DANGER: an explosive turning point for radio drama 

DANGER: an explosive turning point for radio drama 

15th January 2024

By Professor Tim Crook on behalf of BBC History 

Richard Hughes was just 23 in January 1924 when he was asked by producer Nigel Playfair to take on the challenge of writing a play ‘for effect by sound only’, which would be the first of its kind. Playfair had been commissioned by the newly-established BBC to put together an evening of playlets experimenting with radio as a medium. 

Pioneering women had already laid the foundations for this experiment – including Phyllis M Twigg, who had written a play for children, The Truth about Father Christmas as told by The Fairy Dustman, and Cathleen Nesbitt, who adapted and directed the BBC’s first season of four full-length Shakespeare plays for radio in 1923.  

But now, Playfair had set his sights on something new. ‘You know, Hughes’, he remarked suddenly, as the two met for coffee, ‘I believe what is really wanted for broadcasting is something specially written for the job. A pity there’s no time now to get it done; we begin rehearsing after lunch tomorrow.’ 

At that time, Hughes was a rising star, having had a hit with his one act The Sisters’ Tragedy at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square in 1922. Hughes specialised in writing the then-fashionable genre of grand guignol, which combined horror and thriller to entertain. Keen to take on the challenge of writing for radio, he offered to have something for Playfair the following morning.  

What he produced overnight was nothing short of genius. Its initial title, The Comedy of Danger, was ironic. It would later be called by the single word Danger

A young man and woman, Jack and Mary, are taken down a Welsh coal mine by Mr Bax, an elderly man with a gruff voice. But when the lights suddenly go out, all three are plunged into terrifying darkness. Their situation becomes more desperate as an explosion occurs and the mine begins to flood, leaving the listener anxious to know whether they will be rescued. 

The play instantly captured the imagination of listeners and media – not just because of Hughes’ skill as a playwright, but because the disaster plot would have called to mind recent real-life mining disasters, such as the gas explosion at the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster in Glamorgan in 1913. The haunting sound in the play of Welsh miners singing to console themselves in the darkness of the pit would be powerfully resonant for the play’s original listeners. The original listening experience would have been all the more vivid as the announcer advised lights should be turned down and the play heard in darkness or by fire-light.  

There was also genius in the way the BBC enchanted newspaper and magazine reporters by inviting them to watch the production live at Savoy Hill. A roaring explosion sound was created for them by firing a gun in their darkened media room. The editor of Popular Wireless said the effect was ‘sepulchral in the extreme.’ 

Hughes also helped with the production of ingenious sound effects. The magic of a sieve containing thousands of lead shots produced the sound of rushing and swishing water. Wood scraping sandpaper and a theatrical wind machine added to the effects of flooded mine, rescue party’s pickaxes, and answering taps on the walls from entrapped miners. Most haunting were the Gwalia Singers performing miners singing Welsh hymns in the distance. They did this outside the second door of the studio and called out through glass lamp chimneys thus producing a hollow, far-away and echoing effect.  

The broadcast was a triumph, not only for Hughes (who was invited by the Evening Standard and national Daily News to write articles on ‘How Wireless Plays Are Done’ and ‘Drama For The Ear Only’) but for the BBC, which would continue to invest in the exciting new medium of radio drama, appointing its first Director of Drama productions soon after, in July 1924. Today, the BBC remains the biggest commissioner of audio drama in the world.  

Danger continues to have an enduring appeal and has been reproduced by the BBC at least eight times since its original broadcast, including most recently an updated version in Danger 2023 by Michael Symmons Roberts(originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and available on BBC Sounds). 

Richard Hughes went on to have a successful career as a novelist, but he will always be remembered for turning out the lights at the beginning of Danger – and in doing so, lighting up the future of audio drama. 

Professor Tim Crook is the author of Writing Audio Drama (2023) and Radio Drama: Theory & Practice (1999).  

More info is available at (bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc)

Article by Alex Mason

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