The Ghastly Impermanence: Guided by Voices — A New Listener’s Guide to Audio Drama, Part 1

After some protracted requests, I have begun to assemble something to appease my readers. This entry marks the first part of a loose introductory guide to audio drama. I do not know how many parts it will be. There is much to say on the subject. Primarily this is an attempt to interest new listeners in things they have not heard. Secondarily, it is an attempt to entice old listeners into broadening their interests. But the only way to accomplish either of these is through my own personal taste which is, to put it mildly, far from mainstream. I am not a disinterested observer. I do not claim to be impartial.

Radiostacja Gliwicka, tallest wooden structure in the world. Photo by Karol K.
Radiostacja Gliwicka, tallest wooden structure in the world. Photo by Karol K.

I had much rather have people listening to something other than genre fiction. This does not mean I scrupulously avoid all genre fiction. I do not. But it is not my preference because, typically, it tends to be severely limited not only in content but also in form. There are, of course, exceptions, and those will likely be the ones I bring into focus.

There will be very few references to so-called American OTR. My reasoning is twofold:

1) American OTR tends to privilege “shows” over scripts, and products over creators. I am not interested in networks or content distribution, or in that exploitive and ridiculous system of production. I am interested in drama.

2) American OTR tends to be generic by design. The dullest tropes of television at its most generic derive from radio. Sitcoms. Soap operas. Cop shows. SyFy. None of this is mysterious or unfamiliar and survives just fine without me wasting my breath on it.

I am aware that, as Nietzsche once wrote, “There are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.” What he called for was “historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty.” I hope my historical tour, like my philosophizing, is suitably modest.


It doesn’t matter where a new listener starts his affair with audio drama. Anywhere will do. I prefer to throw a person into the deep end, and so I will begin with audio drama at its limits.

There are many radio plays of extraordinary quality that could function quite well or even perfectly well on stage or on television. By contrast the three plays I choose today could not possibly function effectively on stage. They are crafted in audio and use the unique qualities of audio to accomplish their effects. They are:

  • The Revenge by Andrew Sachs
  • Napoleon’s Piano by Spike Milligan
  • Mickey Mookey by Steve Walker

All three are 30 minutes or less. All three use sound in innovative ways. All three offer a pathway into the history of audio drama as audio drama. From there, one can explore anything in the field; from there, any digression is possible.


The Revenge by Andrew Sachs

From silence there emerges the sound of birdsong and then a faint humming noise which could be running water somewhere in the distance. A siren wails, shattering the tranquillity of this pastoral scene and a man’s breathing is simultaneously heard in close-up, panting and pained. Footfalls are heard moving over soft ground, accompanied by the rustle of clothing and the panting of breath. In the distance, along with the birdsong, men’s voices are heard shouting inarticulately, accompanied by dogs barking. Close-up, the man’s breathing is laboured with intermittent gasps of pain. Each breath is forced out. It’s the sound of fear. Feet running, distant voices shouting, dogs barking and, in the foreground, the continuing struggle for breath. The footfalls and the breathing become faster, more determined, even desperate. Then the sound of footfalls change, becoming softer. They rustle upon leaves. Branches snap under foot. They slow down and stop. The man catches his breath and sighs heavily. The shouts and barks seem all around. Running water can be heard more distinctly now. The footfalls resume and change their sound once again. They squelch. Then they splash, moving through water, first shallow but with each step becoming deeper and more laboured. The man grunts as he wades into the watery depths. The water surges, bubbles and plops. The man pants, filling his lungs with air. Suddenly he takes a deep breath. There is a subdued splash followed by a bubbling noise and at that moment all the other sounds become strangely muffled and distorted. The dogs and the men’s voices are now heard through the water, gradually diminishing and leaving only the sound of the water itself. The water ripples around us (in stereo) until there is a brutal burst of sound, immediately followed by the man gasping for air. Panting and splashing follow. The sound of the men and their dogs are now far off. The breathing slows, becomes more rhythmic. Footfalls sound, squelching upon a soft carpet of leaves, hesitantly at first but gathering into a steady pace. There is no longer any sound of men’s voices or dogs barking. The man sighs. A bird sings. The steady breathing and footfalls fade to silence.

