The Lost Art Form – Issues regarding radio drama in the Sound Archive

This short paper describes my personal experience of Intellectual Property issues whilst accessing the Sound Archive at the British Library in the period 2006-2007 in connection with my PhD thesis on British Radio Drama.

sound archive

Since the mid 1930s the BBC, as to all intents and purposes the monopoly producer of British radio drama, has maintained an archive of selected productions, initially through its Transcription Service for broadcast in other countries but since the 1950s with an additional, unarticulated cultural purpose perhaps reflecting the intellectual “High Art” aspirations of the Third Programme at that time. There is a general consensus, both within the BBC and amongst researchers, that the BBC Archive is blighted by subjectivity in selection and inadequate cataloguing; nevertheless, no other national public service broadcaster can claim an archive remotely comparable.

The extent of the cultural impact of BBC radio drama on British audiences over its eighty-year history and the contribution of radio drama to the development of modern dramatic forms is arguable. What is not in dispute, however, is that radio drama has had an impact. No form capable of attracting audiences of 14 million, as Saturday Night Theatre did from roughly 1945 to 1955, can be lightly discounted – yet that is precisely what has happened to thousands of radio plays, partly because of what Lance Sieveking, an early exponent of sound art within the BBC, called in 1934 the “ghastly impermanence of the medium” (1) and equally because of the historic difficulty in accessing the archive. In 1948, for example, Elkan and Dorotheen Allan complained: “The student [of radio drama] cannot buy a set of records of it, nor even – strangely – go to Broadcasting House and listen to its recording which is stacked away there.” (2)  Similarly, Peter M Lewis, writing as recently as 2000, attributed the lack of study of British radio in general to “the inaccessibility of radio archives – a surprising state of affairs for a country whose radio heritage is so distinguished. Yet radio’s abundant presence on the airwaves contrasts with its absence as an object for study and research.” (3)

Today, the British Library acts as a portal to the BBC Archive and the problems of access have lessened considerably, though not entirely: recordings can only be listened to on site, thus discriminating against non-London-based researchers like myself, poor cataloguing may yet lead to revivals being supplied where originals are available, and copies cannot be taken away. Nevertheless, great insights can be gained by hearing what original producers intended listeners to hear at the time. In terms of production practice, for example, there was clearly a move away from sound effects in the immediate postwar period – something no authority has ever commented on before – and it is instructive to hear the disproportionate impact this has on the drama. In my case this was illustrated the stark “silence” of the dramatisation of Wyndham Lewis’s The Childermass (1951), subsequently part one of The Human Age trilogy, contrasted with the richly layered soundscape of the 1955 productions – by the same producer – of parts two and three, Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta.

Equally, the opportunity to use original recordings as a primary source reveals that previous scholars (who in fairness have not had that opportunity) have in at least one significant instance established an erroneous academic consensus based on the secondary source which is all they had. The 1957 production of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall was by any criteria a major cultural event – the most controversial English-language playwright of the day was commissioned by the BBC to write a full-length original play for radio. Beckett requested, and the BBC provided, a special treatment for the sound effects. What subsequently became the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created stylised sounds with which to punctuate Beckett’s text. These are discussed at length in producer Donald McWhinnie’s book The Art of Radio (1959) and literary scholars, with only McWhinnie’s recollection and Beckett’s published text to work with, progressively enhanced the importance of the effects. John Pilling, for instance, wrote in 1976: “The radiophonic instructions are as lapidary as Beckett’s stage directions … deliberately exaggerated to remind us of the fictional status of those events.” (4)  In the light of such commentary the experience of listening to the actual broadcast comes as a disappointment: the sounds are certainly non-naturalistic but a man going baa is scarcely exaggerated and using single beats on a kettledrum to illustrate Dan Rooney’s dragging footfalls is “musical in conception” (5) in only the widest sense. This dichotomy between what McWhinnie describes and what can be can heard on the recording is best illustrated by the train sequence that bridges what are effectively Acts One and Two. McWhinnie wrote: “At last the train arrives, and in production it is impossible to exaggerate this moment. The sound-complex in its grotesque fantasy must fulfil the wildest expectations and fears of the people who have been biting their nails on the platform; we should hear it as the nightmare realisation of their own heightened anxiety.” (6)  What we actually hear, however, is anticlimactic; far from yelling over the “rush of train” as the text requires, the actress playing Maddy Rooney barely has to raise her voice. Why and how the discrepancy came about is no doubt an area for future research but the fact that the British Library and BBC issued the complete Beckett Works for Radio in 2006 at least means that any such research can be undertaken outside a BL listening carrel. Equally, fair usage principles enable the recordings to be played to students in the lecture theatre or seminar room. I can play my personal copy on my personal computer over and over again, trying to work out what the sound attributed to Mr Slocum’s jalopy actually is and anyone who disagrees with me can do the same. In short, fifty-one years after the event, informed discussion can finally take place.

