Recording Machines & Tapes:
Radio Plays

Recording technology is relatively new. It isn't very long ago that people who wanted off-air recordings had to use disc cutters and a large fraction of their wages. You'd only get a few minutes of recording. This was the forties.

Then came wire recorders and early tape recorders......the cassette appeared in the sixties, and improved greatly over the next two decades. Following this came commercial CD, homemade CD, minidisc, DVD and mp3......

There are several plays where recording machines play a central part in the plot. As a slight digression, I was interested to watch Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" recently. Good play, but the best bit for me was the scene including a demonstration of a wire recorder - look out for it if you watch the film. There's a free CD going around from one of the newspapers.

Stewart Parker's "Radio Pictures" - a TV play about making a radio play - is also informative if you want to know how radio plays are made.

Here are some radio plays where recording machines are central to the plot:

2017 The Archivist, by Kellie Smith
2015 Fugue State, by Julian Simpson
2013 The Edison Cylinders, by Mike Walker
2012 The Gift, by Jane Thornton
2011 The Recordist, by Sean Grundy
2011 Bad Memories, by Julian Simpson
2008 Fragments, by Julian Simpson
2006 Krapp's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett 2004 Distant Whispers, by Garry Lyons
2003 When Louis met George, by Paul Farley
2000 The 78s, by David Z Mairowitz
2000 Hearing Sense, by Richard Monks
1998 The Final Furlong, by Christopher Reason
1996 Potted History, by Andrew Dallmeyer
c1990 Elgar - the last recording, by Douglas Slater
1991 The Machine, by Tony Bagley
1983 Portions Mechanically Reproduced, by Carol Adorjan
1981 Letter to the Old Man on a Cassette Recorder, by Nigel Baldwin
1975 Omega Point, by Bruce Stewart

2004 The Derby Tape Club (off-air radio recording in the days before cassettes)


7 Jul 2017: The Archivist
By Kellie Smith. Psychological thriller. Ben starts to film his family, secretly, for his personal archive. He can't spend a day without videoing something and putting it on Facebook. Ben: Adam Nagatis, Clare: Christine Bottomley, John: Henry Devas, Nadia: Fiona Clarke. Producer: Pauline Harris.

29 Oct 2015: Fugue State
By Julian Simpson. A man in hospital in a fugue state holds the key to strange events which have occurred in a remote village. Can sound recordings prompt his brain into remembering what has happened? Doctor Fallon: Nicola Walker, Patient: Steven Mackintosh, Johnson: Tim McInnerny, Simon: Ferdinand Kingsley, Phoebe/cyclist: Phoebe Fox, other parts: Ben Crowe. Producer: Karen Rose. Indie production (Sweet Talk). This play was shortlisted for the Tinniswood Award for 2015.

R4, 22 Mar 13. By Mike Walker. Science fiction play, where the story centres around some old wax cylinders. A person who specialises in audio recovery attempts to restore the recordings which they hold, but as she works, a frightening message emerges. Clare McCarron, Jonjo O'Neill, Harry Hadden-Paton, Stephen Critchlow, Laura Hyde. Fiction Factory production, produced by John Taylor.

THE GIFT....2012
17 Jul 2012; by Jane Thornton. A man discovers a collection of reel-to-reel recordings made by his father-in-law. They chronicle a rock & roll lifestyle. But as he goes through the tapes, he finds out something he would rather not know. Cast: Stephen Tomkinson as Dan, Jacqueline Roberts as his wife, Dicken Ashworth as Charlie, Martha Godber as Amber, Sydney Wade as young Lori. Guitar played by Eddie Tatton; producer Mary Ward-Lowery. Afternoon play, 45m.

By Sean Grundy. 16 May 11, rpt: A lecturer at a college for spies, torturers and surveillance experts uses his home life as source material for his courses. He 'bugs' his wife; her affair makes an amazing teaching aid. Producer: Alison Crawford.

Stuart - John Gordon Sinclair,
Penny - Sharon Horgan,
Ren - Gemma Jones,
Neil - Ed Weeks,
Reese - Fergus Craig,
Munro - Nick Mohammed,
Penny's Mum - Phyllida Nash.

7 Jan 2011, Friday Play by Julian Simpson. Creepy supernatural thriller. Five bodies are found in a cellar, which is how the story begins. The police are called in, and the corpses are found to be nearly seventy years old. This is odd, because they died only five years ago. But one of the deceased has some audio recordings in his pocket.... perhaps when they're cleaned up and examined they'll give a few clues.... more about this play on Julian's page.

Julian Simpson was the author of another repeated Friday Play, FRAGMENTS (R4, 2102, 31 Aug 07) in which a teenage girl is accused of the murder of a retired Royal Marine. There seems to be no motive; the evidence is circumstantial, and the convoluted plot flicks between police interviews, recordings from electronic "bugs", and uncomfortable conversations between the girl and her mother. John Carlisle played the 70-year-old Grant, Lesley Sharp was mother, and Sarah Smart was Kelly, indistinguishable from a genuine spoilt teenager. The producer was Karen Rose, and the author directed. (ND, VRPCC newsletter, Sep 07)

Distant Whispers, by Garry Lyons (R4, 2102, 19 Nov 04) was a welcome repeat, broadcast as the Friday Play. A random killing causes a murder trial from thirty years ago to re-surface. The detective who handled it is retired and terminally ill. But all the evidence is still in the police files. His successor revisits the surviving witnesses, including one with whom VRPCC members may identify - an elderly bird-watcher who has filled his house with thousands of reels of tape, all containing bird calls. On one of them, he says, is the voice of the murderer...Paul Copley was excellent as the retired Inspector, and Christine, the new Inspector, was played by Denise Black. The audio analyst, presumably using something like "Cooledit Pro" to decipher the tape, was Kate Williamson; Nadia Molinari directed. .....ND, VRPCC newsletter, Dec 04.

