Writing Audio Drama by Tim Crook published by Routledge 31st March 2023
Writing Audio Drama offers a comprehensive and intelligent guide to writing sound drama for broadcasting and online. This book uses original research on the history of writing radio plays in the UK and USA to explore how this has informed and developed the art form for more than 100 years.
Audio drama in the context of podcasting is now experiencing a global and exponential expansion. Through analysis of examples of past and present writing, the author explains how to create drama which can explore deeply psychological and intimate themes and achieve emotional, truthful, entertaining and thought-provoking impact. Practical analysis of the key factors required to write successful audio drama is covered in chapters focusing on audio play beginnings and openings, sound story dialogue, sustaining the sound story, plotting for sound drama, and the best ways of ending audio plays. Chapters are supported by online resources which expand visually on subjects discussed and point to exemplary sound dramas referenced in the chapters.
This textbook will be an important resource for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students taking courses such as Podcasting, Radio, Audio Drama, Scriptwriting, and Media Writing.
Gertrude E Jennings- Pioneering one-act playwright who was the BBC’s most produced original dramatist in its first three years of broadcasting.
Gertrude Jennings was one of the most produced original living playwrights on BBC Radio between 1923 and 1925.
Later celebrated by the Radio Times as a ‘brilliant writer’ whose one act play Five Birds In A Cage was described as “possibly the best ever written by the best-known writer of one-act plays of modern times. It sparkles with wit and draws character with a deft hand.”
This play was in fact the BBC’s first full studio production of a modern original stage play and its first broadcast on 29th November 1923 predates Danger by Richard Hughes which has been repeatedly canonised by male historians as the significant turning point in radio drama history.
Gertrude’s script originated the potential of audio drama connecting with the comedy and suspense of characters being trapped and plunged into a claustrophobic situation.
The one-act farce featured five people trapped in a London Underground lift.
It was originally produced at the London Haymarket Theatre for a special matinée in 1915 and continued there in the evening bill for a further 285 consecutive performances.
Writing Audio Drama by Professor Tim Crook critically analyses the significance and proper contribution of Jennings to British drama and broadcasting history, and why this play and her other one-act scripts were so popular with producers and listeners.
Her comedy writing touched on social and political tensions of her time and interesting questions arise on why the BBC may have avoided some of her plays because of their potentially controversial content.
Gertrudge Elizabeth Jennings is something of an unknown in 20th century dramatic literature and criticism, but when she died in 1958 the Times newspaper deemed her important enough to mark her passing with an obituary and the headline description of: ‘Successful writer of comedies.’
She established her reputation with one act play hits during the First World War. Soldiers on leave getting off the Channel trains from Folkestone and Dover at Charing Cross and Victoria stations only had a short walk to the Haymarket and other West End theatres putting on her comedies as lunch time matinées or first bill offerings before the presentation of full length plays at night.
The subversion of class hierarchies in Five Birds in a Cage when five people with such contrasting class backgrounds find themselves equal in the face of death would have greatly amused soldiers directly experiencing Eton, Rugby, Marlborough and other public school educated elites mixing with everybody else in the mud, blood and desolation of the trenches.
Other one act comedy successes were The Bath Room Door, Elegant Edward, and The Rest Cure.
She could find comedy in a bus stop, workhouse, the passage way of a Channel steamer and in The Rest Cure a London nursing home. The Times admired how she characterised the dilemmas of a nervous invalid and ‘sketched with much skill the din in the streets outside, the banging of doors, the demeanour and the conversation of the nurses, the boiled mutton and suet pudding and the effect of all of them upon the hypochondriac.’
Her one act comedies were also known as ‘curtain raisers’ and the Daily Graphic newspaper for 4th February 1922 when reviewing Money Doesn’t Matter said: ‘Miss Jennings has the distinction of having supplied two of the neatest comedies now to be seen in Town. “Me and My Diary” the curtain-raiser at the Strand, and “Money Doesn’t Matter” at the Aldwych, which twins it. It is comedy, farce, caricature, reality, in turns, all carrying the moral that money, after all, is not everything.’
