Spaceways – the radio play that became the first British sci fi film?

I was reading Arthur C Clarke’s Prelude to Space in the 1953 paperback when I was struck by one of the ads in the back. Spaceways (never heard of it) was “originally a radio play, broadcast by the BBC in 1952 with immense success. Later it was made into the first British science-fiction film.” As regular visitors must know by now, my doctorate is in radio drama and, as I say, I had never heard of Spaceways. As for movies, what about The Shape of Things to Come (1936)? That was science fiction, surely? It was certainly British (London Films). Anyway, I had to investigate further. Firstly I bought the book.

The cover is not as good as the Clarke paperbacks of the same era. The science is not as heavy as in Clarke, but ironically that results in it being closer to what actually happened – rockets taking off vertically in the middle of nowhere, rather than Clarke’s fancy of horizontal runways. Maine, however, is a much better novelist than Clarke. His characters not only have inner lives; they have sex lives too, something the early Clarke would never countenance. In fact Spaceways is a genre hybrid, a noir-ish murder mystery based on the eternal triangle and set on a space research facility in the Nevada desert. Oh yes, I should have mentioned that. The pseudonymous Maine was British but this is an entirely American novel.

The other thing I should mention is that the novel is not directly based on the radio play. The radio play was turned into a Hammer movie, written by Maine, which he then turned into this book. I have looked up the credits for the radio broadcast, which seems to me to use the framing device of a court trial. It lasted 75 minutes, as did the film. The protagonist of the novel, Barry Conway of the Security Division of Special Services, is not in either the radio play or the movie. The movie seems to have a different plot to either the play or the novel. The central plot device, however, remains the same.

One of the key scientists is having a torrid affair with the wife of a senior colleague. The wife has cheated on the husband before, and he has responded violently. On the morning before the launch of the first space rocket (the novel is specifically set in 1955) the husband turns up for work with a black eye. When the rocket is safely heading for orbit, from which it will never return, it is discovered that both the wife and her lover are missing. The theory is that Hills, the cuckold, has killed them and stowed their bodies aboard the rocket. On that basis he stands trial, only to cause a sensation when he offers to prove his innocence by flying the second prototype rocket and bringing back the original. This is what happens – with an almighty twist, which I won’t spoil for anyone who wants to seek out this curiosity for themselves – albeit I have as yet no idea whether it was remotely the same in either the play or the film.

And I do intend to take this further. The movie is easily available on DVD but the play will be harder to track down. In the meantime I have discovered that Maine did the same trick with other stories. Timeslip aka The Atomic Man is the movie version of his novel The Isotope Man, both of which I have already acquired.

As for the suggestion that Spaceways was the first British science fiction film, my interim theory is that whoever wrote the blurb in the back of the Pan paperback was drawing a distinction between the post-Hiroshima technology-based fiction of Clarke, Maine and their contemporaries, and the purely speculative future fiction of Wells and Verne and C S Lewis. Interestingly, directly underneath the blurb for Spaceways is an ad for The Time Machine and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (the latter a celebrated BBC radio drama of 1934, adapted by Laurence Gilliam). This describes H G Wells as, specifically, a “Pioneer of Space Fiction”.


The Growth of Under Milk Wood

There are several things we all need to know about Under Milk Wood. Let’s be clear, I am of the opinion that everybody needs to know Under Milk Wood as a towering slice of mid Twentieth Century verse. That said, there are a couple of factors we should always bear in mind when enjoying it.

First off, it is not a play. It has none of the hallmarks of a play, even experimental plays, which in English-speaking drama it predated. It is, specifically, a dramatic feature for radio, a form invented by the BBC in the 1930s and exported all around the world as the standard audio drama form during and shortly after World War II. American radio drama is in fact drama features. Radio drama in every Commonwealth country is likewise drama features. In every country they took as their model – often, indeed, as the first proper radio drama broadcast – The March of the ’45 by D G (Geoffrey) Bridson. Bridson was a features man. He wrote and produced features. The March of the ’45 is a feature. Confusingly, he also wrote plays, but that’s another story.