By Samuel Beckett. An old guy living on his own has recorded one tape a year about his life nearly all his life. Now he's old and he has boxes of them. He listens to a tape where he remembers an encounter with a girl on a boat half a lifetime ago. (for more info, see Sam's page). This is actually a stage play but works equally well on radio.

This play, by Louise Wallinger (R4, 1415, 4 Nov 05) possibly has relevance for people we know. The central character, Sarah, collects voices on tape; she goes through life with a cassette recorder in her bag, and a microphone. She can't talk without recording the conversation. She has hundreds of tapes, going back to her schooldays. It is an obsession. Eventually she gets help - the remedy, apparently, is to reduce, day by day, the time she spends with her recordings. The play was a gentle exploration of the psyche of the collector. Sarah was played by Jo McInnes, Michael by James Fleet, there were contributions from real-life collectors (one of whom collects sand, incidentally) and the director was Pam Marshall.

1 Mar 04: Feature. At a car boot sale near Derby, a radio producer buys a dusty hoard of audio tapes along with a heavy old tape recorder. Coaxing the machine back to life, he discovers the jettisoned archive of a group of audio amateurs who made, played and swapped recordings in the 1960s and 70s, when domestic tape-recording was in its infancy - and before the audio cassette had conquered the world.

A tribute to an anonymous group of people and their enthusiasm for radio. Without people like this, recordings of 99% of the plays discussed on this site would not exist. That's roughly the proportion the BBC used to throw away before the year 2000.

When Louis Met George....2003
5 Feb 03, afternoon play. It's 1943. Just before dawn breaks, deep in the basement of Broadcasting House, two of the most famous writers to have worked for the BBC meet for the first time.

During their chance encounter, George Orwell and Louis MacNeice debate the effect of the war on their writing and their work for the Corporation.

So who recorded their conversation? And why have the tapes suddenly turned up in 2003? "When Louis Met George" is the first radio play by Paul Farley, winner of this year's Whitbread Book Award for Poetry.

THE 78s .... 2000
By David Z Mairowitz. An old man, apparently beyond communication, has a priceless collection of old gramophone records. Can his son find it? He tries to jog his dad's memory. Excellent Friday play, 60min. With Warren Mitchell, Henry Goodman and Margot Leicester. Director: Jeremy Mortimer.

Friday Play. A sound recordist has an extensive collection of sound effects. Social story by Richard Monks.

    RT blurb: Michael is a sound recordist. He has a collection far more extensive than any effects library, but something in his past weighs increasingly heavy - he warns us not to believe all that we hear. With Ioan Meredith, Gavin Muir, Rachel Atkins, Tessa Worsley, David Allister, Stephen Critchlow, James Butcher, Yasmin Hickson and Lily Howkins. Director David Hunter.

      ‘An enthralling and amazing drama about guilt, psychosis and the voices that sometimes get locked in your head like demons refusing to be exorcised'…(Sunday Times)

      'Uses sound in a way that only works in this medium' (Times).

      Also reviewed favourably in The Guardian.

      Winner – Radio Drama - Sony Silver Award 2000
      Winner - Radio Drama - Mental Health Media Awards 1999
      Nominated for Prix Europa – Berlin 1999

By Christopher Reason, 45m. 30 Sep 98, starring Bernard Cribbins. Play where a man goes back over his life. Can a heartbroken old man rescue a desperate situation? Producer Martin Jenkins.

Ruben has invented a machine which can listen to pots. Now he needs someone to steal some from the museum. R4, 55m, 19 Dec 96. There's more about this play on the Science Fiction Plays page.

Elgar - the last recording ....c1990
Final years of Elgar's life. Some interesting scenes where Elgar is in touch with the recording engineers and the orchestra from his hospital bed, if my memory serves correctly.

R3, 22 Jul 91. Giles Cooper Award Winner. A hundred and fifty years ago, someone invented a recording machine ... stars James Bolam. Interesting, unusual fictional tale.

PORTIONS MECHANICALLY REPRODUCED....1983 8th September 1983, 21.45 : By Carol Adorjan. Roberta and Ernest are obsessed with tape recorders and video equipment. So much so that the outside world has lost its reality. Their lives are filled with games and illusions. Directed By: Peter King; Roberta: Margaret Tyzack, Ernest: Gary Waldhorn, Repeated from 9th November 1982.

By Nigel Baldwin. Radio 3, 105min. "Michael reflects on his life in a tape sent to his dying father. A deft and economical technique which stings the listening mind." Sunday Times. With Bill Nighy as Michael. "A remarkable radio play, mingling reflections on the death of Empire in Cyprus and Ireland; the failure of love; the struggle to become adult; and yes the condition of Britain." Sunday Times.

See Bruce Stewart's page. A recording has to be deciphered, and everything takes off from there.

I note from the August, 1947 issue of "Practical Wireless" that the first wire recorders, plus radiogram equipment for home use, were recently placed on the market for $170 in Chicago. Whilst in the November, 1949 issue"Magnetic wire and tape recorders which can be made by amateurs for £16 are being demonstrated by Judge Industries Ltd" (at Radiolympia). And "a high fidelity table wire recorder with a running time of one hour is shown by Kolster-Brandes". In both 1950 and 1951, there were advertisements for the 'Soundmirror' tape recorder, which may well have been the first commercially-available machine in the UK using the magnetic tape medium. I have a complete programme from August, 1952, recorded using one of these machines, where the microphone was placed close to the wireless loudspeaker, and the results are acceptable, if no more. ..........VRPCC member, 1998; reproduced by permission

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

Above plays known to exist in VRPCC collections

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