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.
Mrs Phyllis Twigg- an imaginative and entrepreneurial woman who wrote the first original radio play for the BBC broadcast at 5.30 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1922 and seems to have been the BBC’s first television cook.
First Published Christmas Day 25th December 2022.
The creative genius and original contributions of Mrs Phyllis Twigg to broadcasting history.
Mrs Phyllis Twigg has in some respects been hidden in plain sight. The fact she wrote the first original radio play for the BBC was published by Arthur Burrows in his book The Story of Broadcasting in 1924 at page 74:
‘It was for the amusement of these dear little folk that the first specially written wireless play, The Truth about Father Christmas, was broadcast (with effects) in this country. This was performed in the London studio at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1922, with the writer in the role of Father Christmas. The authoress was Mrs Phyllis M. Twigg, of Ventnor, whose interesting series of stories, the “Tales of a Fairy Dustman,” was also broadcast at a later date.’
After he became Secretary-General of the International Broadcasting Union in Geneva, he would write a magazine article recalling his days as the 2LO station director and speculated that he thought ‘The play was possibily the first to be written in Europe specially for broadcasting.’ He said the cast included children ‘and a number of “effects” were introduced.’ He said there were about 30,000 listeners.
The award winning BBC radio playwright, Tina Pepler, completed a PhD with the University of Bristol in 1988 for her thesis ‘Discovering the art of wireless : A critical history of radio drama at the BBC, 1922-1928’ and at pages 37, 63, 81 and 92 repeatedly highlights that the first original radio play written for the BBC and broadcast by it was ‘The Truth About Father Christmas, written by Mrs Phyllis Twigg and broadcast on Christmas Eve 1922.’
Dr Pepler also endeavours to correct repeated mistakes by people writing British radio drama history for crediting the first original play as The Comedy of Danger by Richard Hughes which was broadcast in January 1924. She says it is : ‘a distinction often wrongly attributed to Richard Hughes’s Danger.’ (note 18 on page 92).
The trope has been repeated by Lord Asa Briggs in The Birth of Broadcasting 1896-1927 (1995) at page 256:
‘…in January  Nigel Playfair had produced the first play actually written for broadcasting- Danger, by Richard Hughes: it was set in a coal mine.’
The BBC’s second director of drama productions, Val Gielgud in his British Radio Drama 1922-1956 (1957) at page 20 referenced the same error:
‘the first play actually written for broadcasting- Danger, by Richard Hughes, in the ingenious setting of a coal-mine.’
In fact, the mistake was repeated in 2004 when the editor of a US Encyclopaedia on Radio changed an article I wrote on British radio drama history without my permission to delete my crediting of Phyllis Twigg’s Christmas play and substituting this with the incorrect myth of Richard Hughes’s Comedy of Danger.
I have been researching Phyllis Margaret Twigg’s life and times for over a year now and have been able to reveal a complex and outstanding career in creative writing, journalism and broadcasting. I also had the privilege of talking to Phyllis’s grandson, Peter Grimaldi, who said his family was unaware of his grandmother’s unique achievement in radio history.
One of the most charming revelations is that the genre of storytelling conjured by Phyllis in the world of the Fairy Dustman was handed down to Peter as a child when his mother [Phyllis’s daughter] would tell him Fairy Dustman stories at bedtime.
It can be said that Phyllis created a multimedia Fairy Dustman franchise of illustrated songbook, published 78 rpm records, and newspaper syndication. The merchandising even extended to Fairy Dustman lampshades to help children get to sleep more easily.
In 1926 she also designed and patented a ‘Pussyfoot’ range of ceramic cats and crockery.
Phyllis was an exceptionally talented writer, illustrator, journalist, broadcaster, imaginative story-teller, researcher, cookery writer and multimedia entrepreneur. And according to her family, she was a really good cook. Going to visit her meant the enjoyment of a truly good meal.
The commissioning by Arthur Burrows, the BBC London 2LO station’s first Director of Programmes was, therefore, in the context of an established publishing storytelling concept and brand in both book and audio publication.
Phyllis’ grandson, Peter Grimaldi, has very kindly provided these three portraits of his grandmother when she was a young woman.
Images of Mrs Phyllis Twigg née Phyllis Margaret Mackenzie (1887-1957). Strict copyright of her family
Phyllis was the daughter of an East India merchant and stockbroker, William Glendower Mackenzie.
