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.


The peculiar integrity of the medium…

MacNeice understood the peculiar integrity of the medium, with its aptitude for psychological montage…  His wartime propaganda features allowed an invisible narrator to eavesdrop on the vox pop of a collective unconsciousness, as if by twiddling dials and commuting between frequencies.


Peter Conrad reviewing Jon Stallworthy’s biography of Louis MacNeice for the Guardian, February 12 1995


The most striking difference between radio drama and the ordinary stage play is that in the former everything the characters say is heard primarily as a soliloquy.  In a stage play the audience ‘overhear’, so to speak, the remarks which the actors they see address to each other; in a radio play each remark is heard as addressed directly to the listener, and its effect upon the invisible characters in the play is secondary.


W H Auden, Foreword to Persons from Porlock and Other Plays for Radio, BBC (1969)

Radio Drama, June 1944

In the comments on specially written plays, it was alleged that their average quality was not high: that they were too often self-conscious and unconvincing.  As one listener wrote: ‘My experience of plays specially written for radio is that the author seems more concerned with bringing off some original technical trick than with saying anything definite which may be of interest to me […]  Few prominent authors write for radio.  Why not?  One feels they are not wanted.  There is too much emphasis on the medium and too little on content.’

From the Listener Research Report, RADIO DRAMA, Some facts about the Plays Panel and their opinions, June 23 1944 LR/2695 [BBC WAC R9/9/8]

“A medium that writers love”

Because of the absence of the visual image, radio drama need not necessarily be confined to the representations of things as they are,  Since radio drama, or fiction for radio, or story-telling with radio, or any other use of radio at all other than for pure information-giving or opinion-giving, starts off from a necessary degree of stylisation, it has always attracted and continues to attract, the avant-garde.  […]  It is a medium that writers love.

Angela Carter, preface to Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1985)

The Lost Art Form

I have just uploaded an short paper I wrote in March 2008 at the request of the British Library concerning issues regarding radio drama in the Sound Archive.

The Sound Archive at the British Library, for those who don’t know, is the national sound archive.  Through the BL, you can in theory access the BBC’s corporate sound archive.  I say ‘in theory’ because unless you can specify exactly what you want you will encounter problems.  Neither the BL or the BBC can be blamed for this.  Sound Archive staff at the Library have no sense of ownership over the BBC material.  They will ask the BBC on your behalf, and if the BBC deliver the item to them, they will deliver it to your listening carrel.  The BBC will likewise do what they are asked, but unless what you ask for conforms exactly to what they have in their system, there is nothing they can do.



The BBC has spent so long apologising to here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians that it has never really grasped the cultural importance of its product.  In terms of radio drama the BBC is unquestionably the world leader yet the in-house view has always been that sound-only drama is transitory, ephemeral.  This year BBC radio drama celebrates its 90th year and we hear nothing about it.  Elizabethan drama bestrode the public stage for less than twenty years, yet we discuss it endlessly.  As custodian of its own product, the BBC policy has always been pile it up somewhere and sort it out later.  In fairness, they are quite rightly too busy making new product.

Anyway, “The Lost Art Form” offers my thoughts on the system as it stood back in 2008.  More recent experience suggests that the cuts since then certainly haven’t helped.  I will shortly be describing another listening project which I undertook in September 2011 (yes, the very day I went temporarily blind!).  In the meantime I would love to hear your experiences with the Sound Archive.