All That Fall (BBC Third Programme, 1957)

Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, produced by Donald McWhinnie on the Third Programme on 13 January 1957, will be heard at the British Library at 6.00pm on 8 October 2015 as the first in a five-part series of public listenings on the theme of ‘Inner Voices…Inner Worlds’.

Professor Hugh Chignell of Bournemouth University offers some background to this work:

‘Do not imagine, because I am silent, that I am not present’ (Maddy in All That Fall)

Jane Bown's Samuel Beckett portrait

Jane Bown’s Samuel Beckett portrait

We start this season of ‘listenings’ with a remarkable drama written especially for radio by Samuel Beckett. Soon after the first London performance of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was invited to write a play for radio.

He had met the drama producer Donald McWhinnie and the script editor Barbara Bray and, despite a deep conservatism in BBC Drama at the time, he wrote All That Fall and became the source of a number of important radio programmes including dramas written for radio, adaptations of stage plays for radio and readings from his novels.

All That Fall is the story of Maddy Rooney’s journey to Boghill Railway Station in rural Ireland, to meet her blind husband Dan, and their walk back home. Dan’s train had been delayed by a child falling from the train and dying. However, this simple story is the basis for something much more complex. The opening scene is strange and disturbing and signals that this is very far from a quaint story of Irish rural life. These are Beckett’s instructions to the producer:

Rural sounds: Sheep, bird, cow, cock, severally, then together. Silence. MRS. ROONEY advances along a country road towards railway station. Sounds of her dragging feet. Music faint from house by way. “Death and the Maiden.” The steps slow down, stop.

MRS. ROONEY: Poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house.

What we hear is in fact a bizarre non-realist interpretation of rural sounds, voiced by actors. What is going on? Perhaps we are not in rural Ireland at all, but inside Maddy’s head.

faber ednWhatever sense we make of Beckett’s radio drama today, it was considered to be a huge success at the time. This was the response of the BBC’s Head of Radio Drama, Val Gielgud, to the work, preserved in a memorandum to the producer Donald McWhinnie:

My warmest congratulations on your outstanding success with the Beckett play. I am more than aware what a tremendously difficult production job this was. […] Your all over grasp of the problems involved, your exceptional casting, your ingenious use of effects, and your extreme sensitivity of approach, combined to do a fascinating script every sort of justice. Well done.

McWhinnie himself was also delighted. Writing to Beckett soon after the first broadcast, he said: ‘I have never experienced such a widespread and enthusiastic reception to any drama broadcast’.  The press reviews for All That Fall were largely very positive. Several urged readers to listen to the next broadcast of the play. Roy Walker, writing in The Tribune wrote, ‘All That Fall is, I insist, the most important and irresistible new play for radio since Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood three Januaries ago’.

Suggestions for further reading:

Jonathan Bignell, Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays. Manchester University Press, 2009.

Hugh Chignell, ‘Out of the Dark: Samuel Beckett and Radio’, Peripeti 22 (2015).

Elissa S. Guralnik, Sight Unseen: Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, and Other Contemporary Dramatists on Radio. Ohio University Press, 1996.

Donald McWhinnie, The Art of Radio. Faber, 1959.

Katharine Worth, ‘Beckett and the Radio Medium’, in British Radio Drama, ed. John Drakakis. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Clas Zilliacus, Beckett and Broadcasting: A Study of the Works of Samuel Beckett for and in Radio and Television. Acta Academiae Humaniora, 1976.


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