Broadcasting the Barricades by Ronald Knox (BBC, 1926) part 2
Like the Orson Welles broadcast of 1938, some intriguing questions are raised by the
Knox panic: how many people heard the broadcast, and how many were genuinely disturbed?
To answer the first question, it has been suggested that
up to 10 million people may have heard Knox that night. As an indicator, in 1926 the
number of radio receiving licences had reached some two and quarter million. Given that
large families would have listened together, the estimate of 10 million seems a quite
reasonable one, especially as the British Broadcasting Company was the only broadcaster at the time.
So what was the extent of the panic? Like the Orson Welles broadcast, it is very difficult
to gauge exactly how many people were fooled. I strongly suspect that in exactly the same
manner as happened in America, some people would have tuned in late, catching the more
alarming snippets of the production out of context, such as the explosion of the Savoy
Hotel (created by smashing an orange box next to the microphone) or the hanging of the
government minister. Where events differ to the Orson Welles broadcast is the lasting
duration of the delusion. Heavy snow had fallen that night in London, and as a result,
many papers (the only other form of news available) were delayed, adding to the sense of worry, though you
can't help but wonder why people did not just carry on listening to the radio?
It is particularly intriguing to hear how many of those pushed to the edge of hysteria
seemed to have been members of the higher classes of society. There were reports of
dinner parties erupting into panic, the Sheriff of Newcastle wondering how to provide
defences to his city and the wife of a Mayor unsure how to inform her husband that the
established social order was collapsing. I have returned many times in this article to
the abundant parallels with the Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and
here we find another. Welles tapped into the fears of the average American that their
country might become involved in a new World War; in fact some who believed the Welles
broadcast to be fact, assumed that the so called "news" reports they were hearing had
mistaken German troops for Martians. Britain in 1926 had its own problems to worry about.
In late 1925, the government had arrested members of the Communist party (formed only
5 years previously) on charges of committing "seditious conspiracy." Five were sentenced
to one year in prison. By the time of Knox's broadcast, the spectre of a general strike
(which eventually began on May 3rd that same year) was of considerable concern to the
ruling classes of the country, with memories of the Russian revolution of 1917 still
very raw. There was every concern the same thing might happen in Britain, so one can
only imagine how radio listeners reacted to the Knox broadcast and the apparent
destruction of the very centres of authority.
Like Welles in 1938, Knox was left surprised at the reception afforded to what he himself
described as a burlesque. In yet another parallel to the events of 12 years later, the
English papers enjoyed a chance to lambaste the radio, which just as in America, was
perceived as a threat to their monopoly on news and entertainment. The newspaper industry
had even refused to carry listings of radio programmes in case their sales were impacted.
Unlike the reaction in America however, the general public seemed less concerned at the
furore whipped up by the press. In his regular report to the governors of the BBC, John
Reith commented that 2307 positive comments were received against only 247 negative. The
BBC even gleefully considered pulling the prank again for the next April Fools Day.
The intriguing question arises, was Welles in any way inspired by Knox? It has been
suggested that there is a clue in the Welles press conference the day after his broadcast
in which he protested that his technique had not been a new one, but while it is perfectly
true that he said this, it was far more likely that he was referring to Archibald MacLeish's
Air Raid. There is one reference in the BBC Radio Times of June 29th 1967 that claims a
connection, but alas it does not stand up to analysis. Prompted by the BBC
broadcast of a dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, a BBC correspondent in America
called Leonard Miall suggests that John Houseman had heard the Knox broadcast while as
a schoolboy living in England. It's a lovely thought, but unfortunately the dates simply
do not fit. Houseman did indeed live in England for a time, attending Clifton College in
Bristol, but this was between 1911 and 1918. More damningly still, Houseman sailed for
American in 1925, arriving in New York aboard the liner Mauretania on October 3rd. While
it is conceivable that Houseman may have read the New York Times story of January 26th
1926 or friends back in England had corresponded with him and told him of the Knox broadcast,
it seems difficult to believe that a decade later he would recall this relatively obscure
event and be inspired to emulate it.
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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