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.
Kathleen Baker aka John Overton – one of the brilliant and prolific original women playwrights for BBC radio lost to history
All of Kathleen Baker’s writing credits for the BBC and in publishing were under her pen-name ‘John Overton.’
She was one of the BBC’s most prolific early original radio playwrights, but not one of her original scripts has survived.
Between 1924 and 1933 she had well over 40 credits for original plays broadcast by BBC Radio; mainly by the BBC’s Birmingham station.
Her romantic novels were published by Methuen, Hodder & Stoughton, and T Werner Laurie. Yet up until now no serious research has been done into her achievements and contribution to the art-form of writing sound plays.
She specialised in writing stories for children.
In the early 1930s, after a pause in her writing caused by illness, it seems the BBC went cold.
Surviving documents in the BBC’s Written Archives indicate her writing was being frequently dismissed and rejected.
Eventually her contribution to writing had virtually disappeared from cultural memory.
One of her most successful novels, My Lady April was made into the film A Gipsy Cavalier in 1922, directed by J. Stuart Blackton and starring Georges Carpentier, Flora le Breton and Rex McDougall.
This was one of three films made in Britain during the early 1920s by the British-born American founder of Vitagraph Studios.
Who was Kathleen Baker and what has been her contribution to radio drama writing and history?
Mary Kathleen Baker was born in the Aston area of Birmingham in 1883.
Birmingham and the Midlands would be her home throughout her life.
Her family home and refuge would remain in Handsworth Wood Road, Birmingham until her death in June 1967 at the age of 84.
Rather like other early pioneers of radio dramatic writing at the BBC she was very much a multimedia polymath of the creative arts.
In 1910, at the age of 27 she was writing, directing and producing plays to serve the imagination of children and benefiting those much less fortunate than herself.
The Birmingham Daily Gazette was reporting and praising her raising money for the poor children’s holiday fund with a ‘new fairy play’ called ‘On The Borderland of Fairyland’ at Birmingham’s Temperance Hall to an enthusiastic audience of mainly young people:
‘This artistic little play, which is very prettily written, introduces the mischievous Puck and Titania with a whole host of fairies. Among the mortals is a charming princess, a somewhat unromantic prince, and a delightful little peasant girl. The piece was really well acted, though it was evident that the players were confined to a very limited stage.
Miss Baker may be congratulated upon her little play, which would bear repetition. It is interesting to mention that the author designed the costumes and achieved the ambitious task of painting scenery. The design on the programme is also Miss Baker’s work, and depicts Puck misleading “night-wanderers, laughing at their harm.”‘
The reporter explained that the society had enabled 1,500 poor children to be given a country holiday the previous year, and it was hoped that in 1910, along with the creative and original work of Miss Kathleen Baker and others, would be able to increase this to 1,700 children having a fortnight’s outing in the country that year.
It may well be the case that this play was adapted by Kathleen for broadcasting in 1927 on the BBC when she was writing for them as John Overton. A play by her called ‘On the borders of Fairy-land’ was produced in the BBC’s Children’s Hour strand.
In 1912 the front page of the Birmingham Mail praised her choreography of the dance sequences in a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Midland Institute: ‘..the greatest success of all the evening was perhaps, the dances of the wood elves arranged by Miss Kathleen Baker.’
Fast forwarding to 1922 when Kathleen was well-established as a published romantic adventure and historical novelist and her successful book My Lady April has been made into the silent film by the legendary Anglo-American director James Blackton, called A Gipsy Cavalier, she would be given this fascinating though short profile in the regional newspaper The Sheffield Independent:
‘John in Skirts– (Writer with the large rose-trimmed picture hat)
When asked to meet John Overton, the author of the novel of adventure, from which the J. Stuart Blackton film, “A Gipsy Cavalier” was made, one naturally would expect to see a robust man of the type that would be likely to work out the many virile incidents so bravely enacted by George Carpentier. Instead, the interviewer faces a very feminine little woman, daintily dressed in a frock of crepe fabric, with a large rose-trimmed picture hat.
