Rise and Fall of Radio Features

Marilyn Butler

  • Louis MacNeice in the BBC by Barbara Coulton
    Faber, 215 pp, £12.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 571 11537 3
  • Best Radio Plays of 1979
    Eyre Methuen/BBC, 192 pp, £6.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 413 47130 6

Louis MacNeice wrote stylish lyric poems and was at his best when brief and autobiographical. One way or another, he always was autobiographical. But the short poems often succeed because they seem sincere and understated; longer works, like his Autumn Journal and Autumn Sequel and many of his radio plays, run the risk of monotony and a kind of narcissism. And yet MacNeice’s radio plays of the post-war period, which he produced himself, are commonly cited as the best creative work done for the medium in its twenty-year heyday, before television captured the audience. The appearance of Louis MacNeice in the BBC makes one wonder about that judgment. On reflection, it seems hard to tell whether it was MacNeice or radio drama which suffered more from their association.

The sad but compelling tale of MacNeice’s involvement with the Corporation is excellently told by Barbara Coulton. She makes him a hero of tragic stature, intelligent, personable, convivial, saturnine, and disconcertingly hard to know. Her book is a well-composed portrait which itself owes much technically to the radio feature: it is like a patchwork of voices and opinions, free of a single editorial view. True to the best traditions of the genre, she is catholic in her selection, and makes excellent use of MacNeice’s own poetry as well as of the impressions of others. Drinking companions, fellow enthusiasts of Rugby football and BBC technicians found MacNeice considerate and approachable. To most others, he was austere and somewhat intimidating. The composer Antony Hopkins thought him ‘a dark horse’, withdrawn and laconic; the younger poet and apprentice producer, Anthony Thwaite, remembered sharing an office with MacNeice in the late Fifties, when he was drinking heavily, as a far from comfortable experience:

Uncertain of your mood, after an hour
Of a shared office going slowly sour
With cigarettes and hangovers, the shelf
Above your desk capsizing with its load
Of scripts that date back sixteen years or more,
I try the Twickenham ploy ...
And yet I play this game only to thaw
That icy stare, because I’m still in awe
Of your most private self, that self you spill
Into the poems you keep locked away ...

On his way home from India in 1947, MacNeice stopped in Egypt to see the sights and was observed to gaze for a long time at the Sphinx: ‘Francis Worsley commented that she probably couldn’t make head nor tail of him.’

MacNeice’s problem, in the words of his BBC colleague Jack Dillon, was that he was an introvert trying to be an extrovert. He badly needed to feel he belonged to a group, and at the same time he hated institutions. His early experiences of trying to find a niche were mostly failures. Though he distinguished himself academically at Merton College, Oxford, that college’s assessment of him was distinctly wary: ‘unquestionably gifted but unfortunately rather a difficult character and not always a steady worker – he spent too much time writing poetry.’ As an Assistant Lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University he made lifelong friends of E.R. Dodds and Ernest Stahl, but evidently had mixed feelings about teaching and perhaps about provincial living: ‘Qu’allais-je faire dans cette galère?’ He was not the first Protestant Ulsterman to seem frugal of speech and déraciné. Perhaps his difficulties were private, and went back to the severe depression and death of his mother when he was seven. He suffered another grievous blow when his first wife, Mary Ezra, ran away in 1935, leaving him at 28 with their child. Thereafter, even though he remarried during the war, he tended to appear more completely at home in a bar: he was the most compulsively gregarious of loners. Though he knew Auden by the mid-Thirties, and had known Spender since Oxford and Anthony Blunt since school, he felt no need to be a political activist, and so missed out on Spain. But he did feel impelled to come back from America late in 1940 to share in the war effort. Joining the BBC, which was now given over to the upkeep of the national morale, was his way of doing his bit.

