Written by Erskin Quint
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Monday, 30 May 2011

image for More Stars Of Silent Radio Sound radio, with all its crude paraphernalia and hysterical pressures, signalled the death knell for Hilda Mooncalfe

It is time once more to pay tribute to the stars of silent radio, those heroic pioneers who blazed the trail for all who followed. Indeed, it could be said that, without these trail-blazers, today's all-singing all-dancing radio would simply not be what it is.

We are revisiting again those far-off days before modern full-colour, sound radio, when "digital broadcasting" meant splendid performers like Harold "Harry" Harris and his Shadow Puppet Woodland Animal Show, rather than anything to do with computers and their ilk.

Yes, true professionals like Harold "Harry" Harris made their living by dint of their bare hands. This was literally true in Harold's case. Bare hands and a candle were all the technology he needed. His act was one of sheer atmosphere. Listeners always felt as if they were actually in the midnight woodland glade, waiting with bated breath for the owl to swoop down upon the unsuspecting rabbit. And all this was created purely by Harold's subtle dexterity and ability to manipulate the most essential ingredient of all - the imagination of the audience. His images were truly hewn out of silence.

Even now, to hear one of the low-fidelity recordings of his shows is a real spine-tingler. You never know what is going to happen, or when.

And who could forget Hilda Mooncalfe, the "silent siren", whose weekly soundless performances of favourite operetta and music hall numbers surely made her the silent radio equivalent of a Maria Callas or Petula Clark? Sadly, Miss Mooncalfe was also a fragile flower, for whom the coming of sound radio with all its crude paraphernalia and hysterical pressures signalled the death knell.

She refused to perform in sound, claiming that it would "destroy the magic", and was never heard from again. An attempt to resurrect her career on provincial theatre tour was a disaster. The public, their tastes coarsened by the advent of cinema, simply would not tolerate three hours of silent music hall songs. She later claimed that she had wanted a Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, which the audience would have lapped up, but was badly advised by an agent.

It was Dutchman Bonse Van Platimousse who was the first man to make a silent wireless broadcast for regular entertainment. This he accomplished on 6 October 1919 from a shed at his home on the West Frisian island of Schiermonnikoog. He made four broadcasts of silent readings from the Frisian Sagas of the Legendary Windmill Dwellers, before his shed was demolished by a storm.

But silent radio was not just about popular entertainment. It had its avant garde too. One of its most adventurous exponents was the French producer Maurice Pissoire. After working in the Theatre of the Absurd in its heyday at Blackpool Tower Ballroom, Pissoire turned to silent radio, the better to slake his incessant thirst for new creative horizons.

Pissoire's broadcasts of several of the Kabuki Juhachiban plays of Classical Japanese Theatre are rightly-revered by all who appreciate the enormities of silent radio drama. In particular, Pissoire's broadcast of the rarely-performed Uwanari play in July 1922 is considered a classic of the genre, and the Musee d'Orsay are thought to be keen to acquire the only recording of the performance from its owner, believed to be a wealthy inhabitant of Jutland.

Pissoire's son, Claude-Laurent, took up the baton upon his father's admission to an asylum in Lyons in 1924. His silent broadcasts - notably the complete Late Quartets of Beethoven and The Restoration Comedies of Aphra Behn, one of the first female professional English writers - have correctly been accorded their own special place in the pantheon.

And there we must leave the rarified world of silent radio once more. Why did silent radio decline? Some say that it was because its exponents refused to pander to common tastes, and could not compete commercially with the coming of the cinema and popular sound broadcasts. There are those who speak of reviving the silent radio for a select audience of connoisseurs. Can they hope to succeed in this brash age?

But whatever the answers to all of these questions, one thing is certainly true.

We shall definitely return to the enchanting world of silent radio again very soon, for there are many more legends to be revisited!

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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