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  • The Drama of Early Broadcasting:Tyrone Guthrie and the BBC in Belfast
  • Gillian McIntosh (bio)

The British Broadcasting Company began in 1922; in September 1924 its Belfast station 2BE opened, one of several in the United Kingdom to open that year.1 Across Europe broadcasting was taking root and becoming an established medium of public address, entertainment, and information. The first two years of 2BE’s presence in Ireland were pioneering.2 As wireless broadcasting was a relatively new technology, those with little or no public-broadcasting or wireless experience managed the station. Programs and programming within the BBC as a whole were (overwhelmingly) under the purview of men who were creating the boundaries of the medium as they worked.3 Programs broadcast to the public were originated, produced, and directed predominantly by inexperienced staff. This revolutionary period by necessity encouraged experimentation and innovation among the new broadcasters, above all in the realm of radio drama. Of course, as one critic argues, “experiments with literary form, as evidenced in James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both published in 1922, reinforce the view that the development of radio drama requires to be seen in the larger context of experimentation in all the arts during this period.”4 Although Ruth [End Page 13] Stanley has already considered the broadcast of music by the Belfast station and its strong influence subsequently on the shaping of public taste, early innovations in radio drama by the Belfast station and their impact have been almost entirely overlooked.5 In these early years 2BE was more than a relay station. It attempted from the beginning to produce original broadcast material (and not merely music) in and from Belfast. At the forefront of efforts to create new and innovative broadcast drama at 2BE was Tyrone Guthrie (1900–71), who quickly became dissatisfied with the restrictions he inherited, among them a stiff formality that often amounted to little more than reading the script into the microphone. Guthrie exploited the freedom offered by the lack of supervision in these early days of 2BE and learned to exploit the technical opportunities radio presented, using music, sound effects, and imaginative staging. Despite the hiatus in the decade after he left Belfast, this ambition for technically pioneering, high-quality drama continued to be a defining feature of the BBC in Belfast; Guthrie’s successors included Denis Johnston, Sam Hanna Bell, W. R. Rodgers, Louis MacNeice, and Stewart Parker.

On 15 October 1924 the dirigible ZR-3, the USS Los Angeles, arrived safely in Lakehurst, New Jersey.6 This transatlantic crossing was regarded as a remarkable aviation achievement.7 In this era of luxury travel airships were the ocean liners of the air. Fittingly, at the official opening of Ireland’s first broadcasting station in Belfast, a city itself famous for the production of luxury ships, Lord Mayor Sir William Turner (1872–1937) drew particular attention to this spectacular Zeppelin flight. It was a feat made more remarkable for him by the fact that the Los Angeles’s German crew could remain in constant contact with land through the use of that other rapidly evolving technology of the age, wireless.8 [End Page 14]

In the early decades of the twentieth century wireless broadcasting was the pursuit of a minority. After the First World War wireless quickly moved from being a military-communications device that transmitted messages from one point to another by broadcasting to becoming a general recreation, mostly for the middle classes. By the 1930s wireless broadcasting was a mass cultural phenomenon across Europe. In Britain broadcasting’s popularity was indicated by the increase in the number of licenses purchased (obligatory for the ownership of a wireless set), which rose from 36,000 in 1922 to two million in 1926.9 In Belfast the impact of having a local station was a boon to the sale of licenses; the lord mayor reported that over 1,400 licenses had been sold between 1 January and 14 September 1924, while between 15 September and 18 October (that is, after 2BE started broadcasting) nearly 5,300 licenses were sold.10 Of course, such figures do...


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