'Point-of-listening in radio plays' - Beck,
Alan, 1998, Sound Journal, (Now available on this Alan Beck site.
Sound Journal has been deleted from its original site.) A few
additions have been made.
- 'Point-of-listening in radio plays'
- 1.1 Introduction
- The French baptized film as the 'seventh art'. Radio drama
is another technological birth, which took place on 16 February
1923 at the British Broadcasting Company's Marconi House in the
Strand, with scenes from Shakespeare. Once the first radio play
originally written for radio was broadcast on 15 January 1924
- Richard Hughes' 'A Comedy of Danger' - the 'eighth art' as
I claim radio drama to be, fully came into being.
- That double birth reflects dual categories of radio drama:
either 'pure' radio drama, as 'Danger', a radio 'origination'
to use the BBC term, or adapted plays, transposed mostly from
the stage and the novel.
- Although radio drama is soon to celebrate
its seventy-fifth birthday in 1998, only some eighteen books
have been published about it. After earlier works by practitioners,
such as Lance Sieveking, pioneering on the new control panel
(sound mixing desk) when the BBC moved into Broadcasting House
in 1932 (Sieveking 1934), and Donald McWhinnie on working with
Samuel Beckett (McWhinnie 1959) 1,
the whole subject area was impressively and definitively mapped
out by three publications.
- These are: John Drakakis (ed.), British Radio Drama (CUP
1981), a collection covering the main dramatists, Peter Lewis
(ed.), Radio Drama (Longman 1981), with more practical
and theoretical approaches, and Andrew Crisell, Understanding
Radio (Methuen 1986), the greatest exploration of theory.
The playwright William Ash, in The Way to Write Radio Drama
(Elm Tree Books 1985) and play producer Ian Rodger, with Radio
Drama (Macmillan 1982) have also made most welcome and personal
contributions. I have published Radio Acting (A &
C Black 1997).
- These works are a building of theory and critical method
from the foundations, and now amount to a 'poetics' of radio
drama. They provide interpretative tools, although much more
has to be done continuously on radio acting, directing and new
technology, especially in the digital revolution, on extending
conceptual models, and further on listeners and hearing.
- There is a need to continue with a systematic and detailed
explanation of the production systems of radio drama, as these
are in constant change, especially with the opening out of independent
production under the BBC's requirement to buy in 25% of radio
product. The now-retired Head of Radio Drama, John Tydeman, gave
a clear outline in 'The producer and radio drama: a personal
view' (Lewis 1981 pp.12-27). These authors have made teaching
and research on radio drama viable, although it is still an educational
'Cinderella', taught in the UK only in a few universities (Hull,
Sheffield, Westminster, Aberystwyth, Manchester Metropolitan
University, University of Wales (Swansea), Luton, University
of East Anglia, Thames Valley University, the Bolton Institute
and the University of Kent) .
- [ADDITIONAL NOTE, 2009: The only surviving radio drama course
that I know of is Lucy Gough's. She is a dramatist, and Lecturer
for Radio Drama Degree course Department of Theatre, Film and
Television Studies, University of Wales Aberystwyth since 1998.
The wave of academic interest in radio drama has come and gone,
- 2.1 Linking with film's sound track
- What remain completely unexplored as yet, to my knowledge,
are possible links with film and the sound track. After all,
both film and radio drama seek to engage the listener by similar
techniques. They use voices, music and sound effects, the recording
and editing technology is the same, and the hearing pleasure
is mutual. They both need to fill the sonic space, and radio
drama, in particular, fears 'dead air'. Both are speech-based,
radio drama especially so, by showcasing dialogue and making
it comprehensible, above and mostly to the exclusion of other
- In film, sound and image work together, sometimes synchronizing,
sometimes in counterpoint, and sound is claimed to add the vital
third dimension to the screen's flatness. Sound helps to extend
off-screen space and so 'widen' the frame; and with the technological
advances achieved in the early 1930s, sound reinforces the reality-effect
of characters moving in their spaces.
- [ADDITIONAL NOTE, 2009: See Filmic
- styles of radio drama directing and post-production which creatively
relate to film. Blind medium of radio - Beck, Alan, 1999,
blind or invisible? A call for a wider debate on listening-in',
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology also at http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAE/library/articles/beck_blindness.pdf]
- But whereas sight and sound work simultaneously in film,
radio is confined to sound alone, the blind medium. The recorded
human voice is not fleshed out, radio does not share in film's
'surplus of reality' and it is even less the 'presence of an
absence'. Radio plays must speak for themselves and create their
own sound spaces specific to the medium, uniquely differing from
the representation of time and space in plays in other media.
Dialogue and the radio drama diegesis impose a linear and 'real'
time, which may have little or no elasticity. I will be developing
these points below, particularly relating to space.
