The Waves (BBC Radio 3, 1976)

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, abridged for radio by Louis MacNeice and produced and directed by Guy Vaesen on Radio 3 on 7 October 1976, will be heard at the British Library at 5.30pm on 19 November 2015 as the fourth in a five-part series of public listenings on the theme of ‘Inner Voices…Inner Worlds’.

Dr Amanda Wrigley of the University of Westminster offers some background to this work:


‘I sink down on the black plumes of sleep. Its thick wings are pressed to my eyes.’  (Rhoda in The Waves)

Radio Times illustration for The Waves, 1976

Radio Times illustration for The Waves, 1976

In autumn 1976, Radio 3 celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Third Programme with a week of concerts from all of the major British symphony orchestras, opera, recitals, Shakespearean plays and  broadcasts of some of the landmark programmes of the previous three decades.

One of these programmes was a radio version of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (published 1931), using the script that Louis MacNeice had first prepared for broadcast on the Third on Friday 18 March 1955. Guy Vaesen’s new production of this script was broadcast on Radio 3 on Thursday 7 October 1976 (9.25-11.25pm).

The cast was as follows:

Choral Voice – Peggy Ashcroft
Bernard – John Rowe
Neville – Lyndon Brook
Louis – Nigel Hawthorne
Susan –
Faith Brook
Jinny – Penelope Wilton
Rhoda – Caroline Blakiston

1957 repeatThe Radio Times issue which lists the original production of 1955 prints an article by MacNeice in which he explains how he went about adapting Woolf’s novel for radio:

The Waves is a full-length novel and to cut it down to two hours on the air was by no means easy. I thought it best to include excerpts from each of the sections which are divided by the choral interludes.

In the first programme there are four time phases: (1) childhood, when the six children are found assembled in a country house; (2) school – one school for all three boys, one for all three girls; (3) immediately post-school, the University for two of the boys, a job in the City for the third, the girls discovering or failing to discover themselves; (4) when they are still under twenty-five, the reunion of all six at a farewell dinner for Percival, who is going to India.

This dinner party makes a peak point in the book and proves an occasion for ‘Bloomsbury’ philosophising (the importance of friendship, the Moment Beautiful, etc.). As Bernard (the one who takes notes) puts it: ‘We have proved, sitting eating, sitting talking, that we can add to the treasury of moments’.

The second programme falls into five phases. The first, where the characters are still young, opens with the news of Percival’s death. By the next phase youth is passing and the shadow of that death persists through all that follows. In the last section we meet Bernard alone, ‘summing up’, and drawing the typical conclusion that ‘it is not on life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people’. (MacNeice, ‘Told in Monologues’, Radio Times, 11 March 1955, p. 5)

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