Playing by ear


You want to broadcast plays; and instead of recognising that the invisible play is a new thing, and cannot be done in the old way, you persist in asking handsome actresses - and well-known pictorial producers - to get up ordinary theatrical performances and allow the public to overhear the dialogue. That is absurd.

George Bernard Shaw, The Radio Times, 14 November 1925, 357, 'G.B.S. Lectures the B.B.C.'



Introduction 1

We are in a period of ongoing seventy-fifth celebrations of radio drama’s birth, recalling B.B.C. productions of 1922-1925, and October 1924 for Germany’s first. It is fascinating that, in the quote above, Bernard Shaw spotted so early that the 'invisible play' demanded new techniques and a new aesthetic.

B.B.C. radio drama, the ‘National Theatre of the Air’, is of course unique, a continuous tradition going back to the first English experiment in 1922 (Eckersley, 1998, 50), and the UK's output still far exceeds that of any other country. It could be claimed that the British invented this art form - original plays for radio - as the evidence for American precedence is still not in (Crook, 1999, 5). Yet the B.B.C. itself passed over this seventy-fifth birthday in silence (16 February 1923 - 16 February 1998). It did however commission a thrilling play from David Pownall to mark the anniversary of the first full-length B.B.C. Shakespeare. Note 1


Introduction 2

This 'unbirthday' is rather galling, coming after the centenary of film (1895-1995) and the B.B.C.'s publicity splash on the seventy five years since its own foundation (14 November 1922 - 14 November 1997). Radio drama is a large industry. It employs some 14,000 actors a year and up to 1,000 playwrights (Beck, 1997, 4), and accounts for 1,174 of BBC radio hours (1997-8 figures, just 3% of the total). Around 300 new plays are commissioned each year. The B.B.C. Radio Drama Department's annual budget, including light entertainment and story readings, could amount to £19m. The actual figure is not publicly released, but Tim Crook gives a convincing breakdown (Crook 2000).


Introduction 3

I have called radio drama the 'eighth art' (after the French proclaimed film the seventh, Beck, 1998, 1.1, see also Crook, 1999, 7). But pessimism has long been the professional attitude to radio drama. Hardly had it been invented than its demise was predicted, when once sound came to cinema. Orson Welles described radio as 'an abandoned mine' (Bogdanovich 1993 cited in Crook, 1999, 61). Elissa Guralnick says the purpose of her study, Sight Unseen, Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard and Other Contemporary Dramatists on Radio, is to dispel the ‘misguided idea, prevalent especially in the United States, that radio drama is outdated, obsolete’ (Guralnick 1996, x-xi). Val Gielgud, the greatest formative influence on UK radio drama as B.B.C. Head from 1929 to 1963, gave radio drama the nickname 'Cinderella' and it stuck (Gielgud, 1957, 7). He was writing in the darkest hour for British radio, when the mass audience moved over to television in the mid 1950s .


Introduction 4

So these are my questions for radio drama - 'abandoned mine', Gielgud's 'Cinderella' or the eighth art whose potential is still to be realised in this digital age. Why is there so little teaching and research, relatively, about this large industry? And what of the future? Fortunately, there are new academic publications now and interesting work in progress. Teaching radio drama is a wide, cross-disciplinary field, stretching from textual analysis to performance, communications theory, cultural sociology, reception and apparatus theory, and on and on. Some of that is the subject of this article, though my apologies in advance that I do not come up a whole blueprint for a radio drama methodology. But there are some brain-teasers. Really I am offering encouragement for radio drama’s cohabitation in a drama department.

My apologies also that this article is confined to UK material and not a comparative study across, for example, the USA, Australia, Canada, Eire and France, to name countries where creativity in radio drama is still to be found. The BBC leads the world by far in output. The nearest rival is Eire, where RTE1 broadcasts a play each Tuesday night, available also on Astra satellite (analogue) and on digital in Europe. RTE1, like many other radio stations, broadcasts also on the Internet. Other Web sites for radio drama and radio stations are at the end of the Works Cited. Copyright restrictions mean that it is impossible for most radio drama to be available on the Internet in sound files.

There are references here to my own radio course and to virtual material. As this is an electronic publication, it allows space for a monograph, and hyperlinks. I hope this gives the reader more of an accessible overview.


Radio drama class with visiting BBC producer (Univ. of Kent Drama Dept.)


Notes to Introduction


Note 1

David Pownall's play was 'An Epiphanous Use of the Microphrone' (Pownall 1999).

Here are the pioneering dates from Crook, 1999, 4-6:

First American experiment probably 1914
First American radio drama, New York, WGY Station, 1922
First English experiment (Peter Eckersley at Writtle) 17 October 1922
First British Broadcasting Company transmission of 'Scenes from Shakespeare' 16 February 1923 ('official' birthday of radio drama)
First B.B.C. full-length Shakespeare, 'Twelfth Night' 28 May 1923
First B.B.C. radio drama origination: Richard Hughes, 'A Comedy of Danger' 15 January 1924
First Australian radio drama, Melbourne station 3LO, 'Sweeney Todd, The Barbarous Barber' 1925 BACK


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Works Cited


What the world says about radio and concerning drama
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