This was a surprise. Miss Kathleen Baker, who writes her romances in a pretty cottage in a suburb of Birmingham, smiled as she saw the startled expressions of her callers.
“Everyone thinks I’m a man,” she said, “and I rather enjoy this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. It is not at all unusual to receive gifts of pipes and cigars from my readers.”‘
In another interview published in the Dundee Evening Telegraph Kathleen Baker said: ‘I am simply athrill over the prospect of seeing more of my stories filmed. I have always loved the theatre and the ‘movies,’ and have done quite a bit of acting and producing in an amateur way, as well as dancing.’
As is now becoming more widely known prior to the development of national radio transmission in the late 1920s, BBC radio began with a network of local radio stations scattered across many cities and towns of Britain.
In fact, Birmingham was one of the first regional stations to broadcast outside London in 1922 under the call sign 5IT.
Kathleen would become the BBC Birmingham station’s most prolific radio playwright in the 1920s.
She contributed mainly to children’s programming which had built up a considerable following of young listeners which Arthur Burrows would write in 1924 amounted to some 10,000 devotees, encouraged by the station’s ‘children’s uncle’ Percy Edgar.
An example of her writing is described in great detail in an entry for the Radio Times scheduled for Tuesday 7th December 1926. This was “The Immortal Melody”- A Radio Fantasy Written for Broadcasting by John Overton and produced by Percy Edgar. In the sequence between 8.30 and 9.05 it is divided into four episodes.
Kathleen and the legendary Percy Edgar play several parts in the live drama and it is rather intriguing and mischievous for the time that Kathleen is credited in her male gendered nom-de-plume as performing the role of Sally Truscott.
As can be seen the credits and synopses are set out in great detail:
The BBC Radio Times online archive provides a detailed record of Kathleen Baker, aka John Overton’s extensive output of writing.
Her first credit is recorded for Saturday 26th October 1924 ‘A New Feature in Radio Programmes: Radio Fantasy No. 1: “Crown O’ The Year.”‘ It was explained that: ‘The “Radio-Fantasy” is an attempt to find a new Art-form for Broadcasting. It is an entertainment which will comprise Music, Poetry and Drama in such a manner as to form a complete harmony of mood.’
This would be a series of ‘Radio-Fantasies’ credited to John Overton over the next few years and we can chart the following links showing Kathleen writing under her pseudonym:
Radio-Fantasy No. 2. ” Life’s Slumber Time.” on 5IT Birmingham
Radio Fantasy No. 4. “For The Crown.” on 5IT Birmingham
Radio Fantasy No. 4: “For the Crown” on 5XX Daventry
Radio Fantasy No. 5. ” Sweet of the Year” on 5IT Birmingham
Interlude Protean “The Valley of Enchantment” on 5IT Birmingham
Radio Fantasy- No. 7. “Moonshine” on 5IT Birmingham
Radio Fantasy- No. 9. “Harvest Time” on 5IT Birmingham
Peace on 2LO London
Interlude Protean “Peace” on 5IT Birmingham
THIRD ANNUAL RADIO-PANTOMIME-REVUE. Special Scenes by GEORGE OCKEMENT and John Overton on 5IT Birmingham
“Moving Spirits.’ on 5IT Birmingham
“The Maypole Mystery.” on 5IT Birmingham
PROTEAN INTERLUDE, No. 5. entitled, ” The Mists of Dawn.” on 5IT Birmingham
Sleuth ‘Ounds on 5IT Birmingham. ‘The action takes place in the tap-room of the ‘Horse and Hounds’ late on an autumn evening. Several of the village wits and characters are gathered there, their conversation being on ‘this new-fangled wireless.’ In the near distance can be heard Orchestral Music proceeding from a loud speaker.’
