Richard Wortley:
Taste or Cost?

Taste or Cost?

The timetables have speeded up but some basic rules remain unaltered. ‘Young Turks’ may clamber for innovation but they all want the words lifted off the page and realise there is nothing unusual in calling for ‘overlapping’ in the name of naturalism.

My ‘live’ broadcasts from ‘schools’ drama in the 1960s, a 9.30am start and ‘on air’ at 2pm had strict protocol behind them to match an edict from the ‘organiser’ that secretaries were not to wear mini-skirts in office hours; the BBC as ever, part civil service, a quarter ‘show business’.

Actors received their parts at the door. An agent might be given clues on request but nothing detailed. The theory was if the artist arrived with too fixed a view, which disagreed with the director, there was no time to compromise. It took just one determined participant, the diplomatic Martin Jarvis, to demand a script in advance and break the mould. Hindsight tells us the thinking was ‘unsafe’ from the start.

The late Carleton Hobbs is now a ‘scholarship’ for young actors to gain paid experience in BBC radio; it should not make him a museum piece.

Actors need guidance, some a little - others a lot, but another past mantra not to give line readings seems to have vanished. I still prefer the nudge to the sledgehammer and used to enjoy myself with “Have you thought of emphasising that speech in a different way?” or “That’s an exciting new interpretation of the word banana…”

A touch of humour doesn’t go amiss and enthusiasm, of course, though do beware of sycophancy. I recall one producer in the 1960s who wound up his media career as Head of Schools Broadcasting in the Solomon Islands. A part-time novelist he was used to words, but as a friendly presence highly nervous of actors, his outpouring of ecstasy whenever his cast opened their mouths destroyed his credibility.

Comparing television with radio, it took my fancy after a brief dabble in educational television that my most complex drama required a technical team of three but a low-scale television drama a minimum crew of thirty-eight.

Among the cabinet of curiosities that masquerades as my memory, I still smile at a misunderstanding with my educated, ex-mother-in-law. She had it in her mind that after live school broadcasting for BBC radio in the morning at Oxford Circus, I popped over to BBC TV Centre at White City and produced the Kathy Kirby song and dance show in the afternoon.

Palimpsest - dictionary definition. It is also the title of Gore Vidal’s autobiography.

A manuscript in which old writing has been rubbed out to make way for new. A monumental brass turned over for new inspection.

I realise in my senior years, that I am still very much Twentieth Century man, locked and not logged into collective guilt over the Holocaust and Hiroshima (though with unconscious self-destruct I chose Hiroshima day of August 6th 1960 to get married).

A late developer, I was frightened by the Cold War and wished to retreat into eighteenth Century enlightenment.

For those who point the long finger of history, it has become apparent that mankind’s capacity for power and greed and distorted religious fanaticism is unceasing. I simply look to the Franco-Prussian war of the nineteenth Century and the Middle East Al Quaeda crisis of the twenty-first Century.

The notable comedienne Jo Brand has said about the arts that without them we are ‘merely monkeys with car keys’. I savour this bon mot and add a little ryder - ‘with those keys, switch on the stereo and listen to an absorbing play’.

Perhaps preaching radio drama is running on the spot. My excitement for many other arts often takes me away from ‘just voices’; books, journalism, movies, videos, galleries, theatre, architecture, CDs, ‘Composer of the Week’…

My partner has her busy day job in the ‘play factory’ but we revel in our evening ‘telly’ set and our mutually eclectic taste.

I have received advanced education in a truly choppy world yet I feel fraudulent with my low technology, my average spelling, my ancient silver-backed stapler, no Google or eBay, no email, text, fax or mobile, still only a telephone person and a lazy letter writer. No laptop, let alone J-drive, no typing even; life measured out in coffee spoons and analogue tape.

I owe this smart presentation to the empowering computer skills and patience of Jo Green.

I suggest to our webmaster, Nigel Deacon, that I might, with my biro, bumper value jotter and borrowed dictaphone, be making my own obituary. He is reassuring…

Although grateful to the BBC for safeguarding radio drama for over eighty years, I get my ostrich head stuck because today’s BBC is so anxious to advertise its own business efficiency without having shareholders.

Commercial radio requires popular entertainment but has no compulsion towards plays. Too costly? The public has lost the ‘plot’ or the ‘habit’? After all, society confronts itself guided by a Jerry Springer or an Oprah Winfrey; it provides its own drama and instant celebrity.

I joined the BBC as the last vestiges of its radio stars were exhibiting their craft - the Marjorie Westburys, the Norman Shelleys, the June Tobins, the James McKechnies, the Grizelda Harveys and yes - the Carleton Hobbs.

I was too late for Val Gielgud (brother of the even more famous John) and Head of Radio Drama for thirty years and I missed out on luminaries with a mystery middle initial like Martin C Webster (deceased but alive again thanks to digital BBC7) and his direction of the ‘Paul Temple’ detective series. How modern Paul sounds, not the script, the actor Peter Coke or writer, L du Gard Peach, his name affectionately lampooned in the ruminations of Alan Bennett.

A drama cubicle still looks mildly like something out of a Boeing 737 flight-deck but here is a ‘second’ pilot crouched behind his varispeed sub-mixer, not hurling himself at shellac record after shellac record.

There is a new catchphrase afoot “we’ll put that on later”. But the senior studio manager (first pilot) is still saying “green light coming” and those tested tumblers who know their wireless can still ‘walk the walk’ and ‘talk the talk’, their feet going toe-and-heel, toe-and-heel on a thin trail of sugar.

Apart from those appearing in my own productions I have shaken many ‘namey’ hands, the likes of Kathleen Turner, Richard Todd, Cecil Parker, Dame Wendy Hiller, Sir Donald Sinden, Dorothy Tutin and, yes, Pope John Paul. I attended an international radio and television conference lined up to meet the Polish Pontiff in the courtyard of his summer palace outside Rome.

I have spoken to Dirk Bogarde on the phone, had a door held open for me by Paul Scofield, opened a door to the ladies lavatory for Dame Sybil Thorndike; my technology is limited but she picked the wrong option between Push and Pull.

You could change category in the ‘Who’s Who’ game and make it Politicians or Captains of Industry or the House of Windsor. The BBC has always been that sort of crossroads. Agatha Christie wrote her half hour radio play ‘One Blind Mouse’ for Queen Mary’s eightieth birthday. She came to Broadcasting House to hear it - live. Well, they both did. Scribblers love to recycle their work. Agatha managed to stretch it into a stage play - ‘The Mousetrap’ and …

I reflect wistfully on the dead, the acclaimed Maurice Denham after sixty years in the business, even allowing for a late start. Famously, as an engineer, he helped to install the front lifts at Broadcasting House. At eighty-seven he was still crossing the portals to perform, chaperoned from Denver Hall, the actors retirement home.

And the prematurely departed? I salute Derek Seaton, Pauline Siddell, Clare Travers- Deacon, Brian Carol, Deborah Makepeace, Sheila Grant, Gavin Muir, all dead between thirty-two and fifty.

As for the living and the legions of actors who make radio drama feasible, I nominate one ‘known’ warrior - my friend Stephen Thorne. I have looked up to him since way back in 1965; I am 5’9” and he is 6’4”.

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