- Radio drama is rightly claimed to be the 'actor's medium',
as well as the 'playwright's medium'. Most plays are one-off
productions, while series predominate on television. There is
less experimental and non-narrative radio drama on the BBC by
comparison with film and stage, and its production in the UK
is almost totally within the institution of the BBC, the 'National
Theatre of the Air' and rightly meriting its title, radio drama's
Hollywood. Radio listeners widely claim that they get 'the best
pictures on radio' and the message is that they are the most
stimulated in imagination, are wakeful and active, and not in
a passive state of regression.
- 3. Pioneering work of Michael Chion
- It is now even more timely to make a foray
into the comparative area of radio drama and film sound with
the publication of the fourth of Michel Chion's works on the
subject, Audio-Vision: Sound on screen, translated from
the original L'Audio-Vision (Chion 1994). For decades,
there has been a jeremiad by some film theorists and directors
that study of film sound has been neglected, in spite of substantial
contributions, especially on the transition from the silent era
to talkies and on music.2
- Among Chion's many achievements are to provide a typology
of film sound, to reveal the 'added value' from the combination
of film's sound and image, and to extend our vocabulary of, and
sensitivity to, both sound and hearing. He also investigated
what he called the subjective and objective distances between
camera and microphone, quoting Sternberg on 'the congenital tendency
of the microphone to contradict the camera' (Chion 1985 p.55).
- 4. Point-of-listening (film) applied to radio drama
- From such a large subject area, I choose two issues of relevance
to radio drama. The first of these is film's point-of-listening
or POL, from its definition and fresh redefinition by Chion in
Audio-Vision (Chion 1994 pp.89-94 and previously Chion
1985 pp.51-7). Film's POL is the partner, or supposed partner,
of point-of-view or POV, and I will consider how POL can be applied
to radio drama and if indeed, there is a 'point' to this. I will
be investigating where does the listening take place, the sound
spaces of diegesis and non-diegesis, and the listener, and what
is the listening experience. This leads me on to the second issue
of the sound 'frame' in radio drama, again starting with film's
frame. Both topics involve perspective, the representation of
fictional time-space, and the question of how the radio listener
is positioned as compared with film's spectator.
- Chion's search is for a discourse more specific to sound
and its perception, and this is also well suited to radio drama
studies. I take note of Paddy Scannell's warning, in his introduction
to Broadcast Talk, about the application of semiotics,
Saussure and text-reader theory to radio, derived as it is from
literary studies of written 'texts':
To think of programmes as texts and audiences
as readers is to mistake the communicative character of much
of the output of radio and television. In particular it fails
to recognize the liveness of radio and television, their embeddedness
in the here and now (their particularity) and the cardinal importance
of context and audiences.
(Scannell 1991 p.11) 3
- The problem is that so much critical discourse is based on
the visual and there is an inevitability about this in media
studies, among others:
It is clear from the way most North American english speakers
(myself included) use language about our epistemological condition
that our sense of truth, our preferred configuration of knowledge,
is modeled upon the eye, its abilities, and the kind of information
it brings to us. This is the visual bias of the dominant collective
(social and cultural) epistemologies.
(Wreford Miller 1995 chapter 3 Domination, 3a 'the visual bias')
- [ADDITIONAL NOTE - Oculocentrism
or ocularocentrism - dominance of seeing in our senses]
- Nearly all the movements in film and film theory have been
about photography. So in radio drama, we should base ourselves
on its single sensory criterion, hearing, but only broadly so,
and allowing for the fusion of senses or synaesthesia in the
imaginations of many listeners. Gary Ferrington refers to 'the
listener's ability to create multi-sensory imagery within the
mind' (Ferrington 1993 in the section 'The nature of audio').
At the least we should try to avoid concepts that distort the
hearing experience, however difficult that may be at present.
So for example, 'image' should be carefully qualified as it means
primarily an optical pattern.
- 5. Radio drama's mimetic shortfall
- The key to defining radio drama for Crisell is its lack of
ostension, as compared with other forms of drama, ostension being
how the fictional world is shown to the audience (Crisell 1986
p.136 by reference to Elam 1980 pp.29-30). I understand Crisell's
broad use of ostension as including the stage's mise-en-scène
or stage 'picturisation', as it is translated in American theatre
manuals, though at times ostension seems to be used in too elastic
a way. The way radio drama overcomes its limitations is, according
Partly by a process of 'transcodification' - the replacement
of one code or set of codes, in this case visual ones, by another,
in this case auditory, the code of speech.
(Crisell 1986 p.138)
- For myself, I read this straightforwardly as a restatement
of Aristotle's 'mimesis' or imitation, applied both to 'pure'
radio drama and to its many transpositions from fictional works
in other media. It is radio drama's mimetic shortfall, its limited
mimesis, that allows the listener so much scope for individual
expressiveness. Frances Gray vividly sites the radio drama experience
within the listener:
The stage of radio is darkness and silence, the darkness of
the listener's skull. On it the dramatist can bring anyone or
anything without the trouble and expense of a scenic artist.
