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BBC Radiophonic Beckett

November 20, 2007

I’m afraid I’ve been busy writing elsewhere, about Samuel Beckett. This isn’t the time or place to go into the scholarly particulars, but I’ll write some afterthoughts following my subject. My starting point was this bit of history: in 1957 the script of Beckett’s first radio drama for the BBC demanded peculiar sound effects, leading more or less directly to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Beckett had been asked to write something for the Third Programme (the programme established after the war as a sound-space for art beyond the Home and Light service) by Martin Esslin, then head of drama. Beckett produced All That Fall, which he worked on with the producer Donald McWhinnie. Noticing that the BBC’s usual library of sound effects and “atmospheres” wouldn’t meet Beckett’s demand for sound effects arranged non-naturalistically, McWhinnie employed soon-to-be Workshop founder Desmond Briscoe to begin applying tape-splicing musique concrete techniques. Briscoe would go on to do likewise to radio dramas by Giles Cooper such as The Disagreeable Oyster, further pieces by Beckett like the wonderful and horrible Embers. The complete Beckett BBC broadcasts, by the way, were recently made available on CD through the British Library.

Desmond Briscoe can be seen (but not heard) lurking by the wall in this picture of Delia Derbyshire:

To Beckett’s Embers (1960), Briscoe added a low electroacoustic drone underneath the sound of the sea, which is heard during any pause in the script–this is what the protagonist Henry hears, a sound he “shouldn’t be hearing”, an imagined and distracting sound that is the symptom of his mental illness, and which he attempts to drown out by talking to his dead father, improvising plot-less and pointless stories, or carrying a gramophone around with him. For a later West German / American production of Embers, Beckett made the specific request that the sea shouldn’t sound quite so electronic. He was wrong. The dreaded, unreal and invasive sea-sound should be electronic because electricity is what makes sound invasive and evasive–there, but elsewhere–in the first place. And old, brittle Henry combats this electronic sound with his own electroacoustic soundwall, the portable gramophone. That, or the electric signal of his dead dad’s voice.

The difference between American radio and BBC radio broadcasting after the war has been summarised like this: American radio went out its way to supply the public with whatever they most wanted, whilst the BBC were hell-bent on educating, civilizing and improving the nation (a kind of post-war nation-rebuilding, acting on Lord Reith‘s intention, stated in 1922, to “inform, educate and entertain”. Beckett’s BBC productions, then, can be explained in this way–as part of the Third Programme’s usual highbrowism, intended to improve Britain.

But what about Britain? By the late-fifties, Beckett had been Parisian on-and-off for three decades; the techniques employed by Briscoe and other later Workshop members were also French, acquired via Pierre Schaeffer. And experimental radio drama had a much richer history in Germany, rooted in the growing tradition of the Horspiel (an enthusiasm of Brecht, for one). So there’s a pan-European make-up to these radiophonic works at the BBC. More importantly, though, there’s a good strain of provincialism that’s common to a lot of radio drama from the period. As an Irishman, Beckett can hardly have been expected to have been much involved in BBC nation-building antics. All That Fall marks Beckett’s return to writing in English, following his taking up French as his primary writing language, but it also marks his return to setting his work in a specifically Irish rural landscape (or soundscape, as the case may be). There’s an almost stage-Irishness to his fat old Mrs. Rooney and her encounters various figures from a Protestant Irish village; but if Beckett is being almost exaggeratedly provincial, then he wasn’t alone in this. Giles Cooper’s The Disagreeable Oyster, by all accounts featuring sound treatments by Briscoe that rank among his wildest, is the tale of a man relocated from the south of England to the north, an alien land full of Briscoe’s alien sounds. Then, also from 1957, there’s Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a radiophonic play for voices often criticised as being a caracature of small-town Welshness. If it is, then it was created knowingly as such, being largely the responsiblility of a tight Welsh enclave at the BBC made up of Thomas, Richard Hughes, Richard Burton, and others.

So this radiphonic work, made through creative abuse of an electronic medium and broadcast via a national institution, is really just a means towards artistic provincialism? Why not? And the BBC Radiophonic Workshop fits in here nicely. Yes, the Workshop belonged to the BBC, but they had a tiny budget and not much in the way of equipment. I won’t talk about “home-made charm” (I’ll use that gently demeaning phrase to talk about my own work, shortly) because what Briscoe, Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, John Baker et al went on to produce was brilliance surpassing charm. But the Radiophonic Workshop was, essentially, a cottage industry, dealing in acoustic textures rather than material textiles. So it’s fitting that these people were a means of taking Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas back home, sonically speaking. I leave you with a small glimpse of a mid-century cottage industry at work–the magnificent Delia Derbshire. Her surname sounds provincial; her accent doesn’t; her music is from space:

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 20, 2007 7:30 am

    I want to have Delia’s babies.

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