I’ve been doing research reading, and I finished BRITISH RADIO DRAMA 1945-63 by Hugh Chignell last week. Some of the most revolutionary, groundbreaking and future-facing drama in the world during that period was done with the BBC on radio.
This appreciation of radio drama as having a unique capacity to understand and reveal psychological states was one identified fifty years earlier by arguably the most important radio drama producer of the post-war era Donald McWhinnie who wrote the following: ‘Perhaps the most potent quality of the spoken word in close focus – not projected artificially to several hundred people – is its power to communicate secret states of mind, the inner world and private vision of the speaker.’
For McWhinnie, radio drama is at its best an exploration of the inner world, an intimate representation facilitated by the original use of sound.
I need to read it again and make more notes, as I found myself getting lost in the rich layers of detail Chignell brings to bear. But here’s the deal:
Dominated though it was by white men, sometimes writers whose work could be of a misogynist cast – and even though the internal and artistic struggles were chiefly of patrician old white men against “angry” younger white men, so the stakes look absurdly low to us now – the period under consideration here provided some of the most challenging and innovative narrative art in the world.
Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT may have been setting fires in theatre, but Beckett’s first play specifically for radio, ALL THAT FALL, not only directly led to the inception of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop just to be able to make it; not only is it actually a bit of a skeleton key to understanding Beckett’s work; but it builds, rather than collapses, things.
(One way to enter Beckett’s work is to think of him as an outlier genre writer like Lessing or Vonnegut. ALL THAT FALL is a deconstructed crime story. His ENDGAME is science fiction – and I always found it amusing that it (and maybe GODOT) was the obvious and main influence on the post-apocalypse comedy THE BED SITTING ROOM by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. WAITING FOR GODOT is Laurel & Hardy’s first horror film.)
I’m wandering. This is the story of a group of men and women at the BBC, in a time we generally conceive of as smotheringly conservative, working to evolve a new art form and introducing challenging and often avant-garde narrative art to a mainstream culture.
I read this for Reasons: to learn the history, and look at the early tools. I grew up with radio drama, and there is still wonderful radio drama being produced – go look for WHO IS ALDRICH KEMP? by Julian Simpson, which is really fun in a modern Steed/Peel AVENGERS way. Alan Bennett’s monologue plays are always most chilling on radio. But you can never be sure what’s been left by the wayside, which routes to the future got overgrown and hidden. This book did a lot of scything of weeds for me.
There’s an honourable mention of US radio drama, too:
…around the middle of the twentieth century, radio drama in America was not only a ‘theatre of the mind’ but also ‘that as American broadcasters built a theatre in the mind, radio drama necessarily became a theatre about the mind, in an era in which that concept was a site of extraordinary contest’.
…okay, reading back, I’m not sure any of that was useful or made sense, so I will stop here. Good book.
BRITISH RADIO DRAMA 1945-63, Hugh Chignell (link)