WARNING: If you are under 60, this may not make any sense to you!
A post by Viv in France started a train of thought in my mind that has refused to peter out. Growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s, our generation in England had the benefit of radio but not TV. All shows had a theme tune: ITMA, Much Binding in the Marsh. Hancock’s Half Hour, Ray’s a Laugh, In Town Tonight, Dick Barton, Toytown, Housewife’s Choice, Mrs Dale’s Diary and that incredible epic Journey Into Space that drew an even greater audience than TV at teatime on Sundays. These melodies are embedded deep in my memory, as powerfully evocative as Proust’s madeleines on those occasions when I find myself humming the tune to Take It From Here or similar. Granted, The Archers remains, but that is no longer anything like what it was in the days of Dan and Doris.
Until the twentieth century, there had been books and pictures to stimulate the imagination. Radio opened up vistas beyond the power of mere books, with vivid radio plays like Saturday Night Theatre or Curtain Up! and often led to us reading novels or plays we had heard serialised on radio first. In my own case, these were such classics as The Mill on the Floss and Wuthering Heights, where I was sufficiently stirred by the audio dramatisation to wade through the heavy nineteenth century prose and to enjoy the story, fleshing out characters and visualising scenes.
I believe radio lent a vigour to our fancy that today’s children lack. Young imaginations are wired differently nowadays. Children’s TV programmes are more and more frenetic, explicit and loud, leaving barely anything to the imagination.
We listened, and let our creative powers fill in all the gaps. A show such as Educating Archie, featuring a ventriloquist’s dummy as its hero, seems unthinkable today: firstly, the idea of a ventriloquist on the radio, and secondly, how did they stage it? Was it before a live audience with the dummy on Peter Brough’s knee, and the other characters acting their parts? Or did they stand around a microphone, with Peter Brough not even attempting to speak without moving his lips? Archie was very real to us. We knew what he looked like, as there was a comic paper called Radio Fun, where he had his own cartoon strip showing his adventures, and I believe Peter Brough and Archie Andrews also toured variety theatres. This was an extremely successful programme and made stars of people such as Beryl Reid, Max Bygraves and Julie Andrews.
Sometimes, when we discovered what radio stars actually looked like, we were very disappointed that the face didn’t match up to the voice, but who cared really? We all had a very clear mental picture of all the Goon Show characters, from Colonel Bloodnock to Bluebottle, and it would have destroyed that image to see Peter Sellars or Spike Milligan “doing” the voices.
I am sure that Dr Who on radio would have been equally terrifying and thrilling, with the various monsters heard but not seen – maybe even more effective. The Man in Black, tales of horror read by Valentine Dyall in the twentieth century’s most Stygian tones, gave me nightmares for weeks, but I didn’t stop listening; these were scarier than any horror films because there were no limits to what imagination could produce.
Too much realism kills the imagination, and brutalises. Today, we are inured to horror by seeing so much blood and guts, not only in TV dramas and computer games, but also in the news. If it isn’t sensational it has no impact. And the more gore we see, the more we crave.
Or perhaps our generation was the exception? Humanity has always demanded its bread and circuses, and Roman circuses had no clowns, but gladiators and wild beasts fighting to the death. Public executions have always been crowd-pullers, the more gruesome the better. But we were growing up in an era following two of the bloodiest wars in history, so perhaps by the late 1940’s and 50’s, those responsible for our entertainment had been satiated in that respect and that is the reason they sought gentler diversions? Too many eyes had seen too many real atrocities; horror on screen didn’t need to be too lifelike.