She was born in Manora, near Karachi in British India in 1887 and by 1891 and 1901 was being brought up in the Paddington and Ealing areas of London.
She married the New Zealand physician Dr Garnet W Twigg in Kensington in 1912 when she was 25.
Dr Twigg served in the Royal Army Medical Corps throughout the Great War reaching the rank of Captain.
What do we know about the play broadcast 24th December 1922?
I have made repeated enquiries to the BBC Written Archives about Mrs Phyllis Twigg and the script The True Story of Father Christmas as told by ‘The Fairy Dustman,’ and the subsequent broadcasts of Fairy Dustman stories throughout the following year 1923.
The BBC’s archives centre at Caversham says it has no records about Mrs Twigg and no surviving scripts. I have also made requests for information, scripts and documents in the name of Moira Meighn, and am waiting for the results of further searches for material under her pen name.
Her family has copies of her cookery books, some of them heavily annotated in her handwriting, an archive of private papers, but none of her radio scripts have survived.
The Radio Times was not published until September 1923, but national, regional and local newspapers did preview it. The broadcast was very briefly reviewed in Popular Wireless and in 1924 The Radio Times did publish an amusing anecdote about the play’s reception.
We might also be able to fathom much about the characterisation and style of the production from Tales of the Fairy Dustman Told For Him by Puck the Painter and Pan the Piper published by Lawrence Wright Music Co in 1922, and the London Gramophone Company’s actual production of Fairy Dustman stories.
It is also significant that the first originally written radio play in Britain was inspired and informed by audio drama production in the sound phonograph industry- a theme I have extensively explored in my 2020 book Audio Drama Modernism: The Missing Link between Descriptive Phonograph Sketches and Microphone Plays on the Radio.
On Saturday 23rd December 1922, the Westminster Gazette, one of London’s evening newspapers, reported:
‘To-morrow the programme will open at 5 p.m. with a Yuletide address by a London divine [Rev. J. A. Mayo, Rector of Whitechapel] to be followed by “The True Story About Father Christmas” as told by the “Fairy Dustman.”‘
Many regional newspapers previewed the schedule including the Shields Daily News on Friday 22nd December:
‘Sunday (Christmas Eve), 5 p.m. : A short seasonable address by a well-known London divine; 5.30, a specially written Christmas playlet, giving “The true story about Father Christmas,” as told by the “Fairy Dustman.”
It seems the play was half an hour in duration as it was followed by ‘Children’s Stories and Competition’ at 6 p.m.
The front page of Popular Wireless 6th January 1923 reported:
‘2LO and Christmas. I think most readers of POPULAR WIRELESS who listened to 2LO over the Christmas holidays will agree that the programmes were first-rate. Miss José Collins, Miss Edna Best , Mr. W.H Berry, the Rev. J.A. Mayo, the Wireless Orchestera- were but a few of the attractions offered. The True Story of Father Christmas was probably the most thrilling thing any kiddie has ever listened to, especially when Mr. Burrows announced that the old gentleman had started off in his aeroplane with seven tons of toys !’
On May 19th 1923 the Popular Wireless’ column writer ‘Ariel’ reported:
‘2 L O’s Pigeons. Capt. Lewis tells me that the instalments of the children’s story, “The Fairy Dustman” will probably be sent from the Isle of Wight by pigeon carrier post. This is quite a bright idea and will do a lot towards keeping up the “fairy” illusion, but it is to be hoped that there will either be guards or less than 10 amps on 2 L O’s aerial during the arrival of the birds.’
Two years later The Radio Times recollected the impact of the play’s broadcast with this amusing anecdote and profile of Phyllis Twigg’s writing:
‘The Child Idea. Listeners since the early days will be interested to know that Miss Moira Meighn is the writer of “The True Story of Father Christmas,” which was broadcast from London on the memorable first Christmas Eve of that station. On that occasion, an amusing incident occurred. A little child who was listening to the story tried to squeeze herself into the loud speaker in order “to live with Santa Claus always in the Hall of Hearts”! Miss Meighn, by the way, is also the author of the popular “Tales of the Fairy Dustman.” (20th June 1924)
The play was produced live in the attic studio of the 2LO station’s broadcasting facility at Marconi House. Illustrated London News published a feature on the BBC’s early broadcasting 13th January 1923 and even included a photograph of Arthur Burrows banging bell chimes ‘at the hour and half hour, to indicate clock-time during the period of broadcasting.’
