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Historicist: Radio Drama’s Irascible and Troubled Prince

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Andrew Allan on the television stage. CBC Still Photo Collection/Dale Barnes.


His sense of disappointment and failure must have been profound, fallen from the very peak of Canadian cultural life. The golden age of CBC radio drama, Boyd Neel recalled in Quest (December 1981), “was a veritable kingdom of dreams” presided over by Andrew Allan. As supervisor of Drama for CBC radio from 1943 to 1955, he “was radio drama’s irascible and troubling prince.”


But with the rise of a new medium in the early 1960s, he became “a television casualty,” in the words of his friend Harry J. Boyle. Unable or unwilling to make the transition, the genius of radio production descended to the bottom of the bottle. Always regarded as a man of deep sensitivity, though prone to reflective silences and morose moods, Allan’s escape from misery into the numbness of alcohol became its own inescapable misery. Despairing, he embraced his own self-destruction, deliberately trying to kill himself, as he admitted to a friend years later. As bad nights were followed by embarrassed awakenings in hotel lobbies, he retreated into inner turmoil even as friends like Jean and Tommy Tweed and Jane Mallett, Boyle recalled, “persevered in trying to help him in his time of need.”
Beyond the professional setback, his posthumous autobiography offers few hints about the exact nature of the demons that wracked him in these years. He said merely: “I went through a dark time, living on the edge of despair.” Yet, as Allan later remarked in a radio essay, the inherent silences of any autobiography are not solely defensive; they are humanizing. The pain of his broken marriages was evidently too close and he relegated both to a single sentence of his autobiography without even mentioning Dianne Foster or Linda Trenholme Ballantyne by name. With the rise of television, some of his colleagues made the jump successfully. Writers were lured by higher pay. His close-knit CBC radio family drew apart. The emotional scars of life’s disappointments reappeared.
Not an entirely forgotten man, Allan occasionally worked in the 1960s as a radio and TV actor, a workshop instructor, and drama consultant. But these weren’t enough to keep the mounting debts at bay. Nor were they enough to give his life purpose and direction. Then in 1967 he happened to travel on the same plane as his old colleague, Boyle. Allan had never lost his edge as a writer, Boyle felt. So he invited Allan—”if his determination to escape alcohol was strong enough”—to return to radio broadcasting. For two weeks, Allan mulled it over. Then, at 1:30 one morning, he called Boyle.
For the final years of his life, he found new purpose providing short radio essays and commentary—sometimes humourous, always insightful—on programs like Assignment, This Country in the Morning, and The Gerussi Show. Provided with an objective at which to target his own personal resolve to overcome, Allan returned to a rewarding life.

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Andrew Allan acting in a satirical television production. CBC Still Photo Collection.


“What are you doing?” a friend asked Allan on Bloor Street on an October morning. “Not much of anything,” Allan responded. When the Great Depression hit, Allan had been an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, where he wrote for the Varsity and acted onstage with drama groups. His father, a clergyman who had bounced the family from Scotland (where Allan was born) to Australia, New York City, Peterborough, and Toronto, had reduced his salary to the level of bare subsistence. So Allan felt the necessity of paying his own way. Leaving university without taking a degree, he worked odd jobs before writerly ambitions led him to the Peterborough Examiner and New York City. But eventually tough times forced him to borrow bus fare back to Toronto where at least he could enjoy the relative comforts of his close-knit family’s modest lodgings.
“They’re holding auditions for an announcer at CFRB,” his Bloor Street friend said. “Why don’t you try?” With little knowledge of radio or the station’s expectations, he attended the audition. With little confidence he’d been successful, he returned home. Studying the radio, Allan listened to every sort of program, no matter how dreary. Realizing that someone had to have written at least some of the announcer’s words, he wrote stacks of sample scripts and, returning to the radio station, presented them to the man in charge.
His gambit paid off. He was hired as a junior announcer, a position that required hosting duties as well as writing sustaining continuity, soap operas, and early radio plays. The sixteen-hour days (for a meagre twenty-five dollars per week) were exhilarating—he was sometimes hammering out the last pages of a script on a typewriter as the actors were going on the air. But they were also exhausting. Seeking escape from the pressure of producing up to eight original scripts each week, in the winter of 1938 he booked passage to England on the spur of the moment. There, for two years he further refined his technical skills by producing commercial and variety programs for Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie.

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SS Athenia from WikiMedia Commons.