She was born in 1877 and was the youngest daughter of Louis J. Jennings, an editor of the New York Times and an MP for Stockport. It was in America, her father met and married the American actress, Madeline Henriques who was a star of New York’s Wallack’s Theatre.
Gertrude followed her mother onto the stage, taking her mother’s name as ‘Gertrude Henriques’ and toured South Africa with the famous Shakespeare playing company led by Sir Ben Greet.
Her extensive stage performing career strongly informed her writing. The Times noted ‘she had the craft of the one-act play at her finger-tips. She could create the atmosphere, thicken the suspense and lead up to her climax as though she had three acts at her disposal.’
Her plays had massive appeal to amateurs and school teachers who taught drama. Two of them were selected in the six editions of the famous J. W. Marriott edited one act play compendiums.
In the amateur dramatic world it could be rightly said her name was still a household word around the time of her death.
She did not need the BBC as a professional writer for she had great success with full length comedy stage plays. The first, The Young Person in Pink, launched as a charity matinée in 1920 with an all-star cast. This was followed by Love Among the Paint Pots which was about a middle-aged spinster who yearns for romance and love during the intervals when she is not acting as an amateur detective.
This was followed by Money Doesn’t Matter, Isabel, Edward and Anne, These Pretty Things, Family Affairs and Our Own Lives.
Family Affairs would be adapted for BBC radio broadcast in 1950. Her plays were performed by the leading actors of her generation: Lady Tree, Dame Irene Vanbrugh, Dame Lilian Braithwaite, Helen Haye, Marie Löhr, Athene Seyler, Sydney Fairbrother and Mary Jerrold.
The film rights to The Young Person in Pink resulted in the war-time 1940 black and white British comedy film The Girl Who Forgot directed by Adrian Brunel and starring Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Michael and Enid Stamp-Taylor. The screenplay was written by Louise Birt.
The film’s plot begins with an eighteen-year-old girl called Leonora on the train travelling back from her school to Paddington but having completely lost her memory. At the same time her father has qualified for his pilot’s licence, and decided to take her mother on a flight to Baghdad. Leonora is lost in London with amnesia and at a hotel meets a handsome young man who wants to help her. Will he be able to rescue her? She was not to know that his fiancée would react badly with extreme jealousy and arrange for a poor confidence trickster to pretend to be her mother in exchange for cash.
Cultural Significance of Five Birds in a Cage
Gertrude Jennings is a reminder of the critical and significant contribution of women writers, actors and directors to the art of radio drama in British and, indeed, world drama culture.
Phyllis M Twigg originated and scripted the first radio drama play, The Truth About Father Christmas as told by the Fairy Dustman, on Christmas Eve 1922, Cathleen Nesbitt adapted and directed the first season of full length productions of plays by William Shakespeare, and Gertrude Jennings provided the first original modern play to be produced from the BBC’s first radio station in London, 2LO.
Five Birds in a Cage is hugely successful because it has been written by the most experienced and successful contemporary dramatist to be produced by the BBC in its early years.
She was not an ingénue, or experimenting. By November 1923 she was a fully established professional playwright with a canon of one act plays produced throughout the world and full length stage comedies running in London’s West End.
Gertrude had travelled the world performing as an actor with Sir Ben Greet’s touring company, her mother was an actress, her first produced script in the West End, the one act comedy Between the Soup and the Savoury had premièred in 1910.
And she was a clever political dramatist; something fully recognised by the academic Alan Beck in his 2000 study of early radio drama The Invisible Play. The importance of Gertrude’s BBC Five Birds in a Cage was acknowledged in Dr Tina Pepler’s 1988 University of Bristol thesis.