A discovery of a prose version of “The True Story of Father Christmas” in the British Library by independent researcher and author Paul Kerensa provides a fascinating indication of the plot and characters in the original BBC play.
Phyllis Twigg as Moria Meighn co-wrote a volume of illustrated children’s stories with Marjory Royce, and Barbara E Todd titled The ‘Normous Sunday Story Book published by Stanley Paul & Co. in 1925.
The text of the Father Christmas story entitled as ‘The Truth About Father Christmas” covers four and a half pages with a cast of characters including a five year old girl called Anne receiving an invitation to meet Father Christmas on Christmas Eve sent to her in a red envelope. The plot includes a big ‘horrid and UNkind’ boy disillusioning Anne and leaving her in tears with the claim that Father Christmas was only an ordinary man dressed up.
Father Christmas visits her mother in the middle of the night to reassure her of his true origins and credentials as a wise man.
There is a dialogue linking Father Christmas to the story of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and how his spirit developed over the centuries with all the rituals associated with Christmas. She hears him say: ‘Remember, it is always the spirit that matters most.’
The story ends with Anne’s mother passing on these truths to her daughter and ‘Father Christmas- so gracious, so loving; so friendly to the lonely- seemed more real to her than he had ever done before.’
The prose does not include the character of the Fairy Dustman, Arthur Burrows as Father Christmas in an aeroplane with seven tons of toys and any description of Santa Claus in the ‘Hall of Hearts.’
This would appear to be an adaptation by Phyllis of her BBC Christmas drama script.
The identification of this book chapter is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle leading Paul Kerensa to believe the Christmas Eve Phyllis Twigg story on 2LO in 1922 was full dramatisation performance and live production.
Tales of the Fairy Dustman- reception and franchise
The Tales of the Fairy Dustman book was very favourably reviewed by Britain’s leading liberal newspaper of the time The Daily News on 5th May 1922:
‘…the interest of the children is aroused. They love to hear of the fairies which are in our thoughts and to learn “the best game you can ever play is making dreams come true.” … The “Tales of the Fairy Dustman” are the sort of thing that many parents and teachers want.’
The review liberally quoted from the preface by the leading physician and surgeon of the time Harold Burrows OBE FRCS (no relation to Arthur Burrows the broadcaster):
‘Given the proper company, the evening hour, and this book of phantasy (sic), even the hardest curmudgeon will find that the cruel prosaic world is fading away and being replaced by the happier land of sprites and elves. …
These “Tales of the Fairy Dustman” are effective towards such a culture. The child who listens to them with rapt delight will be germinating unknowingly within his soul, not alone a love of what is beautiful, but a nobility of temperament which no future trial shall have power to destroy.’
The opening page ‘The Dustman’s Arrival’ concludes with:
The Dustman’s Song
I am your dustman fairy friend
Fix your eyes on me.
I bring you dreams, fun without end,
Quick! Come to sleep and see.
Quick! Come to sleep and see.
The book contains musical notation for six songs and stories: 1. The Dustman’s Arrival; 2. The Little Nut Tree; 3. Courage; 4. Faith; 5. The Bunnies’ Lullabye; and 6. Birth.
The HMV London Gramophone Company produced three 78 rpm records of Fairy Dustman stories and songs in 1922 performed by Marjorie Montefiore & Walter Glynne. These were heavily advertised and marketed following the songbook’s publication and leading up to the Christmas Eve broadcast on the BBC.
The titles and themes closely matched those featured in the Fairy Dustman book.
The records remained in the HMV catalogues in the years afterwards such as this entry for the volume published in 1925 (page 63).
These are very rare 78 rpm phonograph records. One example has been featured on the ‘Colonel YouTube channel’, an enthusiast and collector of vintage phonograph records. Though he does not seem to be particularly impresssed by what he is able to play back.
Probably because of her husband’s New Zealand connections, the book and records attracted a review in that country’s Otago Daily Times 25th March 1922:
‘This book has been extraordinarily well reviewed in London and the provinces, and in addition it has been arranged for production by a gramophone, in which connection the words and music are exquisitely recorded. Further, too, there is an acting version which made many a happy nursery at Christmas time.’