Barbara Coulton is deft at conveying what wartime London meant to MacNeice and to his fellow intellectuals who went through the Blitz. The sense of a communal experience was heady for many Londoners, but for artists, in their often alienated sub-group, it was something extraordinary. What the trenches signified for the writers of the First World War, the Blitz became for some of their successors after 1940. As a broadcaster, MacNeice had access in theory to nine out of ten homes, a highly desirable sensation for a man of letters. He was also part of the Corporation, a member of a community within a community. How much this meant to him is indicated by the fierce loyalty he expressed in 1947 to his colleagues in Broadcasting House:

In this age of irreconcilable idioms I have often heard writers hankering for some sort of group life, a desire doomed to disappointment; the modern writer – at any rate the modern poet – is ipso facto a spiritual isolationist ... I for one have found this missing group experience, in a valid form, in radio. Radio writers and producers can talk shop together because their shop is not, as with poets, a complex of spiritual intimacies but a matter of craftsmanship ... we are fully entitled to discuss whether dialogue rings true, whether the dramatic climax is dramatic, how well the whole thing works ... The department to which ... I belong in the BBC would compare very well for intelligence with almost any contemporary salon of literati; my radio colleagues would be found on the whole quicker-witted, more versatile, less egocentric, less conventional, more humane.

Either MacNeice imagined things, or his highbrow acquaintances, the poets and academics, thought he was prostituting his talents. Viewed aesthetically rather than as contributions to the war effort, his documentaries of the early Forties are no great shakes. But then it ill behoved the intellectuals of MacNeice’s generation, many of whom had been so much more noisily public-spirited than he, to blame him for using his talents in the war against Fascism. It seems odd now that the literati persisted in being toffee-nosed about radio – or the wireless, as it then was. Before the war, the medium was developing a political potential. In Manchester in the Thirties, the left-wing Archie Harding urged that ‘all people should be encouraged to air their views, not merely their professional spokesmen ... The air at least should be open to all, as the Press quite obviously was not.’ D.G. Bridson, Laurence Gilliam, Jack Dillon, Douglas Cleverdon, Olive Shapley and Joan Littlewood produced programmes which ranged from adaptations of The Waste Land to features on homelessness and unemployment, from the uncompromisingly highbrow to the popular. Their ‘features’ broke away from the strait jacket of the formal talk or the performance of three-act plays written for the theatre. They were, as Grace Wyndham Goldie, the Listener’s radio critic, quickly spotted, creative, innovatory, the most significant and exciting branch of radio.

But Grace Wyndham Goldie, who had antennae for power and for politics, put her finger on the point about the ‘vox pop’ feature: that it was or might easily become a public statement, an intervention in the nation’s life. It’s no digression to bring in the Goldie insights and the Goldie example, since her own professional choices of the next few years, the MacNeice years, are instructive. Shortly before he contemplated getting out of the BBC, with the ending of the war, she joined the staff as a talks producer. In 1948 she opted to move into the infant television service, which he clearly always suspected as the cruder, vulgarer medium. Her book, to which she gave the characteristically direct title Facing the Nation, recalls the early attitude to television of people brought up to Sound. ‘Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.’ ‘But why do you want to go? Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.’ MacNeice, too, had by now clear intimations of the future, but instead of chasing the mass audience he preferred to stay with the old guard at Broadcasting House.

In austere post-war London the set-up must have been tempting. The sound radio Features Department, which was formed in 1945 under Gilliam, gathered together established names, including MacNeice, Dillon, Cleverdon and Bridson, and new ones like W. R. Rodgers, Terence Tiller, R. D. Smith and Rayner Heppenstall. MacNeice was henceforth one of a group of literary men whose social life revolved around certain pubs in Soho, Fitzrovia or the immediate environs of Broadcasting House. Dylan Thomas was much in use as an actor and a voice as well as a writer. A guest list for a Features party planned in 1951 included Henry Reed, Lawrence Durrell. Christopher Fry, C. Day Lewis, Lennox Berkeley, Michael Tippett, William Walton, Laurie Lee and Stevie Smith. Until the early Fifties the BBC appeared to get a good return from its policy of patronising highbrow talent. From the inauguration of the Italia Prize in 1949, until 1955, of 15 entries chosen as the outstanding works of these years, 14 came from Features Department. Five dramatised features won awards, including The Streets of Pompeii by Henry Reed, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, and MacNeice’s Prisoner’s Progress. Meanwhile MacNeice’s play The Dark Tower, written just after VJ Day and first broadcast in the Home Service on 21 January 1946, was published with some of his other scripts in 1947 – a signal honour for this new and apparently ephemeral art form.