.... The process of building it is simple; the words are spoken,
and we become designers, producers, scene shifters, and the theatre
(Lewis 1981 p.49)
- Gary Ferrington extends the analogy to the 'movie' in the
An effectively designed audio work may facilitate a listener's
integration of life-based experiences into a 'movie' created
within the 'theater of the mind'. Each individual becomes his
or her own movie director with no two people having the same
(Ferrington 1993 in the section 'Theater of the mind')
- 6. Radio drama's frame
- Both 'stage' and 'movie' are useful concepts, I find, - for
all performance is within frame boundaries, whether the proscenium
arch, the medieval 'platea' or place, the space, or in the case
of film, the borders of the screen, on-screen and off-screen.
The problem for radio drama is where may we define its frame
limits? Are these in relation to its sound space, or the listener's
space, its fictional time-space, and indeed, is the very term
'frame' justified? Where is that auditory space specific to radio
drama and its listener, - just as cinema and the theatre have
their visual and sound spaces? Where does the listening happen?
- Let me begin with the issue of film's onscreen-offscreen
sounds - sound 'on' emitted from within the frame and sound 'off'
emitted from outside the frame. Chion devotes substantial discussion
across his four books to this as a leading topic, and he contends
that in film overall, 'there is no soundtrack' (Chion 1994 p.39)
as 'each audio element enters into simultaneous vertical relationship
with narrative elements contained in the image' (ib p.40). He
states for film that 'Spatially speaking, a sound and its source
are two different entities' (Chion 1994 p.79), as the 'sound
or its cause' may be onscreen or offscreen.
- 7. Sound 'in' and 'out'
- There is no room here for further explanation about film,
but comparatively we may ask: is there a radio drama equivalent
to onscreen-offscreen? When or where is a sound event 'in' or
'out'? How can we describe a sound event which is heard but not
'seen' by a radio character (and the listener)? Egil Tornqvist
in Transposing Drama attempts this:
Spatially, scenic (visualised) action may be set off against
off-scenic action, an umbrella term for off-stage (theatre),
off-screen (TV and film) and off-air (radio) events.
(Tornqvist 1993 p.3)
- Unfortunately the term 'off-air' is used for what is not
broadcast and so will not serve. Again we are back to the needs
of a sonic terminology suited to radio drama. In BBC production,
directors and studio managers (panel operators) talk of the 'sound
picture' and what is 'in' and what is 'out'. The radio drama
play scene operates by a series of sound pictures and each of
these has a perspective and an acoustic. To create the acoustic
of each scene, the technicians build a 'set', as it is called,
in the studio, with microphones, screens (having absorbent or
reflective sides), and as required, laying down carpet or wooden
planks or flagstones, and with other spot equipment such as a
door, steps or a window, or glasses, cups and the gravel box.
- Let me begin with a short script example of sound events
which take place 'in' the sound picture, and in what I will also
call the sound space. The sound picture is what, as a listener,
I am to visualise for myself. The mode of this example scene
is realist (illusionist drama of verisimilitude).
1. F/X. STRAIGHT CUT INTO LIVINGROOM. DOG BARKING.
2. WOMAN Get that dog away from me!
- I hear a dog barking (first sound event established) in a
livingroom. Then I hear characters shouting (second sound event
following). The level of the barking, as balanced in perspective
against other sounds, the shouting, makes it clear for me that
the animal is very near, and a typical livingroom is about twelve
foot square or more. Every sound event in radio drama requires
an acoustic and also a context, and there is a particular need
for added verbal description to fill out the situation for the
listener. So the Woman shouts 'Get that dog away from me'. These
three sound events tell me by their acoustic, perspective and
the semantics of the dialogue that the dog is 'in' the sound
picture along with the shouting family. The sound picture has
a 'main frame', as I term it, which coincides with the boundaries
of the livingroom, and all events are 'in'.
- In the second example, there is a sound event outside the
main frame of the sound picture, as it is heard but not seen
by the Woman. I hear it, as does she, but I am not required to
envisage the event in my mind's 'stage' or 'movie'. A sound space
has been opened up beyond the main frame, and this is 'out',
extending the overall sound space.
1. WOMAN I'm terrified of that dog!
2. F/X WITH SPOT BARKING. DOG HURLS ITSELF AGAINST LIVINGROOM
3. WOMAN No! No! He'll get me!
- The barking dog is not now in the sound picture and the given
circumstances of the scene are that as a listener, I do not visualise
the dog as 'present', but experience the fear of the Woman on
this livingroom side of the door. The dog is not in the main
frame, as I term it, but 'out' and 'unseen'. Although we hear
this sound event, its source or cause is not to be visualised
by us, an important distinction.
