Broadcasting the Barricades by Ronald Knox (BBC, 1926) part 1
It is often said there is nothing new under the sun, but occasionally someone comes along
who appears to contradict the apparent infallibility of the phrase. Orson Welles is often
and deservedly spoken of in terms of his brilliance and originality, and without doubt one
of his crowning achievements was his 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, yet even
this amazingly original sounding production can be found to have an extraordinary (though
little known) precursor. It may even have influenced Welles and his writing team, though
that is a lot harder to prove.
It all happened in England, some 12 years before Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air
stunned America with their Martian invasion. Rather oddly, this early example of a panic
broadcast was instigated by an unconventional priest named Father Ronald Knox, who rather
like Welles, was a multi-disciplined character. He was an accomplished translator, an
extremely well known and respected commentator for the Catholic Church, and a successful
crime fiction writer! He was also something of a practical joker.
In 1926, he was working for the fledgling British Broadcasting Company, which was then
only some 4 years old. On January 16th, at 7.40pm in the evening (from cramped Edinburgh
offices, located in the back premises of a music shop at 79 George Street) Knox began
his one man reading of a production he called Broadcasting the Barricades. Constructed
in an incredibly similar way to the Orson Welles War of the Worlds play, it begins in
innocuous terms with a report on the latest Cricket scores, segues into a banal news
story, and then suddenly takes a serious turn, reporting on a growing crowd of unruly
demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. The demonstrators, described as an anti unemployment
gathering, were reported to be led (in one of many blatant give-aways to the phoney
nature of the broadcast) by a Mr Poppleberry, the secretary for the National Movement
For The Abolishment of theatre Queues. Exactly like Welles' later broadcast, Knox next
shifts to a musical number, leaving the audience with a sense of unease, but the
impression that normal life goes on. There follows a weather forecast, more on the
Cricket scores, then back to the demonstration, which is now pouring through Admiralty
Arch in "a threatening manner."
Again and again, Knox deftly switches between outrageous humour and drama, describing
the crowd attacking water-foul on a lake with bottles and then "roasting alive" a
waylaid dignitary who was on his way to the radio studio. As Knox observes in brilliant
deadpan style, "he will therefore be unable to deliver his lecture to you." More run
of the mill interludes follow, then the announcement that the crowd are preparing to
demolish the Houses Of Parliament with Trench Mortars. Knox follows with a description
of the Big Ben clock tower crashing to the ground, a hugely iconic image that has since
been repeated time and time again in modern films. Hilariously pricking the grandiosity
of the moment, Knox says of this disaster, "Greenwich Time will not be given this
evening by Big Ben, but will be given from Edinburgh on uncle Leslies repeating watch." As
the broadcast nears its end, the Minister Of Traffic is hung from a lamppost in the
Vauxhall Bridge Road, before the demonstrators enter the BBC broadcasting building and
Knox draws proceedings to a close after just over eleven minutes of simulated mayhem.
The Knox broadcast certainly can't boast the terrifying verisimilitude of The War of the
Worlds, peppered as it is with his mischievous observations on the unlikely progress of
the rioters. Unquestionably it is a very clever and amusing piece of work, but listened
too today (the original broadcast is lost, but you can hear a reconstruction on the BBC
website) there is nothing about it that can described as particularly disturbing or
frightening, yet according to reports at the time, women fainted, Mayors dusted off
emergency plans and one listener even called the Admiralty and demanded that the Navy
be despatched up the Thames to deal with the rioters.
About 20 minutes after the broadcast finished and as he was sitting down to dinner
(oblivious to the panic he had caused) Knox was interrupted by John Reith, the BBC
General Manager with the news that calls were flooding in from concerned listeners.
Knox's sound man J C S Mcgregor took many of these calls, as he later recalled in the
BBC staff magazine. "The debris of the Savoy hotel was still lying about the studio when
the telephone bell rang. Was it true asked an agitated voice, that revolution had broken
out in London? The next caller was more difficult. His wife had a weak heart and had
fainted at the knees, and when he gathered from me that the whole thing was fictitious he
exploded. What, he asked with some vigor did the BBC mean by it? Did we realise that
we had grossly misled the country and were playing into the hands of the Bolsheviks?"
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See also in:
The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. The infamous radio broadcast that panicked America on Halloween night.
The War of the Worlds. Santiago in Chile suffers a major panic when the Welles broadcast is remade to terrifying effect