This is Alan Beck’s description of the first scene of Andrew Sachs’ The Revenge. It probably took you longer to read the description than it did for the audible action to take place. A play completely without dialogue, it is an excellent example of how radio can bring to a listener an experience no other medium can duplicate.

Much has been said about this ground-breaking play. Most of it is rubbish. Most of this rubbish stems from the reactionary belief that audio drama requires words. Even as intelligent a person as Jonathan Raban dismissed the play as merely “a wordless sequence of noises.” This is accurate enough. The play is wordless. It is a sequence of noises. So is Beethoven’s Große Fuge. Such criticism is buncombe.

Andrew Crisell’s analysis of the piece insists that because radio is a blind medium, any piece of radio drama requires words to have meaning. What Professor Crisell insists is that because the sounds in The Revenge are ambiguous they are meaningless. On the contrary, ambiguity does not imply lack of meaning. It creates a multiplicity of meanings, each dependent upon context.

In The Revenge, this is not a weakness but a strength. Nominally a “mystery” story, the experience of the piece is deliberately mysterious. The decision to record the piece as binaural intensifies this. The only real way to experience the piece binaurally is for the listener to wear headphones. This immediately implies that the listener has surrrendered himself to the experience. The sound then acquires a three-dimensional effect, where a listener becomes an immediate observer of slightly vague, slightly ominous things, but a part of the scene rather than detached from it. Sound, the directional movement of sound, and the listener’s experience of moving through sound herself are especially important and especially keen here.

The Revenge is not merely an experiment to see what can be done with sound. It is also an essay about genre. As Andrew Sachs himself has said, “The theme is contained in the title.” This is a “crime drama.” But what is a “crime drama”? Stripped of all its verbal tropes, how does a “crime drama” sound? By exploring the limits of the genre through sound, the piece also guides listeners into their own explorations of how other genres, and indeed how all of audio drama, “sounds.”


Napoleon’s Piano by Spike Milligan

English-language audio drama tends to be extremely conservative. Andrew Sachs’ brilliant play when it debuted was dismissed as “a well-puffed curiosity” and much worse, which shows exactly how critics (and some audiences as well) in England respond to virtually anything that breaks the pattern of tradition–or, at least, the tradition in their heads.

The one area in which writers and producers and engineers can experiment is in the area of comedy. For whatever reason, the fact that something is pitched as comedy seems to excuse it from the realm of “serious” consideration, which is to say, from the realm where people have fixed ideas about The Way Things Ought To Be. This is a good thing. Comedy allows for the bizarre experiment’s of America’s Joe Frank as much as it allows for the sonic anarchy of England’s Goon Show.

Virtually any Spike Milligan script from The Goon Show would be a good introduction to the sonic anarchy of Spike Milligan. Napoleon’s Piano offers some of his finest moments with the Goons: witty repartee, running verbal gags that become audio puns, outright parody of other genres, remarkable use of sound effects, and a penchant for metadrama that would make Bertolt Brecht proud.

 In needle nardle noo time I was at the address, and with the aid of a piece of iron and a lump of wood, I made this sound:

[Knocks five times on door]

 Sapristi knockos! When I heard that sound I ran downstairs, and with the aid of a doorknob and two hinges I made this sound:

[Door handle turns, door creaks open]

 Ah! Good morning!

 Good morning? Just a moment…

[Telephone picked up, dialing]

 Hello? Air Ministry roof? Report… yes? yes? Thank you.

[Telephone hung up]

 You’re perfectly right: it is a good morning.

As Milligan said in an interview with Richard Lester, “I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy. Sound effects were ‘a knock on the door and tramps on gravel’–that was it, and I tried to transform it.”

Transform it he did. Together with the firm hand of producer Peter Eton, himself a master of sound effects, Milligan helped shake BBC radio drama out of its obsession with speech. While the BBC Drama department had used live sound effects (FX) and recorded noises (GRAMS) in creative ways before, such sounds had appeared very sparingly, and never before in comedy, which had been tied down to the verbal since the first BBC Radio production of Twelfth Night in 1923. In Milligan’s audio dramas, sound is unleashed. Sound effects and grams add a reality to the environment while the words themselves veer off into the abstract. Playing off this ambiguity, Milligan uses words and sounds not to solidify each other but to dissipate each other. In this scene, Neddie and Eidelburger unfurl a map that is the size of Paris and agree to meet at twelve by the clock. Or is it ten?