MacNeice the lyric poet was always attracted by images such as the mayfly, which dances for a single day. He must have been tempted to apply them to radio writing, the enterprise to which he gave his creative life and much of his creative energy. For Features Department, in spite of its early réclame and the achievements of its 19-year existence, was like a baby which comes into the world with an organic defect: the odds against survival lengthened with time. In the post-war settlement, radio broadcasting in Britain was rearranged into three services. Home, Light and Third, with the first two competing for big audiences. The Third Programme was the channel for highbrow music, along with some drama, talks – and most of the output of Features. The Third might notionally aspire to attract a tenth of the listening public, but it was soon clear that a far smaller audience, primarily of classical music lovers, was actually tuning in. What the late Thirties and wartime had given producers – the national ear, and a national role – the post-war rearrangement took away.

Like Gibbon’s Roman Empire, Features from its inception was doomed to decline and fall. For some years the fiction of its importance was maintained. The BBC was genuinely proud of its creative writers, its caged lions, among whom the poet MacNeice was the star exhibit. In terms of cost effectiveness, a feature was a loss leader: no accountant would ever understand what MacNeice and his colleagues precisely did in the months it might take them to write or piece together one of their programmes. Keeping them on was an example of highmindedness, in the tradition established by Reith. Producers in other departments grumbled at what Features got away with, but many of them felt reassured to belong to an out fit which paid lip-service, and the licence-holder’s money, to Art. The prestige of Features’ frankly élitist efforts was such that for a while they probably helped the aging mandarins of Broadcasting House to resist the new technocrats of telly. It was so obvious that television, with its distracting pictures, its necessary verbal simplicity, could not rival the cerebration and the subtlety of Sound. MacNeice, with his poetic dramas, his sagas, his fables, his refined and learned salutes to Indian Independence, became a prime counter in the Corporation power game.

Along with the rest of the Features group under Gilliam, MacNeice detested the bureaucratic administration and prided himself on waging war against it. If in the long run Features served the cause of some of these same bureaucrats, it is because they were too innocent about the realities of power, too wilfully unworldly and selfish. Gilliam fought the Corporation, not so much for art’s sake as on behalf of individual artists. He subscribed to the High Romantic notion that the creative artist needed time, encouragement and freedom. He was immensely supportive: this is why he is remembered with such affection by his former staff. But it is not really likely that the indulgent atmosphere of Features, the comradeship, the long alcoholic sessions and the soporific meetings afterwards, were precisely conducive to the best creative effort. The Features producers admired one another, but apparently did not pique themselves on actually listening to one another’s programmes – which must have restricted the discussions of craftsmanship MacNeice boasted of. Unlike other sections of the BBC, and very unlike television since, they did not openly compete, nor bitch about each other. Unlike other sections, they felt no continuous pressure on them to venture into something different.

Barbara Coulton’s account shows lucidly how the Features Department fell because by the early Fifties three of its rivals within the BBC were doing better. Stimulated by the Coronation in 1953, the audience for television began to grow fast. Within Sound, the Drama Department was not relying wholly on stage plays, but was commissioning work for radio from avant-garde figures like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Giles Cooper. Equally ominous, News and Current Affairs in both Sound and Television built dynamic new empires, which attracted formidable young talents, took broadcasting boldly into politics, and used Features techniques when it suited them. The urgency and public importance to which Features had long since forgotten to lay claim had come back to broadcasting, but certainly not to the coterie in the Stag’s Head and the George.

Encouraged by the indulgent atmosphere around him, MacNeice from the beginning put the medium to an essentially private use. Those of his plays which purport to have a public theme – like Enter Caesar (1946) – in fact express deep suspicion of public men and public life. The Dark Tower of the same year takes its theme from Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the dark tower came’, but in the MacNeice version Roland struggles to get away from the pressures exerted by his mother and his upbringing, and goes in search of a centre of self. The play is a journey into the interior, as the heartbeats which sound through its last moments symbolise. Meanwhile in real life MacNeice pursued a similar private quest in the pubs around Broadcasting House. Already his wartime poem, ‘Alcohol’, had ended significantly:

This is the only road for the self-betrayed to follow –
The last way out that leads not out but in.

