with which to articulate the complexity of the subject' (156). Elissa Guralnick explains that in her study of Beckett, Stoppard, Pinter, etc., ‘[I] have made little mention of so-called production values – sound effects, background music, electronic filters for noises and voices, and the like’ (Guralnick, 1996, xi).

Radio itself was never part of that 1980s theoretical explosion which drove film, for example, into work on subject and object. Crook’s chapter, ‘Sound design vocabulary’, gives an effective collection to date, with commentary (Crook, 1999, 70-89). I introduce or adapt some terms myself, given in the Glossary.

More can be found in the Radio Theory site online. Examples are the ‘extra-radio world’ corresponding to film’s ‘profilmic event’ or ‘profilmic object’, that is, the world out there at which the microphone points. Also there is the radio 'mise en scène', well-known in theatre scenography and even more widely applied in film studies (Beck, 2000, 'Mise en scène'). I transpose from film theory the term ‘suturing devices’. Their purpose is to 'stitch in' or 'bind in' and position the listener. They make up for radio's 'absence' (Crisell, 1994, 56). I hope these terms will be found meaningful in future work but the aim must be overall, to produce on the page, as detailed an analysis of key radio play scenes as one finds in film studies.


3.4 Canons and how (not) to use them

British radio drama work suffers from a tiny ‘canon’ of greats available in print, some from the radio 1950s Modernist ‘moment’. John Drakakis's collection of essays, British Radio Drama, provides an excellent discussion of these (Drakakis 1981). Perhaps it is time to reevaluate them and bring the list up to the digital age. There is a conspicuous gap in the 1980s and 1990s (but see Crook 1999, 275-279). When students ask for interesting plays as a follow-up to Drakakis 1981, a list is just not in existence.

New 'post-classical' style B.B.C. productions of the canon would be very welcome, especially for Samuel Beckett. Katherine Worth, in her chapter on Samuel Beckett's radio plays (Worth 1981), was able to base her analysis on her own new productions. Tom Stoppard's famous 'Albert's Bridge' (broadcast 13 July 1970) sounds, as far as production is concerned, particularly dated and modest now, though the acting is superb. For example, the scenes when Albert is aloft and painting the bridge, and the bridge's collapse itself, could gain a lot from digital production, wider sound perspectives and some on-location recording.


3.5 Instead of the Canon


However, I do not encourage my students to draw on the print canon (Dylan Thomas, Beckett, Stoppard, Pinter, Barker, etc.) for their production work. In fact, I forbid it, on the grounds that desired learning outcomes are not so served. I have to add here that at no point in the course do I take over directing myself and my job is to give notes to the working student director. Later, the student becomes independent, taking over the radio drama production suite and reporting to me. I find this an enormous benefit in radio. And there is not that potential conflict of staff-directed versus student production.

There are a few reasons for my exclusion of the canon and I know that on other courses such material has been used successfully. Casting for such scripts I find to be too great a challenge, even in a drama department. Students, in my experience, can rarely achieve the acting styles and voice technique demanded. This has to do with radio in itself and is a contrast to what they do achieve on stage. Also the scenes are often too long and they do not open up sufficiently exciting production possibilities. (Though David O'Shea's article on musicality and 'heightened text' in Shakespeare for students encourages me to rethink about stage classics (O'Shea 1999).)



My solution is to have students adapt scenes from genre novels, short stories, and films, such as Ursula le Guin, Angela Carter, Ben Elton, the poetic Vikram Seth, etc. I find expressive genre acting much more attainable. Scenes can be kept short, and some stylish directing and post-production demanded, with lots of music and effects, and lots of formalist devices. (There is more about this on my Radio Drama site.)



I also discourage productions of entire plays. When a student has managed to put together three or four scenes from an adaptation, you have a sense of their directorial rhythms and choices. Of course, these have to be a sequence of key, climactic scenes. I don’t need to hear more than these and I think they have now met all the challenges of this particular genre. I find anything further is repetition. They should already have given me a sense of the rhythms and architecture of the whole piece, and of course there is accompanying written work. And so it is on to the next exercise and making the best use of course time. I prefer to hear a range of work, a portfolio, rather than one large radio piece. And after all, this reflects the work of a professional ‘jobbing’ radio director. (There is another pathway if a student has scripted a ten- or even twenty-minute play and of course they must be given creative space for production.) Again, in this respect, radio drama is so different from theatre director and actor training.