The Immortal Melody on 5IT Birmingham
‘Echoes’ on 5IT Birmingham. ‘A vast expanse of common-land, stretching away in all directions, canopied by a star-set sky, over which snow clouds are rapidly creeping.
Down the white road that winds across the heath a car comes slowly coasting- its only occupants a girl in furs and a man in the livery of a chauffeur. Below them a gamekeeper carrying a shot-gun is plodding up the rise and behind a clump of stunted trees a window flickers with the light of a fire. It is 11.45 on Christmas Eve.’
‘Switching Over’ The Book by JOSEPH LEWIS and JOHN OVERTON (and other Nonentities) ‘Our Fourth Annual Pantomime-Revue, in Sundry Screaming Scenes- on 5IT Birmingham
‘The Garden of Lost Hearts’ on 5IT Birmingham
The Children’s Hour- Including A Children’s Play by John Overton on 5IT Birmingham
A Children’s Play by John Overton. Children’s Hour. on 5IT Birmingham
Children’s Play by John Overton. on 5IT Birmingham
The Children’s Hour- Play for Children, by John Overton. on 5IT Birmingham
The Children’s Hour- Play for Children by John Overton. on 5IT Birmingham
‘The Mandarin’s Coat’ on 5IT Birmingham
The Children’s Hour A Play for Children by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ The Eyes of Youth —a play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ The Point of View ’— A Children’s Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘The Clockwork Dragon.’ a Children’s Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘On the Borders of Fairy-land ‘—a Children’s Play by John Overton on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘The Mushroom’ a play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- At a Country Fair- a children’s play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘The Cloak of Night,’ by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘Reindeer Moss,’ a Christmas Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
‘A Christmas Fantasy by John Overton on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ Whose dat callin’ ?- A Plantation Scene by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental) Although we do not have any access to the script, the title and language style are suggestive of a minstrel style negative representation of African-Americans which was common in US and UK media at this time.
The Children’s Hour- The Clockwork Dragon,’ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘Starry Puddles,’ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ Fairy Gold,’ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘F H ‘ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ Paper Boats,’ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘Rose-coloured Spectacles,’ a play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ At the Cabin Door,’ by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- ‘ The Busiest Time of All,’ a Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- A Children’s Play by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
The Children’s Hour- A Children’s Play, The Longest Day,’ by John Overton. on 5GB Daventry (Experimental)
Interlude Protean ‘The Valley of Enchantment’ by John Overton. on Regional Programme London
‘Peace’ a Protean Interlude by John Overton. on Regional Programme Midland
There are 48 writing credits for separate individual live productions- some overlap with the same titles, but in the main continuing original writing. Occasionally there is a credit for a play for children, but that is not to say it did not have a specific title and represents another original audio-dramatic story in her canon.
It is a tragedy that at this time the BBC did not archive and catalogue scripts in what would become its Play Library. However, the information printed in the Radio Times gives some idea of her genre, plot, characterisation and style.
‘Sleuth ‘Ounds’ from late 1926 sounds particularly inventive and intriguing- perhaps even modernist. When the Radio Times alludes to ‘The action takes place in the tap-room of the ‘Horse and Hounds’ late on an autumn evening. Several of the village wits and characters are gathered there, their conversation being on “this new-fangled wireless.” ‘In the near distance can be heard Orchestral Music proceeding from a loud speaker,’ we are given a strong hint that the plot of this play is self-referential to the medium of radio through radio drama.
Radio was one of the earliest forms of ‘artificial intelligence’ and it gave writers the opportunity to embody human characterisation in the broadcasting machine as well as use the power, imaginative resonance and impact of this new medium with original ideas in dramatic scripting and performance.
The hunt is on for Kathleen Baker / John Overton radio scripts. The BBC does not have any. But might you be related in some way to Kathleen and have inherited some family archives? Perhaps you are a local library in the Midlands that might have been donated her scripts?
Kathleen Baker’s ‘Costume’ Novels by ‘a man who knows how to use his pen.’
