- the Hilda Tablet plays

Roger Bickerton has contributed the following:

The Henry Reed "Hilda Tablet" plays were a landmark in radio satire. Through the good offices of some of my VRPCC friends, all 7 are available, the casts read like a "Who's Who" of radio dramatic acting, and anyone with an interest in this subject is strongly recommended to listen to them. All were broadcast on the Third Programme, which came to be regarded as the repository of cultural, and hence, literary excellence. Writers such as Reed welcomed this segregation, as an article in the January, 1949, issue of BBC Quarterly entitled "What The Wireless Can Do For Literature" included the comment 'some listeners are fools and some are not...............we cannot wait for the fools to catch up with their betters'. However, Reed was happy to mock the pretensions of the avant-garde in radio and other arts channels in many of his plays, as we can see if we listen.

When I attended a lunch at The Savage Club in London on 21 October last to mark the 50th. anniversary of ITMA's 300th. edition, organised very effectively by VRPCC member David Howe, he and Norman Morrison referred to my note about Reed at the end of the last newsletter. It quickly became clear that there is a wealth of knowledge lurking in the hearts and minds of my good friends and others, so, as a starter, I would like to thank Norman Morrison for producing the following synopsis:


Born 22 February, 1914

He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham, specialised in Classics, and it was obvious that he was good at languages, for he was self-taught in Greek. Tutored by Louis Macneice at Birmingham University in the early 1930s., Reed obtained a First Class Degree, and an M.A. for his thesis on Thomas Hardy. Hardy was to be highly significant in Henry Reed's later career.

In 1942, during WW2, he was with the Government College & Cypher School at Bletchley where he learned the Japanese language and worked as a translator. At this time, he wrote much of his first radio play "Moby Dick", as well as many poems. In later life, he wrote "The Changeling" which was, perhaps,a disguised autobiography. Some of his plays were associated with Italy - "Return To Naples" and "Streets of Pompeii".

His decision in the early 1950s not to proceed with a projected biography of Thomas Hardy proved to be momentous. Instead, he embarked upon the "Hilda Tablet" saga, with the first play entitled "A Very Great Man Indeed". It has been said that when he spoke to people about Thomas Hardy, all they wanted to do was to talk about themselves. (Ed. - this reminds me of the definition of an egotist : "A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me"). Certainly, very little is discovered about the "very great man" in the play. And so, his roving unwilling biographer of the plays, Herbert Reeve, was created and, perhaps the finest character of all, the composeress Hilda Tablet. More plays in the saga were to follow (see below for details); the original title of "Emily Butter" was to have been "Milly Mudd", but the BBC objected.

Henry Reed undertook book reviewing and translations. Indeed, some were used on the stage. Reed had a beautiful speaking voice and could be heard on radio from time to time. He certainly was something of an eccentric - Douglas Cleverdon tells the story of the time when Reed failed to turn up for a luncheon appointment with him, and when asked about this, Reed replied "I wasn't hungry".

He died on 8 December, 1986.

I am simply contenting myself by listing the 7 plays by which Reed may be best remembered, together with the names of the actors/actresses who took part and some supplementary information. Many of you will read these names with, no doubt, fond remembrance of times past. It is worth noting that, when interviewed in 1963 by Roy Plomley on "Desert Island Discs", Carleton Hobbs stated that his favourite radio character was that of Stephen Shewin, created by Reed.

The first play was "A Very Great Man Indeed", originally broadcast on Monday 7 November, 1953 from 7.25 to 9.20 p.m. Page 6 of that week's "Radio Times", introducing the play, commented that "..........a mock-solemn account of a young critic's research into the life of an imaginary novelist, named Richard Shewin ('the Balzac of the 20th. century'). The critic, Reeve, whose name no-one seems able to catch, meets some very odd characters indeed and makes disconcerting discoveries, which in no way shake his reverential approach to his subject..............before long, we realise that the title of the programme is a little ironical, to say the least. The characters from whom Reeve tries to extract information about his hero are skilfully contrasted and make an amusing cross-section of the pseudo-artistic world in which Richard Shewin moves. Mr. Reed presents them without malice, though not without an impish delight in their oddity."

Reeve was played by Hugh Burden, Shewin's brother, Stephen by Carleton Hobbs and the other parts were played by Gwen Cherrell, Vivienne Chatterton, Diana Maddox, Marjorie Westbury, Frank Duncan, Norman Shelley, Susan Richmond, Mary O' Farrell, Harry Hutchinson, Cecile Chevreau, Dorothy Primrose, Denis Quilley, Wilfrid Downing and Derek Hart. Musical interludes were by Donald Swann.

The second play, "The Private Life of Hilda Tablet", first broadcast on Monday 24 May, 1954 from 7.30 to 8.45 p.m. is described as 'a parenthesis for radio'. Reed says "After his earlier work on the late novelist, Richard Shewin, Mr. Reeve had many requests for further information about other people whom he had chanced on during his researches. He does not think it would be quite fair to any of his kindly informants to gratify this curiosity; but clearly an exception may be made in the case of the gifted composeress, Hilda Tablet. Indeed, Mr. Reeve has had little choice in the matter". All the names in the first play appear again, with the addition of Deryck Guyler and Colin Campbell, the music again composed by Donald Swann.

