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Drama Producer

Two women would gain acclaim as radio drama producers in the interwar years, Barbara Burnham and Mary Hope Allen. The BBC had quickly discovered that radio drama and stage productions were two very different beasts. Without visual clues, early broadcasts ‘live’ from the West End were impossible to follow, rather plays and dramatisations needed to be specifically created or adapted for wireless.[1] [2] [3] Val Gielgud (the elder brother of actor John) became the champion of the new form and in 1933 a distinctive Drama Department was established under his leadership.7 0 Peter Creswell, Laurence Gilliam, Howard Rose and Lance Sieveking all made their names here. However, unlike her illustrious male colleagues, Mary Hope Allen’s producer job would be hard won.

A former student of the Slade School of Art, Allen had worked as a freelance journalist, a copy writer, a book reviewer and a drama critic before she joined the BBC in 1927 aged 28.7 1 It is therefore unsurprising that she quickly became frustrated with her ?3 10s a week job as a cataloguer in the Play Library.[4] While her bosses prevaricated about how best to promote her, she arranged a private interview with Reith, who agreed that she should have a production job.[5] This was shortly after the founding of the Research Section which was experimenting with new ways of making radio features and drama, and to which Allen was assigned (Sieveking’s ground-breaking Kaleidoscope was created here).[6] M.H. Allen’s first production (she always used her initials) was Russian Twilight in 1929, described by Gielgud as having ‘a distinction of taste and judgement’.[7] She remembered it as ‘full of sombre harmonies, samovars, icons and philosophic peasants sitting on their doorsteps’.[8] Doris Arnold worked with her on the programme, selecting and arranging the music, which Allen then intertwined with words and sounds. Amongst other work was The Forsaken City, which ‘startled the public’ with its use of the writings of Defoe, Pepys and others to create a ‘picture in sound’ of the Great Plague.[9] In April 1932, the first of Allen’s Miscellany programmes was aired, a new departure for radio. This was a collection of plays, songs and poems made in collaboration with the Variety producer, Denis Freeman. Yet despite a consensus that she had ability, it was felt at first that Allen lacked confidence (perhaps understandable in a unit where she was the only woman) although by 1932 Gielgud observed that she had ‘arrived’.[10] The Research Section was eventually seen as too ‘high-brow’, closing in 1933 and Allen was transferred to the new Drama Department.

Allen was a productive member of the Drama team. For instance, amongst her 16 productions in 1936 were Louisa Wants a Bicycle (subtitled, ‘The Fight for Woman’s Freedom’), a race through women’s emancipation which included sketches of the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Florence

Nightingale, Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.89 London Calling-1600, an evocation of life in the reign of Elizabeth I, was praised by The Listener as ‘the most enchanting, the most witty and the most original entertainment I have yet heard over the air’.90 Gielgud similarly enjoyed the production and also commended her for Henry James’ Four Meetings and the comedy, Youth at the Helm.[11] [12] [13][13] [15] [16] [17]Whereas much of Allen’s work was lyrical and avant-garde, that of her colleague Barbara Burnham was more traditional. Burnham excelled at adapting and producing novels and stage plays for radio.

After studying at Elsie Fogerty’s Central School of Dramatic Art, Burnham had arrived at the BBC in 1930 (initially on a programme contract rather than as staff), bringing to the listener adaptations of the works of Shakespeare, Poe, and Marlow. In 1934, her first credit as a producer was for Chekhov’s The Seagull and she produced four other of his plays. In a Radio Pictorial interview in 1935, Burnham explained the process of adaptation and production, how she cut, rewrote and reshaped a novel or a stage play into radio form. It was a matter of ‘simplifying, orchestrating and translating scenery into sound’.92 Her 1936 production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women starred Flora Robson and she would direct many of the theatre greats.93 As well as classic plays, she adapted and produced the novels of J.B. Priestley, Edgar Wallace and John Galsworthy and worked with modern playwrights; Aimee Stuart’s Aunt Jeannie was written specifically for radio in 1938. Burnham’s closest collaboration was with the novelist James Hilton, starting with an adaptation of Goodbye Mr Chips in 1935, followed by The Lost Horizon, And Now Goodbye and We are Not Alone. Describing the process of working together on The Lost Horizon, Burnham portrayed how they kept ‘hurling it backwards and forwards for a few weeks’ before agreeing that she ‘might as well do the rest in production’.94 On this occasion, she had read the book by chance and had contacted Hilton about it; at other times, dramas were suggested and discussed at weekly departmental meetings.

Both Barbara Burnham and Mary Hope Allen had long and successful BBC careers. Allen remained in radio for her entire career, retiring in 1958 and Burnham was still producing BBC television plays in the early 1960s. Burnham’s pre-war salary (?800 in 1939) was considerably more than Allen’s (?620) as will be discussed below. Perhaps Burnham had an easier ride because she was a more traditional drama producer with a less combative personality. Intriguingly, the first dramatic interludes on the wireless were also pioneered by a woman, not within the Drama Department, but in School Broadcasting. They were to cement the career of Rhoda Power.

  • [1] Briggs, Birth of Broadcasting, pp. 280-1; BBC Handbook, 1928, pp. 115-16.
  • [2] Briggs, Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 160-9.
  • [3] BBC/WAC:L1/659/1:Mary Hope Allen Staff File 1 (hereafter MHAF:1), Allen toNicolls, 17 October 1933.
  • [4] MHAF:1, Jeffrey to Eckersley, 4 January 1928.
  • [5] The Times, 9 April 2001.
  • [6] Mary Hope Allen Staff File 2, (hereafter MHAF:2), Eckersley to Reith, 14 June 1929.The brief of the Section was to find experimental new ways of making radio features anddrama. See Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting,1922-1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) pp. 135-40. See also David Hendy (2012) ‘Biographyand the Emotions as a Missing “Narrative” in Media History: A Case Study of LanceSieveking and the Early BBC’, Media History, 18 (3-4), 361-78.
  • [7] MHAF:2, Gielgud to Reith, 4 February 1930.
  • [8] News Chronicle, 15 August 1939.
  • [9] Maurice Gorham (1948) Sound and Fury (London: Percival Marshall) p. 35; RadioTimes, 26 February 1932.
  • [10] MHAF:2, Gielgud to Eckersley, 17 September 1929, 4 February 1930; ConfidentialReport February 1931, 6 September 1932, Gielgud to Carpendale.
  • [11] Radio Times, 8 September 1936.
  • [12] The Listener, 22 April 1936.
  • [13] Mary Hope Allen Staff File 2, Confidential Report, 1937.
  • [14] Mary Hope Allen Staff File 2, Confidential Report, 1937.
  • [15] Radio Pictorial, 8 March 1935.
  • [16] Radio Times, 25 April 1937.
  • [17] Radio Pictorial, 17 July 1936.
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