Mission Statement:

Audio drama is one of the most intimate and expressive dramatic mediums, rivaling theater and film in poetic, visual, and narrative qualities. Many people are unaware of this - a stigma lingers that "radio drama" is a scratchy, cartoonish thing of the past, as if people thought that cinema ended with silent movies, unaware of all the great films made since that time. In reality, audio and radio drama is the great frontier of modern theater - with subtle, intimate performances and powerful, gripping stories.

My aim is to promote a discussion of the art, sociology, theory, and future of this remarkable artistic form. The current state of audio drama is precarious, but through careful consideration of how content is presented, distributed, and interacted with, I believe that the radio and audio drama community can grow and prosper and reach an even wider audience.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Scripts of Lost History

As you may know, many of the radio plays broadcast by the BBC over the last century have not been archived, and therefore probably no longer exist. That is to say, recordings of them no longer exist. There are only two ways to experience such lost plays. One could fly into outer space and attempt to collect the ancient transmissions that emanated from Earth at the time of the original broadcasts. These radio waves continue forward in the darkness, many light years away. Their destination is yet unknown.
Or, we could read the scripts.
Or could we?
Radio plays are primarily constructions of words. Like a stage play, reading a radio script, although not quite as grand as listening to the audio, is enough to convey meaning and intention, and contains enough artistic information as to be a fun and rewarding experience. People read plays all the time. If you lived in Los Angeles, as I did, people even read screenplays. All three formats share the same ancestry of dramatic literature (my argument for screenplays as dramatic lit. will make an appearance soon). So, if we do not have access to the original radio broadcasts, why not read the scripts and enrich ourselves?
Most radio scripts never get published. If you are a famous stage playwright, you might be excepted. Pinter, Stoppard, Beckett, Arden, and David Pownall are all big names in theatre, and their work for radio is of interest to scholars of the stage. If you are a radio dramatist who won a Giles Cooper Award, you got your script published. But the Giles Cooper Awards are now defunct.
The importance of reading scripts cannot be understated – especially for those who want to write them. The most profound lessons I learned about screenwriting came not during class, but while reading a stack of screenplays. In that spirit, I spent the last two years reading every single Giles Cooper Award volume, and it was extremely useful. But it's not enough.
I wonder what happens to all the scripts that the BBC has produced over the years. They must be somewhere. Perhaps languishing in a vault where they will never see the light of day? Or turning to mould in the writer's attic?
Aspiring screenwriters have many resources for researching their craft, and many websites offer free screenplays, including different versions of classic films. Audio drama has none of these things, and yet still continues to produce incredible drama. What more could be done if this hidden world were more accessible? The potential for new dialog with older work, and for spurts of inspiration and creativity emanating from this conceptual trove is staggering.
But it is only a concept, and I have no answers for these questions. I don't know where these lost scripts live. And if they yet exist, no doubt legal issues would prevent them from becoming accessible in the way that screenplay pdfs are freely traded now.
In the meantime, I can contribute a small amount to this idea: the script for Robert Ferguson's Transfigured Night, a powerful, poetic play for radio. I do not have a copy of the broadcast, but I was able to scan it into a pdf.
Transfigured Night has been analyzed brilliantly by Elissa Guralnick in Sight Unseen, so if you are reading that book, click on the link below, and you'll be able to follow her analysis much more closely.


  1. There are two old (ancient) radio projects I think might be worth disinterring:

    1/. Currently I'm reading a book on British spy Guy Burgess, who was a BBC (talks) producer in the late 30's and on and off in the early 40's. With Russia coming in on the side of Britain in 1941, Burgess started pushing productions about Russia for the radio. He proposed "War and Peace" - both a drama production and a talk. He involved his friend E M Forster in the project. Forster certainly wrote a pamphlet on War and Peace, but may also have penned the drama. A radio play by EM Forster would certainly be a find (is it in any BBC archives?) and would make a very interesting production, having to involve re-creating old acting styles and production techniques.

    2/. The second script I think it would be interesting to revive likewise involves Guy Burgess and a famous (notorious) member of Waugh's Bright Young Things, Brian Howard - who seems to have been the inspiration for various Waugh monsters such as Johnny Hoop (the futurist poet and sodomizer of Brummie racing car mechanics), Anthony Blanche and Miles Malpractice. There was a serious side to Howard, however. Like his fellow BYT alumnus Robert Byron (and unlike Waugh) he developed into a passionate anti-appeaser in the 30's (he was jewish).

