The Ghastly Impermanence: Post-Serialism

Photo by Travis Goodspeed.
Photo by Travis Goodspeed.

Mrs. Elaine Sterne Carrington is one of the outstanding serial script writers. “All my scripts,” she confides, “are written so that listeners can imagine themselves in the same situations as the people in the cast. The daytime serials fill a tremendous hole in lonely people’s lives. Listeners take the characters to heart and suffer, live, love and laugh with them.” Such synthetic sorrow and suffering pour from the microphone as to render the heart strings and loosen the purse strings for a wide variety of products. About the only thing missing is the moustasched villain who holds the mortgage “poipers.” — Robert West

If one believes the recent article in The Atlantic Magazine, serials are on the rise again in both television and literature. Megan Garber makes the argument that this wave is aided by the Internet. According to Ms. Garber, people are rediscovering in an on-demand society that “the anticipatory pleasure that can come from the simple act of waiting” has a value formerly forgotten: it gives order to people’s bodiless contemporary lives.

In radio serials are the norm rather than the exception. Serials had and still have a stranglehold on American radio drama where it still exists, but the BBC lean heavily on serials as well. A casual glance at BBC Radio 4 reveals sixty-five programmes available on their iPlayer. Of these, only six are single plays and one is a programme written exclusively for Book at Bedtime. The remainder are “serial,” from the serialized dramas of The Archers and The Cazalets to serialized readings of The Bell Jar or Virginia Gilbert.

I would suggest there is a difference between an anthology show like CBS Mystery Theater or Bonk at Bedtime, and a serial like The Archers or Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. I do not, however, think this difference is essentially formal. The formal contents of both anthologies and serials are almost identical. What Ms. Garber seems to be really talking about is not serial format but serial devices. Specifically she is talking about the trope of the “cliffhanger” developed in comics, polished by cinema, adopted by radio, and perfected by television. Robert West notes this in his 1941 book, The Rape of Radio:

Radio serials are the re-embodiment of the serials of silent films. They follow the same laws of interest and suspense. In the early screen days stalwart heroes such as Eddie Polo and Charles Hutchinson invariably triumphed over dastardly villains. A heroine such as Pauline met peril from week to week unflinchingly, as she was left hanging from a cliff, or rescued from a burning building. Here the appeal was to the eye, and the visual representation of each episode was measured with gripping suspense so as to bring the movie fan back to the theater for the next episode. Similarly, the plot of the radio serial is left hanging day by day. The imagination, bestirred by the ear and not by the eye, has its foundation in the personal interpretation of the characters, each of whom is keenly etched on the mind of the listener as to appearance and surroundings.

Yet the cliffhanger trope is not unique to serials. The classic Hollywood narrative film relies upon it internally for structure, and one may easily argue that in Greek tragedy the peripeteia is a fraternal twin of the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger as such is merely the peripeteia set at the end rather than in medias res. The difference is that the story of a Greek tragedy ends. A Hollywood narrative ends. The Archers does not end and will probably continue long after the human race has vanished from earth.

I doubt Ms. Garber believes that tightly structured novels or poems or bandes dessinées do not also give a sense of order to people’s lives. The entire purpose of storytelling is to give order to people’s lives. The serial is not special in that regard. What Ms. Garber finds outstanding in the serial is the idea of an unresolved suspense. She views this as a pleasure derived from waiting. That is possibly so. More likely to me is that the true appeal of the cliffhanger in contemporary America has less to do with time and rather more to do with ignorance.

In a culture that overvalues being “wired” or “dialed in” constantly, an illusion that develops is that one can always know. All one has to do is look up information on the almighty World Wide Web, a network that many people naively say contains the sum of all human knowledge. (This is rubbish, of course, but it reveals the mindset of most Americans. Lots of useless/useful data is not equal to all human knowledge.)

In truth, there is pleasure to be had in not knowing. It is sometimes nice not to know how a mystery novel is going to turn out. Many people throw fits if a blabbermouth gives away the end of a movie or a sporting event. Not knowing provides human beings with the impetus for creativity itself, in which an artist no less than a scientist can move from a state of not knowing to a different kind of knowledge through exploration. Audiences too engage in art by accepting their own naiveté and exploring the work at hand. This happens in a somewhat different way from artists but the goal is similar. Yet for all the exploration into a certain work, it often happens that neither the artist nor the audience ever truly knows everything within a work of art and yet both find this suitable. The lesson gained is that not knowing everything is not only acceptable but often desirable. The exploration itself holds the value.


