March was supposed to be my “big return” to onstage reviewing; Covid it appears had other plans. After having avoided the sod for two years it turns out that I’ve tested positive and am self-isolating. Of course, theoretically I don’t have to as there are now only guidelines rather than laws about this sort of thing and as long as only guidelines are transgressed that seems to be an acceptable excuse in some eyes. But I feel it would be iniquitous to go and sit in a venue or anywhere else and potentially spread the virus. Having managed to get to two theatres in the last week it may well be that is how I have got to where I am; either that or perhaps it was the hordes of the unmasked populating the tube last weekend. Maybe the government’s “free for all” policy is not so helpful – but then what can you expect from people who deem it acceptable to offer a knighthood to the likes of Gavin Williamson? With any outing plans rapidly shelved/postponed it’s back with a vengeance to the realm of online theatre – thank goodness there is still that choice.
I’d often reflected over the past couple of years as to who/what/where may have been the first to use modern technology to stream a complete piece of tailor made drama over the internet. It’s impossible to tell but there is no such confusion over the first purpose written audio play to emerge from the BBC. It was called A Comedy of Danger written by Richard Hughes and broadcast in January 1924. The “danger” referred to was that faced by three Welsh miners in a rapidly flooding coalmine. I’m not sure where the “comedy” was meant to come into it though if you listen to a very brief extract which survives (click here), you might well find yourself laughing for the wrong reasons. In an early coup for immersive drama, it was suggested in the Radio Times that “Listeners might well sit in darkness to correspond with the play’s setting”. Nothing unusual about that nowadays (cf the work of Darkfield Radio) but in 1924 the idea of putting on something completely original relying on dramatic speech rather than narration and using accompanying sound effects, all broadcast entirely live was completely novel. And now a current audio drama A Leap In The Dark examines how this phenomenon came to fruition.
It’s a very engaging hour which in Ron Hutchinson’s script both sends up and pays homage to this great new idea which was greeted at the time with scepticism not least by the man who eventually led the troops into battle, actor-manager Nigel Playfair. Previously for him the whole point of theatre was in having a night out (DJ for him and formal gown for her) and be in a dedicated space where the servants couldn’t make any distracting noises. In a nod to how things have been more recently, enterprising/pushy (depending on your POV) BBC secretary Grace points out that instead of the audience going to the theatre, the theatre can go to the audience. Instantly there is increased exposure for the product and it’s this that proves the clinching argument. Then all Playfair has to do is work with the grotty studio space the BBC reluctantly gives him, find some new writing talent, try and coach actors with plummy accents to deliver lines with creditable Welsh accents (some hopes) and add in scene-enhancing though evidently rudimentary sound effects to bring the story to life. That’s all while he’s also trying to decide on the perfect recipe for marmalade – a side project which provides a good deal of humour in the play.
Alex Jennings is perfect casting as the urbane Playfair who despite his reservations seizes the opportunity to do something new, but who gets on his high horse when it is suggested that, if he is not interested, Noel Coward or Ivor Novello might be drafted in. Jane Slavin as Playfair’s rather more pragmatic wife May is equally stylish and takes on the male dominated world of the BBC with some cutting remarks. Rufus Wright is BBC middle manager Cedric Maud who tries to bring the only just formed BBC and the established theatre world together. Elinor Coleman is his assistant (sorry, secretary) Grace Wise; seen as a Bolshevik sympathiser (the Russian army is on the move in 1924 too) she is ultimately relegated to providing the shipping forecast.
It was interesting to hear some of the arguments which have been highlighted over online theatre rehearsed here back in 1924 ad that initial fears that something is about to devalue legitimate theatre going are nothing new. Radio/audio drama is still an important part of the theatre world today yet without the foresight of the people in this play we might now be living in a very different world. It was in part for helping to invent this newly minted art form that Playfair was knighted in 1928; of course, in those days you actually had to make a success of something in order to achieve such an honour!