I also discourage students from drawing on stage scripts. They nearly always restrict their radio directing. Firstly, the scenes are far too long. Secondly, creating realism in radio drama (and so many stage plays are in a spectrum of realism when adapted) becomes rather a dreary enterprise once basic training has been done. Stage plays most often transpose into 'talking-heads' radio drama and we hear enough of that on B.B.C. Radio 4. The challenge for students has to be genre: sci-fi, vampire, horror, Gothic, farce, magic realism, crime, spy, melodrama, etc. Students have got to stretch the limits of genre and be as stylish as they can. In these ways, radio drama is so much closer to TV and film than the stage.


3.6 History projects and 'authorial' directors

Having looked at the challenges of the radio drama 'canon', I now continue with my wish list for radio drama research. We still await a detailed historical analysis of scripts and production - the full 'set of histories', to use Tulloch's term from his study of TV drama (Tulloch, 1990, 2-3). This must be a long-term project and follows on Asa Briggs' famous history of the B.B.C. (Briggs 1961-1979), Drakakis 1981, some early details from Eckersley 1998, Crisell 1994, among others. We also have the accounts of practitioners from Lance Sieveking onwards (Sieveking 1934). Note 4

But current B.B.C. radio drama directors, some brilliant in their work and sensitively informative about their art in private interview, are publicly silent, perhaps silenced. I have never heard them interviewed on B.B.C. R4's 'Front Row' (the arts programme) and rarely on 'Kaleidoscope (its predecessor). (Some interview material is in Beck 1997.) Key directors are Brandt's 'authorial' individuals, that is, those who have given an 'innovative response to the limits of current technology' (Brandt, 1981, 16 in his British Television Drama). Current 'innovative' examples from the B.B.C. include docu-dramas pioneered by Kate Rowland, Head of the B.B.C. Radio Drama Department and the 'filmic' style, as in the 'Bleak House' (mentioned above).

There is an academic project under discussion with the B.B.C. and with independents to interview leading directors and actors, and to circulate these on CD. The aim is to further teaching and research, and it has to be on a non-funded DIY basis. Again, note the contrast with material available for students of stage and screen.


3.7 Radio drama dramaturge and the director's remit

The B.B.C. has neither funded nor yet seen the systematic need for a dramaturge. The dramaturge fulfils the role of the cultural commentator who interacts with production, mediates with audiences and who is central in the European theatrical tradition (Beck 1999a). There is, however, some lineage for the radio director-dramaturge. Val Gielgud (1900-1981), when head of B.B.C. radio drama from 1929 and then also of television drama (Gielgud, 1957), his successor Martin Esslin (Esslin, 1964, 1971), and other practitioners famously, if exiguously, fulfilled that dramaturgical role in their publications and interviews.

But this absence of the dramaturge raises deep questions. Is radio drama, in the way it is practised in the UK, anti-'auteur'? Are radio drama directors really 'jobbing' directors? Do they not leave a mark of their original artistry? Do they see that as their remit? Does 'director's theatre' (or Brandt's the 'authorial') not exist in UK radio drama? (There are also the poststructuralist and aesthetic questions of authorship in a text.)

When I have discussed this with the previous generation of B.B.C. radio drama directors, such as Martin Jenkins, and previous Heads of Radio Drama, John Tydeman and Ronnie Mason, they said that they could usually spot a particular director's work very soon into the broadcast. And this was especially so in regional and high culture productions. There was something special about the 'Martin Jenkins' Shakespeare, for example and the Richard Imison 'style'. Does that no longer exist? These issues bring me on to the current situation of the B.B.C. Department and independents.