Play number 3 follows on, in that it is entitled : " 'Emily Butter' - An Occasion Recalled". This 'occasion' is the first broadcast of Hilda Tablet's opera at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on Sunday 14 November, 1954 from 6.40 to 7.55 p.m. The cast comprised Mary O' Farrell (who played Hilda Tablet), Hugh Burden (Henry Reeve), Frank Duncan, Marjorie Westbury, Deryck Guyler, Leonard Sachs, Betty Hardy, Michael Flanders and Diana Maddox, whilst characters in the opera were played by Marjorie Westbury (Emily Butter), Anna Pollak, Marion Studholme, Rose Hill, Scott Joynt, Lily Kettlewell, Diana Maddox and Glenice Halliday with a section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The next in the series was entitled "Through a Hedge - Backwards", first broadcast on 29 February, 1956. At this time, "Radio Times" was being printed in broadsheet fashion, with severe restrictions on programme details, owing to a prolonged printers' strike. Again, music by Donald Swann, and characters in the play acted by Hugh Burden, Carleton Hobbs, Gwen Cherrell, Mary O' Farrell, Marjorie Westbury, Dorothy Primrose, Denis Quilley, Wilfred Downing, Vivienne Chatterton, Deryck Guyler, Allan McLelland, Cecile Chevreau, Frank Duncan, Michael Meacham and Janette Richer.

Number 5 was entitled "The Primal Scene, as it were.......... subtitled 'Nine Studies in Disloyalty'. In which Herbert Reeve and his friends and helpers and, more especially, General Gland, come into refreshing contact with the primal scene, as it were, of our civilisation - The Mediterranean. First transmission Tuesday 11 March, 1958 from 9.20 to 10.50 p.m. All parts were played by those named in number 4, although Vivienne Chatterton, Michael Meacher and Janette Richer did not appear, but Colin Campbell did, his last role having been in play no. 2 and Harold Lang was added to the cast list.

The penultimate play in the series was "Not A Drum Was Heard", being the memoirs of General Gland, played by Deryck Guyler (superbly cast). It was first broadcast on Wednesday 6 May, 1959 from 8 o'clock until 9.10 p.m.. The BBC Interviewers were played by Michael Flanders, Dorothy Primrose and Frank Duncan, Herbert Reeve by Hugh Burden, Hilda Tablet by Mary O' Farrell, Elsa Strauss by Marjorie Westbury, Stephen Shewin by Carleton Hobbs, The Russian Interrogators by Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, the latter also being responsible, once again for the music, including the "Rangoon March". Reed said : "These recollections, elicited with some difficulty from General Gland, are not to be regarded as a continuation of the Shewin-Tablet saga, which ended with 'The Primal Scene, as it were.......". They are to be considered merely as a parergon, if that".

The final work in the series/saga was entitled "Musique Discrète", and was first broadcast on Tuesday 27 October, 1959 from 9.50 to 10.40 p.m. Described as "a request programme of music by Dame Hilda Tablet" by courtesy of Henry Reed and Donald Swann, the various characters were played by Mary O' Farrell, Deryck Guyler, Derek Jacobi, Denis Quilley, Marjorie Westbury, Anna Pollak and Marion Studholme. The London String Quartet and Stephen Whittaker (percussion) were directed by Donald Swann. Writing in that week's "Radio Times", Reed said : "Just over 18 months ago, the Reeve-Shewin-Tablet-Gland saga, which began in 1953 with 'A Very Great Man Indeed' was brought to an unpredictably happy end in a piece called 'The Primal Scene, as it were......' It was not my original intention to carry out any later mopping-up operations, still less to indulge, like an old-time operatic soprano, in a series of obsessional farewell appearances. But somehow General Gland has been prevailed upon to provide his war memoirs, and now there is this request programme of music to celebrate Dame Hilda Tablet's appearance in a recent Honours List. It is being given on Tuesday under the title of ' Musique Discrète', and is dedicated to those listeners who feel they can just manage to put up with one more."

All seven plays were produced by Douglas Cleverdon.

(This article is reproduced by permission of Roger Bickerton and Norman Morrison. It first appeared in "The Circular Note", newsletter of the VRPCC)

Recordings of the above plays are held within VRPCC.


The following article is also reproduced by permission of Roger Bickerton:

Michael Smith has sent me a most interesting letter, from which I will quote :- "..........I was an avid listener to these programmes back in the 1950s and have a copy of the book "Hilda Tablet and Others" - Four pieces by Henry Reed, first published by the BBC in 1971 (ISBN 563 10163 6), containing plays nos 1,2 4 and 5, decicated to Hugh Burden, To The Memory of Mary O' Farrell, Carlton Hobbs and Deryck Guyler respectively".

