Radio Drama at 90

Some of the landmarks in the history of Radio Drama and Shakespeare on the radio.

The early days of radio drama

Radio Drama production at the BBC's first studios in Savoy Hill in 1932.  Val Gielgud with pipe, Lance Sieveking at panel control.

 

1922

18 October: The British Broadcasting Company Ltd is formed.

14 November: 2LO begins broadcasting on mediumwave, from Marconi House.

15 November: 5IT in Birmingham and 2ZY in Manchester begins broadcasting.

14 December: John C. W. Reith hired as the Company's Managing Director.

More about the BBC from wikipedia

1923

16 February: The evening programmes broadcast on 2LO from Marconi House include the quarrel scene (Act 4 Sc 3) from 'Julius Caesar' with Robert Atkins as Cassius, and Basil Gill as Brutus.

(For more about Shakespeare productions see below.)

1924

15 January: 'A Comedy of Danger', by Richard Hughes. The first play written for the microphone to be broadcast on the BBC.

To my mind, one of the best plays ever broadcast (and I do not say this because I had the pleasure of producing it) was "Danger" by Mr. Richard Hughes. Here was something that was written for wireless only; the scene was in a coal mine, and was meant to be heard and not seen. If this play had been produced in a legitimate theatre the stage would have been in total darkness; the players and the action would remain unseen. It was, therefore, ideal for broadcasting, and probably not so good for use in a theatre. In fact, I think it gained by being broadcast, as a sense of distance for such a setting was an inducement to the right atmosphere.

Nigel Playfair 'Popular Wireless' 9 March 1929

Those were the days of the silent film and our "listening play" (as I dubbed it) would have to be the silent film's missing half, so to speak, telling a complete story by sound alone. Yet even the silent film didn't, strictly speaking, rely on pictures only. It used subtitles. Usually there was a sad man thumping appropriate themes on a piano. Some of the grander cinemahouses even employed an " effects man "; he wound a windmachine and pattered peas on a drum for the storm scenes; he accompanied the galloping cowboy with clashing coconut shells. We thought of using a narrator but agreed it would be a confession of failure. No, we must rely on dramatic speech and sounds entirely ... and it had never been done before.

Richard Hughes – BBC Home Service 1956

1928

4 September: First use of the ‘Dramatic Control Panel’ – a basic mixing desk allows for the simultaneous use of a number of studios – in Lance Sieveking’s ’The First Kaleidoscope: A Rhythm Representing the Life of Man from Cradle to Grave’. The mixing panel affected not only the presentation but the structure of broadcast plays. Conventional scene divisions could be dispensed with, allowing for montage effects and stream of consciousness techniques.

‘My fingers knew well enough, even if my head did not. Just as they do on the piano or cello. Without consciously reading the directions on my script I faded the tiny football matches out off the horizon, and wiped the narrator off the map with the singer, and then cut the music off sharply. Now it was play, play, play the instrument if you ever did anything in your life’.

Lance Sieveking – The Stuff of Radio

1929

Appointment of Val Gielgud as Productions Director of BBC Drama Department. The BBC Handbook sets out the case for radio as a national theatre ‘spanning the unprofitable dramatic ground which lies between the commercial and the artistic; between the business theatre of today and the national theatre of tomorrow’.

1932

The BBC moves from Savoy Hill to Broadcasting House.

1934

Val Gielgud made Drama Director following the appointment of Laurence Gilliam who has been given responsibility for ‘Special Programmes’ (later Head of Features).