Given a year’s leave of absence to work in Greece in 1950-1, MacNeice missed the opportunity to break out of his growing solipsism. In fact, he kept himself to himself in Athens, and to a few British cronies, and showed little interest in Greece or its problems. Later in the decade, seconded to write a film script to celebrate Ghanaian independence, he failed in a significant way: his ideas were one educated European’s reverie on Africa’s primitive past, out of key with the tensions and energies of the present, and irrelevant for a society with its eyes on the future.

With exemplary literariness, MacNeice and his world went down together. Features had a long twilight during the Fifties, marked by some creative work and a number of triumphs, few of them MacNeice’s. When a time and motion expert dared to ask what he was doing when not visibly preparing a programme, he growled: ‘Thinking.’ Technological developments during this decade really asked for more activity. Lighter, more portable tape-recorders and the development of cutting meant that the radio producer could evoke a montage of sound which could not, as yet, be rivalled by television. Film was much harder to cut, as well as far more expensive and cumbersome to collect. In the Thirties, features producers had prided themselves on the openness of the medium to the voices of ordinary people, and had shown energy in getting out and recording. Now, though they still had a priceless technical advantage, they let it slip. It was a combination of downright laziness and of an excessively literary theory for which MacNeice was the most influential spokesman: they had slid into making radio a medium for the written rather than the spoken word. At the end of the decade the axe fell, not before time, and Gilliam was told he would have to accept cuts. Characteristically loyal, he let it be by natural wastage, so that the last chance to revive the group by a transfusion of new blood was not taken. With the deaths of the two most substantial figures, MacNeice in 1963 and Gilliam in 1964, the BBC administration seized the chance to wind Features up.

By then MacNeice had achieved a swan-song, a last flickering of creative talent. East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1959), They met on Good Friday (1959) and Persons from Porlock (1963) were among a number of new programmes characteristic of his better work for radio. The first was a pleasant, wry fairytale, Norse in setting and origin, though the story resembled the loves of Cupid and Psyche. The second described the 11th-century Irish battle of Clontarf, and, like Enter Caesar, it derived a cynical, despairing moral from public events: the battle, perceived by contemporaries (and perhaps by nationalists) as heroic and extraordinary, became from a sceptical historical point of view a non-event. Persons from Porlock was the story of a failed artist and of his alibis for non-creativity, foremost among them the heartless mother who deserted him in childhood. The artist experienced a recurrent challenge, to explore a hitherto undiscovered cave in Yorkshire, and there he met the last of his Persons from Porlock, who turned out to be Death. As in The Dark Tower, the action was symbolic and introverted: the moment of self-discovery ended the quest. It was fitting that this clearly autobiographical statement was indeed MacNeice’s last word. He got soaked while recording his sound-effects in a cave, stood around in a bar instead of changing, and died of pneumonia four days after the programme went out.

The question we are left with is how far MacNeice’s radio work really survives him. As Barbara Coulton demonstrates, he was a highly professional, scrupulous producer, admired by his fellow technicians. His dialogue in particular was polished, sharp, ironic and splendidly actable. Terence Tiller called it a ‘constant wonder and joy ... The short crisp lines, visually vivid, heavy-charged with over-tones and yet never out of character, would ride the voice like birds – and penetrate the listener’s brain like bullets.’ MacNeice had a sure touch for what would work, and he used sound – the timbres of different interiors, the call of a trumpet, the padding of a bear’s footsteps – with rare delicacy and imagination. But then there were his principles, as spelt out in the 1947 introduction to The Dark Tower – that radio drama was in essence symbolic or allegorical, and introverted, as opposed to seen drama, which visibly involves other people: these were false steps, a perversion or unwarranted restriction of a medium which originally promised freedom as well as engagement. The Fifties, in which MacNeice dwindled into a coterie writer, repetitive and somewhat self-pitying or sentimental, saw other talents come down from university: Dennis Potter, for example, with his striking power to re-create a setting, a culture, a range of characters different from each other or from their author; or Don Taylor, whose sense of the 17th century is so much harder, more social and more political, than MacNeice’s ancient world or Dark Ages. The tendency of radio drama overall has surely been to evoke other people and their worlds, to use the distance between the thinking listener and the disembodied voice. Radio drama has encompassed material which is both more outgoing and more self-critical than MacNeice’s theory of what it could best do.