Phyllis Twigg- entrepreneurial illustrator
Phyllis’s ‘Puck the Painter’ concept extended beyond simply being the author of Fairy Dustman stories. She developed her illustration work to the design for a ‘night light shade’ which as the Daily News article by Hilda N.K Nield on 3rd February 1920 explained helped ‘an extremely nervous child who was afraid to go to bed and who slept very badly. …On the shade was a fanciful fairy creature, and the nervous child was told that if, when she went to bed, she fixed her eyes on the fairy on the shade, the Fairy Dustman would soon come along with some of his magic sleep dust and transport her into the Land o’ Dreams.’
‘Puck the Painter’ also provided a service of placing photographic pictures of children’s faces into ‘Peter Pan-like pictures of witching delicacy of fairy fancy and real artistry.’ The Daily News article revealed ‘Lady Jellicoe is only one of many famous folk whose children have been “made into pictures.” ‘
This design service was also fully promoted and illustrated by the Sketch magazine 21st January 1920.
The illustration on the left apparently features ‘Lord Jellicoe’s only son’. The magazine explained:
“‘Puck the Painter’ has imagined a new form of child photography by setting photographs of babies’ heads in pencilled fairy surroundings. The resulting pictures have an elfin charm which will appeal to many people. Lord and Lady Jellicoe are among the first well-known parents to have their son- the Hon. George P.J Rushworth Jellicoe ‘reproduced’ by the new method. “
Lord Jellicoe was the admiral of the fleet who commanded the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 during the First World War. He was also Governor-General of New Zealand in the early 1920s.
The Puck the Painter ‘Flower Fairies’ Frolic and how to photograph It’ was also promoted and featured in an article in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph 19th May 1922.
On 18th March 1922 the Daily News ran a short article on ‘Fairy Dustman Lanterns:
‘Anyone who wants an out-of-the-ordinary lamp-shade should go to the Artistic Shade Company, 146, Kensington High-street. One of the most charming is the Fairy Dustman lantern, a novelty for the nursery, which delights every child who sees it.’
As Arthur Burrows indicated, Phyllis’s Fairy Dustman dramas for children continued to be commissioned and broadcast throughout 1923 and on 14th March of that year the Daily News reported:
‘The Radio Dustman. Every child knows the Fairy Dustman who tells such lovely stories and sings such fascinating songs, some of which have been all put together in a book. In many a nursery, too, the Fairy Dustman governs the shade over the nightlight which helps to prevent the kiddies from being afraid of the dark.
Now ever so many more children will be able to make his acquaintance, for the Fairy Dustman has arranged to go to Marconi House and tell some extra special Bedtime Stories. Mrs Twigg, who knows the Fairy Dustman ever so well, says that all the stories are to be true stories, and that no child ever has to unlearn anything that the Dustman says. Truth is far more wonderful than fiction to children, and the Bedtime Stories of the Fairy Dustman will not contain a single thing that is not true. On Saturday, for instance, he will tell about the printing of a newspaper, and on future days there will be all sorts of marvellous secrets from all parts of the world disclosed.’
Fairy Dustman stories were also syndicated for publication in regional newspapers throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
An example published in ‘The Children’s Hour’ column of the West Ham and South Essex Mail 9th November 1934 featured this Fairy Dustman story/rhyme:
He isn’t like our dustmen,
Because he’s dressed in gold
(All the Fairy Dustmen are-
At least- so I am told!)
He goes to ev’ry Fairy’s house-
He never misses one-
And Collects the morning dew,
When the Dawn is done.
Two ants draw his acorn-cart,
His basket is a buttercup,
And after there has been a dance,
He dances, as he tidies up.
He does not work so very long-
As our poor dustmen have to do-
But goes home to his little wife
(Who is, of course, a Fairy, too!).
Spiritualism and Telepathy
There is some evidence that Phyllis’ imaginative story telling ability intersected with what was a fashionable belief and legitimacy for spiritualism and telepathy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Spiritualism was fully endorsed and practised by the scientist Sir Oliver Lodge, a major inventor of electromagnetisim and radio science and technology, and the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, who, like Phyllis’ husband, was a qualified medical doctor.