Douglas Cleverdon was also a features man. He produced and put together features. He is the man who put together the first script for Under Milk Wood, broadcast in January 1954, two months after the death of its creator Dylan Thomas. Cleverdon also put together other versions for various stage productions. Thomas himself had written other material for Under Milk Wood, which Cleverdon chose not to use but which others have used since, notably the so-called ‘Guide Book’ section, which featured in the most recent radio revival I know of, directed by Alison Hindell in 2003.

Cleverdon was very much the champion of Under Milk Wood, the standard-bearer, but he was never the final arbiter. Thomas made Dr Daniel Jones his literary executor. Jones wrote the music for the songs but also ruled out some of the bawdier elements that Cleverdon wanted to include and which Thomas himself had included in the readings he gave in America, immediately prior to drinking himself to death. Recordings of the American sessions exist. A version of the BBC broadcast was released by Argos in 1954. A complete recording of that broadcast is available from the BBC itself. Other recordings exist. Dent put out a script which differed from the broadcast, also in 1954. Thomas himself had published extracts before he died.

The point is, Under Milk Wood was never finished. It is my firm conviction that Thomas would never have finished it. It was his drink-ticket (rather than his meal ticket) and even if he had lived to be a well-pickled centenarian he would have continued churning out variants so long as anyone was willing to pay for them. As it is, there are dozens of alternatives in existence – and that is what Cleverdon sets out to describe in his book The Growth of Milk Wood (Dent, London, 1969).

It is a book for the specialist, granted, but given the status Under Milk Wood enjoys across various aspects of contemporary culture, I believe it is a book every specialist should have in their collection. And most don’t – thus we get the ill-informed pontificating about the purity of Thomas’s vision which diminishes the sheer generosity of what he actually wrote.

Thomas is the only modern writer for whom, like Shakespeare, we have variants, all of them (unlike Shakespeare) written by Thomas himself and intended to form part of the emerging whole. There is no canonical version – and if anything gets anywhere near a canonical version, I contend it should be the US recordings made after he gave Cleverdon the script upon which the first broadcast was based. Thereafter it is simply a question of personal taste.

Cleverdon also addresses the key question of what differentiates a radio feature from a radio play. It is a question I have to expound on every time I write about classic radio plays and now I can add the producer of the best-known feature to my repertoire.

Nobody outside the BBC (and, indeed, comparatively few inside) can be expected to distinguish between a radio play and a radio feature. A radio play is a dramatic work deriving from the tradition of the theatre, but conceived in terms of radio. A radio feature is, roughly, any constructed programme (that is, other than news bulletins, racing commentaries, and so forth) that derives from the technical apparatus of radio (microphone, control-panel, recording gear, loud-speaker). It can combine any sound elements – words, music, sound effects – in any form or mixture of forms – documentary, actuality, dramatized, poetic, musico-dramatic. It has no rules governing what can or cannot be done. And though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot.

In short, Cleverdon maintains that Under Milk Wood began as a radio play called The Village of the Mad but became a feature because Thomas couldn’t devise a satisfactory plot.

I should also point out, in closing, that Cleverdon discusses the variants up to 1969, the date of publication. Other variants have arisen since.

J G Ballard – High-Rise (1975)

Reading J G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) quickly put me in mind of Golding’s Lord of the Flies from 1954.  The resemblance goes beyond mere dystopia.  Both are about civilised man’s predilection to run wild when deprived of his creature comforts.  For both Ballard and Golding, the veneer of social cooperation is tissue-thin.

high rise

I don’t want to labour the point because there are obvious differences between the books.  Golding wafts his schoolboys off to a tropical island whereas Ballard maroons his adult male protagonists in a suburban London tower block.  To begin with at least, both locations smack of the paradisiacal.  But, just as Eden had its serpent, so Ballard’s suburbia houses an underlying menace:

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape.  Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence….  The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments and rectilinear curtain walling formed an intriguing medley of geometrics – less a habitable architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event. [Ballard 1975: 34-5][1]

