Charles Parker and Radio Documentary in Context

Written by Simon Elmes – 2016

Charles Parker was a one-off. No one did documentary the way he did. No-one. And the combination of talents that was Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl and Charles made radio features that were, to use the buzzword of today utterly distinctive – and until the modern-day copies created in 2006 by producer John Leonard and his team – genuinely unique.

But they weren’t unique in their subject matter – the lives of ‘ordinary people’ had featured in documentary since the 1930s. But the contributions of those early interviewees were far from fluent. Laboriously transcribed and then creakily re-voiced by the participants themselves (in order to keep the BBC’s guardians of taste happy that nothing unvetted would reach the public’s ears), they often sounded wooden and lifeless. Nevertheless, they did feature street-voices from, for example, London’s markets talking about their trades. In another celebrated example from 1934, East Enders described how they left the city to help out with the harvest: ’Opping ’Oliday, by pioneer BBC producer Laurence Gilliam, was ‘an excursion in sound to the hop gardens of Kent’.

But radio wasn’t first into the documentary water. Gilliam and his colleagues were following in the tradition of filmmakers like American Robert J Flaherty who’d been documenting life in the raw since 1922. At the BBC, DG (Geoffrey) Bridson – another great documentarist of the first decades of radio – used (like many producers of the period) actors to create his feature portraits, such as May Day in England and The March of the ’45. His Steel, from 1937 painted a poetic picture of Sheffield’s churning industry. A lifelong socialist, Bridson said he wanted to include “every sound available to radio to convey the drama and excitement.”

Drowsily, the crouching beast of the city, lazing aloof, licks and snuffs at the daylight, idly awake to the stamp of a distant hoof. Heavy lids hover about the fires of a burning eye, drawing sleep – like a familiar scent – enduringly by. One after one, the shifting images hurry and shuffle past in a successive quickening pattern that brings the day to life at last. One after one, the sounds of the wakening city scatter the mist as crouching beast, master and man, move off with little zest. Echoing footfalls follow the hunching forms of the early astir, pattering morning pebbles upon the windows of sullen suburbia; one light glows in the frosted windows of dismal shops, and doors creak discreetly as gurgling gutters are choked with morning slops. Only the pipes of shivering men are warm, huddling at a hundred tramway stops…

A highly poeticised industrial dawn in Sheffield from Bridson’s Steel. Bridson wanted, like Soviet documentary film-makers such as Dziga Vertov, to celebrate the labours of the working man and woman, and the intrinsic poetry and rhythms of ordinary thankless toil. This was a common thread that bound the BBC’s early feature makers like Bridson, and the legendary pioneer woman producer Olive Shapley.

Shapley joined the BBC in Manchester twelve years after the Corporation had begun, in 1934. She gloried in the opportunity to bring ordinary working folk to a national audience, like her favourite interviewee, Jonty Wilson, a blacksmith from Westmoreland. And again like Geoffrey Bridson, Shapley felt constricted by the requirement to script real people’s contributions. She recalls how Bridson, fed up with the rule, finally corralled a bunch of Durham coalminers into a live studio in Newcastle. “He said ‘talk – talk about your lives, your work down pits and so on. And they did. And I was sent in after about five minutes with a large piece of cardboard on which poor Bridson had chalked “‘Do not say bloody or bugger!’”

Olive Shapley’s first documentary was called LSD (standing for ‘pounds, shillings and pence’, the pre-decimal version of the UK currency). “Documentaries were very new in those days. I mean now everyone will talk when a microphone is put in front of them, but I remember…we took our recording van, which was like a furniture van, down to Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire – we blocked the whole village street on a Saturday night! – and we ran a microphone into the Co-op and found out how people were spending their money. Sounds very simple, but we thought it was terrific.”

Olive spent her radio life ‘down mines, in workhouses and monasteries’ making documentaries and worked too with another legendary figure of the Left, the theatre director, Joan Littlewood who, later, went on to found the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The singer, Ewan MacColl, was another of Littlewood’s collaborators and thus it was perhaps inevitable that all these documentary strands should eventually come together.

It took, though, the development in the 1950s of a more flexible recording setup than the huge radio van – the portable tape-recorder – married with the unique creativity of MacColl, Parker, and Seeger to together create something for radio that went beyond the feature work of previous generations of radio documentarists. The Ballad of John Axon was the very first of their ‘Radio Ballads’, about a heroic railway worker, made in 1958 and blending the – painstakingly recorded, selected and minutely edited – voices of the people with a song tradition that reached back into history. The Observer commented: “last week a technique and a subject got married and nothing in ‘radio kaleidoscopy’… will ever be the same again”.