Invited by the CBC to produce regional radio drama in Vancouver as war descended upon Europe, he was aboard the Athenia bound for Canada when she was torpedoed. Although Allan, his father, and actress Judith Evelyn initially made it to safely, their lifeboat was thrashed by the propellers of a freighter coming to pick up survivors. Although his father was lost, Allan and Evelyn clung to a fragment of the lifeboat in the cold and dark of the Irish Sea. The emotional scars ran so deep that Allan was unable to commit the incident to words until thirty years later.
In Scotland, where the survivors had been taken, Allan visited his hometown and sensed a break with his past. “This place I had known since childhood, and dear familiar people, were moving from me,” he later recalled. “Now, wherever I might go, they would belong to the past.” With time, the sentiment solidified into deeply felt allegiance for his adopted country. On another visit to Britain in the early 1950s, he felt the pangs of homesickness for Canada and knew for certain which was his country.
In Vancouver, Allan found himself one of “a group of young people who were hep to radio and were eager to do something they hadn’t a chance to do,” as he put it to Thelma LeCocq for a February 1947 Maclean’s profile. At a time when radio dramas were usually just stilted readings of existing stage plays, this West Coast group—which included, among others, writers Fletcher Markle and Lister Sinclair, as well as actors Bernard Braden and John Drainie—were itching for the opportunity to write their own works. Programs like Markle’s Baker’s Dozen series (produced by Allan) took full advantage of radio as an imaginative medium. What we in the television age might perceive as radio’s limitations were in fact sources of great freedom. “All of the subtleties of the stage performance were narrowed down to the instrument of the voice,” wrote Howard Fink in the Fall 1982 issue of Canadian Theatre Review. Subtle voice inflections, intonations, class and regional accents, combined with sound effects and music by an able producer, stimulated the subjective reality of the listener’s imagination, freed from the limitations of the physical (or visual) reality.

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Andrew Allan in the radio control room. CBC Still Photo Collection.


Allan’s broadcasts caught the eye of the CBC brass. In late 1943, he was promoted to be supervisor of Drama, a Toronto-based position overseeing the administration of the entire department for a national audience. With his Vancouver creative colleagues in tow, he accepted on the condition that he would continue producing radio dramas himself.
Allan once prophesized: “Broadcasting is one of Canada’s principal means of survival: it had better not be shrugged off.” For Canada, a predominantly rural wilderness sparsely freckled with urban centres, radio was—like the railroads before it—a natural means of promoting a shared national culture. The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was formed in 1932 (and renamed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1936) with that goal in mind, and by 1950 almost every Canadian household would have a radio set. But, despite having a highly developed radio communications infrastructure—which could transmit a signal to the most isolated outpost—most of the entertainment content was of foreign origin, a state of affairs confirming Canada’s reputation as a cultural backwater.
Then Allan’s Stage ’44 series took to the air on January 23, 1944. Tasked with creating a new drama program for Sunday night, Allan wanted something “more than mindless entertainment.” He wanted to encourage Canadian playwrights and performers and to provide a platform that showed the product of their labours to be as good as any other country’s. His ostensible goal was a national theatre. “For the first time,” Fink argues, “a Canadian producer had the vision, the technical expertise, the self-discipline, the resources and the nation-wide audiences, all at the same time, to enable him to render professional productions of new Canadian plays on a regular schedule.”
Some say that in its twelve years of broadcasting an eclectic assortment of comedies, tragedies, and everything in between, the Stage series enjoyed a weekly audience of a million or more; others suggest this figure is sentimentalized nostalgia. In 1947 Maclean’s claimed that the show earned a modest rating of 10—meaning 10% of the country’s 1.5 million English-speaking households were tuning in (compared to 37.7 earned on Sunday nights by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy). Whatever its exact ratings, by providing consistently high-quality programs to the most isolated pockets of the country, the series had an tremendous impact.
Its performers—who, like a repertory theatrical troupe, alternated between minor and major roles each week—became something of Canadian celebrities. The Stage series was essential to the professionalization of Canadian drama. It provided (along with other CBC programming) an outlet for writers and actors hoping to make a living at their craft. The pay was never extravagant, but Allan pushed for higher fees and encouraged the on-air talent to form a union. By 1959, theatre icon Mavor Moore acknowledged that Allan had achieved his goal and that “CBC radio drama gave us in effect our first national theatre.”
Allan was given an entirely free hand to determine what would air. He passed this freedom on to his writers, whom he saw as the creative heart of any dramatic program. He strongly encouraged them to write about whatever they wished, including pressing social issues emerging in the aftermath of the Depression and war. Apart from avoiding party politics, sectarian religion, and profanity, Allan refused to apply such stifling strictures. When Alice Frick, national script editor and Allan’s right-hand woman, asked writers why they didn’t head to the States to make more money, many cited the freedom Allan afforded them.

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Andrew Allan in the radio studio. CBC Still Photo Collection/Gilbert A. Milne.