3.8 Participant-observer studies of radio drama production

There have been radical changes in the B.B.C., particularly since the introduction of Producer Choice in 1995, the 'Birt-control' era, and now plans for digital channels. Peter M. Lewis (who is not the Peter Lewis of Lewis 1977 and 1981) is engaged in a follow-up to his study of 1991, the invaluable 'Referable words in radio drama' (chapter 2 in Scannell 1991). Lewis then got permission to sit in on Radio Departmental meetings and to interview directors. The result was a fascinating and systematic account of the Department at that particular time of transition. Some new women directors were becoming influential then and styles of management were changing. Lewis is busy with a follow-up and the results are eagerly awaited.

The Department is now down to some seven permanent directors and most production is sourced from independents. Of course there is careful quality and style control, and many of these independent directors (usually one-person businesses) were originally B.B.C. employees. Production time and resources have been cut back, traditional studio suites have gone, while overall, the quantity of broadcast output is the same.


3.9 The 'Hollywood' of UK radio drama

The B.B.C. Radio Drama Department (RDD) is still the 'Hollywood' of radio drama in the UK, in the sense that it is responsible for the near total output. So I argue that this is a 'Hollywood', rather as in the classical Studio-era days, when the original Hollywood was responsible for so much film production.

Some culturalist researchers have seen the institution of the B.B.C. as an adversary. It comes to mind that Thomas Schatz wrote a book about Hollywood which was entitled The Genius of the System (Schatz 1988). The RDD, within the institution of the B.B.C., is a 'genius' too, a unique cultural, aesthetic and industrial system, still ongoing. It is the 'National Theatre of the Air' which got broadcasting long before our National Theatre admitted audiences. (The first performance in this country of Ibsen's 'Emperor and Galilean' was a transmission from the Glasgow Station, 5SC, on 18 July 1924.) Both adversarial and 'genius' approaches must recognise that the RDD 'Studio' system demands of us that we understand radio drama as a combination of art, business and organisational dynamics, and a unique culture, operating since 1922. The solution for researchers must be a sort of pluralism. Individuals must work from some socially critical hermeneutic positions. This is such an important issue that I follow it through below (3.12).


3.10 'Auteur' radio drama?

One difficult research task, among others, is to unveil the individual artist-director, sometimes standing in opposition to the 'Studio' system, often not, and sometimes even working subversively within the demands of producer guidelines and B.B.C. regulation.

Another task is to explore the collaborative process of director-playwright-actor-Studio within B.B.C. house styles and training, and on into the commissioning of independent productions. We just need a lot more case studies and interviews, and we can balance 'auteur' radio drama and 'director's radio drama' (if it exists) as against the ongoing regular 'Studio' output. (That's more for the wish list.) By introducing the 'genius' tag here, I do not mean to encourage the romantic idea of the creative director-artist 'auteur' alone against the system. But I find there has to be the odd occasional balancing act, on my part, against some widely accepted culturalist protocols. The RDD has shown itself capable of broadcasting many plays of cultural and artistic merit - that is obvious - along with some of what are impolitely (and secretly) referred to in the business as 'dustbin' plays. (Crook, 1999, 151 says generally: 'I think a large amount of radio drama is very badly written, but that is only an opinion.')


3.11 Radio pessimism

Talk to radio people and you hear regular gripes about the RDD. There is radical pessimism about B.B.C. funding, the commissioning system, and the erosion of production resources and aesthetics. (At least the RDD is over the 'shock of the new' - the introduction of the digital into radio drama.) Radio is in a perpetual state of anxiety (fees, shifts of aural allegiances, etc.) and Shingler sensibly described the industry as 'neurotic' (Shingler and Wieringa, 1998, 75).

Radio plays around with its victim status. It is, admittedly, an industry where there is a rapid turn-over of employment - a lot of 'de-cruiting', as it is called at the moment - and there are low wages. Add to this the declining percentage of actors in professional work at any one time, as according to the last Arts Council report. Let me widen the argument, here, into Academia. In his introduction to The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, John Hill considered how film studies, and film itself, have been 'fuelled by an anxiety' about late modernity and its fragmentation (Hill, 1998, 8). And as for film studies conferences:

… academic panellists fretted about "the death of the camera", and the "end of film" …
(Laura Kipnis in Hill and Gibson, 1998, 595 at the Chicago 1996 conference)

So industrial and theoretical anxiety is not confined to radio.