Its intrinsic qualities for radio and as biting social satire and political drama are analysed in the printed text of Writing Audio Drama between pages 28 and 36. By the time the BBC’s resident drama critic Archibald Haddon listened to and admired the live transmission on 29th November, this script had been performed in the West End several hundred times and was a Samuel French am-dram global hit earning Gertrude one guinea for each performance.
When Haddon listened to it for the first time as a sound play, he was moved to realise:
‘All this is marvellous, yet it is only the beginning, the inception of the radio play…The radioplay, when it is in full blast, will be a profitable new medium of expression for the actor.’
We don’t know how much the BBC paid her, but it would certainly be produced and broadcast over and over again. By 1934, the Radio Times was acknowledging:
‘This brilliant one-act play, featuring five people trapped in a lift, is possibly the best ever written by the best known writer of one-act plays of modern times. It sparkles with wit and draws character with a deft hand. It was originally produced at the Haymarket Theatre, London, for a special matinée in 1915, and went into the evening bill, where it remained for 284 consecutive performances. A radio version was broadcast from 2LO in 1926, and it was one of Martyn C. Webster ‘s most popular productions last winter.’
Radio drama scholars Alan Beck and Roger Wood are convinced it is likely Richard Hughes listened to Milton Rosmer’s BBC production of Five Birds in a Cage on 29th November 1923 and it influenced him strongly in the writing of The Comedy of Danger which would be wrongly canonised as the first original radio play, but certainly merits celebration for its success and intent as drama written specially for the sound medium.
It may well be the case that Gertrude’s first successful Samuel French published one act play Between The Soup And The Savoury, first performed in 1910, was an inspiration, or influence on the ITV television drama series of the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs. It starts with the following description:
‘The scene is a cheerful, bright kitchen, and the time the beginning of dinner- upstairs. EMILY, a meek, pathetic little kitch-maid, is at the range ; COOK, a handsome, buxom woman, is washing parsley.’
Gertrude’s Cook is a similar characterisation of ‘Mrs Bridges’ in the television series as is her relationship and interaction with Emily so reminiscent of that between Mrs Bridges and Ruby and her other kitchen-maids.
The smart ‘ADA…pretty girl with a brisk manner and rather a strident voice‘ could be somewhat resonant of the character Rose in Upstairs Downstairs.
All of the comic tensions and class ironies of the ‘upstairs and downstairs’ farce and pathos of Jennings’ play and its potential would appear to have been realised with so much success sixty years later by London Weekend Television and the creation by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins.
Jean and Eileen set their series during the first decade of the 20th century and they would have been far too young to have seen Gertrude’s play being performed during its heyday after 1910, or necessarily been aware of its popularity in amateur dramatics.
These are all delightful cultural coincidences.
A Suffragette writer
Gertrude Jennings was a Suffragette dramatist and commissioned by Inez Milholland Boissevain to write a play for the cause.
A Woman’s Influence was never produced by the BBC although it should have been. It was written for the Actresses’ Franchise League which began its performances for the 1909 Votes for Women Exhibition at the Prince’s Ice Skating Rink in Knightsbridge, London.
As we know partial suffrage was granted to women in 1918 and full equal suffrage in 1928. The BBC did have a major aversion to explicitly political plays during the 1920s and this might explain why it was not even considered.
Inez’s role in asking Gertrude to write as well as act artistically in the cause of achieving votes for women can certainly be identified as a key inspiration and motivation for Gertrude’s subsequent writing career.
Gertrude’s play was enthusiastically reviewed in the Suffragette newspaper Votes For Women 28th May 1909:
‘The third play, “A Woman’s Infuence” by Gertrude Jennings, which has been performed for the first time at the Women’s Exhibition, takes up a different point of the Anti-Suffragist argument, and exposes its naked hypocrisy. Women do not need the vote, it is said, because they have got all they need in the influence which a woman is able to exert. Gertrude Jennings unmasks the true meaning of a woman’s influence. She shows that it means nothing more nor less than the deliberate wheedling of men by the artificial use of personal charm. In the actual play the woman who makes use of this weapon does so from mean and petty motives, but, as the heroine of the play clearly points out, the application is far wider than this single instance.