This, of course, is not currently the case with material that has not been issued in “hard” form or which has been digitised. The example I would cite here is D G Bridson’s The March of the ’45 (1936), not only one of the earliest radio plays preserved in the archive but also (I argue) the play which became the model for indigenous radio drama in the USA and most Commonwealth countries. This sits, in digitised form, on the BL server; thus I am unable to possess a copy, play it to students and colleagues or – because of the time constraints inherent in having to travel to London and book a carrel in which to listen – scrutinise the recording to the same extent I would scrutinise a text or indeed the Beckett recordings on CD. The form Bridson developed not only works best on radio, it can only work on radio. It is the pure radiogenic dramatic form and because scholars still cannot discuss it as an artefact it is the lost art form alluded to in my title.

To set the Bridson case in context, I cannot use for purely academic purposes the digitised recording of a work by a salaried BBC employee, who as such was paid no royalty, which the BBC played all around the world and even used as in-house training material over closed circuit relay and which was estimated by 1971 to “have been heard by anything up to a hundred million listeners.” (7)   Because other countries and other national broadcasters take a different view, I can however make fair usage of the digitised recording of Antonin Artaud’s original dramatic work for Radiodiffusion Française, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (1948), a play of undoubted significance which was banned before broadcast and thus heard officially by no one at all at the time.

In summary, the BBC was first into the field of radio drama in January 1924 and has dominated the form, quantitatively if not always qualitatively, for eighty-four years. It was the first democratic dramatic medium consumed domestically and in exactly the same form throughout the country. Early radio plays were heard by people who had no previous experience of drama and even today, with the single play virtually extinct on television and theatrical platforms for new writing perpetually underfunded, offers an open door to first-time writers. Yet restrictions on the usage of archival recordings means there is virtually no British academic or critical debate around what is essentially an original British form.

The impact on scholarship is effectively expressed by Elke Huwiler of the University of Amsterdam: “Whereas in film studies nobody would presume to confine their analysis to the script, this procedure has been adopted quite regularly in radio drama studies – with the result that those specifically acoustical features that are not described in the written script are excluded from the analysis. Yet even if such features were described, this would certainly be no substitute for listening to the recorded play.” (8)

  1. Sieveking, The Stuff of Radio (1934) p. 15
  2. Allan & Allan, Good Listening: A Survey of Broadcasting (1948) p. 92
  3. Lewis (2000), “Private passion, public neglect: the cultural status of radio”, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 3 (2) p. 164
  4. Pilling, Samuel Beckett (1976), p. 94
  5. McWhinnie, The Art of Radio (1959)
  6. Ibid, pp 146-7
  7. D G Bridson, Prospero and Ariel: The Rise and Fall of Radio (1971) p. 57
  8. Huwiler (2005), “Storytelling by sound: a theoretical frame for radio drama analysis”, Radio Journal 3 (1), p. 50

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