British radio drama and the avant-garde in the 1950s
The BBC in the 1950s was a conservative and cautious institution. British theatre was at the same time largely commercial and offered a glamourous distraction from wider social and political realities. During the decade, however, new avant-garde approaches to drama emerged, both on the stage and on radio. The avant-garde was particularly vibrant in Paris, where Samuel Beckett was beginning to challenge theatrical orthodoxies. Initially, managers and producers in BBC radio rejected a radio version of Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot and other experimental work was viewed with distaste but eventually Beckett was accepted and commissioned to write All That Fall (1957), a masterpiece of radio drama. Other Beckett broadcasts followed, including more writing for radio, extracts from his novels and radio versions of his stage plays as well as plays by the experimental radio dramatist, Giles Cooper. This article examines the different change agents which enabled an initially reluctant BBC to convert enthusiastically to the avant-garde. A networked group of younger producers, men and women, played a vital role in the acceptance of Beckett as did the striking pragmatism of senior radio managers. A willingness to accept the transnational cultural flow from Paris to London was also an important factor. The attempt to reinvent radio drama using ‘radiophonic’ sound effects (pioneered in Paris) was another factor for change and this was encouraged by growing competition from television drama on the BBC and ITV. The acceptance and eventual championing of avant-garde drama in the late 1950s reveal how the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting facilitated a flowering of experimental and avant-garde drama during radio drama’s golden age.\ud \ud Almost everything about Britain in the 1950s seems to be conservative and cautious. For most of the decade there was a Conservative government, the Suez crisis of 1956 was born out of an attempt to reassert imperial power, the senior positions in society were largely held by men, the products of top public schools and a handful of Oxford and Cambridge colleges while the Lord Chamberlain censored the theatre as he had done since 1737. There was as David Pattie states so succinctly, a sense that Britain was run by ‘a self-perpetuating, self-selecting elite, impervious to new ideas and new social movements’.11. David Pattie, Modern British Playwriting: the 1950s (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 22.\ud View all notes\ud Conservatism was also expressed in British culture; deference to those in positions of authority (soon to be ridiculed by the satirical movement of the early 1960s), the formality of dress and appearance, traditional gender roles and so on. Sitting at the heart of this most conservative of decades was the BBC with its devoted attention to anything royal and its calendrical duty to mark the important dates of the year.22. Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922–1953 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).\ud View all notes\ud Photographs of BBC staff from the time show pipe-smoking men in suits and ties and female secretaries. The Director General of the BBC (1952–1959) was Lieutenant General Sir Ian Jacob and the Chairman of the BBC was Sir Alexander Cadogan, the son of an earl. As Kate Murphy has described in her recent book on women and the BBC, although there were several women at Director level in the organisation in the pre-war period, by the 1950s gender discrimination had become entrenched and no women occupied such a senior position.33. Kate Murphy, Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).\ud View all notes\ud \ud Paris in the 1950s must have seemed a very different place. The bohemian café culture attracted a constellation of literary types including Sartre, de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Godard, Hemmingway, Ionesco and the Irish novelist and playwrite, Samuel Beckett. Paris was the centre of a literary and intellectual renaissance which must have appeared intensely glamourous to British eyes. Little wonder then that the BBC had a ‘Paris Representative’, the very able Cecilia Reeves, who kept an eye on the French stage, and no surprise that British drama producers felt it necessary to visit Paris to find out what was going on.44. Typical of these visits was that made by the Head of Drama, Val Gielgud in September 1957. Cecilia Reeves wrote to him before his arrival saying that she looked forward to his visit but that it was not good from a theatrical point of view ‘but I might find enough to make it worth your while’. BBC Written Archives Centre (hereafter, BBC WAC) R19/1630/3, 29 July 1957.\ud View all notes\ud Here it was on 5 January 1953, at the Theatre de Babylon, that Beckett’s En Attendant au Godot was first performed. While audiences in London were treated to the banality of much of the British theatre at the time, a good night out for a bourgeois audience (expecting an evening’s theatrical entertainment complete with proper characters, plot, costumes and scenery), in Paris, Beckett’s audiences saw a play with no characters, plot or scenery; famously a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’.55. Vivian Mercer, The Irish Times, February 18, 1956.\ud View all notes\ud This was a play ‘so enigmatic, so exasperating, so complex, and so uncompromising in its refusal to conform to any of the accepted ideas of dramatic construction’.66. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 39.\ud View all notes\ud \ud Paris may have felt a long way away from London in 1953, and Beckett’s troubling work very distant from the comfortable offerings on the London stage, but these two worlds were to meet with major implications for British drama. The latter half of the 1950s would be a time when the BBC became increasingly enthusiastic about Beckett and other representatives of the avant-garde. How the seemingly cautious BBC came to embrace that most unorthodox and challenging of writers and other avant-garde dramatists is the subject of this article.
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