- 8. Acousmatic sound
- Chion terms this category of sound, in
film, the 'acousmatic sound': 'one hears the sound without seeing
its cause' (Chion 1994 p.32). He further explains for film, 'Radio,
phonograph, and telephone, all which transmit sounds without
showing their emitter, are acousmatic media by definition.' (Chion
1994 p.71). Acousmatic sound is a useful term to import into
radio drama for sound events which are heard by the play characters,
and of course by the listener, but not 'seen'.
- My discussion is still restricted to realist scenes. Examples
are railway station and other loudspeaker announcements, a bomb
exploding at a distance, the voice down the telephone line, the
noise in the attic, someone coming up the stairs, the knock at
the door, bells, organ music, and what is overheard in the next
room. Radio drama is rich in acousmatic sounds as is the real-life
soundscape we inhabit. There is also the sort of atmos (sound
ambience) which in certain scenes extends beyond the 'seen' in
the sound picture, as a sort of sonic back-drop or envelope in
the outer frame: seagulls heard but not 'seen', rain and traffic
outside the house, and thunder. 4
- Acousmatic sound in radio drama is categorically different
from film, because we hear every sound event in radio drama and
connect it with its cause, within an overall sound space. Here,
the acousmatic inhabits an area beyond the main frame of the
sound picture, and it is 'out' and 'unseen', but of course is
still bound by the sound space's 'outer frame'. I use the terms
'main frame' of the sound picture and 'outer frame' of the overall
- So to summarise, I suggest these two categories of sounds
from my examples of realist script above. In the first, the sound
picture and its main frame are coincident with the overall sound
space. Every sound event is 'in' and the main frame coincides
with the outer frame. While in the second example, there is one
sound event within the main frame and sound picture (I visualise
the frightened Woman), and another, the barking dog outside,
'unseen', in the outer frame. The voice-over narrator, a sound
event which can fill the whole sound space of itself, is discussed
- One of this century's most famous theatre sound effects occurs
in Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard', in Act Two, where the mise-en-scene
is out in the countryside. Its symbolic power is chiefly that
it is an acousmatic event:
(They all sit deep in thought; the silence is only broken
by the subdued muttering of FEERS. Suddenly a distant sound is
heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string
snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.)
(Fen 1959 p.365)
- 'The Cherry Orchard' characters give different
explanations: 'a lift cable in one of the mines must have broken',
'some bird', 'or an owl'. It is a mood device by Chekhov to shift
to melancholy and unease, and he went to a great deal of trouble
to get his sound effects right in his plays. 5
As this 'distant sound' is acousmatic, the theatre audience is
made to share in the same puzzling and foreboding experience
as the characters: 'one hears the sound without seeing its cause',
to quote Chion again.
- The sound effect is not mediated by the characters, though
interpreted by their subsequent responses. This 'distant sound'
opens up a space off-stage, in this case a sound space, 'out
there', outside the stage's borders or frame of the Naturalist
mise-en-scène. It is a theatrical strategy by Chekhov
which serves momentarily to break out of the box-set and its
- Further, it impels the audience to listen actively and not
just to hear, especially important for the rhythms and pauses
of 'The Cherry Orchard'. The 'distant sound' refuses to denote
a single meaning linked with a known cause and invites connotative
speculation. As Chion says: 'The acousmatic truly allows sound
to reveal itself in all its dimensions' (Chion 1994 p.32).
- 9. 'From where do I listen?'
- This brings me to the central issue of the point-of-listening
in radio drama. I must ask, 'from where do I listen?' This is
also the first question Chion in Audio-Vision asks in his discussion
of film POL:
Now, by comparison, let us examine the notion of a point of
audition. This too can have two meanings, not necessarily related:
1. A spatial sense: from where do I hear, from what point in
the space represented on the screen or on the soundtrack?
2. A subjective sense: which character, at a given moment of
the story, is (apparently) hearing what I hear?
(Chion 1994 p.90)
- Where is the radio listener positioned? The answer comes
much more easily in those BBC radio plays which are realist,
I claim, which have their well-established and seldom varying
conventions and codes of representation. In production, the sound
space is nearly always arranged around a 'sound centre', as it
is termed by practitioners.
- That sound centre is nearly always a fixed and unmoving point.
So the answer for realist plays is: the POL is in the centre
of the sound space. This determines the mixing and balancing
of sounds, and their arrangement or perspective in the stereo
sound picture. I will deal with the other issues, a moving POL,
the extension or size of the POL, and POL in non-realist scenes,
- Chion's questions just quoted leads him into a comparison
with real-life sound causes. Because, he says, in our real-life
experience, sounds are omnidirectional, and composed not just
of direct sound but of indirect reflections, 'it is not often
possible to speak of a point of audition in the sense of a precise
position in space, but rather of a place of audition, or even
a zone of audition' (Chion 1994 p.91). As opposed to our everyday
experience of hearing, for the film spectator, 'it is the image
that always creates the point of audition' (Chion 1994 p.91).