This is far beyond “a knock on the door and tramps on gravel.” This is pure audio, completely absurd to translate into any other medium.

While the first three series of The Goon Show were done with sounds recorded directly to shellac discs and were extremely cumbersome to use, Milligan nevertheless insisted on elaborate sound. With the fourth series, the BBC introduced magnetic tape recording. Suddenly Milligan and Eton were splicing together extraordinarily complex soundtracks, not far removed from musique concrète at times.

With the founding of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, sound effects and electronic music would merge with musique concrète in BBC audio drama. Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe, and later Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, were sound engineers charged with making effects for The Goon Show but with a deep academic interest in tape splicing, musique concrète, electronic composition, and synthesized music. At the same time they arrived at the Beeb, a new generation of radio writers invaded the Third Programme. That generation would include Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, Giles Cooper, and Harold Pinter, each of whom would use sound and speech in distinctly experimental ways. This combination of new technology and new writers would shape the future of audio drama in the UK. Audio drama would never be the same across the world.

Spike Milligan and his tireless efforts to liberate sound from the background of speech, to bring sound to the foreground as its own consideration, set the stage for it all.


Mickey Mookey by Steve Walker

There is an oft-repeated statement about radio drama: unlike television or cinema it does not dictate to the imagination of the audience, but allows each listener to imagine the pictures for themself according to their personal mental drift. This is not true of my plays. In my plays I do the imagining, then share it; radio drama is a mind-altering tool, so must be precise and exact. The audience must be led where the play wants them to go or they will be left wandering in the dark all alone. In my plays I am with them. — Steve Walker

BBC Radio Four in the 1990s was a much different soundscape from today. John Birt rose quickly in the BBC from Deputy to Director-General, bringing with him the mindset of commercial television and making numerous enemies along the way. At the same time, the content of Radio Four, already overdue for change, was being challenged on all fronts. Some said it was too politically biased. Some complained of “permissiveness.” Others complained of a uniform “dumbing down.” Nevertheless Radio Four began experimenting with more “permissive” programming–i.e., anything that was not designed to reaffirm dull, reactionary beliefs in an olde Albion–in the form of literary adaptations like the 15-part serial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At the same time, radio plays were also being cancelled for “bad language.” Things were so ridiculous that the Daily Telegraph–hardly known for its liberal attitudes–was suggesting that Radio Four needed to toughen up. “Let the Radio Four listeners howl,” the editors wrote, “Their unique ability to squawk does not entitle them to a fossilized image of their own past.”

In this environment innovation took place under fire from all directions. The safest place to hide away from the radar of “respectable drama” was in a forgotten genre: children’s literature.

Steve Walker had written a radio play, The Death of the Dilkes, for the BBC when in his teens. According to him, BBC Manchester wished to produce it but London deemed it “too imaginative” for broadcast. Ten years later he finally wrote again for radio. After breaking his silence, he quickly wrote thirty more radio plays in the next three years. Nine of them belonged to a series for children entitled Whoppers, not on the embattled Radio Four but rather the ignored Radio Five.

In many ways, Whoppers began where The Goon Show left off. Because it was designed for children, being “too imaginative” was not a problem but rather a plus. Children’s radio drama was so far below the limn of BBC censorship as to be invisible (and inaudible). Where comedy offered a convenient excuse to explode the myths of tradition, children’s audio could do the same, with the added bonus of being able to tackle anything the author wished without anyone being the wiser.

In the second play of the series, Mickey Mookey, Mr. Walker uses this to his benefit. The sound design of Mickey Mookey is what some might call absurdist, but of course in children’s drama one avoids such academic terms: it is simply silly. Witness, as the little thief Josh meets Mickey Mookey for the first time.

Int. Room.

THROCKMORTON: (VERY CLOSE, WHISPERS HUSHED, PORTENTOUSLY) That night, very late, by a dim light, in a room full of slanting shadows, Josh was sitting on his bed sticking a knife into a piggy-bank he’d stolen, trying to get the coins out.