    During the war he joined, of all things, MI5. His job was mainly to spy on all his fellow Bright Young Things who were now suspected (often correctly) of having nazi sympathies. But he also wrote anti nazi propaganda radio drama scripts for the BBC:

    "His political acumen must have been respected by MI5 because, in the early years of WW2, Howard's dark apprehensions from the 1930s were reflected in a series of astonishingly sophisticated anti-nazi propaganda scripts he wrote for BBC radio.

    These scripts were some of the earliest to broadcast the facts of the genocidal 'eugenics programme' of the Third Reich. During this time he renewed his acquaintance with the spy, Guy Burgess, a fellow Old Etonian, and also a BBC correspondent. They would meet in the Ritz basement bar, 'L'Abri' (the 'Shelter'), the writer, Michael Nelson, once told me…

    Hence, given the two men's common social background (truly 'Old School'), I believe the documentary exactitude of Brian Howard's dramatised 'news-cast' propaganda was derived partially from Burgess's 'insider knowledge'. Throughout the war Burgess worked for the BBC, yet between 1939 and 1941 he was engaged on MI5's war propaganda….

    Continued next post.

    John Fletcher

  2. Justin,

    I've cross-posted this proposal on:


  3. "...There is vituperative satire, which seems to verge on self-excoriation, when Howard parodies nazi anti-Semitic propaganda in his radio scripts. His Goebbels-like rabble-rouser declaims: 'Conscience is a Jewish invention. Like circumcision, it mutilates man.'

    Howard's propagandising was cleverly conceived as character assassination calculated to defame. Such a BBC script was entitled 'Baldur von Schirach', broadcast in 1942.

    In 1933, von Schirach was appointed leader of the Hitler Youth movement, destined to number 8 million members. In 1940, Hitler appointed him Governor of Vienna. During his rule, 185,000 Jews were deported to Polish ghettos, a deed described by von Schirach as a 'contribution to European culture'.

    Thus we can apprehend Howard's deep abiding compassion, and the full force of his fury, when, in his radio documentary, he has the anguished voice of one of von Schirach's victims, a small child, cry out: 'I am dead ... A State Doctor killed me in a little shed ... it was called the Hitler Room. I don't think he can know about it. Do you, Herr State Youth Leader?'

    The radio narrator continues his attack on von Schirach: 'You got back into favour with Hitler ... You set the Hitler Youth to burning the synagogues, and knocking down Jews in the street...'

    Howard also exposes Hitler's state programme of enforced sterilisation, expressed through the poignant words of a young German mother: 'I am one of the young women who was sterilised by the State ... My child died before it was even conceived. For Hitler.'

    This BBC broadcast also includes references to the de-Christianising of Germany. Von Schirach wrote national prayers in praise of Hitler, so we can understand the intent of other radio voices in an exchange between a German schoolmistress and her indoctrinated pupils: 'Who, children, is it that most reminds us of Jesus?' Answer: 'The Fuehrer!' Question: 'And who most reminds us of the disciples...?' Answer: 'General Goering, Doctor Goebbels, and Captain Roehm!' etc.

    (This catechism of the Trinity reflects the statement by the Reich Minister for Church Affairs, Kerrl, delivered in 1937: 'There has now risen a new authority as to what Christ and Christianity is. This new authority is Adolph Hitler.')

    Howard's broadcast contained highly precise data: addresses of von Schirach's private residences and details of his close relationship to Hitler."

    I have read the script - it is in the appendix of Marie-Jaqueline's "Brian Howard - A Study in Failure". It would not be easy to do. It would require actors not to burst out laughing or camp up some of the more purple line. It would require an imaginative leap into the psychology of wartime. A remembrance that Nazi horrors were real and that this script - and highly effective propaganda - was aimed straight at them, pulling no emotional punches. It would be a useful exercise in artistic archaeology. Instead of the period instruments they use in early classical music revivals, this would require period acting and full frontal mono recording.

    John Fletcher

  4. Those are both fascinating stories, I'd love to see them happen.