Both Sir Oliver and Sir Arthur lost beloved sons during service in the Great War of 1914-18.
On 12th November 1925, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle reported:
‘B.B.C. Organise Novel Competition. The jury for the “mass telepathy,” to be broadcast to-night, will consist of Lady Tree, Commander Kenworthy, James Agate, Miss Zena Dare, Lady Gainford, Miss (sic) Phyllis Twigg, and Miss Dorothy Warren.
There are six problems to be solved in this novel competition. A clue to each will be given to the listeners, and then to the jury, whose answers will then be read out.
The competition forms itself into an attempt to find what is in the announcer’s mind before the jury’s answer is given.’
The Radio Times for this week reported that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was to take part in the ‘Mass Telepathy feature.’ The magazine included his photograph promoting his involvement.
However, it was subequently reported that he and Sir Oliver Lodge refused to be on the jury. It is not clear whether he still took part in the programme by way of interview or offering his opinion.
The programme was listed in the Radio Times as ‘Mass Telepathy. An Experiment in Thought Reading. In which every Listener will be invited to assist.’ It was scheduled between 10.15 and 10.45 p.m.
It may also be significant that the mass telepathy programme was broadcast the day after Armistice Day when the BBC broadcast the haunting anti-war play The White Chateau by Reginald Berkeley.
Coincidentally, Sir Oliver Lodge gave a talk on 13th November on 2LO about ‘Clerk Maxwell, the radio pioneer.’
The Belfast Telegraph reported on 13th November that the ‘Mass Telepathy’ experiment turned out to be a failure:
‘Mass Telepathy Test Proves Failure. Experiment by Wireless. Locked Up “Jury” Baffled.
The concentrated thoughts of approximately ten million wireless listeners failed on Thursday night to convey to the minds of eight prominent men and women, seated in a locked room in the Savoy Hotel, London, six simple subjects on which the vast multitude had been asked to fix their minds.
The occasion was an attempt on the part of the B.B.C. to test the possibilities of “mass telepathy.” Sir Alfred Robbins, seated at the microphone in the 2LO studio directed the test, and informed the listeners of the subject on which they were to concentrate.
Lady Tree, Miss Zena Dare, Commander Kenworthy, M.P., and Mr James Agate were among the eight people who tried to read the thoughts of all Great Britain. After the listeners had been given the subject, the “jury” were allowed one minute in which to receive the telephatic wave.
The Elusive Letter
The letter “K” was the first subject chosen. All Britian thought of “K” for a minute. In the Savoy Hotel the “jury” tried to keep their minds blank for the reception of the thoughts. At the end of the minute they gave their conclusions. “I” said Mr. Agate. “Z” from Lady Tree. Miss Zena Dare chose “G.” “B” was Commander Kenworthy’s choice. Miss Dorothy Warren picked on “K” as her third guess.
The whole jury were mystified by the choice of the word “Saturday” – not one of them guessed right. When the “three of diamonds” was chosen for the third test subject, Mr. Stobart of the B.B.C. was nearest. He selected the “four of diamonds.”
“Seven” was selected for the fourth attempt. Again the jury were hopelessly “out.” “49-13-300-13-19-33” came the guesses. “A triangle” was the fifth test. Miss Warren said “an isosceles triangle.” All the rest chose circles or polygons. Lady Tree said she could not keep her mind off “a shilling.”
Sir Alfred Robbins chose the game of bridge for the final test. Mr. James Agate, possibily voicing the unconscious thoughts of the people thought of the “Lamp that might be burning on the Cenotaph.” Lady Tree again plumped for “shilling.” Miss Warren finished the test by declaring that everyone was thinking of “Charlie Chaplin.”
Everyone at the London Station and at the Savoy was disappointed, but much amused, at the failure of the experiment. It is understood that Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir A. Conan Doyle were asked to join the “jury” but refused. ‘
The Nottingham Journal also reported ‘the signal failure’ of the experiment, which had been repeated six times. On the first five occasions the jury had been given a bare clue, or classification, such as ‘a card’, ‘a number’ ‘a colour etc. On the sixth experiment no clue was given to the jury. The newspapers tabulated the results:
Test The Thought Result
1 Letter K. None gave
2 Saturday None gave
3. Figure 7 None gave
4. 3 of Diamonds. None gave
5. Triangle. 1 gave (Miss Dare)
6. (no clue) Game of Bridge. None gave.
