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.


Louis MacNeice: Enter Caesar

julius caesar

Enter Caesar, broadcast in the BBC Home Service on September 20 1946, is the first text in the chronologically ordered Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (BBC 1969), but it is not and never was a play.

BBC Home Service September 30 1946, produced by MacNeice, music by Elisabeth Lutyens, conductor Warwick Braithwaite.

Centurion, Ivor Barnard; Schoolmaster, Duncan McIntyre; Sulla, Esme Percy; Apollonius, Malcolm Graeme; Crassus, Cyril Gardner; Pompey, Laidman Browne; Catulus, Ernest Thesiger; Bibulus, Alexander Sarner; Cisalpine Gaul, Harry Hutchinson; Gabinus, Roger Snowden; Cicero, Cecil Trouncer; Cato, Mark Dignam; Clodia, Grizelda Hervey; Clodius, John Chandos; Milo, Howard Marion-Crawford; and members of the BBC Repertory Company

Enter Caesar, broadcast in the BBC Home Service on September 20 1946, is the first text in the chronologically ordered Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (BBC 1969), but it is not and never was a play. It is a feature. The BBC definition of a feature was always complex and has changed over the decades. Today it is a documentary, in the 1950s and ‘60s it was probably most noticeably the Radio Ballads, but originally it developed from the work of the Programme Research Department set up in the wake of the dismissal of the first, experimental Head of Drama, R E Jeffrey, in 1928. The purpose of the department was stated in the memo announcing its creation:[i]

“Its primary function will be creative work in every direction, the only routine responsibility at present being the conduct of the weekly ‘Surprise Item’. It will be particularly concerned with such matters as special feature programmes with or without reference to particular dates.”

Because the Programme Research Department included Jeffrey’s closest and most experimental associates –Lance Sieveking, whose sound and verse Kaleidoscope (1928) was ‘played’ on the Dramatic Control Panel (DCP) at Savoy Hill, and Archie Harding, who brought Ezra Pound’s ‘hobo’ opera The Testament of François Villon to the airwaves in1931 – the outcome was always likely to be both radical and drama-based. Having been rusticated to Manchester, Harding collaborated with Geoffrey Bridson to develop the form, and Bridson’s March of the ’45 (1936) became one of the most influential and widely-heard radio plays of all time – without actually being a play. Bridson wrote plays – his Aaron’s Field (1939) was the first radio play broadcast by the BBC after the outbreak of war – but he specialised in features, finding artistic freedom by combining his gift for declamatory verse with the technological potential of the DCP (Manchester was the only regional station to have one) and the technique of local actors and performers such as Jimmie Miller (Ewan McColl).

The feature was such an amorphous form that definition defied even those in charge of it. Val Gielgud, who headed the joint Drama and Features Department from 1929 to 1945, declared in 1947, “a Feature Programme is any programme item – other than a radio play – whose author makes use of the specialised technique of radio-dramatic production.”[ii]

Laurence Gilliam, who ran the independent post-war Features Department for the whole of its existence, was no more helpful: “In its simplest form,” he wrote in 1950, the feature programme aims at combining the authenticity of the talk with the dramatic force of a play, but unlike the play, whose business it is to create dramatic illusion for its own sake, the business of the feature is to convince the listener of the truth of what it is saying, even though it is saying it in dramatic form.”[iii]

And finally there is Rayner Heppenstall, who joined Features immediately after the war and who only produced radio plays at the end of his career. In his introduction to Imaginary Conversations (1948), a series of non-factual scripted dialogues between historical people, performed by actors, Heppenstall attempts to answer the question he is always being asked:

“Adopting a tentative manner and using inflexions calculated to suggest a fresh and spontaneous approach, I would murmur, ‘Well, I suppose anything between a talk on the one hand and a play on the other could be regarded as a feature. Of course, there’s always supposed to be some factual interest, but then most things are factual, don’t you find? … And the information is presented dramatically, more or less…”[iv]

MacNeice, like Bridson, wrote plays and features. He was departmentally always a Features employee yet his major works, Christopher Columbus (1942) and The Dark Tower (1946), have traditionally been regarded as plays. The latter certainly is, but a case can be made for classing Columbus as a dramatic feature at the most elaborate end of the scale. Heppenstall, for example, says he cites “Louis MacNeice’s verse epics” as “concrete instances” of features, “being careful to point out, however, that The Dark Tower was regarded as a play.”[v]

Fortunately, Enter Caesar is definitely a feature. It uses actors – members of the BBC Repertory Company – and it uses scripted dialogue, but there is no real sense of place, nor any plot to speak of. What we have is a thesis – that Caesar rose like Hitler and Mussolini and knowledge of how he did so is therefore relevant to the modern world – which MacNeice expounds through his mouthpiece characters. That we, the listener, are being in a sense lectured is driven home by the second scene, which leaves an unnamed Roman centurion getting his first glimpse of the White Cliffs of Dover[vi] and switches to a post-war classroom where a Scottish teacher is desperately trying to interest his pupils in De Bello Gallico: “Och, I know the Bellum Gallicum is a bore but it’s better written than Mein Kampf … What’s the connection with Hitler? All right; close your books. I’ll try and paint for you now the history of a dictator.”[vii]