Apart altogether from the lesson which the play is made to teach, it is exceedingly clever, and full of opportunities for good acting. In the Exhibition Theatre Mr. Bassett Roe plays the part of Mr. Herbert Lawrence to perfection. As you follow the opening scene with his wife, the clever passage with Mrs Perry, and the final closing scene, you feel how real it all is. Not merely are the situations those which might easily arise, but they are actually those which are arising every day at the present time. Mrs Lawrence, played delightfully by Miss Forbes Robertson, is the very embodiment of the new spirit which is pervading the women of the younger generation, not anti-man, not bigoted, but deep-sighted and wise, who know just what a woman’s influence really means, and just what the vote would do.’
One newspaper reviewer recalled the largely suffragette and suffragist supporting audience filling the ice rink with ‘scornful laughter’ when one of Gertrude’s characters declared that womanly influence was of more value than votes.
The play would be celebrated and published in 1985 by Carole Hayman and Dale Spender in their volume for Methuen How The Vote Was Won and other Suffragette Plays.
Dale Spender writes:
‘This play is slightly less amusing and more biting than some of the others, and one of its most salient features is its portrayal of men as fools. A Woman’s Influence combines the class and sex issues as men who cannot be reasoned with are taken on as a bet by Aline Perry, who is certain that she can get them to do anything by the use of ‘a woman’s influence’. Through flattery (and flirting) she gets Herbert Lawrence on her side, only to discover that if women have equality – and equal pay – her profits will decrease. So she quickly withdraws. Revealing to her husband that he has been ‘tricked’. Margaret Lawrence manages to carry him along the path of reason – but the question remains as to why she should bother.’
Carole Hayman observes:
‘This play is fascinating as it deals with the still ongoing debate on how to ‘manage’ men. Do you play the game as laid down, be ‘feminine’, sexy, dumb, attempting to exert power through devious emotional holds and throwing in a few squeezes or a fit of tears? Or do you insist upon being treated as an equal, a creature with powers of intelligence and reason, as able and responsible as any man?
It is wittily written but has a rather serious tone…The play ends on a vision, beloved of Suffragettes, of men and women going hand in hand to equality.’
Gertrude’s political campaigning background on matters of equality and injustice clearly inform Five Birds in a Cage and her other plays. She was a writing activist during one of the most memorable and dramatic struggles of the early 20th century.
Gertrude Jennings’ BBC credits
Unlike Phyllis Twigg and Kathleen Baker whose scripts up until the present time have not been found, we do have the benefit of being able to study Gertrude Jennings’ writing because of her success as a stage dramatist who made her living from the sale and performance of her scripts.
The dramatisation of her full-length stage play Family Affairs by BBC Radio in 1950 has been archived by the BBC.
As yet, we do not have any sound archive of any of her radio drama.
Studio performance of Five Birds in a Cage on 2LO London
A Comedy Sketch: Me and My Diary on 6BM Bournemouth
Between the Soup and the Savoury on 2BD Aberdeen
Elegant Edward on 5NO Newcastle
Me and My Diary on 5SC Glasgow
An Evening of Plays including Five Birds in a Cage on 2LO London
Humour and Music: A Sketch: The Rest Cure on 5SC Glasgow
Choral and Dramatic Evening: In the Cellar on 5NO Newcastle
A Night of Short Plays The Rest Cure on 5WA Cardiff
Mixed Programme: Sketch: Waiting for the ‘Bus on 2EH Edinburgh
” POACHED EGGS AND PEARLS.” on 2BD Aberdeen
THE STATION REPERTORY COMPANY The Rest Cure on 5NO Newcastle
‘Clarence Reed is a “high-brow” author who is suffering from a very severe attack of “temperament.” His wife, pretty, fragile, and only twenty-eight, is rather a depressed-looking woman. Clarence Reed has been persuaded to go into a nursing home for a rest cure.