- The radio drama director has to fulfil
all the tasks of the hearing mechanism without the benefits of
the film image. He or she has to become, as it were, 'super-ears'
for the audience, filtering the radio play through the most efficient
listening mechanism offered by broadcast technology. That means
isolating out the most important of the sound events, particularly
preferring the dialogue over the background atmosphere or 'atmos',
and giving each sound event its context and meaning.
- There is usually a strict foreground-background in the radio
scene, with little middle ground, and characters and atmos are
in a figure-and-ground relationship. Dialogue is the most clearly
heard or 'salient', as Chion terms the prominence of the most
important sounds; and music is used sparingly, mostly as a non-diegetic
device, and rarely in combination with dialogue.
- The radio's point-of-listening has to be given a precise
spatial position, though its extension still has to be discussed.
The director has to turn the potential confusion of 'hearing'
(the perception of many bits of aural information) into active
radio 'listening' (retaining and interpreting, and busy use of
short-term memory storage which becomes especially engaged in
dialogue and narrative). I will use the term 'listening' by preference
now, for the audience of the radio play, as they place themselves
in a committed and receptive relationship, the 'aural contract'.
- 10. Listening zone
- There still remains the question of the listener's own 'zone
of audition' or 'listening zone', as I prefer to term it. Frances
Gray has already given one answer, that it is in the imagination,
the creativity of the mind and with all the senses engaged. This
is the second play in the audience's head and where the listener
is 'the final actor' and 'director'. Stage actors have a traditional
phrase for the audience as critics, that they are 'the final
actor'. Part of this personal zone must include where the incoming
sonic data is received, personal geography.
- This means personal spaces, and often the kitchen with its
monaural radio, for example, on stereo in a car, or on Walkman
headphones. Stereo listening allows the impression of a left,
centre and right orientation of space in front of the listener.
Binaural on headphones is claimed to offer the most life-like
acoustic stage, where the listener is sited in the middle of
the three dimensions, with an experience of 'behind' as well
- Hearing is about sonic messages striking the ear, the perception
of pressure waves within the atmosphere, and these arrive with
more or less of the listener's personal environmental zone. Advice
about listening is as old as radio. In the 1920s and 1930s, 'The
Radio Times' repeats 'good broadcasting is useless without good
listening' to a public struggling with crystal sets, headphones
and then the first valve radios:
I suppose my listening conditions were ideal. I was laid up,
had spoken to nobody all day, and shut out the waning light of
the November afternoon to listen in the dark to a play which
I knew almost off by heart.
- Here is Filson Young reviewing 'Romeo and Juliet' on 2 December
1932, giving his paradigm of listening. This Shakespeare broadcast
is the height of the literary canon and its devoted listener
is not a recipient for the first time with 'innocent' ears, but
the ideal 're-recipient', one who knows the play already as text
and in performance. Mr.Young has achieved his ideal listening
- Radio listening zones are personal and not socially ritualised
as is the theatre or the cinema. Listening to radio plays is
rarely now a collective activity. Each listening zone has its
own disattention factors, extraneous noise and accompanying activities,
and in spite of these, radio listening is accessible and pleasurable.
Does being a solitary listener incline one to strong or weak
identification? Surely the environment influences our reception.
The fact is that many Radio 4 afternoon plays have domestic plots,
what in America are called 'hearth' plays. These cross over to
the domestic zones of the listeners and suggest at least a relationship
with the - usually - strongly sympathetic protagonists. But radio
drama is many 'theatres'.
- Chion's second question, quoted above, brings me to the issue
of subjective and objective POL, and non-realist scenes:
2. A subjective sense: which character, at a given moment
of the story, is (apparently) hearing what I hear?
- Take this example from an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's
short story, entitled 'Facts of Life' (BBC Radio 4, 1996). Repeatedly
intercut into the dialogue is a short reminder for the young
man of his father's strict advice given to him in an earlier
HENRY'S FATHER: (thoughts) Do not gamble! Do not lend
money to anyone! And finally,
do not have anything to do with women!
- 'Thoughts' is the technical note in a radio play script for
the internal thoughts of a character and for the associated production
convention. The actor is put into a neutral acoustic, that is
an acoustic in which the voice alone is heard, in some cases
called 'narrator's mike'. We are to understand that Henry's father
speaks not in a realist setting, in the diegesis, but as a voice-over,
and his advice is summoned up within the young man's head as
his voice of conscience. To answer Chion's question in this example,
we can say that only one character can hear the warning given
to Henry here and we are privileged to be let into his subjectivity.
This is subjective point-of-listening.
- 'Thoughts' is also the term for an aside
or even a monologue in this acoustic set-up. The actor-speaker
for thoughts is always close to the microphone, in what I call
positions one or two, as close as possible or up to a few inches
away, rather than in position three, the normal position for
conversational dialogue, which has the actor at an arm's length
or more away. The voice is coloured differently in these close
positions, displaying more detail and more of the individual's
vocal mechanism. It is also differentiated by the style of intimate
microphone playing required, one of the toughest technical demands
on the radio actor.