Subsequent BBC career. Another first- BBC Television cook
By the time The Radio Times is published Phyllis Twigg does not feature in programme credits, but Moira Meighn is identified giving a talk to the 6BM Bournemouth BBC station 6th June 1924 on ‘books of special interest to women.’ On 18th August she provides a talk for the same Bournemouth service on ‘books for the holidays.’
On 3rd January 1925 she broadcasts for 2LO from Savoy Hill for Children’s Corner a reading of her story from “The ‘Normous Saturday Story Book“
On 22nd May 1925 she gives a talk to the BBC’s 5NO Newcastle radio station on ‘How and When Not to Send for the Doctor.’
Though not digitally referenced in the Radio Times archive, regional newspaper reports of BBC National radio schedules identify Moira Meighn presenting Christmas Stories Friday 11th December 1931 between 10.45 and 11 a.m. A close examination of the pages of the Radio Times issue for this day shows that Moira is not credited at all.
Phyllis continued writing books and journalism in the years that followed though there is no evidence that her radio playwriting developed to any great extent apart from ‘Diet’ described as ‘A dramatic interlude’ on the BBC National Radio Programme 2nd June 1938.
In 1939 after the Second World War broke out she emphatically defined her occupation in the special National Register census as ‘Authoress (Chiefly Working).’
This is because she has multiple authorships for folk and cultural histories published by the Medici Society and she generated a new national profile as a cookery writer.
These included the titles ‘Charmers & catiff(e)s : sometime called catiff(e)s of the deville’, ‘The magic ring for the needy and greedy’, ‘Country contentments, courtesies & customs, a little booke treating of subjects delicate and subtil, newly set forth’, ‘Simplified cooking and invalid diet’, ‘Moira Meighn’s Adventure book of cookery: for boys and girls between nine and fourteen or for anyone interested in cooking’, and ‘A little booke of conceited secrets & delightes for ladies, wherein is contained the most incomparable recipes & choicest curiosities of many good huswives & learned doctours of physicke.’
Some of the covers and frontispieces are featured in the slideshow at the top of this online feature.
Radio Times entries indicated Phyllis did two broadcasts under the title ‘Quarter-of-an-Hour Meals’ as the BBC’s first television chef for the fledgling audio-visual service from Alexandra Palace on 9th December at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. 1936.
The Radio Times said ‘Moira Meighn will give an example of what can be done with simple equipment in the preparation of good food.’
BBC publicity at the time produced a photograph to promote her appearance which was used in the BBC R4 Tweet of 2016.
A footnote to an article by Margaret O’Sullivan on ‘British Inter-War Cookery books, their writers, and the local history dimension’ in The Local Historian Journal, January 2021 is the first evidence of any serious historical research into Phyllis’s contribution to teaching and learning and popular cooking culture.
“Moira Meighn was the pen-name of Phyllis Margaret Twigg née Mackenzie (1887-1957). Born in Manora near Karachi, she was brought up in England and in 1912 married a medical doctor, Garnet Wolsey Twigg (1882-1973) who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWI ultimately with the rank of captain. Moira Meighn was an early broadcaster, reading a children’s story in January 1924 and suggesting “books for the holidays” in August 1924. Later, financial difficulties and the absence, in a bed-sitting room, of cooking facilities other than a Primus stove prompted a cookery book, The Magic Ring for Needy and Greedy (Oxford UP, 1936) for others in similar circumstances. In 1937 she published Moira Meighn’s Adventure Book of Cookery for boys and girls between 9 and 14 or for Anyone Interested in Cooking, which has been described as the first practical cookery book for children. It recommended lessons for all before the age of seven and that “every girl should receive a cookery thermometer as a christening present’. She compiled four anthologies, mostly from early housewifery and cookery books, published by the Medici Society between 1926 and 1930. In December 1936 she appeared on television to demonstrate how to cook on a gas ring and in 1939 published Simplified Cookery and Invalid Diet (Faber and Faber). The Twigg family moved to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight where in 1939 she described herself as ‘authoress, mostly working.’ “
Margaret did not make the connection between Moira the first television cook and Phyllis the BBC’s first original radio playwright.
