- British Radio Drama, 1945–63 by Hugh Chignell
Bemoaning the dominance of what he called “Loamshire plays,” the Observer critic Kenneth Tynan in 1954 summarized the state of London theatre with a question: “After all, how many ways are there of directing a tea party?” (13). Following World War II, wages were on the rise, Noël Coward was king, and audiences seemed satisfied with a steady stream of middlebrow fare—on the stage, that is. Over the airwaves, a revolution was underway. In British Radio Drama, 1945–63, Hugh Chignell argues, with appropriate caveats and scare quotes, that the era was a “golden age” for the medium, as a confluence of technological advances, innovative writers and producers, and indulgent if unim-pressed BBC administrators expanded the limits of English theatre. The transience of radio has left a depleted record of these years, and Chignell admits that his history is shaped by an archive that favors well-known writers. Still, his case for the value of radio drama—and an implicit case for its increased circulation—is encapsulated by BBC script editor and radio director Donald McWhinnie’s take on the value of the form: “Perhaps the most potent quality of the spoken word in close focus . . . is its power to communicate secret states of mind, the inner world and private vision of the speaker” (7).
Chignell’s approach is not explicitly theoretical, and he declines to engage in a dialogue with recent scholars of radio, including Todd Avery (author of Radio Modernism) and Debra Rae Cohen (coeditor of Broadcasting Modernism). Further, his argument relies less upon close reading than choice excerpts from his source material. This is history gleaned from the archives.
In chapter 1, Chignell characterizes postwar Britain as comfortable, class conscious, and artistically enervated. Members of the Old Etonian National Trust complained about admitting members of the general public into Montacute House “because they smelt” (12). Coward’s Nude with Violin, marked by “casual racism and sneering contempt for the lower social classes,” ran for over a year (17). In the hierarchy of media, radio was ranked beneath film, jazz, classical music, opera, theatre, architecture, and painting. Chapter 2 chronicles how, at first, the BBC Radio Drama Department hewed to cultural expectations. In December 1939, for example, the head of Drama and Features, Val Gielgud (brother of John), envisioned a wartime “national theatre of the air” featuring broadcasts of classic stage plays that would serve “the preservation of the civilized values for which that war is being fought” (23). Soon, programs were segregated by intellectual [End Page 587] rigor, with middlebrow broadcasts on Sundays and highbrow ones on Mondays. After the war, Drama and Features was split into two departments, with Gielgud retaining control of drama and features turned over to Laurence Gilliam. Henceforth, the BBC had three separate networks: the Home Service (news), the Light Programme (middlebrow), and the Third Programme (highbrow). The director-general of the BBC viewed this arrangement as a “cultural pyramid,” as he hoped listeners of the Light would migrate to the Home Service and then, finally, to the Third (24).
In chapter 3, Chignell reviews extant radio drama from 1945 to 1953. Canonical authors monopolized the airwaves, and in addition to Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, audiences could listen to adaptations of Orwell, Dickens, and Chaucer. The few original plays were epics, and their “themes of the uncertain hero and the quest to be achieved reflect the militaristic culture which resonated for several years after the end of the war” (53). Chapter 4 illustrates how technological changes facilitated more diverse programming. Before the war there was only one station in Britain, and thus listening was limited and collective. But wood radios gave way to bakelite, which gave way to plastic, therefore reducing prices and enabling families to own multiple sets. Very high frequency (VHF) reduced interference, and magnetic tape allowed for both prerecording and repeat broadcasts. A “golden age” had dawned.
In chapter 5, Chignell accounts for the success of the Theatre of the Absurd at the BBC, which broadcast productions of Genet, Adamov...