Now, Michael has also sent me a copy of Reed's "Dedicatory Letter to George D. Painter", which he rightly thinks will be a 'useful appendage to Norman Morrison's article', so I will quite shamelessly offer this in full to those of our members who are interested. It reflects, at least to my mind, a classical English whimsy, a trait which today seems to be sadly ignored by the public service broadcasters. Also what was (maybe just) acceptable in 1954 would not even be noticed today.

"My dear George,

For a long time I used to go to bed late. As often as not, the reason for this was that I was busy sorting my data. These were usually small details of fact, gathered from the Record Office, the London Library, the British Museum or from ancient provincial newspapers : details that seemed relevant, if only I could understand why, to the life of a certain great novelist. A "Life" for him was what I was supposed, and still somtimes rashly suppose myself, to be working on. How many volumes was it to consist of I cannot now always remember, but I doubt if it was ever less than one.

My mind would often wander from my subject. Minds do this. And none more eagerly and rapidly, I came to notice, than those of the people I interviewed who has personally known my Author. They were invariably glad to help. From my encounters with them I would retire grateful and moved, full of tea and sherry and, on one occasion, memories of what must have been almost the complete piano works of Brahms. They were fine men and women. But always, a few nights afterwards, once more sorting my data, I would realise that the main content of their disclosures had concerned, exclusively, themselves.

This struck me as a profoundly interesting fact in itself. After a time I began to diversify my nocturnal labours by a small dramatic study of it. It was called "A Very Great Man Indeed" (the title comes from Joseph Conrad, though, this, at the time, I did not know). It was meant to be an austere little work, above all complete in itself. No sequel was intended. But, as it happened, there was a great number of sequels : and for this I can honourably shift the blame on to the actors and the composer of the music. In the first script, there was one particular scene whose enactment woke in me a restless curiosity. At the end of it, my "alter ego", Reeve, attempts to turn over the manuscript pages of a Sonata which Hilda Tablet is playing on the piano. I used to watch this scene, rather than listen to it. It was played with such intense and ancious realism that, to this day, in reaclling it I find it difficult to believe that there was no piano in sight. The piano was far away, being soundly disciplined at that moment by the composer Swann.

Anyway, the scene fades bashfully out, as radio scenes do; so does the music. But a short time afterwards, I found myself wondering what would have happened next between Reeve and Hilda. And how would Swann's Sonata have gone on? And what about Stehpen Shewin? I was greatly tempted to ask that the whole cast should come back and do some more. Hence, after a time, and one thing leading to another, the later scripts. Altogether, they totalled seven. The number is sometimes given as nine, but people exaggerate. I have selected the four here, mainly because there is a faint, barely detectable, story-line running through them. They have a happy ending, and I am glad to have managed this for once.

I am afraid the book is a very poor return for the first volume of your immmaculate "Proust". A bread-and-butter letter perhaps : perhaps we might best think of it as that. Even so, the butter has been mainly provided by Donald Swann's music, Douglas Cleverdon's production and the willingness of a brilliant cast to reassemble year after year. This, I am sure, you know. There are a few minor historical points about the scripts that may be worth mentioning. In the second of them, originally broadcast on the night of 24 May, 1954, full frontal nudity was heard on radio for the first time, the author being quite unaware of what a trail he was blazing, and the scene itself having been passed on the grounds of unquestionable aesthetic necessity, fortified by the reverence and tact which the actors brought to it. Mind you, there were some whacking great cuts elsewhere. In these printed versions, I haven't, I think, put back anything that was cut in the interest of time or proportion. On the other hand, a fair number of passges, accepted by the Producer, and already recorded by the cast, were sometimes, at a late moment, ordered out by higher assessors, on the grounds of indelicacy. To the reclamation of these passages I have given, dear George, a most zealous attention.

Yours, ever affectionately, Henry"


The Private Life of Hilda Tablet"
One of Herbert Reeve's investigations as to figure among my favourite ten. Norman Morrison gave us an excellent summary of Henry Reed's remarkable series in issue 8 of "The Circular Note". The level is so consistently high that it is hard to say which, if any, is better than the others; but The Private Life of Hilda Tablet occupies a special place in addicts' affections. As the second in the sequence, it has the advantage of an established idiom, with characters ripe for development; and it moves Hilda Tablet to the centre of the stage. Poor Reeve is no match for Miss Tablet and by the end of the play he finds himself committed to working on a 7-volume critical biography of the ebullient 'composeress', who never so much as considers that "no" might be an anwser. Mary O' Farrell brings this fearsome woman to vibrant comic life and every detail of her Coptic Street ménage is cherished by Tablet groupies, from Evelyn's equivocal welcomes to Elsa's threeats to return home. It's supremely clever and irresistibly funny - and there will never again be anything like it.

Barry Pike/ Diversity website.

Information about Reed's other radio plays, so far as I have it, is shown on the page Henry Reed 2

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