Her historical and romantic adventure novels were commissioned by popular publishers of books for the public and private lending market: Methuen, Hodder and Stoughton, and T Werner Laurie. In correspondence with the BBC she mentioned she had written and had published six novels.
Current research in archives and databases reveals a sequence of five to six (if we include a rewritten version brought out as a popular edition in the name of the film adapted for the original publication) published between 1912 and 1925.
They were favourably reviewed in the Regional Press and apparently sold well. My Lady April was a bestseller and clearly benefited from being adapted into the successful silent film A Gipsy Cavalier.
Lynette by John Overton 1912, London: Methuen & Co.
‘..a capital little story of love and adventure in the stirring times of the Roundheads and Cavaliers. The heroine, a pretty girl, daughter of a Cavalier, is brought up in the household of her Puritan uncle, and a graphic picture is given of the division that arose in the land on the outbreak of civil war. The heroine’s daring and resourcefulness and success are almost too good to be true, but the interest of the tale never flags, and all comes right in the end.’ (Edinburgh Evening News 2 October 1912)
Dickie Devon by John Overton 1914, London: Methuen & Co.
‘Nowadays the Cavalier and Roundhead romance has rather gone out of fashion. Mr Overton, however, has succeeded in giving his story, whose scene is laid in Worcestershire in 1644, a good deal of life and spirit. It is pure romance of the lightest and slightest, but of its sort it is very good indeed. The hero, Derrick Devon is as brave and as handsome and as reckless as a good hero should be. The heroine is all that is sweet and womanly. The villans are as treacherous and cowardly as any reader could fairly ask. The hero’s friends, gentle and simple, are all that can be desired. With that goodly company of actors and with the adventures Mr. Overton serves up, the book should have many appreciative readers. It should appeal to those more particularly who like their stories simple with not too much brain on the villain side of the stage, and not too many misunderstandings between the lovers. A clean well-written book, by a man who knows how to use his pen.’ (Birmingham Daily Post 10 April 1914)
My Lady April by John Overton 1921 London: T. Werner Laurie, and New York: A.L. Burt.
In 1922 T Werner Laurie re-published the novel in a popular edition under the title of the film based on its story A Gipsy Cavalier.
‘The big attraction at the Picture House this weekend is “A Gipsy Cavalier,” featuring the wonderful French boxer Georges Carpentier. It is fine romantic drama adapted by Andrew Soutar from the novel “My Lady April” by John Overton. It is a story of fashionable Bath in the Eighteenth Century when the intrigues of pretty women sent gallants along the high road of adventure. So “A Gipsy Cavalier” is full of incident and action, intrigue, adventure and romance- a product of excitement and thrills. The outstanding thrills of the picture are the physical feats of Carpentier, the big barefist fight and the flood scenes which provide the climax.’ (Lisburn Standard 12 October 1923)
The Beckoning Unkown, 1924 London: Hodder & Stoughton
‘Mr John Overton has written a capital story of the eighteenth century in The Beckoning Unknown (7s. 6d. net. London : Hodder & Stoughton.) It concerns the fortunes of a young lady of gentle birth and a young man of equal breeding, whose lot is cast in strange places after his disappearance from home. The reader is introduced to the Bath of Beau Nash and the other fops, but for its better part the tale is concerned with adventures in the Canaries, for the hero is a kind of Robin Hood of the seas. The most realistic character is, however, the villain of the piece, Don Ramon, a Spanierd, who is sufficiently well drawn to compel unusual interest, even if his type is anything but rare in fiction.’ (The Scotsman 10 November 1924)
Striped Roses by John Overton, 1925 London: Hodder & Stoughton
‘A story of the turbulent times of Charles I and the Roundheads. The interest centres around a young Royalist maiden, chatelaine of a moated castle, who is in the hands of an unscrupulous Roundhead godmother, her guardian, and her love for a Royalist spy. A charming, romantic story clothed with all the chivalry of the period.’ (Dundee Courier– Thursday 24 December 1925)