1941

'The Man Born to Be King' by Dorothy L Sayers

1946

'January The Dark Tower' by Louis MacNeice

'Dick Barton Special Agent'

Launch of the Third Programme (later Radio 3)

1950

The Archers

1953

Journey into Space

1954

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, produced by Douglas Cleverdon

1955

Saturday Night Theatre – 6.75 million listeners

World Theatre – 1.25 million

Monday Night Play – 2.75 million

The Archers

1957

All that Fall – Samuel Beckett’s first original play for radio, produced by Donald McWhinnie

1964

The Ruffian on the Stair by Joe Orton

1978

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

1981

The Lord of the Rings

1982

Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

1993

Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue’

1997

Spoonface Steinberg by Lee Hall

More about radio drama from wikipedia

BBC Radio Drama at 90 – and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

 

To true lovers of Shakespeare, listening should appeal, for there is neither acting, scenery, nor any of the numerous interruptions of the theatre to distract from full enjoyment of the wonderful speeches and sentences with which every play of Shakespeare abounds. I far prefer to sit with eyes closed, to hear the words spoken, and imagine the scenery for myself. ... giving several "invisible" performances ...

Cecil Lewis 'The Radio Times' 19 October 1923, 'Broadcasting Shakespeare'

‘How many of us thought when the old British Broadcasting Company broadcast the Quarrel scene from Julius Caesar some eight years ago that from that small beginning would evolve an entirely new art – radio drama ?’

Modern Wireless – March 1931

1895

The launch of ‘The Electrophone system’ (runs until 1926) which relays live theatre and music hall shows and live sermons from churches. The system operates with rows of microphones installed in the theatres in front of the footlights. By 1908 Electrophone has around 600 subscribers and carries performances from 30 theatres and churches.

More about The Electrophone system

As a move against the elaborate stagey Shakespeare productions of the Irving and Beerbohm Tree era, William Poel founds the Elizabethan Stage Society producing Shakespeare in a radically new way with open stage, a unified acting ensemble, an uncut text, very little scenery and a swift pace of performance.

1901

Marconi sends the first transatlantic radio signal – the letter ‘S’.

1922

18 October: The British Broadcasting Company Ltd is formed.

14 November: 2LO begins broadcasting on medium wave, from Marconi House.

15 November: 5IT in Birmingham and 2ZY in Manchester begin broadcasting.

14 December: John C. W. Reith hired as the Company's Managing Director.

1923

16 February: The evening programmes broadcast on 2LO from Marconi House include the quarrel scene (Act 4 Sc 3) from Julius Caesar with Robert Atkins as Cassius, and Basil Gill as Brutus.

28 May : The first full-length Shakespeare play is broadcast. Twelfth Night is directed by Nigel Playfair, and stars Gerald Lawrence and Cathleen Nesbitt, who played both Viola and Sebastian.

Over the following year Nigel Playfair directed four more full-length Shakespeare broadcasts, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet (with Ernest Milton as Romeo and Cathleen Nesbitt as Juliet), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in which Playfair played Bottom) and, on 5th February 1924, Hamlet.

Julius Caesar on BBC Radio

One of the earliest recordings in the BBC Archive is of Sir Frank Benson as Mark Anthony doing Caesar’s funeral oration, broadcast on 21st March 1933.

More recent productions include:

30th July 1972: With Nigel Stock as Caesar, Martin Jarvis as Brutus, Peter Jeffrey as Cassius and Julian Glover as Mark Anthony. Directed by Martin Jenkins

30th Sept 1990: With Paul Daneman as Caesar with Michael Maloney, Clive Merrison and Gerard Murphy. Directed by Richard Imison.

22nd Feb 1995: With Richard Dreyfuss, Stacey Keach, John de Lancie, Jobeth Williams, Hal Gould and Jack Coleman. Directed by Martin Jenkins. Recorded in the studios of KCRW, Los Angeles.

26th Sept 1999: With Nicholas Farrell, Gerard Murphy, Jonathan Firth, Colin McFarlane & Samantha Bond. Directed by Eoin O' Callaghan.

16th Feb 2013: Harriet Walter as Brutus and Jenny Jules as Cassius record the quarrel scene (Act 4 Sc 3) to mark the 90th anniversary of the first radio drama broadcast on the BBC.

With thanks to Alan Beck 'The Invisible Play' B.B.C. Radio Drama 1922-1928