Although Allan wanted Canadian voices on the air, he also wanted work that could stand alongside the best in the world. He set high standards because he deplored the promotion of uncritical Canadian content as parochial cultural boosterism. Under his guidance, therefore, the Stage series explored larger, universal themes through the prism of Canadian experience. In 1954, The Investigator, composed by Canadian blacklisted writer Reuben Ship, used satire to pillory Joseph McCarthy’s communist witchhunts. Sinclair’s Hilda Morgan explored pregnancy and the hypocrisy of sexism. Man’s crisis of faith prompted a re-imagining of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac—but absent of God’s mercy—in Len Peterson’s A Bucket of Ashes. Such heady fare, Carmel Dickson Rothwell argues in her 1993 MA thesis, “recognized that listeners were capable of drawing their own conclusions and forming their own opinions on issues which affected their lives.” They haven’t all aged well, but they were cutting edge in their day.
But reaching beyond mere mindless entertainment also got Allan in trouble. One Monday morning within weeks of the series’ inception in 1944, Allan was summoned to the office of network head Ernest Bushnell. There’d been numerous complaints, a displeased Bushnell explained, about Peterson’s They’re All Afraid, a radio play recounting his female friend’s experiences of office bullying and fear. Some in the public felt a program painting a less than rosy picture of Canada might lower morale in wartime. “I think Peterson was aiming at a small truth,” Allan matter-of-factly made his case. (For Allan rarely argued or raised his voice.) “Whether he hit it is open to opinion. But we’re fighting a war against the Big Lie. With small truths? That’s bad?”
Later that spring, Peterson’s play received the top award at an American radio drama festival. Bushnell had to eat crow in standing to accept the award on behalf of the network. The episode occasioned the first of many critical accolades the series would receive at home and abroad, but it also marked the first of a great many complaints it garnered from the public, parliament, and network brass.
Keeping the show on the air, Allan admitted, wasn’t always easy: “It called for all the low cunning I possessed.” While writers could be eager to push the envelope as far as their talent could sustain with every episode, they only had to fight for their own plays. Allan could get exhausted fighting for (or defending) each and every contentious play. But if a weary Allan urged a playwright to compromise, hold back, it could fracture the relationship, as Peterson suggested occurred with him in the Fall 1982 issue of Canadian Theatre Review.
At one point, tired of tussles with network brass, Allan had drafted a resignation letter before a chance encounter with a young woman on a train rejuvenated him. From a small town far north of Edmonton, she recognized Allan and said:

We haven’t got any books to speak of, or pictures, or music, or anything. But I have a little radio in my room. Every Sunday night I go up there to listen to your plays. All week I wait for that time. It’s wonderful. It’s a whole new world for me. I began to read books because of your plays—all kinds of books I never thought I’d be interested in. And now I’m on my way to Vancouver to stay with my aunt [and start] at the university. And it’s all because of you and your plays.

Allan tore up the letter and did another seven years of Stage shows.
Although Allan often worked seven day weeks when Stage was in-season, he was less than fastidious about the day-to-day administrative duties of his position. Many of them, including negotiating performance rights, accepting scripts to produce, and corresponding with producers in the network’s regional hubs, he delegated to Frick on the trust that he would take responsibility for her decisions if ever questioned. His heart and mind were in the radio control booth for both Stage and the many other commercial programs and serials he oversaw each week.

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Identified performers on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio production, between 1945 and 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2101.