MICKEY MOOKEY: Josh…ua… Josh…ua.

JOSH: Is that you, you stupid French cat?

MICKEY MOOKEY: (AFTER AN EVIL CHUCKLE) I am the furthest thing from a cat, Joshua.


MICKEY MOOKEY: You know who it is that I am. Everybody knows me when they see me.

JOSH: (BRAVELY BUT SCARED-TO-BITS) But I can’t see you. You’re hiding behind the wardrobe.


MICKEY MOOKEY: Can you see me now?

JOSH: You’re Mickey Mookey.


MICKEY MOOKEY: Mickkkkkey Mookeyyyyyyyyy


THROCKMORTON: Mickey Mookey…


THROCKMORTON: …was seven-feet-three, a long bloodless man with no flesh at all, just dry skin stretched over bone and a smile like white knuckles. He wore a faded black suit and a tall black hat with tongues of flame on the top like fire on a Christmas pudding. His eyebrows were cockroaches. Sometimes they crawled down his face and were a moustache instead.

The reader so far has seen how sound can immerse the listener within a realistic environment in The Revenge. Sound can also create a tension between the obviously real and the obviously surreal, as in Napoleon’s Piano. It can also shift between the two at will. Mr. Walker is a master of invoking the real and the unreal simultaneously, with a relentless logic. While the tradition of the narrator in audio drama is usually to provide invisible details and psychological motivation, the narrator here is far from reliable. From the moment he introduces himself, the listener is off into the land of the bizarre:

THROCKMORTON: I never go shopping, you know…I usually send my horse. He completely ignores my shopping-lists, always brings back the wrong things. I have three rooms full of saddles at home…a saddle for each of my 704 birthdays! And all those toasters he buys from that man in the betting-shop! But today my horse is running in the Grand National – he’ll hate me saying this, but he hasn’t a chance – so I’m doing the shopping myself.

Colonel Digby Throckmorton is 704 years old and born in the year 1297, in what today is Tunbridge Wells. He has served his country in 4,621 wars. And he is a complete and utter liar–or is he? The play is one long tall tale that seems to be a long fish story narrated by the Colonel as he sits with three other people in an elevator that is about to snap. The script divides characters into The World and The Story. As one listens, it seems that surely this is all another crazy tale–a “whopper”–made up by the mad Colonel. But the ending undoes this easy interpretation.

The characters from the World eventually get out of the elevator. Col. Throckmorton ceases his tale at this point, but then another character runs after him, asking him to finish. At this point, they run into his nephew Josh from the Story and a strange happy ending ensues. Which story is real? Is the World actually the Story, too? The reader will have to decide for herself.

Whatever one decides, this is brilliant work. The audio experience is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Near the end is a scene that shows off Mr. Walker’s exquisite ear for the absurd interplay between alternate realities.

The end of the same scene is an example of the heights to which Mr. Walker can raise the storytelling use of sound.

Steve Walker is one of the few people to win the Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play twice–and only one of two to win in consecutive years. He has written fifty plays for radio that show an incredible range and dedication to the unique qualities of the medium. As he says in an interview with Emon Hassan:

I am an artist and use the invisible space of radio to draw things: people, spaces, but principally ideas. My aim, in plays like HOLUS-BOLUS, was to break the listener’s hold on reality – note the position of the apostrophe there: radio is, like a book, a one-on-one. There is no audience, rather one person at a time: as a writer I am dreaming into that person’s head. Without the distraction of flowing images, a greater intensity is allowed, by the intensity of the event: the comedy, the words, the mental pictures, pervading emotions, the invisible made visible as the play confesses itself from its darkness: all conspire together to destroy assumptions and re-make the world. So my plays are not part of the status quo, as almost all BBC plays are, but a reinvention.

Mickey Mookey is a reinvention, about as far from the dull 1990s status quo as a play can be. Like all of his work, it begs for repeated listenings. There is much to be gained from this play. It is an scintillating display of how powerful sound can be. Some have called it “the most inventive use of audio since the Goons.” I would hardly argue the point. And since it’s supposed to be written for children, it also offers a chance to get kids hooked on audio drama before they realize it isn’t supposed to be cool.

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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