In Parenthesis (BBC Third Programme, 1955)

David Jones’ In Parenthesis was heard at the British Library on 16 October 2014 as the second in a five-part series of public listenings. Below, Professor Hugh Chignell of Bournemouth University offers some background to this work:


1955 In ParenthesisWe heard the BBC Third Programme production of David Jones’ In Parenthesis broadcast on 30 January 1955 (3.00-5.00pm), which was produced by Douglas Cleverdon, with music by Elizabeth Poston and starring Richard Burton as Private John Ball.

The programme is an adaptation of David Jones’ epic poem, published in 1937, based on his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. It combines the main elements of the radio feature including narrated verse, acting, music and sound effects. It is an interesting combination of a highly realist account of life on the front line with mythic elements – ‘Dai Greatcoat’, for example, is the immortal, archetypal Welsh soldier and the Queen of the Wood visits dying soldiers. The script is full of biblical and literary allusions and especially references to Shakespeare and Malory as well as to Welsh legend and poetry.

It was first broadcast on radio on 19 November 1946 on the newly established Third Programme. The Radio Times billed it as follows:

An experiment in writing made between 1929 and 1937, prompted by what the writer saw and felt as an infantryman in the London Welsh Battalion, R.W.F. [Royal Welch Fusiliers], on the Western Front, 1915-18. Adapted for radio and produced by Douglas Cleverdon, music by Elizabeth Poston, conducted by Maurice Miles. With selections from the original preface spoken by David Jones.

Pte. John Ball embarks from Southampton for France with his comrades. In France the men march and prepare for battle. There is an explosion as a shell lands nearby. We hear rain and the sound of distant guns. The men occupy their trench; they sleep, sing and clean their rifles. The men visit a bar where they sing and complain. John Ball has two special friends and they sit in the sun talking about poetry. The fighting resumes, we hear the sounds of battle, screams, a man dies. The Queen of the Wood appears. John Ball is hit and wounded.

Critical reaction to the original poem was remarkable. T.S. Eliot considered it to be ‘A work of genius’ and W.H. Auden labelled it ‘a masterpiece’, adding that it was ‘the greatest book about the First world War’. The poet, Adam Thorpe wrote, that ‘it towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)’.

David Jones

Photograph of David Jones © The Estate of David Jones and the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum

Reviews of the first and some of the later productions:

Philip Hope-Wallace writing in The Listener, 28 November 1946 [extract]

[. . .] actually voicing the Welsh, the Cockney, the Sandhurst accents, cut about with the incantatory bardic sounds, the voice of memory, the voice of physical experience – made it more immediately moving than one would have believed.

(Hope-Wallace also wondered whether a listener who hadn’t read the book would understand the programme’s ‘shape’, adding that ‘one or two people must have enjoyed it immensely’.)

J.C. Trewin writing in The Listener, 10 February 1955 [extract]

It was as if men, in a column without end or beginning, were on the march under low skies that at first pressed down upon them, but that lifted now and then for light to flash back from their shields or marions of some earlier army.

(Trewin added that at times we are ‘at the red heart of war’ or just waiting ‘under an evening sky’. This was a ‘rare radio experience’.)

2 comments

  1. C. Churches · · Reply

    What about the those of us who live in the north?? I particularly feel vexed that I will be unable to hear In Parenethesis. Yet, having just been to London to see the Matisse exhibition, I cannot justify the expense of another London trip so soon.
    Can you make these available as podcasts? You have no idea how the direct screenings from the National Theatre, the Globe, and the RSC of live theatre productions have enhanced our cultural life.

  2. Nick Sawyer · · Reply

    Great to have the opportunity to hear this. As a young teenager c.1960 in the house of a retired couple, one an artist contemporary of Nash, Nicholson and Jones, the other a war-weary commissioned Cavalry Officer, I was made aware of Jones’s book on their sitting room shelf and urged by them to read it. “Read it!” You might think that it was the artist who was the disciple, because Jones was one of her circle, and you would not be too far wrong. In fact though it was the cavalry officer, shaped by his experiences in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Palestine, for whom In Parenthesis provided the truest representation of human conflict.

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