Perhaps more should have been made of the framing device – the schoolmaster does not reappear until virtually the end of the piece.   Further interventions from Duncan McIntyre’s familiar brogue might have enlivened the progression of what are essentially the same voices – the patrician politicians of republican Rome. Shakespeare recognised the problem; his Caesar is more often than not encountered with his wife, Calpurnia. Here we have a brief appearance from Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, urging him to divorce her for the sake of his career; otherwise the only recurring woman of the ruling class is the debauched Clodia, sister of the degenerate Clodius. W H Auden, in his introduction to the 1969 collection, claims that Enter Caesar “gives those of us who are not, like MacNeice, classical scholars who have read all the historical documents, a clear understanding of the political and social conditions in the Roman Republic after Sulla’s death.”[viii] I would suggest that the Clodia/Clodius relationship, and the Bona Dea scandal which was certainly a factor in Caesar’s rise, needs more explanation than MacNeice is able to give it, in 1946, and in forty-five minute programme. There is, understandably, no hint of transvestism or incest.

More interesting than any of the characters that do appear, and there are at least thirty-five of them, is of course the one who doesn’t. Shakespeare gave his eponymous character less than 150 lines before killing him off at the beginning of Act Three; MacNeice goes further and gives his Caesar none at all. Everything in the script is about Caesar but we hear nothing from him. Auden neatly sums up the mise en scène: “What we hear are a series of political discussions by others, both professional politicians and men-in-the-street about him. Is he a danger to them personally or to the State, or is he a saviour? Would it be good policy to support him or oppose him? In either case, what steps should be taken?”[ix]

The scenes involving men- and women-in-the-street work well, especially the final scene – a centurion and a freedwoman drunkenly celebrating the festival of Anna Perenna, which also happens to be the Ides of March, toasting Caesar a long life, unaware that he has been assassinated. The scenes of political debate work less well, principally because there are so many of them. Contrary to Auden’s assertion, one can’t help feeling that MacNeice’s scholarship got the better of him on occasion – that ‘names’ like Cicero and Cato have been shoe-horned in purely because they were there historically. In contrast, one effective voice is not human at all: in a bravura device typical of the dramatic feature, Cisalpine Gaul offers us his opinion on behalf of the entire provincial population:

“I always knew that Caesar would come to the top – but not to a top like this. Did you see Crassus when he passed? Did you see Pompey? They looked a bit awkward, didn’t they? The Three Big Men they call them but every triangle has an apex. And I know who the apex is this time.”[x]

Another signature of the feature, and MacNeice’s radio work overall, is the use of music. Walton scored Columbus, Britten The Dark Tower, but this lesser work warranted a less well known composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, a Shoenbergian serialist in youth, but later relegated to the soundtrack on British horror films. MacNeice was specific in the sort of music he wanted and how it worked with his text. The segue from the schoolroom to Sulla’s revival of the dictatorship in 82BC is detailed thus: “fade up orchestra, first few bars reminiscent of Horst Wessel, then twist into Legionary March and end triumphant.”[xi] Caesar’s rise to power is marked with ‘Caesar’s fanfare’, often set against ‘Forum music’ when his enemies in the Senate strike back.[xii]

The use of stock sound effects in BBC features had become proverbial by the end of the war. Gilliam’s 1933 “gramophone record of mewing sea-gulls became a music-hall joke,” according to the Allans in 1948, “and that of the car with its squealing brakes bored instead of thrilled.”[xiii] Heppenstall, writing the same year, observes, “Our radio critics, those incarnations of public taste, incline towards a myth in which there are two types of radio production, the tasteful (without effects) and the misguided (with).”[xiv] For a time producers eschewed effects altogether.[xv] MacNeice uses music instead of effects. His thunder is ‘orchestral’, the march of legionaries a military march. He uses vocal babble to suggest crowds. He clearly intends to be tasteful without falling into the trap of silent sterility.

Tasteful he may have been, but he failed to impress. MacNeice was highly rated by the BBC Listener Panels for both Plays and Features but Enter Caesar was not well received. The Listener Research Bulletin for the week reported, “Although the audience for this feature compared reasonably well with that for other Friday night features at this time,[xvi] 10%, its Appreciation Index was disappointing, only 46. Friday night features rarely have Appreciation Indeces lower than 60.”[xvii]

Perhaps, after all, MacNeice would have done better to show us something of Caesar the man, the opportunist, the strategist, the mover and shaker, and less of Caesar the absent iconoclast.


[i] Controller to Control Board etc., December 10 1928, “Programme Research Department” (WAC 12/77/1) Geilgud, Val Henry, Personal File

[ii] Val Gielgud (1947) Years of the Locust, London, Nicholson & Watson, p. 74

[iii] Laurence Gilliam (1950) BBC Features, London, Evans, p. 10

[iv] Rayner Heppenstall (1948) Imaginary Conversations, London, Secker & Warburg, p. 10

[v] Ibid, p. 11

[vi] Under the terms of the 1928 memo Enter Caesar was a feature programme with reference to a particular date, in this instance 54BC, the pretext being that 1946 was 2000th anniversary of the Roman invasion of Britain.

[vii] Louis MacNeice (1969) Persons from Porlock and other plays for Radio, London, BBC, p. 13

[viii] MacNeice 1969: 9