Bettmann / Contributor (Getty)

Orson Welles and Lockdown’s Radio Renaissance

I’m listening to art made by dead people rather than DIY lockdown productions

Artillery Row

On July the 11th, back in 1938, the debut episode aired of a revolutionary American audio drama that came to a close eighty years ago, but whose influence is still felt and whose work still has a power to thrill and to shock on par with the most self-consciously modern and technologically advanced equivalent. Though it began life with the title First Person Singular, and for most of its existence was named after the tinned soup sponsor (as The Campbell Playhouse), the series is best remembered by its second (and most accurate) moniker: The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Every week, more or less, from July 1938 (Dracula) to March 1940 (Jane Eyre) the 23 year old Orson Welles wrote, produced, directed, and performed in an original radio adaptation of a literary classic, with a repertory cast drawn from Welles’s own theatre company. Popular and innovative, it is today best known for the infamous Halloween adaptation of The War of the Worlds, most recently inspiring a five star theatrical reimagining at 2019’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe by the award winning Rhum and Clay Theatre Company, bringing fake news and media distortion to the fore (catch it on tour next year; you’re welcome).

I’ve spent lockdown working my way through the full three years of the show’s run (a full 78 episodes), alongside blissful revisits of The Goon Show and The Lives of Harry Lime – another Welles series which follows the eponymous character’s Puckish adventures prior to his death (spoiler alert!) in Carole Reed’s hugely successful Graham Greene scripted, 1949 Brit-Noir masterpiece, The Third Man. As 2020’s death toll rose and the civil unrest intensified, I found inordinate comfort in a hot bath, an incense stick, and an hour or so of old-timey radio in a locked, darkened room. Though a good 70% of my address book spent lockdown pumping out their own storytelling shows, youtube channels, and shoe-string podcasts under the moral certainty that they were keeping the arts alive with spit and vinegar and USB mics, I’m afraid I ignored their no doubt valiant efforts in favour of art made by dead people before most of us were born. I heartily recommend it.

I was reminded of Welles’s “Theatre on the Air” concept back in April, when actor Bertie Carvel announced a Lockdown Theatre Festival in response to the strictures of plague. Home recording kits were sent out to performers from four shows which had seen their runs cut short by Corona, with the results stitched together remotely and aired on Radio 3 and 4 in mid June as a putative “Theatre Festival on the Air”. The results were fine, though four shows is barely a festival, and I’m not entirely sure how the end result was much different from the standard fare of BBC multi-cast audio drama, beyond being a little rougher round the edges; Carvel at the time enthused that with proper funding (as always) the approach could be increased in scale and ambition, and I agree with him that the notion of systematic BBC radio adaptation of high quality British stage plays would be a fine contribution to the cultural landscape and national record, and not before time. Though a doubtlessly worthy project, I was less sold on the notion that this indicated any real “future” for theatre, despite much trumpeting across the social media; radio adaptations of plays are certainly nothing new, and is turning theatre into low-budget audio drama really moving it forward, or just sideways? 

Similar questions occurred during the mid-lockdown glut of filmed theatre productions which spilled online from the archives of various producing houses, “airing” on Youtube at regular intervals, sometimes without charge, each invariably with their own accompanying hashtag, self-congratulation and desperate enthusiasm. Leaving aside the issue that the National Theatre appears, as standard, to be charging us three times for every play (once to make it, once to see it live, once to see the recording), I couldn’t help but hear all the excited young aspirants praising the innovation of digital theatre and wondering where exactly the innovation was (not to mention the “theatre”). Not only have plays been regularly filmed since the earliest days of the technology, but I’ve always understood theatre, as a medium, to be defined by shared, reactive space and live audience. Isn’t filmed theatre just… bad film? Again, this is moving sideways, not forward; Covid-necessities excepted, every audience outside of London that goes to see a National Theatre Live screening in a cinema is an audience that is actively not going to see a local play at a local theatre by a local company (“we’ll have no trouble here”). This is only innovation in the most capitalist and monopolising of senses.