- Sometimes a whole monologue is presented in this convention,
and sometimes an entire monologue play, and it is a powerful
way for the playwright to let the listener into the internal
dialogue of the character's 'me' within the outer 'I'. I call
this production convention 'interiorizing' and it is where radio
scores over plays in other media. On stage, the internal monologue
has to be externalised and the actor is seen to deliver the lines.
I regard 'interiorizing' as radio's 'fourth dimension' and it
can establish a complicity with the listener, a process as familiar
as our own inner ruminations. 7
- Chion calls this the 'internal sound' which
'corresponds to the physical and mental interior of a character'
(Chion 1994 p.76) and it is frequently expressed through the
narrator or voice-over. The Somerset Maugham example uses a short
excerpt intercut into a dialogue scene, as a sort of 'sound shot'
and I term this a 'segment'. The listening ear is well suited
to recognise the convention, because there is a break in the
dialogue's flow, and the neutral acoustic contrasts with the
scene which surrounds it. Our hearing mechanism is taken to be
more effective than vision in recognising changes in time and
rhythm, even relatively, the minutest, and of course, changes
in voices. 8
- 11. Moving POL
- In Dylan Thomas' 'Under Milk Wood' (BBC
Third Programme, 1954), the famous narrating Voices repeatedly
intrude into the 'listening zone' and urge the listener into
FIRST VOICE Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
Come closer now.
Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow
deep salt and silent black, bandaged night.
Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. 9
- Here is a classic example of moving POL, in this 'play for
voices'. In our mind's eye, we travel into the sleeping village
of Llareggub. While in a realist scene, we can follow the speaking
characters 'up the garden path', so as to speak, in objective
moving POL. To use a BBC production term, the actors are to 'travel
on the line' and they are to keep speaking lines as they move.
They either walk on the spot, or move across a sound set which
is appropriately rigged with microphones, travelling from one
stereo pair over to another, or across microphones set in a row.
- The following is an example from an Australian ABC play of
1995 about the doll of the title, 'Baby-baby', by Carolyn Logan.
It is taken from a longer climactic scene where two young sisters
are being forced up garden steps by their enraged Nanny:
1. SPOT (FOOTSTEPS OF THREE TRUDGING UP STEEP GARDEN STEPS)
2. DIDI (crying) Give me back my Baby-baby!
3. NANNY (climbing in front) You'll have it back when
you get to the top.
4. DIDI Bad Nanny! Bad, bad Nanny!
5. NANNY Finally caught up, have you?
- Moving POL in radio drama is only possible if the actors
are supplied with enough script to 'travel on the line' and there
is plenty of description to carry us along. Liane Aukin, director
and playwright, explained this to me in an interview with her:
'There is no point in making any move unless you are speaking
too. It's a rule actors new to radio must get into their minds
because they mistake in following their stage actor's instinct,
- they make a move before speaking. Sometimes the script doesn't
offer this opportunity and as director you need to give the actor
a special line, so he can '"travel on the line". As
long as we know that he has moved into the room with the equivalent
of a "Hi everybody!" line, we, the listeners, know
- Is the microphone the equivalent of the
film camera? It is often said that 'the lens of the camera is
the eye of the spectator'. Certainly radio drama shares in the
mobility of film, in making rapid transitions in time and space,
from objective to subjective, from exterior, realist diegesis
to interiorizing monologue, and cutting and fading from scene
to scene. But radio's point-of-listening does not shift perspective
rapidly as the camera does for the film viewer, with long shots,
close-ups, changes of angle and zooms. The only conventional
exceptions are a rapid cut from one scene to another, the 'filmic'
treatment of scene boundaries, the limited use of radio montage
('sontage') and the intercut segment. 10
- 12. The 'point' of radio drama's POL
- Film POL has a focus like the camera, but what is the extension
of radio drama's POL? What are the dimensions of the 'point'
in radio's point-of-listening? Here we are into one of the major
differences between sound and vision when divorced from each
other. Again let me return to Gary Ferrington on real-life sound:
The essential feature of sound is not its location, but that
it fills space ... This auditory space is three-dimensional and
surrounds the listener.
(Ferrington 1994 in the section 'Aural Information')
The sound one perceives is shaped by the environment within
which the sound is generated.
(Ferrington 1994 in the section 'Sound Sequences')
The challenge of creating acoustical space in an audio work
is difficult ... The director may use selective focus ... Selective
focus begins with prioritizing the sounds to which the listener's
attention must be given.