Serials are a fact of life. That is obvious. This was true of American radio before television even existed, and true before that of the American comic strip (cf. Wolfgang Fuchs & Reinhold Reitberger’s Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium). Whatever the reasons for their current fashion–these are quite debatable–what Ms. Garber does not address is that behind the practice of the serial is a darker purpose. Radio, television and literature promote serials because they are a convenient form of prefabricated branding for advertisers.

It is the function of advertisers to create bogus sentiment and false desire in order to sell products. Serials are far more convenient in this sense than the what David Mackey calls “the unit play.” Mackey notes in his book, Drama on the Air, what most people already know: serials are often mawkishly sentimental and the least artistic of radio drama. But, as he says, they sell soap. In Britain, serialization began with the adaptation of literary classics and while this remains common in England, their serials too have the odor of stearic acid.

Furthermore, the crusade for the benefits of serials has often been a crusade against the unit play. Twenty years ago, BBC Radio Four had three ninety-minute slots every week for plays. Having been forced into a more directly competitive market economy so beloved by former Director-General John Birt, BBC axed these slots and began a push for shorter serials instead. Allegedly this move addressed concerns that producing longer plays was too expensive. Less transparently, however, the BBC adopted this attitude because serials were more familiar to the television-watching audience which was perceived as a larger market that should subsume radio.

This has led to several ironies. The BBC could and did rationalize hiring layers of middle management at middle management salaries to “restructure” radio drama to include it as part of television. With an explicit preference for serials–after all, they were successful on television–the BBC showed little remorse in butchering radio programming and in particular the full-length drama. As William Stanton noted in 2004:

The pressures which liquidated the new dramatist’s television studio play in favour of filmed series and serials have been visited on Radio Drama. Economic ideology imported by the current Director-General, John Birt, and multi-million pound surveys produced by outside management consultants have marginalised talented and experienced editors and producers such as John Tydeman, Martin Jenkins, Sean McLaughlin, Jane Morgan and Nigel Bryant. Children’s drama, or young story telling sequences have been liquidated.

This is a far cry from the days when Val Gielgud referred to serials as “flattery of the ego of the common man.” Director-General Birt believed that the common man’s ego should be flattered because that is where the money was. The United States had already been through this in many ways, yet radio critics of that time were far less sanguine. To quote Robert West again:

When all the excitement of the presentation of some important plays is past, the networks go back to the same dramatic and comedy pattern as they had before. Trivial serials seriously hinder the appreciation of finer things in radio drama. Script shows like “Pepper’s Own Family,” “Big Sister,” “Betty and Bob,” are far more popular than Shakespeare and Shaw. The experimental theater has diagnosed most of the ills of radio. It is now up to the playwrights to apply their remedies. Radio drama will suffer from pernicious anemia as long as it continues to offer a surplusage of serials.

Even in Britain, critics had expressed the same fear before Lord Birt assumed the reins of BBC. The Script Editor for BBC Radio Drama Richard Imison could read the writing on the wall. In all the discussions about this “new form” of the fifteen-minute play, Imison voiced a considerate opinion:

It’s not the length of the play that concerns me but the idea, which so often undlerlies the argument, that it is the listener’s reduced attention span for which we have to cater; or worse, that drama has to be ‘packaged’, polythene-wrapped and attractively (or even deceptively) labelled within a magazine format so that it slips unnoticed into the shopping basket of the mind. And that of course is the very antithesis of the dramatic experience.

Imison is of course correct. No amount of arguing that serials provide “structure” to our oh-so-chaotic contemporary lives can ameliorate the fact that some stories simply cannot be told in fifteen minute installments. The limitation of time is also a limitation of dramatic options. Nothing is wrong with the fifteen-minute play in itself, no more than anything is wrong with the short story as a format. But sometimes one needs a novel–or a two-hour drama.

Ms. Garber and Lord Birt and others place so much stock in the serial format that they fail to take into account the nature of drama.  As a consequence, the trend toward serials has not broadened options, but rather has narrowed them.

In this antiseptic serialism radio drama exists purely as a consumer commodity, with generic materials made pret-a-porter for your busy lifestyle. Gone is the idea that art does not always fall neatly into consumer models. Gone, too, is the idea that serials can teach the lesson of exploration, unless that exploration be superficial, or that they create “anticipatory pleasure.”

What serials really do is create more products, deftly produced by focus group and market survey charts, smartly branded for sale at the BBC store, and as far removed from artistic concerns as a worker bee is from a human being. To recover the dramatic experience on the radio, the last thing artists need is more of this serialism. What they and their audiences need is post-serialism, something that looks beyond time slots, pie charts, vague survey questions, and restores the dramatic experience of radio drama.

Categories Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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