And it wasn’t.

But after nearly a decade’s worth of Radio Ballads, Charles Parker’s life at the BBC became a bit of a balancing act. Television was the place where most ground-breaking socially minded documentary and drama were happening – David Attenborough commissioned Man Alive for BBC2 in 1965, which ran till 1981, while Ken Loach’s seminal documentary-style play Cathy Come Home was broadcast in 1966, two years after Parker made his last Ballad The Travelling People (about gypsy families). With the Cold War at its height and the Stakhanovite nobility of labour feeling now a little more like nostalgia, Radio documentary was moving into a harder-nosed, less heroic era, reflecting the concerns of the late 1960s – burgeoning drug abuse, homosexuality, youth rebellion.

Charles, however, found himself still involved in capturing ‘the voice of the people’, for a major documentary series that was described by the then Controller of Radio 4, as ‘an imaginative account of life for the ordinary man in Britain over the past two millennia.’ The year was 1970, and the project was to be called The Long March of Everyman. The overall producer was a young and brilliantly talented documentary-maker called Michael Mason. “We take the history of the British people ‘who have never spoken yet’,” wrote Mason in his project outline, “and present that, with full scholarly integrity, as a great popular epic of everyday life.” Everyman, then, was not history in the tradition of kings, queens, conquests and cardinals, but the experience of the ordinary man and woman on the old Roman road, caught as in some anachronistic snapshot labouring in the fields or feasting in the Moot Hall…

The Long March of Everyman was epic in scale – 26 episodes – as far removed from the Radio Ballads almost as could be. It retold the history of the island of Britain through the words of ordinary people – voiced by their modern-day equivalents, recorded and performed to Charles Parker’s microphone.

Documentary was moving on. There were, of course, still the single-topic pieces that reflected the changing face of Britain in the 1970s, but as stereo (Long March was conceived as a stereo, sound-rich project) began to gain a regular foothold, subjects became more sophisticated in their use of audio and more diverse, documentary a more routine part of the schedules. And the machinery to capture those precious voices was shrinking in size – first came the Uher reel-to-reel machine then, with cassette recorders becoming commonplace as technology miniaturised electronics, Sony released a professional version of their popular Walkman range. Getting closer to the subject was now a matter of course, as this Radio Times billing for a documentary by Tony van den Bergh – another energetic programme maker of the period – illustrates:

Tony van den Bergh recently spent twenty-four hours with a psychiatrist in Yorkshire. He made recordings during consultations with patients, electrical treatment, and group therapy. Out of this exhausting but normal day’s work Tony Van den Bergh has built up an authentic picture of how a psychiatrist works.

Tony van den Bergh gave Radio 4 features about going through life’s hell, with his own experiences as a guidebook. He charted his own bankruptcy and the agony of his five hip replacement operations with only an epidural to reduce the pain. He was, as his obituary in the year 2000 put it ‘cantankerous’: “I see things too often in black and white, especially when my sense of injustice is involved. This can result in my saying things which I will deeply regret later in those grim hours of early morning” he once admitted.

Ray Gosling was another programme maker who had been peripherally involved in Everyman and was now finding his feet as a radio performer in his own right. He was a Northampton lad and grew up with the voices of Parker’s subjects ringing in his ears. Yet Ray was another original, a brilliant wideboy growing up a teenage rebel who wrote like a dream. He presented documentaries too, for producers like Alastair Wilson and Peter Everett. For Wilson, he made (for instance) Workers’ Playtime ‘a thoughtful cruise around holidays and holiday camps conducted by Ray Gosling’ (1978).

Meanwhile in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, the miniaturisation of stereo recording equipment and a young, creative set of production talent was taking documentary off in Peter Leonhard Braunnew directions. In Berlin, Peter Leonhard Braun, working for what was then Sender Freies Berlin, (today Radio Berlin-Brandenburg, RBB), made a memorable programme about a replacement hip operation, entitled simply Operating Theatre 3, with microphones placed in a lattice pattern around the operating table. A year later in 1974, Braun was also responsible for another remarkable feature that captured the sounds of bells and bell-founding across the now peaceful European mainland. An act of post-war poetic European solidarity, Glocken in Europa (Bells across Europe) is a ground-breaking sound-rich piece that won Braun a coveted Prix Italia award. Braun had spent some time in London in the 1960s and had been struck by the power of BBC feature work. Now he was to be the crucible for propagating and developing a level of sophisticated storytelling pioneered by Charles Parker, but now taken on into different, challenging fields. “My God, what a feeling of liberation! We no longer wrote about a subject, we recorded the subject itself. We were acoustic cameras, shooting our sound material in the wild, then combining it into productions. We called these documentary works ‘acoustic films’.”

