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The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the radio years by Paul Heyer (2005)

The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the radio years by Paul Heyer

Orson Welles has two great claims to fame: the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 and his first movie, Citizen Kane, which followed soon after. It might be said that there is a third, which was his failure to capitalise on these early triumphs. The perception certainly dogged Welles for the rest of career, but as anyone who has read his many biographies can attest, he worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on any number of projects and enjoyed considerable success with many of them. Sadly, one of the more forgotten aspects of his career is the enormous amount of work he did for radio during the 1930's and 1940's, something that many biographies have inexplicably sidelined. A dedicated book on the subject is therefore very welcome.

The strength of such a narrowly focused book is of course that the author has the luxury and motivation to offer in-depth analysis of specific radio productions, and this is something Heyer does admirably well, offering copious opinions on the quality of the sound effects, acting and writing for many of the key productions that Welles worked on. As one his most successful productions, The Mercury Theatre on the Air gets much attention, with The War of the Worlds not unnaturally singled out for specific consideration across a trio of chapters. But perhaps because of the author's understandable preoccupation with the methodology and quality of the radio shows under discussion, the chapter examining the aftermath of the broadcast is arguably the weakest of the book, as Heyer repeats without critical comment several tall tales, not least that local farmers at Grover's Mill blasted away at an old wooden windmill in the belief it was a Martian Tripod. This story is almost certainly an urban myth.

By pure co-incidence, I was also reading Hello Americans, Simon Callow's second volume of biography of Welles when I obtained my copy of Paul Heyer's book. Both cover essentially the same period in Welles' life so a comparison is interesting. As previously noted, Heyer's book is primarily focused on the specifics of the broadcasts, while Callow is more interested in Welles the man, with all his foibles and faults exposed. So both books bring something of value to our understanding of Welles, though from different perspectives. For instance, both Heyer and Callow tell of Welles visiting a Lockheed aircraft plant as preparation for his wartime propaganda show Ceiling Unlimited. Callow provides the most entertaining account, explaining how on the Welles visit, he had announced to the rather surprised workers that if the show were a failure, it would be his fault alone. It's a lovely word picture of Welles at his bombastic best that Heyer omits to mention, but Heyer gives us much more detail on the productions themselves; who wrote them, who starred in them, even the fact that Welles was absent for several episodes and was deputised for by Edward G Robison.

So in a best of both worlds scenario, Heyer might conceivably have given us more of Welles the man in his book, but equally this may have muddied the waters and detracted from his mission to put Welles' radio work in proper perspective. That Heyer takes time to discuss how Welles' radio work and techniques can be seen as a precursor to his movie work is an angle not well explored previously and in lots more little ways like this, the book provides insights that a more personally focused work would struggle to provide. It also gives a good feeling for the way radio was managed and performed in the golden age of the medium. In closing, it is disappointing that at the end of the book we are provided only with a "selected radiography" of Welles work in the medium, which seems a strange choice to have made given the nature of the book, but then it is not too hard to fill in the pieces from other reference works. Not quite then the definitive account of Welles radio work that it could have been and a little expensive for such a thin volume, but for anyone interested in radio history this is a worthwhile and rewarding read.


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See also


Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton

Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton. Telling the history of attempts to map the surface of Mars. The book includes detail on fictional Mars.

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives. A collection of intriguing essays by some of the best science fiction authors in the world.

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