Each Saturday, Allan gathered the Stage crew—actors, musicians, and technicians—for rehearsals at the CBC’s McGill Street studio. He’d begin the morning with an eloquent lecture on the social and political climate of that week’s play to get the actors in the proper mindset. Then they’d rehearse at the microphones with Allan behind the glass of the radio control room, stopwatch in hand. The show, always broadcast live, needed last-minute tweaks and cuts to ensure it always ended at exactly twenty seconds shy of the hour or half-hour. Throughout the day, they’d rehearse again and again, incorporating the musical fills and finalizing the timings. On Sunday, they went live.
As producer, he had direct control over all the elements of a show from commissioning a script, casting, and rehearsals to the exact number of times the sound effects man should sound a train’s whistle. Although the studio was a converted auditorium, with a soundproof radio control booth erected on one side of the stage, the Stage series never performed before a live audience. There was only one set of ears the actors played to, and Allan set impeccable standards.
A Victorian in temperament, Allan was highly formal in rehearsals. The oldest of friends became Mister or Miss This or That. His pursuit of clean-cut readings of lines or a particular inflection, precisely as he wanted it spoken, was often interpreted as perfectionist or even tyrannical. Actress Barbara Kelly said that he ruined performing for her: “[H]e would not accept one single error…I found him an unbelievably hard and nasty task-master…He would not allow me as a performer to contribute anything other than what the writer said, so I became…just a vehicle…just an instrument, a voice, through which the writer was interpreted…In that sense, he diminished me as an actor.”
In contrast to the Swede-by-way-of-Winnipeg who would succeed him as supervisor of Drama, Esse W. Ljungh—who passionately acted along with the performers—Allan was clinical and deliberate behind the control room glass. Always dapper in a suit and tie, some said he looked more like a business executive than a radio impresario. Hand gestures and direction to the actors was minimal. But he was not able to disguise annoyance. And his pale blue, almost transparent, eyes could burn with intensity in stark contrast to the pale skin of his boyish face and thinning hair.
He could become exasperated if he had miscast someone or was unhappy with their progress in the part. But he would not replace them. Although too emotionally restrained to escalate to real anger, he could hector them with corrections until they either did it his way or their confidence was shattered. He terrified many actors, some colleagues argued, without quite realizing the power he held. And actors respected his abilities and yearned for the approval of the man who could make or break their career. Actor Arthur Hill confirmed this grudging respect many actors had for the titan of the industry when he said: “I love working for Andrew, but I hate him.”
Many actors, like Bernard Braden, recognized Allan’s demeanour in the studio as part of his constant struggle for perfection. If he was demanding of others in this pursuit, he was even more intensely self-critical “The best is good enough for me,” Allan quipped frequently—but only half-jokingly. Friends recognized the impossible standards he set for himself. In a May 1950 Canadian Forum essay that praises Allan as a producer, Sinclair offers glimpses of a damaged man, burdened by the unbearable weight of his own expectations: “[A]s a man, [Allan] alternates between going out of his way to devise challenges, or secretly reproaching himself for not doing so.”

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Obituary of Andrew Allan from the Toronto Star, January 17, 1974.

Those same characteristics that made him a success as a creative force, crippled him as a person:

In the end, it makes for a happy life, and probably for a successful artistic life. I do not think it makes for a particularly merry life; and certainly Andrew, though he laughs readily and often, is, I think, very heavily imbued…high seriousness. If he takes any respite from grappling with the problems of his creative life, he invariably charges it to his conscience and the fall from artistic concentration is heavily paid for in remorse. Andrew’s whole career can, I think, be summed up admirably in Goethe’s great remark that from day to day we know only disappointments: achievement comes slowly from year to year.

Allan might have recognized as much in his own way. “[N]o age is called golden until it is long past,” he said of the tendency to label his tenure at the helm of CBC radio drama its golden years. “Any age is mainly foot-slogging and 25-hour days. To survive you need a good capacity to absorb disappointments.”
Television arrived. The medium he and his Stage colleagues had entered as young turks was now passé. Allan dabbled in TV production, but he felt disillusioned by what he perceived as the medium’s constricting lack of reliance on words. To a degree, at fifty years old, Allan was “satisfied with the medium of radio” and chose not “to explore the possibilities” of the new medium. He matter-of-factly recalled: “I had spent a dozen years learning the skills I needed for radio drama, and I didn’t feel I had that kind of time for television.” And so he fell into his dark years.
Comparing Allan’s achievement—the creation of a national theatre over the radio airwaves at a time when Canada was struggling to chart its own course between the domineering cultural influences of Britain and America—to his personal character, Boyle speculated: “Perhaps Andrew Allan’s instinctive sensitivity to this cultural plight was a product of the ratio of human flaws to virtues in his own make-up.”
Additional sources consulted: Andrew Allan, Andrew Allan: A Self-Portrait (Macmillan of Canada, 1974); Sharon Blanchard, “Esse Ljungh and the Stage Series,” Canadian Theatre Review (CTR) (Vol. 36, Fall 1982); Howard Fink, “Canadian Radio Drama and the Radio Drama Project,” CTR (Vol. 36, Fall 1982); Howard Fink and and John Jackson, All the Bright Company (Quarry Press, 1987); Alice Frick, Image in the Mind: CBC Radio Drama 1944-1954 (Canadian Stage and Arts Publications, 1987); Thelma LeCocq, “On Stage With Allan,” Maclean’s Magazine, February 1, 1947; Boyd Neel, “Dramatic Changes,” Quest (December 1981); Len Peterson, “With Freedom in Their Eye,” CTR (Vol. 36, Fall 1982); Carmel Dickson Rothwell, Andrew Allan, Nathan Cohen, and Mavor Moore: Cultural Nationalism and the Growth of English-Canadian Drama (University of Ottawa MA Thesis, 1993); and Lister Sinclair, “Andrew Allan,” Canadian Forum XXX (May 1950).

Comments

  • http://www.torontoist.com David Topping

    Thanks to reader David E., who pointed out that we misspelled Boyd Neel’s name, twice, as “Neil.” Fixed above now.

  • http://undefined davidcreed

    Lovely article, thank you.