The scene is a small, unoccupied bedroom of the nursing home, with distempered walls where Muriel, the servant, a healthy-looking girl with fuzzy light hair, is sweeping. The two nurses of the establishment are called by Muriel “the dark cat” and ” the fair cat.” Alice Palmer, ” the dark cat,” though rather pretty, is pale and dismal, with a sharp and snappy voice, and she has just entered the room.’
” Five Birds in a Cage.” on 2LO London
” FIVE BIRDS IN A CAGE.” on 5XX Daventry
The Children’s Hour “Between the Soup and the Savoury” on 5PY Plymouth
‘Drama seldom accompanies the serving of a quiet little dinner; but below-stairs, in the bright and cheerful kitchen, the love affairs of the cook, the parlour-maid, and even Emily, the pathetic little kitchen-maid, present materials for an interesting little scene.’
In the Cellar on 5NO Newcastle
Two Plays ‘Between the Soup and the Savoury’ on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
Three Short Plays ‘ FIVE BIRDS IN A CAGE’ on Regional Programme Midland
‘Divertissement’ ‘Five Birds in a Cage’ on National Programme Daventry
Gladys Young, Hubert Gregg, Leslie Perrins in ‘FAMILY AFFAIRS’ on BBC Home Service Basic
The legacy of Gertrude Jennings
It could be argued that authors of BBC radio history may not have fully appreciated that it was a considerable coup for the BBC in November 1923 to produce the work of the country’s most acted woman playwright.
Because that is exactly how important Gertrude Jennings was. In 1919 the Daily Mail said so:
‘Up and down the land the amateur actor is doing homage to a new-found love. We live in an era of Gertrude Jennings …a short while before the war a young girl began a career of wit and quips and capital jokes by writing “Between the Soup and the Savoury.”
I am not astonished at what Gertrude Jennings has done. As you talk to her, you know that any woman of her intellect, with such merry eyes, so delicious a chuckle, and so thorough an enjoyment of anything bright, must have the gift of recording wittily. You know she has the ability to poke good fun at you and at any of the many quaint types we have all met.
It was a real question whether the amateur would be reborn after the war, which obliterated everything but hospital entertaining. With no uncertain voice the answer has come. Never has there been such an orgy of rehearsing.
It is quite conceivable that had there been no fare other than the extravagances of long ago this resumption would have been postponed. But since “Between the Soup and the Savoury”- of which 12,000 copies have been used up in rehearsal- Miss Jennings has added twelve little plays to her list.
One reason why she is appreciated is because she has the knack of making amusement in stage form of our home trials during the war.
She worked for years at the Victoria Station buffet and one result of her labour was “Poached Eggs and Pearls.” The title alone describes it. Zeppelins bombed London, and out of this came “In the Cellar” one of the most laughable of all. Lack of domestics in the great houses was the source of a lovely gibe in “No Servants,” and when we were egged into growing potatoes on our lawns she duly chronicled the fact in “Allotments.” Even horrors of the London traffic problem she could make jest of, and “Waiting for the Bus” will make any sufferer laugh.’ (Cyril Wentworth Hogg, Daily Mail 21 February 1919)
There are a number of curious questions to be explored about the pattern of commissioning and production of Gertrude’s work by the BBC. There seems to be a very long pause between 1934 and 1950.
The one and a half hour production of Family Affairs, 73 years ago, was the last time anyone heard or saw her work on the BBC.
This may have followed changing patterns in fashion and popularity of playwriting styles during this period. It can be argued that many forms of comedy age as quickly if not faster than time itself.
But it remains a fact her work could be the basis of a successful comedy film made in 1940.
In 1935 she had a full-length play in the West End that headlined the ‘New Plays in London’ section of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News with: ‘The Gospel of St. Gertrude Jennings- an improving play at the Ambassadors’ … For what we must do with “Our Own Lives” is according to the gospel of St. Gertrude Jennings, to live them and not to mess them up for the supposed convenience of other people. And a very sound gospel too.’