(Ferrington 1993 in the section 'The elements of audio design')
- The sound space does not have a focus point in the way that
light patterns create perspective for the film image. The most
the radio play director can do is to use selective focus, perspective,
balancing, and foreground and background, especially to ensure
the dominance and audibility of the dialogue. Fortunately, the
human voice, in real-life interaction, and in the media, 'creates
a hierarchy around itself' (Chion 1982 p.18, 'la presence d'une
voix humaine hierarchise autour d'elle') and 'structures the
sound space which contains it' (Chion 1982 p.19, 'la presence
d'une voix humaine structure l'espace sonore qui la contient').
- The listener always seeks to link a sound event with its
source. Chion describes the voice-over in film as 'wandering
over the surface of the screen' (Chion 1982 p.18, 'en errance
a la surface de l'ecran'). Audiences of Derek Jarman's film,
'Blue' (1993), are faced with nothing on the screen but monochrome
blue for seventy-five minutes and yet their imaginations gain
a focus and unique 'added value' from a constant 'wandering over
the surface', for their understanding of a dense sound-track
filled with music and words. Denied point-of-view, they are offered
a total extension of point-of-listening, which spills over from
blue screen to the surround-sound of the cinema, and the concentric
circles of the Dolby multitrack, having no local configuration.
'Blue' is an exercise in totalising POL, while acoustics, voice
and music create a sound-track full of contrasting perspectives
and directions. POL in 'Blue' is opened out to the fullest possible
extent for a film director, broadening the audience's listening
zone across the entire cinema and also exploiting the focal interiority
of the voice-over. One of the direct influences here is the artist
Yves Klein and his concept of 'leaping into the void'.
- It is no wonder that when Chion contrasts the field of vision
with the aural, he finds 'this aural field is much limited or
confined, its contours uncertain and changing' (Chion 1994 p.33).
It is the task of the radio drama director to counter the wandering
and centrifugal tendencies of sound, and to construct different
frames to surround and contain it. Dialogue and human voices
impose their own spatial hierarchy, and dominate all the more
in the blind medium. Many scene locations in realist plays are
on the intimate domestic scale, from livingroom to kitchen to
car, which allow a limited depth of field (foreground-background
and sometimes all foreground) and cluster the sound events in
the middle of the sound frame. We are usually 'with' a strongly-dominant
protagonist who is often placed nearer the microphone and at
the sound centre, even in two-hander dialogue. Radio prefers
small casts for originations (plays written for radio), not least
because of budgets.
- Radio drama audiences seem to welcome some compression of
sound, and have a history of complaining about 'clanking effects',
and more recently, digital effects, 'all computer bleeps, answering-machines
and associated subterranean echoes and clanks - the sort of sampled
hell that is fast becoming a radiophonic cliché' (Anne
Karpf, radio reviewer, 'A talk show of two halves', The Guardian
6 April 1996).
- Shouting and screaming are best reduced to 'moves off', a
distance away from the sound centre, while thunder, gunshots
and explosions are hardly convincing close-to, some directors
would say never. Adaptations from stage plays can exploit the
spatial focus of the box-set, even for the ensemble of a Chekhov
scene or an Ayckbourn.
- The voice-over narrator comes as close into the listener's
mind as possible, unmediated, and in total focus, inhabiting
all of the sound space to its outer frame. Of course there are
many open-air scenes, but radio drama, until the arrival of the
computer and digital technology, and the BBC AudioFile system,
which still has limited use, rarely satisfactorily convinces
when compared with film. On the few occasions when recording
is done on location, the difference in sonic hyper-realism can
be startling. It is still far behind film in reproducing the
complex ways sound is revealed in wide spaces, and amid the many
objects that reflect and absorb. Besides, acting in the dead
studio, required for outdoor scenes, becomes uncomfortable for
performers after a period.
- Most radio plays provide a narrative 'fix'
for the regular listener because he or she is placed in an ideal
sound universe. The listening zone extends from a personal geographical
space through to the 'stage' or 'movie' or 'second play' in the
imagination, and further spaces are opened out for the listener
in the narrative by direct address, the voice-over and music.
Listening pleasure, desire and identification require further
exploration elsewhere, for some claim that the mother's voice
in the 'uterine darkness' is the source of hearing's power. 11
- Do radio plays make us into 'Listening Toms'? The continual
success and variety of radio drama, especially in the BBC, show
that it affords its listeners the best seats for the 'National
Theatre of the Air'.
For reference to articles by Ferrington 1993 and 1994 and Miller
1995 published on the Internet, I give the Internet address and
previous publication, as cited there, and file date if given.
As these electronic text documents do not use page numbers, I
refer to their section headings for the location of quotes.
- 1. See also Felix Felton, The Radio-play:
its techniques and possibilities (London 1949) and
Val Gielgud, British Radio Drama 1922-1956 (London 1957)
- 2. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton,
Film Sound. Theory and Practice (Columbia Univ. Press
1985) is an important collection of articles with an extensive
bibliography. For film music, see Claudia Gorbman, Unheard
Melodies: Narrative Film Music (BFI 1987). BACK
- 3. Paddy Scannell, Broadcast Talk
(Sage 1991) 11. Scannell also mentions the privileging of langue
(an abstract system of signs) over parole (actual utterance).