FX                    CRANE.
NARRATOR     One can only hear the birth of a bell.
When – reluctant and heavy- the bronze bubbles from the furnace, a blazing mire, crackling through the feeder pipes until it sears its way into the dug-in moulds so that the air escapes with a hissing sound.
FX                    BELL CASTING.
FX                    BELLS.
NARRATOR     A bell is a cry out made from metal, invented because it was vital for man to give alarm of danger quicker than he could run and spread it further than his own voice would carry. Fire. Storm. Flood. Attack. Flight. A bell is a parish-clerk. Calling for assemblies, church services, and tolling the time. It announces a wedding or a christening or a death. A bell is music. It sings the feasts, glorifies God and celebrates peace. A bell is a prostitute. It yells out whatever you wish: murder, conspiracy, revolution, and execution, the plague, famine and war. A bell is just matter. Copper and tin. And that is its undoing.
FX                    GUNFIRE AND TANKS.
NARRATOR     In the wartime year of 1940 the Nazi-Regime coldly gives orders that “to safeguard the reserves of metal for long-term conduct of war” all German church bells must be handed over to the armament industry. – Copper and tin are strategic metals. Natural resources on German territory are – negligible. Hermann Göring’s intentions are that only 10 bells are to be preserved in the whole of Germany. The Church Authorities secure as a final concession the upkeep of 5 percent. Total loss – 47,000 bells. Brass cartridges for grenades and machine-gun ammunition. Copper for the axle bearings of heavy engines. The aircraft industry has a continuous demand for tin. And the German war machine, that armored colossus, rolls slowly across Europe. German bells no longer suffice. Poland delivers up bells. Czechoslovakia. Holland. Belgium. France. Italy, Austria, Hungary. 33,000 bells for the German arms industry.
NARRATOR     At the end of the war the silence in Europe is that of the graveyard. Altogether 80,000 bells – are missing. In the church towers there often hangs but one bell, the smallest one, the passing bell.

Michael Mason

In 1974, while Michael Mason was developing his next big project for Radio 4, Leo Braun and two other feature pioneers from Europe – his Swedish colleague, Ake Blomström and the Belgian Andries Poppe – got together to found an international professional meeting point for documentary-makers. The inaugural International Feature Conference was held in Berlin the next year. And by coincidence of timing, that was precisely when Michael Mason’s next major radio project was unveiled. It was called Plain Tales from the Raj.

It had started life back in 1971, at a commissioning meeting organised by Radio 4’s then controller Tony Whitby ‘to examine the need for collecting material about current and recent history and the contemporary life-style’. Producers arrived bearing gifts, including from Charles Parker the (for him) rather conventional idea of a programme about surviving children’s games and playground chants (‘working title: The Singing Street’). But it was memories of colonial India that got the nod, with Charles Allen as collector and presenter. Very different from the raw acoustic work being pioneered by Leo Braun in Europe, Allen and Mason’s programmes gathered passionate, moving recollections from dozens if not hundreds of men and women who had grown up under the Raj, including, memorably, the comic writer and ex-Goon, Spike Milligan. “The mortality rate was unbelievable. My own uncle, Alfie, died at the age of – what – five years old of diphtheria in a tented hospital where they’d done a tracheotomy and that was still not good enough, and my mother – little girl that she was – sat by the bed while he was screaming himself to death trying to breathe. This mortality was quite ordinary, you know.”

“I could not believe,” says Michael Mason’s colleague Alastair Wilson, “how he had conjured a sound world out of one man talking plus a few sound effects”. Spike Milligan’s Plain Tale was an exceptional programme that still today resonates: sad, powerfully emotional – he breaks down at one point – slightly at odds with the world,  honouring the positive aspects of the colonial experience as well as its wrongs, it had a huge public response because it was just so intimate; a greatly loved public figure being brutally honest.