‘A swinging romance of the turbulent Cromwellian days in England is contained in “Striped Roses,” by John Overton, author of “The Beckoning Unknown.” The central figure is Felicia Durant, a Royalist who falls into the clutches of Lady Alianore Cartaret, a designing Parliamentarian. How a young actor falls in love with her and, enlisting as a spy, risks his like to save her, makes an exciting, gaily-coloured yarn imbued with the romantic glamour of its period and setting.’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal 26 October 1925)
‘A rose smells sweet independently of its colour, and Mr Overton’s gay and charming romance should make its pleasant effect sensible to any reader tolerant enough to let his sympathies keep level-headed independently of whether the Cavaliers or the Roundheads of fiction are the more admirably presented; for the story opens its action just when the English Civil War is breaking out, and winds it up happily and in good prospects long before the military issue is decided. The heroine is a Royalist, but her people are wavering in doubts as to what is to become of the family estate and their mansions. The hero is hardly so presentable. He is an actor, then playing Shakespeare at the Blackfriars house, where His Majesty’s Servants perform the bard, occasionally under Royal patronage. He plays Desdemona and Imogen like an angel, and his face is well known to all London. But he does not take his profession so seriously as the legitimate drama deserves- for instance, under the influence of the heiress, he keeps the stage waiting until he has had time to shave. The war, of course, closes the theatres; but the histrionic abilities of the hero stand him in good stead in what follows.’ (The Scotsman 9 November 1925)
This was the second of the John Overton novels published by Hodder & Stoughton which was certainly one of the leading and most successful publishers of popular fiction in the 7 shillings and sixpence hardback novel market.
Kathleen Baker the illustrator
It seems that in 1924 T Werner Laurie engaged Kathleen Baker’s talents as a designer and illustrator since she is credited as John Overton for a magnificent watercolour in the frontispiece for the English translation of Pierre Loti’s novel The Iceland Fisherman, with another design being used for the front board.
Kathleen Baker’s prose-style
Kathleen Baker’s novel writing is assured, accomplished and entertaining. She has a refined and dramatist’s ear for dialogue. She writes in the popular style of romantic and historical adventure story telling. It is very much of her time as this extract of the beginning of chapter VII of My Lady April illustrates:
AFTER another fruitless search Dorothy faced the unpleasant fact that she was penniless, but for the few shillings in her jewel box. Lady Forrest had taken all her personal valuables; Janet had appropriated as much as she could carry. Although Dorothy had never possessed regular pin money she had never been without a guinea or two to spend, and Sir George was easy to wheedle if she wanted new clothes. Now she realised that she might lack the absolute necessities of life, and the prospect dismayed her.
Subdued, a little dazed, the girl wandered disconsolately about the house, aware that the bailiff’s eyes followed her from the shelter of the door jambs, but reassured by Merodach’s influence over the man.
“I has to see as ye takes nought away,” he explained, meeting her on the landing as she came from her mother’s room.
“There’s nothing of value that I could carry,” returned Dorothy wearily. She made to pass him but he remained planted in her path, blinking up at her with small, red-rimmed grey eyes.
“I’m a soft-hearted customer, I am” said Bartholomew, with what he fondly imagined to be an ingratiating smile. “I can’t abide to see beauty in distress. A morsel of advice now, missie? Would it be too imperent, or would it be accepted of in the spirit as offered?”
Heartsick for a friend, Dorothy hesitated, and he caught at her irresolution.
“If ye’d consent to a bit of a palaver wi’ me an’ young Merodach, conclusions might be come to, d’ye see? A plan’s what ye lack. Summat to work from. Trouble’s never such a bogey if looked at fair an’ square, an’ speakin’ strickly for meself, o’ course, it’s the things I can’t see I’m scart on.”