It is a proposition borne out by the six Best Radio Plays of 1979, winners of the Giles Cooper Award. The title is only approximate: the intention is to select good examples of plays put out in BBC Radio’s various slots, from the 15-minute Just before Midnight, meant for a sophisticated audience, to the 90-minute conventionalities of ‘Saturday Night Theatre’. The capacity to survive of the last-named institution is one of radio’s minor miracles. Its fare was already old-fashioned when the Features Department was established. MacNeice and his colleagues showed up the flat ‘naturalistic’ dialogue, the stereotyped characters, the reliance upon crowded and improbable events – just as Le Carré and Deighton have brought in atmosphere and the texture of seedy urban living to replace the laboured machinery of detection. The kind of murder mystery that John Peacock unravels in Attard in Retirement could in principle have been offered at any time since radio began – though Peacock, a workmanlike writer, scatters Smileyesque detail about, presumably to reassure the listener that he has not really been wasting his Saturday nights this way for half a century.

From the more ambitious efforts some kind of pattern emerges. 1979 settings are mostly contemporary and prosaic; dialogue is spare. The stiff middle-brow forms of which ‘Saturday Night Theatre’ is a surviving example, are parodied in Barrie Keeffe’s amusing Jonsonian anecdote, Heaven Scent, in which a succession of villains, including a bent copper, deftly deprive the leading character of the takings from a stolen load of perfume. Sometimes such realistic effects can be combined with Pinteresque surrealism and menace, as in Olwen Wymark’s The Child; or with the intriguing dottiness, the peculiar, slightly mad interior landscape, which Carey Harrison brings to the ramshackle house and garden and aging characters of I never killed my German. This last, like Shirley Gee’s Typhoid Mary, delves as deep as MacNeice did into a central character, and deeper into perplexed, irritated central relationships. The two new plays both use protagonists who are haunted by the past, pained, lonely and frustrated; Gee’s Mary and Harrison’s Willy end, like MacNeice’s heroes, by dying. But Gee and Harrison are much more frightened than MacNeice of seeming pretentious. They view their central characters without sentiment, as mad, homicidal egotists rather than as romantic questers. The world outside these obsessive consciousnesses is meant to matter. Its concreteness is reassuring, a reminder that fantasy is fantasy. These are both skilled and sensitive writers for radio, but they don’t also find it necessary to preach a world-view which seems solipsistic and imprisoned.

Does that mean that the best of this handful of radio plays actually seem better than anything written by MacNeice, the medium’s first classic? At first sight, yes. MacNeice’s difficulty in coming to grips with anything outside his consciousness was cruelly shown up by the dramatic form. He relied on the thought that his public was made up of individuals whom he could not see: this licensed him in his self-explorations, and made him content to ignore the aspects of life touched on by his rivals in Current Affairs – what affected people’s interests, what made them angry, what divided them. By comparison, the Romantic preoccupations – self, and art – now seem distinctly embarrassing. His plays still sit on the library shelves: no wonder they are not sold as cassettes, or often rebroadcast.

How right of his successors, then, to learn from his example, and to avoid seeming either superior to the world of everyday or in flight from it. But the problem with an objective mode is that it may seem neat, clever and unembarrassing without becoming in any way important: the most successfully individualised of character-sketches may end by being about nothing but itself. At least MacNeice’s hostility to the commonplace was a reaction and a kind of statement, and his subject, being himself, was one that he cared about. The practice which has succeeded his seems to be smoothly anecdotal, a scattering of unrelated topics concerning unrelated lives. Perhaps this realistically reflects the level of attention the radio dramatist feeds he now commands, from listeners stuck in traffic jams or dropping off to sleep. But it’s not going to be easy for writers like Shirley Gee to become classics this way – and they must surely feel, looking back at what MacNeice was allowed to do, more than a little wistful. For nearly twenty years he was allowed to deploy this public medium for subtly private ends.

It was all rather a mistake, and it helped to kill him in the end, but the opportunity will not come again. To have been probably the wrong man, but in the right place, was after all something.