Mason followed up his successful series with colonial memories of other corners of the former British Empire, to continuing success. But for all their expertise and rich vein of storytelling, his features belonged to the older school of ‘drama recollected in tranquillity’. The programme-makers who were setting the pace at the BBC, taking advantage of the new technology and the rich sound palette that stereo location recording afforded, were Peter Everett in Manchester, Alastair Wilson who moved from London to join Everett in the north and Sharon Banoff, then a young researcher. Banoff and Everett created a new strand of sound-based documentary, called Actuality. “We devised Actuality”, observes Radio 4’s controller of the period, Michael Green, “which was rooted in ‘what is life like out there?’ [It was] part of a renaissance of radio, a rediscovery of what radio could do well”. Much, indeed, as Leo Braun and his colleagues in Sweden and Belgium were doing beyond these shores.

Actuality, and its successor Soundtrack were remarkable, lengthy series of forty- or forty-five minute documentaries that used montage (i.e. scriptless) production to tell their stories. The Times radio critic admired the “technical expertise [and] superb compilation and editing…presenting a clear, vivid and absorbing impression – of a holiday camp, a hospice, a jazzband – week after week.”

Everett, Wilson and Banoff were very much the new technically-savvy sort of producer who went out with their own recording machines and mics and captured the raw sounds in large quantities in order to fashion a narrative on the editing machine. One remarkable exercise of this type was an ‘instant documentary’ made by Andy Parfitt, later controller of Radio 1 but at that time a young studio manager-turned features producer. In Blackpool ’89 he corralled six producers – I was fortunate to be one of them – to capture August Bank Holiday Saturday at Blackpool. We worked through the night, editing our various strands of story, which Andy then wove into a feature that was broadcast at 9am on Holiday Monday. In pre-digital days, simply manipulating the hours of quarter-inch tape was almost a military operation.

Very different were the delicate compositions of Piers Plowright. Piers, who was originally a producer for the BBC radio drama department, was the creator of such memorable features as Nobody Stays in this House Long, about an elderly couple who had inhabited the same grand Kensington home all their lives, but were about to move, and Setting Sail, a reflection on death. Piers was deeply steeped in the work of European creative artists – filmmakers, dramatists and of course radio producers. He became a regular at the international gatherings of feature makers and carried off a clutch of Prix Italia awards. In Europe, he would encounter such luminaries of the period as René Farabet from France, who created his own Radiophonic Creation Workshop for Radio France, from Finland Harri Huhtamäki, founder of RadioAtelier, and Barbro Holmberg, and the Paris-domiciled Australian Kaye Mortley.

Despite the top-class work of Actuality and Soundtrack, it’s safe to say that from the 1990s on, European makers – with less of a journalistic tradition than the UK – used the high-quality technologies and considerable resources now available to them largely to outstrip the work of most British feature-makers. Like Plowright here, they conceived documentaries as a true art-form, akin to film-making, and not a branch of journalism. Berit Hedemann and Kari Hesthamar in Norway, Lisbeth Jessen in Denmark are just three of the eminent names from a rich vein of Scandinavian programme-makers who developed the form from the millennium on. With a provision of many weeks to complete each piece of work, and with the very best microphones and specialist sound recordists and studio engineers, such ‘authors’ as they refer to themselves conceived – and continue to conceive – their work as pieces of factual theatre.

The structure of their work is built according to principles that owe much to drama – they refer to it as dramaturgy – telling stories that unfold in carefully constructed rhythms and ‘scenes’. Montage, or carefully composed scripting, rather than the British style of journalistic authoritative presentation, is the key to the style of such overseas features. In Britain, it’s perhaps indicative that it was an ex-drama man Piers Plowright, a musician, Alan Hall and a former film-maker Mairi Russell who first most readily succeeded in creating such ‘European’ features here.

In the last ten years, the first wave of great continental feature-makers moved into retirement and – with a few rare exceptions (in 2016 Swedish documentary makers are currently the toast of Europe) – it’s in Germany and the UK that the tradition of carefully composed and structured features waxes strongest. Lives in a Landscape (from 2005) started the tradition, which in 2016 was succeeded by The Untold, with its delicate stories of ordinary lives at a moment of change. Though, inevitably perhaps, the montage form is still less common here than abroad, with Grace Dent’s warming presence as storyteller / presenter for The Untold.

It all feels a very long way from the heroic voices captured and assembled and woven by Ewan, Peggy and Charles some 60 years ago. Yet the craft and finesse – in today’s idioms and voice – are as thoughtfully conceived, captured and composed as The Ballad of John Axon or Singing the Fishing. It’s a great tradition, with many heroes, and one which, despite staff cuts and financial exigency, is still defended strongly by the BBC and its leadership.

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