“Thank you. You may tell Merodach I’ll speak with him,” said Miss Forrest, and descended to the dining-room divided between laughter and tears. The life she led, cut off from companionship of girls of her own age, had tended to make her morbidly self-centred: she saw herself from outside, and was at the same time both actor and spectator of the scenes wherein she played a part. It was characteristic that now, with tears thick upon her lashes, she went over to the mirror above the hearth to note the effect. Her eyes were unbecomingly red. She swallowed hard, and found a seat back to the light.
The two men discovered her at the head of the table, a pathetic little figure enthroned in a tall arm-chair, her fingers drumming nervously upon the polished board before her.
“Barty tells me that you need advice,” began the gipsy, dropping into a chair at her right.
She nodded and bit her lower trembling lip.
“I need more than advice. I’ve seven shillings, and the clothes I wear. I- I suppose I’ve no real right even to those.”
“No more ye han’t, missie,” said Griggs heartily. “Bein’ as you might say of the female persuasion.”
“But sure, you’ve friends in Bath?” suggested Merodach.
Dorothy shook her head. “Not now. Miss Abrams is gone back to Scotland with her aunt. She was the only woman with whom I was- intimate-“
“Yet you must have met scores of people who-“
“Scores. But there’s not one I can call friend, unless-“
“Barrin’ we, missie. Me an’ Merodach!” insisted Griggs.
“Thank you,” returned the girl, and smiled, April-fashion.
The trio sat and stared at one another in silence. [Pages 72-4 My Lady April London: T Werner Laurie (1921)]
Why did Kathleen Baker stop writing for the BBC?
One surviving file in the BBC’s Written Archives provides some clues. It was not for the want of trying. There is evidence that she had to stop writing for a few years because of serious illness.
But correspondence between male BBC executives responsible for Children’s programming in the early to middle 1930s indicates a disrespectful and inconsiderate attitude to a significant writing talent, and somebody who had contributed so much.
It may also be the case that her writing ideas had become old-fashioned. It is difficult to evaluate this conundrum without having access to the scripts she submitted and which were so dismissively rejected.
It is also the case that by the 1930s Kathleen was submitting to a much more competitive writing market and industry.
In May 1933 she had contacted Joseph Lewis, musician and producer she had previously worked for in the Children’s Hour strand in the Birmingham studio, and was now associated with the programme Children’s Corner at the new Broadcasting House in Portland Place London:
‘It has been a very long illness for me, but I am gradually growing stronger, and it is necessary for me to find some work that I can do at home. So I am writing hard in the hope of getting my stuff broadcast either in London or America.’
She said she was interested in writing for a new ‘Fantasy for London.’
She had enclosed ‘a little scene …introducing Snooky, Ambrose and Katchy.’
She also wrote to ‘The Director’ of the BBC to reintroduce herself and revealed that in the 4 year period between 1924 and 1928 she had written some 250 plays of varying length. She also set out her curriculum vitae of six ‘costume novels’ one of which My Lady April has been made into the film ‘A Gypsy Cavalier’ in America.
The reference to 250 plays suggests her writing contribution was much greater than is evident in Radio Times credits. It is possible she had been writing for series conceived by other writers and Joseph Lewis’ mention of her writing ‘Snooky’ series stories conceived by his former assistant, a Miss Richardson, might explain this.
And to endorse her potential and capability she enclosed a new play for Children’s Corner titled ‘Puss In Boots.’
Joseph Lewis’ internal memo to a colleague in the BBC does not seem as supportive as it could have been. We cannot discount that this was his honest opinion of the sketch she sent- ‘Snooky, Ambrose and Klatchy’, but the verdict and condemnation is rather sad, prejudgemental and patronising.