3.12 'Patronage' and 'independence'

What of my own views? I have been prompted by lively discussion in radio conferences and debate within the review panel of Sound Journal. I have said in print and in conference papers that, in the main, I do not see it as my task to intervene actively in controversies about the funding and status of current radio drama output. And that I do not automatically go on the defensive about radio and radio drama (Beck, 1999b, 5.1). Research, especially my historical research, will go to inform myself and others in ongoing debate. But I am still undecided about this. There are other issues lurking here of course, and not least, the relationship between a radio researcher and the radio industry, both the B.B.C. and independents, and also the Radio Academy.

Access for key interviews and documents, for the detail of what goes on in the studio, and the interpretation of statements put out into the media, depend on one-to-one contacts and varieties of patronage. The same goes for access to playwrights. Nobody wants to be quoted unless they have cleared it with the press office or their agent. The radio world can be small at times, but in the best sense of familiar, contactable and village-like. As is regularly and realistically said : 'Everyone wants to bring something home from the party and nobody wants to clear up'.

But to summarise on this more seriously, the radio drama world for the academic is so unlike the dispersed and open environments of theatre, performance and film. I have mentioned my individual and 'independent' stance and, of course, it cannot claim to be objective. As academics in this post-modernist 'moment', we stress that no knowledge is secure and no critic's stance is neutral, and we seek to be openly self-reflexive. So I am in a state of constant negotiation, with the odd swift 'buck-and-wing' step. (I am sometimes part of B.B.C. panels for 'meet the public' meetings.) David Mayer's insightful chapter, 'Towards a definition of Popular Theatre', engaged with this perennial issue and that was in the days when drama departments were much younger. Here he is on reception studies of popular audiences:

Once we assess the audience, we are in a position, and I think a dangerous one, to make moral judgments about them and their societies' values. As someone with moral, social and political points of view, I sympathize with this temptation, but I sense that to submit to temptation may impair my objectivity as an observer of popular drama.
(Mayer, 1977, 273)

The debate must go on and on. See, for example, Kershaw 1999, 6-7.


Notes to Section 3

Note 1

In spring 2000, I set up a co-production of a radio sci-fi soap between the sound design course in LCP and my radio drama course in the University of Kent. We exchanged sound files over our Internet sites making production on our two sites possible. BACK


Note 2

Smith, 1999, 49 ff. gives a full discussion, with part of the material from Francis Bacon:

A sense of future shock reverberates from New Atlantis in Francis Bacon's description of the "Sound-Houses" … In addition to musical instruments, the houses contain equipment for altering sounds, for breaking them into their constituent frequencies, amplifying them, and broadcasting them beyond the range of natural hearing:

Wee represent Small Sounds as Great and Deepe; Likewise Great Sounds, Extenuate and Sharpe; Wee make diuerse Tremblings and Warblings of Sounds, which in their Originall are En...... Wee haue also diuerse Strange and Artificiall Eccho's, Reflecting the Voice many times, and as it were Tossing it: And some that giue back the Voice Lowder then it came, some Shriller, and some Deeper; Yea some rendring the Voke, Differing in the Letters or Articulate Sound, from that they receyue. Wee haue also meanes to conuey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines, and Distances. (Bacon, 1626, 41) BACK


Note 3

The first age of radio was the emergence of its technology (pre-WW1 to 1950s), and the second, the paradigmatic shift into stereo and FM in the 1960s and 1970s. I have previously discussed radio theory and the digital in Beck, 2000, 'Reception theory in the digital age'. BACK


Note 4

Other practitioners' accounts include Felton 1949, Gielgud 1957, McWhinnie 1959, Imison 1965 and Rodger 1982. I am engaged in a radio drama history project, thoroughly researching scripts, production and contexts from 1922 to 1928 (the first section), and then on to WW2. Also, my database listings of productions, casts and directors will be the radio drama equivalent of J.P. Wearing's The London Stage. Publication on CDs will include newly produced excerpts from the plays, in practice-as-research with my students. As Patrice Pavis says of theatre studies, '[it] has to be historicized; it has to reflect the historical moment when it is worked out' (Pavis, 2000, 69). BACK


'Nipper the Dog' (HMV 1920s publicity model)


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