Some film theorists have found semiotics unhelpful for exploring
viewer response, although others would consider it has been profitably
employed in counter-cultural enterprises. The most rigorous reevaluations
can be found in Susan Melrose, A Semiotics of the Dramatic
Text (New York 1992) and Noel Carroll, Philosophical Problems
of Classical Film Theory (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
Univ. Press 1988). BACK
- 4. See Crisell 1986 p.45 and Lewis
1981 pp.79-83 on 'pure radio'. Gary Ferrington 1994, in the section
'Aural Information', 'The listener hears certain sounds and knows
what is happening without the need to see the actual event. The
sound of sirens, church bells, a neighbor's stereo ..'. BACK
- 5. See Ronald Hingley, Chekhov (Unwin
1966) 238-9. BACK
- 6. Chion 1994 Part 1 passim, talks
of cinema's 'audiovisual contract'. For hearing and listening
distinctions, see Ferrington 1994 in the section 'Listening',
on whom I rely for these definitions. Drakakis 1981 discusses
theories of cognition and hearing pp.23-4 and see Crisell 1986
pp.47-51 on 'sounds'. BACK
- 7. See Crisell 1986 p.51. 'Voice-over',
or disembodied voice in film has to be distinguished from 'voice-on',
the synchronous voice of a character seen on the visual track,
and 'voice-off', the character who is not at present in shot,
but is understood to be just 'off camera', and is within the
diegesis. The most famous example of subjective camera POV in
film is director Robert Montgomery's 'Lady in the Lake' (1946)
where the camera becomes the subjective POV of the protagonist
- 8. Ferrington 1994, in the section
'Exploring Temporal Relationships' comments, 'Audition, on the
other hand is quite effective in providing information about
the passage of time, rhythm, sequence, and frequency.' BACK
- 9. Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood
(J.M.Dent & Sons 1954) pp.2-3. BACK
- 10. Raymond Durgnat 1984 p.96, explains
the cognitive principles of sight, space and perspective. I can
give only one quote from a complex article: 'spatial extension
implies local configuration and both commonly imply point of
view, and therefore perspective'. See also Andre Gardies 1993
'L'espace du spectateur' pp.163-210. BACK
- 11. See Chion 1994, Foreword by Walter
Murch, p.vii. BACK
- William Ash, in The Way to Write Radio Drama (Elm
Tree Books, 1985).
Alan Beck, Radio Acting (A & C Black 1997)
Noel Carroll, Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory
(Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press 1988).
Michel Chion (1982) La Voix au Cinema (Paris: Cahiers
du Cinema/Editions de l'Etoile 1982).
Michel Chion, (1985) Le Son au Cinema (Paris: Cahiers
du Cinema/Editions de l'Etoile 1985). This contains chapter 3,
'Le point d'ecoute' (the point-of-listening ).
Michel Chion, La Toile Trouee (Paris: Cahiers du Cinema/Editions
de l'Etoile 1988).
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen edited and
translated by Claudia Gorbman (Columbia University Press 1994)
from L'Audio-Vision (Editions Nathan, Paris 1990).
Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio (Methuen, 1986).
John Drakakis (ed.), British Radio Drama (CUP, 1981).
Raymond Durgnat, 'Mind's Eye, Eye's Mind: Transformation by Context',
Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Spring 1984) 89-100
Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (Methuen
Felix Felton, The Radio-play: its techniques and possibilities
Elisaveta Fen trans. Chekhov, Plays (London: Penguin 1959).
Gary Ferrington, 'Audio Design: Creating Multi-Sensory Images
For The Mind'
Journal of Visual Literary (1993), and also published on the
Internet at 'http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAEResearch/sndesign'
in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Articles and Research
Gary Ferrington, 'Keep Your Ear-Lids Open' Journal of Visual
Literacy (1994) and also published on the Internet at 'http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAEResearch/earlids'
in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Articles
and Research Documents section.
Andre Gardies, L'espace au cinema (Paris: Meridiens Klincksieck
Val Gielgud, British Radio Drama 1922-1956 (London 1957).
Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music
Peter Lewis (ed.), Radio Drama (Longman, 1981).
Donald McWhinnie, The Art of Radio (London 1959).
Susan Melrose, A Semiotics of the Dramatic Text (New York
Wreford Miller, Silence in The Contemporary Soundscape, file
date: May 21, 1995, published on the Internet at http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAE
in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Archive.
Ian Rodger, Radio Drama (Macmillan, 1982).
Paddy Scannell, Broadcast Talk (Sage 1991).
Lance Sieveking, The Stuff of Radio (London: Cassell 1934).
Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood (J.M.Dent & Sons 1954).
Egil Tornqvist, Transposing Drama (Copenhagen 1991).
Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, Film Sound. Theory and Practice
(Columbia Univ. Press 1985).
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