It could be said he was trying to be sympathetic when he called her a ‘poor soul’, but rather than represent her as one of the most significant writers for the BBC Birmingham station 5IT during the 1920s in his language he reduces her to being ‘a certain lady’ who wrote ‘little sketches using the characters of the “Snooky” stories which were the original creation of somebody else- his assistant in Birmingham, Phyllis Richardson:
‘I am merely sending this to you so that I can inform her that you have seen it and do not find it suitable, etc., because I feel that her illness has kept her mind where it was six years ago, and I should not like to hurt her feelings by returning the manuscript without your having seen it.’
Nothwithstanding the conventions of internal memo communications in the BBC at the time, a much more generous and helpful missive on his part could have been along the lines of: ‘Kathleen Baker has been a leading writer for children’s programmes and drama at the BBC Birmingham station, 5IT, during the 1920s and a best-selling romantic and historical novelist. Her book “My Lady April” was made into a film starring Georges Carpentier and many of her novels including the swashbuckling English Civil War romance and adventure “Striped Roses” are very popular in the lending libraries. I directed much of the music for her very popular and successful BBC plays. She had to pause her writing for a while due to illness, and now wants to resume working for us. She has sent a sample of new scripting for us to look at. I’ll introduce her to the Director of Productions (Val Gielgud) as he might be interested in dramatisations of her novels which she is very qualified to do.’
As we can see Lewis did the exact opposite. Could it be said he was mean-spirited and perhaps deliberately unhelpful? Does he actually imply she has plagiarised the Snooky character/stories- an original idea conceived and written by Miss Phyllis Richardson, (Auntie Phil”) now working in the Broadcasting House Sound Records library?
The script Kathleen sent to the ‘BBC’s Director’ ‘Puss In Boots’ did in fact receive quite favourable feedback from Children’s Hour script-readers. In the end, they thought the dialogue needed some tweaking; something which could have been achieved in a respectful conversation between a producer and Kathleen by telephone or correspondence.
BBC script reader: ‘I wish this woman wasn’t mad!’
It would seem from Kathleen’s Children’s Hour archived file, prospective scripts would be sent round to three readers who were required to fill in a form.
One said ‘Puss in Boots’ ‘might be quite attractive- dialogue a little abstruse at times’, another said ‘This is rather original and attractive. But the Cat speaks an obscure kind of Telegraphese which is at times unintelligible.’
Instead of turning this analysis into a sensitive and encouraging reply, Kathleen received a letter bluntly saying ‘we find that the language spoken by the cat is largely unintelligible and would certainly be unintelligible to our audience, Would you, perhaps, care to alter this and re-submit the play?’ The envelope contained the rejected script.
When Kathleen wrote back to the programme organiser John Kettlewell there are indications her thinking and writing may well have been in advance of her time:
‘With regard to the language – it is not, perhaps, generally understood that animals talk like that in thought, but most children know, and dislike the dialogue put into the mouths of animals, if it is like the words men use.
I am certain that – had you broadcast it – most of the audience would have understood, and welcomed something written in that way.
It would be well if people knew that all animals are trained so – getting through in thought first and then in spoken words. Horses hear well, and so do circus animals.’
Kathleen was not going to budge. Her message was either use the play and pay for it, or forget it.
The next few months would be a spate of Kathleen sending in scripts for Children’s Hour and a fair tsunami of rejections.
The comments are brutal: ‘depressingly moral!’, ‘so completely in the nature of sermons’, ‘it is a little mad!’, ‘I don’t think the theme of a selfish parent is very well suited to the Children’s Hour’, ‘dreadfully depressing. No!’ ‘the usual morality tale and by the cartloads!’ and ‘not much point to this.’
When Kathleen wrote a play called ‘When Dragons roamed in England’ it was rejected because ‘it has the usual eccentric bits of dialogue’ and a second reader says: ‘I wish this woman wasn’t mad! For her ideas are charming but the language is impossible.’
One reader said: ‘I don’t like the way she plays around with classic fairy-tales.’ Many years later a future lauded woman radio playwright, Angela Carter, would turn this into an art. But even in the 1930s surely classic fairy-tales needed playing around with?
Parting of ways
The BBC did bite on some of Kathleen’s scripts:
The Relief of Ludlow- ‘Offer when possible.’
The Magic Swan- ‘Offer when possible.’
And she did get a cheque for five guineas (£5 & 5 shillings in old currency) and a contract for ‘In The Fog’ at the end of 1933. The BBC’s covering letter to Kathleen was addressed to ‘Dear Sir.’- not quite a cigar or pipe for John Overton.
We don’t know when ‘In The Fog’ ever made it into Children’s Hour. It may have been broadcast but not credited in the Radio Times. It is presumed the other scripts were in reserve for possible production.
By January 1935, Kathleen had had enough. She may have been responding in a huff, or she might have been chasing better offers in the American market with broadcast buyers demanding world rights.
‘I hereby withdraw the offer of any work of mine, of which you hold a copy, for broadcasting purposes ; and shall be grateful if you will return my plays, as I intend to make use of them in other ways. I ask you to give me a guarantee that no work of mine be used over Radio from this date 12th January 1935.’
The BBC sent back her scripts but to the wrong address.
There is no evidence I can find of Kathleen Baker as John Overton writing radio drama for the BBC again or, indeed any more published novels in the romantic historical and adventure genres.
At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 she was looking after her elderly parents at 74 Handsworth Wood Road in Birmingham. Her 87 year old mother Mary was ‘incapacitated.’ Her father Frank was listed as a director/chairman also 87 years old.
It seems she passed away living alone in the same street in 1967 and leaving an estate of £11,583 which in today’s money (February 2023) would have been £268,984.32.
It can be strongly argued that Kathleen Baker did not deserve what would now be certainly regarded as deeply sexist and ablist prejudice. The derogatory treatment from BBC script editors and producers was discriminatory at a time when male patriarchy ruled the roost.
There are indications her out of circulation through illness issue for several years was counted against her in assumptions ranging from pity to offensive constructions of insanity.
Full equal franchise in Britain was not achieved for women until 1928 and up until the Second World War women were compelled to leave many professions if they married.
There is certainly an argument that a writer with Kathleen’s provenance and success in popular novels, film and radio did not deserve to be kicked into the dustbin of failed, past sell-by-date authors.
Her last historical romance novel Striped Roses (1925) received consistently rave reviews and more than merited consideration for radio dramatisation; something Kathleen could have accomplished in great style when that would have been informed by all the experience of her original scripting for broadcasting since 1924.
In 1925 her Protean Interlude dramas for BBC 5IT in Birmingham had been praised by the local media for their popularity.
‘Peace’ for Saturday 31st October had five parts all performed by Percy Edgar and originally composed music by Nigel Dellaway played by the station’s orchestra conducted by Joseph Lewis.
Lewis would be the man who seemed so two-faced when receiving her letter eight years later asking for help and guidance in renewing her BBC connections.
Striped Roses was described by the Leicester Chronicle as ‘a good brisk story…gives a fresh romance of the days of the Civil Wars’, and the Leicester Evening Mail said:
‘The author has portrayed “the head-strong, chivalrous obstinate gentlemen of a most obstinate, chivalrous and headlong age,” with a good deal of colour, as well as to give, with some piquancy, an idea of the varying characteristics of the ladies who lived in those troublous times. Whilst alluding in graphic phrase to the horrors of civil war, “when neighbour turns against neighbour, and old friends eye each other askance, as they cross the market square,” it is apparent that the aim of the book is to provide a romance, rather than a long pen picture of conflicts between Royalists and Roundheads…the author has certainly used his powers of imagination to the full. Readers of “Striped Roses” will find a plot that is somewhat novel, with plenty of excitement, convincing character drawing, and a sufficiently strong love element. ‘
It would seem Kathleen Baker aka John Overton the writer ended up being defeated by obstinate BBC men in the 1930s who were greatly lacking the chivalry and imagination she was so good at conjuring in her plays and novels.