Throughout her life Gertrude was a playwright whose one-act curtain-raisers would often dwarf the audience’s reception for the main production. There are repeated accounts of audiences spontaneously producing thunderous applause and calling for the author to enjoy their encores- and often when Gertrude was not even there to take them.
Not everything in her writing was an unbridled success at the time. Her 1923 curtain-raiser and one act play The Voice Outside got the thumbs down from The Times when it was performed at the Globe largely because she had departed from her usual renowned comedic style and ‘plunged into sentimental supernaturalism.’ One of her plays written in the early 20th century has a character expressing language which is pejorative and racist towards Africans.
Throughout most of her writing Gertrude captures paradoxical and ironic truths about the class conflict, the silliness and charming mischief of human nature. Her play Waiting For The Bus (1917) has an outcome which puts paid to the aspiration and mythology of the alleged British tradition of queueing.
Lady in White has decided she and her daughter should take the number 30 bus home instead of a taxi and has grown more and more infuriated with the increasing numbers of people, mainly lower class people who have the same idea, but can’t afford a taxi.
As the policeman present keeps saying there is no chance of getting a taxi in any case because all the drivers are having their tea.
Finally the homeless and intoxicated ‘Solemn Lady’ arrives thinking the bus stop is outside her house and rambling on with lots of shouting about a Swiss Mrs Baumgarten neighbour who was really a German who should be blamed for putting her husband away for six months and everything else that has gone wrong in her life:
‘Solemn Lady: What I say is this, Give me a little soft soap and I’m pure, inside and out! (To Lady in White) No use your waitin’ here in ‘opes you’ll see inside my ‘ouse.
Lady in White: Don’t address yourself to me.
Solemn Lady: I’m not dressin’ anybody! If I dress you I’d dress you more decent.
Lady in White: Oh! Really!! Constable! Please speak to this woman.
Policeman: Come, move on, there’s a good soul. This ain’t your house. Get on home.
Solemn Lady: Don’t you move me on. Much as your life’s worth. Tell them to go ‘ome, what ‘asn’t got a home to go to. I’m a respectable married woman, I am. Got to live on black bread and no beer, I ‘ave, on account of Mrs Baumgarten. My name’s Davis. My child’s name’s Davis, too. My ‘usband’s name’s Davis. His father’s name was Davis. Why shouldn’t I move on if I want to? (Exit.)
First Woman: ‘Ere comes 30. Now then!
(Mother and children return.)
Lady in White: Oh! here it comes! Oh, I feel quite nervous ! Stand by me Muriel ! I know I shall be trampled on!
(All the Characters surge R.[right] as the ‘bus is heard approaching; the ‘bus is supposed to pass in front of stage and a fearful scene of battle follows. Hard blows with fists and umbrellas are struck, but the Lady in White comes out an easy victor. Before her delicate fists the strongest stagger and fall, the crowd surges left, following the ‘bus. The little old gentleman’s papers stream over the stage. Voices and exclamations during the whole of the above- including the often repeated cry of “Room for one inside.” It is is obvious the Lady in White has obtained this place.)
By way of background Muriel is the Lady in White’s ‘flapper daughter’ who began the play saying ‘Oh bother the old ‘bus! Can’t we take a taxi?’ presumably because she knew they could afford to and because she hates buses.
But as her mother says Muriel’s ‘new hat was 5 pounds, my coat was 27 guineas, and I paid 25 shillings for lunch. You seem to forget we’re economising.’
Perhaps when produced now and updated for the 21st century Gertrude’s play might successfully resonate with contemporary audiences.
Because at the heart of this drama is the abiding truth that the Ladies in White of this world will always metaphorically fist their way onto the one place on the number 30 bus, and find another one for her ‘flapper daughter’, and that rule works for all the games of every day living in education, health, employment, careers etc.
And as Gertrude no doubt thought, the last laugh is actually on the audience that finds this so funny.