Mining the seams of radio history – Richard Hughes and A Comedy of Danger

Dedwydd Jones
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A Comedy of Danger was the first play ever commissioned specifically for broadcast on radio. Dedwydd Jones digs deep into the history of its author, Richard Hughes, and the work itself

Born on April 19, 1900 to Welsh parents in Weybridge, Surrey, novelist and dramatist Richard Arthur Warren Hughes got off to a flying start. At 17, Hughes’ housemaster at Charterhouse sent his first writings to the Spectator, where they were well received. At Oriel College, Oxford, Hughes soon found himself mixing with the likes of TE Lawrence and WB Yeats and editing Oxford Poetry with fellow Carthusian Robert Graves.

Hughes graduated in 1922, went home to North Wales and founded the Portmadoc Players. They played in a space known as The Brew House, a highly suitable address for an embryonic Welsh National Theatre. While on holiday, Nigel Playfair, the director of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, saw Hughes’ productions and brought them to London. With plays at both the Lyric and the Royal Court, Lloyd George and the Prince of Wales were soon sending their congratulations. Heady wine for a 22-year-old.

Hughes went into a frenzied period of writing – Gipsy Night and Other Poems, Lines Written Upon First Observing an Elephant Devoured by a Roc, Ecstatic Ode on Vision and Meditative Ode on Vision.

Then, on invitation from Nigel Playfair via the BBC, he embarked on the world’s first ever radio play. In Hughes’ own words: “I was asked by the BBC, in January of 1924, to write a play for effect by sound only, in the same way that film plays are written for effect by sight only.”

Thus he created the first ‘listening play’, an experiment in a new medium, which has been since considerably developed. He wrote the play overnight and set it in a coal mine as it provided a convincing setting of darkness in which sound was more important than the visuals. Produced by Nigel Playfair, A Comedy of Danger was broadcast from the BBC’s London Station, Marconi House in The Strand, on January 15, 1924. It received a healthy amount of attention. Next day the headline of the Daily Mail referred to “Drama Thrills by Wireless”.

When I contacted Steve Cleary, curator of drama in the British Library’s Sound Archive, to have a listen of the play, I wasinformed that, sadly, no recordings were technically possible at the time. Not even the currently obsolescent tape existed, only ‘snippets’ on acetate and scratchy ones at that. Like the songs of the nightingale in John Keats’ famous ode, Danger has faded “into the forest dim” and is now “buried deep in the next valley-glades”. No full spoken record of the world’s first voice play exists.

French savants baptised the medium of film “the seventh art”. Radio drama was soon christened the eighth. The BBC termed Danger “a radio origination” as opposed to an “adaptation” – reading from a prepared text. With Danger, this new form of drama was well and truly on the way.

And what are the first words ever heard in this eighth art? It is the stage direction, “A Coal Mine”, given by an announcer. It is a flooded gallery in a Welsh coal mine, to be exact. The three trapped visitors in the mine are English and speak impeccable upperclass-ese. “This beastly coal mine”, “buck up, Mary, old girl” and “you cruel beasts” are a few of the scripted remarks that sound very dated to contemporary ears.

It also contained the very first broadcast strictures on the Welsh: “I’d expect anything of a country like Wales. They’ve got a climate like a flood, a language like the Tower of Babel… Wretched! Incompetent- their houses full of cockroaches!”

But the singing of the trapped miners does the trick. “God, those chaps have courage! They don’t want to die, so they sing hymns. If we can’t, then we must behave like gentlemen.”

Life is indeed a cruel comedy, with musings veering between, “It’s strange how little chaps wonder what will happen to them after death. Every man dies before his time. There’s such a lot to learn on the other side,” and “Who’ll feed the parrot?”

Hughes detailed the first radio drama voice-directions in the universe, which included ‘a gruff voice and a stilted manner of speech’, followed by ‘sarcastically’, ‘with mock solemnity’ and ‘shocked’.

The first Welsh words heard across the ether came from the Welsh hymn ‘Ar hyd y nos’, All Through the Night. In keeping with a play written directly for radio, sound effects were specified to conjure up the coal mine atmosphere. The first sound effects rumbling in the Valleys were ‘a distant explosion with a long echo’, ‘a hiss of water’, ‘stumbling steps’, ‘tapping’, ‘sound of a pick’, ‘strong blows’ and ‘sound of coal falling’. I will not reveal the surprise ending.

Although Hughes’ first passion was the theatre – he remained vice president of the Welsh National Theatre from 1924 to 1936 – he went on to write the classic novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). Chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century, it was made into a striking film in 1965, with Anthony Quinn and James Coburn.

In 1932, Hughes moved to Laugharne, west of Swansea, and lived in the ancient castle there. By cosmic coincidence, he lived side by side with Dylan Thomas, the man who, arguably, wrote the most loved ‘listening play’ in the world, Under Milk Wood. In fact, so close were they that Thomas leased the famous boathouse from Hughes and even worked on Milk Wood there. Must be something in the air. I have just booked a room in Dylan’s renowned Brown’s Hotel. Perhaps a late night draught or two in Milk Wood itself might inspire a divine comedy for the present country.

Hughes was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1946. Most of his later years he lived at Mor Edrin enar Talsarnau in north Wales, dying on April 28, 1976.

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