When it came to artistic innovation, The Mercury Theatre on the Air was unimpeachable. Its first episode, that of July 11th, was an hour long adaptation of Dracula, worlds away from the still-recent Bela Lugosi classic of 1931. Intensely sensualised and fast-paced, with sound design that is still shocking and fresh today (deep, sexualised breathing; hypnotic, trance-like, violent rhythms; inhuman screams), as soon as one has adjusted to the initially old-fashioned presentational style (which disappears within minutes) you realise that nearly an hour has gone by, and you’ve been tense and absorbed throughout, at times genuinely disturbed by the grotesque performances and high stakes, pot-boiler narrative. Of course there’s a degree of stylisation in some of the performances, but frankly that’s part of the appeal; they’re no less naturalistic than the average soap opera or sitcom performance is today. This is an adaptation by a 23 year old from more than 80 years ago, but which is more viscerally fresh and capable of instilling horror than literally any other I have come across; from Universal’s in 1931 to Mark Gatiss’s efforts from just over 6 months ago. I am listening to it again as I type this, and am finding it almost overwhelming. 

With the huge uptick in frustrated actors self-recording their craft during the pandemic, I’m hearing endless industry chatter about the upcoming surge in high quality, Wellesian audiodrama that we all have to look forward to on the other side. Andy Goddard, podcast producer for the BBC, is more characteristically guarded. His take is that the amateur set-ups of most home recording studios will severely inhibit much that’s produced, and though there have been new audience converts who’ve run out of alternative entertainment during lockdown, this has been combined with a significant drop in listeners looking to kill time on the morning commute. He wasn’t entirely pessimistic; though he saw an initial Coronavirus depression in creativity, the Summer months are supplying a swing in the other direction, and Goddard predicts that this trend will continue. He foresees a likely window, before film and television production restarts, in which hitherto difficult to snare big-name actors can be poached for audio recording, and this combined with a high quality backlog of projects may produce a bottleneck of interesting, worthwhile content around October. Goddard himself has a couple of upcoming concept sketch series for BBC Sounds that promise to be an exciting scripted space in the near future, not to mention the much-anticipated return of Armstrong and Miller’s Timeghost, which he’s also working hard on.

Tom Crowley, of the Crowley Time Podcast, is cautiously positive too. He reports an increase in artistic productivity due to the limited distractions provided by lockdown, and describes a new industry environment in which established self-publishers, such as long-term podcast home-recordists and youtubers, have seen a spike in demand and in audience numbers, whilst a too-complacent old media mainstream has struggled to emulate and catch up with what everyone else has been doing and engaging with for years. He’s keen to emphasise, however, that rather than a sudden rocketing of interest and quality, what we’re seeing is merely the steady continuation of pre-established trends in the field that proponents of the form have been nurturing since well before quarantine. Ella Watts, also a podcast producer with the BBC, perhaps puts it best: 

“The big thing – especially in light of a few ill-judged recent pieces of journalism – [is that] lockdown is not ushering in a new golden age of audio drama. We’re already in a golden age of audio drama, and we have been for over two years … [a] silver lining of Covid is certainly seeing more theatre companies and actors seriously considering audio drama as an avenue again, in a way they might not have been before, but I’d love to see a little less tone deaf manoeuvring [that ignores] the existing audience, appetites and trends, as it’s only alienating both fellow creatives and potential listeners.” 

With a new corporate sponsor, and concomitant busy-body, newcomer know-betterism, the Mercury series took a gradual nosedive in quality from mid 1939, after just a few months of intensified studio meddling as The Campbell Playhouse (with a frustrated Welles stating plainly: “I’m sick of having the heart torn out of a script by radio censorship”). In an article for Critique Magazine, Paul Holler ascribes the artistic success of The Mercury Theatre on the Air at its best to the fact that “Welles was given complete creative control … The choices he made in developing the series were informed by what he had learned in previous years in other radio dramas. Chief among those choices was to create dramas specifically for the radio and not to simply adapt dramas in production at the Mercury Theatre for broadcast. I believe that those who think we’ll find the future of theatre in audio drama or youtube are wrong; whilst I appreciate their grasping optimism, theatre is live performance and shared space – when you transport it into a different medium it simply becomes that different medium, for better or worse. The keys to a golden age in any art form, and across any medium, are creative freedom, mercurial inventiveness and a willingness to experiment whilst still engaging directly and accessibly with audiences. Audio drama has been doing this for much, much longer than the hairdressers and the pubs have been closed, and since long before its latest “discovery” by out-of-work theatre-makers with time on their hands. Whether podcast, audiobook, radio or live show; audio drama is an art form in its own right, not an all-purpose crutch or an acceptable second-best. The sooner we remember these hard truths, and stop trying to re-invent the reel (so to speak), the better; audio drama is not the future of theatre, it is the present of audio drama. And that is a good thing.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover