Eavesdropping on the Movies

When I started off writing stuff for radio, I seemed to fall into the groove of it fairly easily. I think the reason for that is on account of the love I had for radio from a ridiculously early age.

The place where I lived, in north west Ireland, was well placed to pick up the BBC Radio stations and it was these that I listened to the most. Every week, in our house, we got the 'Radio Times' and the 'TV Times' and, while the rest of the family were thumbing to see what Ken Godwin was up to, I was sneaking off to the back pages of the Radio Times to read about what the coming week’s radio had to offer me.

Nobody else was interested in foreign BBC radio channels, the domestic services were all they needed so this remained all my territory, my secret place.

I listened on a cool transistor radio which had three bands, MW, LW and FM (VHF). It had an aerial which extended very long and this picked up those somewhat distant voices with impressive ease.

I used to listen to the dramas on Radio 4. One Sunday afternoon, as a child, I listened to the entire production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ mostly because the wonderful lilustration in the Radio Times showed two old wolves dressed up in old people’s clothes. I expected the wolves to appear in the play somewhere and, although they never did, I was still very taken with what I heard.

It’s funny that I remember practically nothing about the most memorable play I heard. It was one Saturday night, underneath the bedclothes. It was set in Wales, I know that, and it was about two young boys – I think one was called Dai (I realise this is not a stretch) - but, critically, he died and his friends would go and visit him in the cemetery. The images all this evoked in my room were alive and tangible to me. Although I don’t remember the play very well, the effect it had will never ever leave. It was, and sorry for the cliché, the power of radio in action.

As I turned teen, I moved up the channel a bit to Radio Luxembourg and such. The music and the naughty condom ads were too much to resist. Then my usage tapered off, as other matters arose.

In early secondary school, all the peer pressure seemed to revolve around how much adult TV viewing you could get away with over your weekends. You earned your spurs in this regard by being able to speak knowledgeably about whatever film or series was on. If you had been allowed to see it, you were a winner. Needless to say, my thoughtful and kind parents were very careful about what I was allowed to watch so I fared very poorly in these televisual tests of manhood.

This all came to a head one Friday night when RTE Television was showing the TV premiere of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ starring Clint Eastwood. Mark Askey, who got to see absolutely everything on telly, warned us that this was the true proof of a man – whether he could get to see ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ or not. I was surely lost… until I had the most wonderful idea.

On that radio I used to listen to so much, my domain had been largely the MW and LW bands but there was a wonderful idiosyncrasy about the FM/VHF band. Before Irish television caught up with the world and moved to UHF (ultra high frequency) it used to broadcast on VHF (very high frequency) and this was the very self-same VHF that was on my old radio.

In the simplest terms, I remembered that I could hear the TV on my radio.

I tried to stay up for Coogan’s Bluff. I made myself as small as possible in the corner and I uttered not a peep but the programme announcer alerted my parent to the sex and violence aspects of the feature and I was summarily dispatched.

I tuned the movie in as I climbed into bed, pulled up the blanket over my head, and listened to the whole thing. It was very entertaining and, on Monday morning, even Mark Askey was astonished that I could describe the film in such graphic detail. My standing went up, I moved slowly towards manhood within the group.

Thus began quite a long run of listening to unsuitable movies on the radio. The disembodied voice still holds a strong sway over my thoughts and deeds.

I feel a huge bond with radio. I only wish I could describe it to you better.


Susan at Stony River said...

What a wonderful post of memories; I loved it. It's been years since I gave a thought to the kind of things we all got up to to try to see a programme our parents had said 'no' to! My God it was a different world than today.

Laura Brown said...

There are so many things that come in and out of our lives as we move along through it. Some stick around awhile, some are one shot wonders. Anything that has stuck as long as radio has through your life has to be important.

Rachel Fox said...

A great account of growing up with the radio. I listened to more music than speech radio but I loved it just the same. It was definitely a friend at times...and an aural window.

Elisabeth said...

When I was young one of my older brothers had a crystal set, which he listened to at night under the blankets. He bought it himself from his wages as a paper boy.

I was so jealous, especially when he told us that he could listen to the BBC in London while we were on the other side of the world.

Radio is such a powerful medium. When you can listen only, it sharpens all your senses.

I feel the same when I go to book readings.

fragileheart said...

There is something so romantic about your story; and it makes me wish I grew up in your time so that the spoken word could hold as much meaning for me as the written word... Voices (quality, character, sound, etc.) already hold such a special place in my heart that I imagine this sort of experience would have made a real impact on me too.


Jim Murdoch said...

A fascinating account, Ken. I'm afraid I only discovered the radio in my early teens and only then once I'd discovered pop music; I was a late starter there – nothing prior to 1973. I have to say I was a grown man before I ever thought about listening to a radio play and I still rarely look to see what's on. For a while I started buying the Radio Times again and checking but even then I forgot about more than I got to listen to. The problem nowadays in time. I'm quite good in only watching what I want to watch but even there I have a whopping great backlog of stuff I've recorded that I'm probably never going to get to but can't bring myself to wipe. In one sense it's paradise as far removed from the days of our childhoods with only three channels to choose from, in another it's pure hell. And on top of all that we have the damn Internet screaming: "Look at me! Me! Look at me, now!"

Ken Armstrong said...

Susan: Thanks. My eldest son does the same thing now, keeping the head down, hoping I won't notice he's still there. :)

Laura: You're right, of course, it's an ongoing thing.

Rachel: Thanks. I moved on to music and for a long while it was the *only* thing.

Elisabeth: Now a crystal set *is* romantic. My transistor and I cannot compete.

Fragileheart: Eh? "Grow up in my time?" Jays, I feel like Grandpa Walton now... :)

Jim: See, I'm the same now. I can't keep up with all I want to see and hear and say and do. Often I end up with the things I would least like to do. :)

fragileheart said...

D'oh. I knew that would come back to kick me in the face. Sorry Grandpa ;)

Laura Brown said...

He can't be Grandpa. That would make me old too.

He can be that strange man sitting in the corner spouting limericks and winking at the girls.

Ken Armstrong said...

Fragileheart I'll show you 'Grandpa, you minx. :)

Laura: That's me. That's definitely me.

Sally said...

You listened to movies on the radio?! That is the coolest thing ever. You should really put that into a story. Not that it's not great as an anecdote, but oh my God! Movies on the radio! How cool is that? It's the coolest!

I am so impressed.

Movies on the radio. How cool.

Fles said...

This is incredibly cool. The only comparison I can offer is destroying my eyesight by reading late using a green LED calculator displaying 8888.8888

Radio drama rocks. Radio comedy also.