For me, massive high-rise developments bring to mind the disastrous social experiments of the 1960s in northern cities like Sheffield and Manchester.  Streets of slums wiped away in favour of jerry-built slums in the sky.  Ballard’s London high-rise is very different.  This new-built development of a thousand apartments is for affluent buyers only; professionals at the very least (Laing, for example, is a lecturer at a medical school), preferably stockbrokers and above.  It remains a social experiment, though.  The size of the apartments, and naturally their cost, increases the higher up you go.  The architect himself, Anthony Royal, occupies the penthouse.  The utopian idea was for the residents at all level to come together in the communal areas like the shopping mall, the swimming pool, and the Royal’s rooftop sculpture garden.  In practice, even as the last of the residents moves in, the middleclass has subdivided itself into three – lower, middle, and upper – and never shall the twentieth floor, let alone the ground floor, aspire to the fortieth.  What was meant to be a single community has become an amalgam of a thousand islands.

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth century life.  They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. [Ballard 1975: 46]

Royal has built himself a vertical kingdom, with courtiers and even courtesans.  To be able to be the top of the pile means that someone must be at the bottom, and the lower orders always have the potential to become unruly.

In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology. [Ballard 1975: 47]

It begins with a fifteen-minute blackout on just three floors.  Residents isolated on the tenth floor concourse stampede.  Some are briefly marooned in the lift between floors.  Somebody, for reasons unknown, drowns a dog in the communal swimming pool.  From that point the veneer cracks, faultlines spreading from the centre like a spider’s web.  Inhibitions slip, the garbage disposal shutes become clogged, people smear dog shit, parties run on for days, a man dies.

Class turns against class, floor against floor.  People defend their territory to the death.  No one leaves the high rise.  No one calls the police.  Their world turns in on itself, becomes self-contained.

The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. [Ballard 1975: 133]

A major flaw of the novel is the lack of women.  The female of the species exists only as a sexual object or sexual threat (“Uneasily, he thought; careful, Laing, or some stockbroker’s wife will unman you as expertly as she de-stones a pair of avocados.” Ballard 1975: 43]).  Ballard, of course, was famously misogynistic. For those of us who aren’t, women without purpose or personality are offensive.


The second problem is the decision to quite crudely divide the protagonist into three, each character, in consequence, inevitably lacking.  We have the sexual coward Laing, who shuts himself away when things fall apart, we have Royal the aesthete, the king without a crown, who again does nothing to protect his masterwork.  Our third protagonist is Richard Wilder, a “thick-set, pugnacious man who had once been a professional rugby-league player.”[2]  Wilder is a TV producer, something of a maverick, who lives with his unnaturally passive wife and two young sons very low down on the pecking order on the second floor but aspires much, much higher.  Wilder is a predator, a hunter-gatherer.  Combined with Laing and Royal, Wilder makes up the complete man in Ballard’s imagination, possibly the man he himself aspired to be.  When it all goes wrong in the high rise Laing and Royal hide away but Wilder goes hunting, his principal weapon a hand-held cine camera.  Every other resident undergoes complete social meltdown; Wilder sets out to make a television documentary.

Wilder ends up a naked, painted savage.  Royal dreams of flying away with the sea-birds that visit his rooftop garden.  Laing lives with his sister in an ideal sexless marriage.  In the end the contagion passes to the neighbouring high-rise.  Laing, about to feast on spit-roasted dog, watches “contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”[3]

It’s a great dystopia, a thorough working out of Ballard’s thesis that “In the future, violence would clearly become a valuable form of social cement.”[4]  But we are now forty years on and violence has not become any sort of social cement.  And so we are left with the question which must be asked of all dystopian novels which haven’t come to pass – does it work as literature?  And in the case of High-Rise, given the flaws discussed above, the answer has to be Not Quite.  It’s well worth reading though.

[1] NB: The novel was originally published by Cape, London, in 1975, but I refer to the Flamingo ebook 2014.

[2] Ballard 1975: 20

[3] Ballard 1975: 207

[4] Ballard 1975: 133