Her grandson Peter Grimaldi recalls her passionate commitment to cooking, her enthusiasm for knowing ‘one hundred ways to cook a potato.’ Her writing in the cookery genre retains her imaginative inspiration.
In her Adventure Book of Cookery for children she has a recipe for ‘The Fairy Semolina’s Biscuits.’
‘When I was quite small I had a “pretend” friend called Fairy Semolina. Whenever I was scolded or punished, Fairy Semolina came and comforted me. She used to say, “You’re always right, and everybody else is wrong. This isn’t the truth, but you can believe it !”
A cousin told my Aunt Jessica I was not telling the truth about my pretend game of the stained glass window in church being made of jams and jellies. This same cousin didn’t like my Fairy Semolina, because of the day Semolina told me to tell her (who never properly washed clean before cooking) that there were awful, horrible punishments in store for cooks who left dirty fingermarks on biscuit dough.
This is the recipe for the biscuits that Aunt Jessica and I used to make for Fairy Semolina’s birthday party.’ (page 124-6)
This is certainly an excellent example of where the creator of the Fairy Dustman and Puck the Painter synthesises with the creative and imaginative pioneer of cooking for everyone who also became a founding member of the British Cooking Association.
Assessing her significance
In conclusion, all of the research to date demonstrates that Phyllis Twigg merits considerable recognition for her unique and imaginative contribution to 20th century culture.
She pioneered the first original written sound drama for the radio medium through her care and desire to engage with children’s imagination.
Her mission had comfort, consolation and affection.
In a society where the power and agency of women was being ardently fought for she was entrepreneurial, hardworking and creative in forging a distinctive multimedia career bridging illustration, journalism, fiction and early broadcasting.
She was a first in radio and television.
She was also motivated by commendable social conscience in communicating economical ways of cooking during a time of grave economic hardship for many people.
Her grandson informs me that her family donated a very rare Charles Darwin first edition of On the Origin of Species to Cambridge University’s Gonville & Caius College library, which Phyllis had acquired for a pittance in the equivalent of a boot sale or flea market.
Another example of somebody so adept at finding treasures both imagined and real in the most oridinary of places.
Phyllis’ husband and grandson had studied medicine at the same college in Cambridge. Peter Grimaldi relates a fascinating revelation by his grandfather about how Phyllis was able to be so practical and improvisational in acute medical emergencies:
‘He recalled being called to a family who’s only child had diphtheria affecting the tonsils and was struggling to breathe. He had to do an emergency tracheostomy there and then on the kitchen table, using my grandmother as ‘anaesthetist’. She held a mask covered with lint or gauze over the child’s mouth and nose and dripped ether onto it. The child survived.
Speaking as a retired consultant ENT surgeon, I can testify that emergency infant tracheostomy, even under ideal conditions with adequate light, suction and instruments, is one of the most stressful and challenging things one can ever have to do. I have huge admiration for my grandmother, therefore, for getting involved. I guess it was the way it was then! I sense she was a very practical person.’
More fascinating elucidation about Phyllis’ character has emerged following the discovery by Peter and his family of a collection of her private papers, including a hundred page book manuscript she wrote addressed to her future grandchild. Paul Kerensa interviewed Peter Grimaldi for his YouTube Channel and podcast 8th March 2023.
It is clear that some of the men who wrote the early histories of British broadcasting omitted to give Mrs Phyllis Twigg the credit and recognition she deserves.
It is certainly hoped this is something the BBC itself and many others can redress in future years.
Professor Tim Crook Christmas Day 25th December 2022
Interest and research in Phyllis Twigg’s remarkable career has been gaining some impressive momentum. Dr. Andrea Smith of Suffolk University has independently carried out her own research.
The 100th anniversary of Phyllis’s Christmas Eve broadcast has also been marked by podcast and social media mentions, in particular a thread of discovery and appreciation by Paul Kerensa.
Mr Kerensa has also been amplifying the achievements of other women who appear to have dropped below the radar of recogntion such as the first secretary to Managing Director John Reith, Isobel Shields.
It would be marvellous if the BBC could link up with ingenious researchers and creative writers such as Paul Kerensa and academic broadcasters such as Dr Smith to widen and deepen the understanding of Phyllis’s outstanding accomplishments. Phyllis deserves to be in dramas about this fascinating time in social and cultural history and appreciated in new documentary.