Friday, October 21, 2011

Human Voices - book review

It's a small corner of the WW2 Home Front but one Penelope Fitzgerald knew from personal experience - the Transcription Department of BBC Broadcasting House at the beginning of the London Blitz. Public broadcasting is less than twenty years old yet working for the BBC is seen as essential war work, like joining the Women's Land Army or volunteering for the Auxiliary Fire ervice. With exquisite lightness of touch Fitzgerald contrasts the eccentricities of the BBC's Old ervants with the randomness of life as the bombs starts to fall. 'Human Voices' captivated me from start to finish and I am busily tracking down more of Fitzgerald's work. I'm particularly looking forward to her biography of that distinctly odd Victorian painter, Burne-Jones.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Giant Passes

Some terms are overused, but to call Norwin Corwin, who passed this week at the mighty age of 101, a giant is a simple statement of fact. What Ed Murrow was to US wartime radio reportage, Corwin was to the brief flowering of original single radio plays that showed Americans the moral justifcation for joining WW2.
Corwin didn't create the form - Archibald MacLeish wrote The Fall of the City and cited the BBC's March of the '45 as his example. This was the work of the Manchester-based D G (Geoffrey) Bridson and went on to become the model for radio drama throughout the English-speaking world. Bridson's innovation was to forge simple, impactful drama out of simple, impassioned narrative verse in the manner of traditional broadside ballads, with a healthy whiff of 19th century Northern subversive songs.
Bridson and Corwin were virtually the same age and for a time their careers ran in parallel. March of the '45 is almost certainly the most widely-heard radio play of all time, with a total listenership in the hundreds of millions by now. Corwin's We Hold These Truths, commissioned by FDR and aired the day after Pearl Harbor, drew the biggest single audience for a radio play, with something like 63 million Americans listening simultaneously.
Thereafter, Corwin and Bridson collaborated transatlantically. Corwin came to the BBC to write the dramatic feature series An American in Britain, transmitted live to the US in the middle of the British night and rebroadcast domestically later that evening. Corwin and CBS then hosted Bridson's various visits to America where, among other things, Bridson collaborated with Langston Hughes and Alan Lomax on an original all-black radio ballad opera, The Man who went to War (1943).
Corwin fell under suspicion during the postwar rightwing witchhunts and his network treated him shamefully. He returned to prominence with his Oscar-nominated script for Lust for Life, as genuine an attempt at an accurate and artistic biopic as I can think of for the period. He continued creating radio drama for a market that was now non-commercial and increasingly online.
If anyone had a lust for life, it was Norman Corwin, who continued writing and teaching well into a grand old age. I have never read a word of his that I didn't agree with or which failed to give me pleasure. I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of radio plays in my studies, from all countries and all periods from the 1920s to earlier today. But the only one I have loaded onto my phone, so it is never more than a few feet away from me, is one of Corwin's, from An American in Britain. It is the best tribute one radio writer can pay another.
Now will somebody please get it together to issue a representative collection of Corwin's work? If you want a chapter on the Bridson link, I'm your man.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Prix Italia winners

The winners were announced at the end of last month. Best original radio drama: Little Thumb from Italy's Radio 24; the best adaptation was Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, from the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, from Sweden. The BBC's Wild Ass's Skin was shortlisted in the adaptation category.