Before his premature death in 1966, Giles Cooper wrote some thirty plays and adapted many more. According to Hallam Tennyson, writing in the 1960s, he was 'the most original and brilliant dramatist to have written for and been created by radio'; and though that distinction has been challenged by a number of his successors, his reputation remains secure. He is arguably still the one radio writer whom 'everybody' knows, the one invariably referred to by slick media persons who wish to suggest that they know more about radio dxrama than is, in fact, the case. His fame looked set to last when a prize for radio dramatists was named after him-but, sadly, that is now defunct.
Cooper began in 1950 with a play called THIEVES RUSH IN and his first full-length play was broadcast later that year (NEVER GET OUT, a tense two-hander, with Emrys Jones and Jill Balcon). The first of the plays that made his reputation is MATHRY BEACON, an amazing play about a small military detachment of men and women, still guarding an anti-aircraft weapon in the Welsh mountains years after the war has ended. Much distinguished work followed, all original and unpredictable. In UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO an ambitious young teacher is demoralised by his class, who prove to have murdered his predecessor. In UNDER THE LOOFAH TREE we eavesdrop on a man taking his bath. THE DISAGREEABLE OYSTER has two actors playing the same man, the one saying 'to hell with it', the other counselling caution. THE FREEWHEELERS go wherever the dart lands on the map of Britain, using other people's cars for the purpose. THE SOUND OF CYMBALS starts with a milk-float lying on a beach. The small boy who is PIG IN THE MIDDLE is torn between his conscientious parents and a wicked old uncle. THE VOLUNTEER is a TA stalwart who pits himself against a pyromaniac. In CARETAKER refugees from a middle East revolution jump out of the frying pan into the fire. THE RETURN OF GENERAL FOREFINGER deals with the eccentric widow of a 19th-centry empire builder, whose mission in life is to bring home to Irelasnd every statue of her husband, regardless of location or cost.
Cooper's last radio play was CARRIED BY STORM, set in Spain in 1812 and depicting the storming of a border town by Wellington's victorious army. It was broadcast after his death, as were three other plays, one written for television (KITTENS ARE BRAVE) and two from the stage (HAPPY FAMILY and EVERYTHING IN THE GARDEN). These, too, like most of what he wrote, are bold and brilliant.
"as long as radio exists, drama will be written for radio, because it can handle some plays better than any other medium- in particular, plays in which the writer has to make the audience accept a world other than the one they see around them." Thus spoke Giles Cooper - and when one considers some of the worlds which he has explored, one sees the truth of this remark: the terrifying schoolchildren in Unman, Wittering and Zigo; the isolated military community guarding Mathry Beacon long after the war has stopped; the indomitable Augusta Forefinger assembling in her garden the statues of her grandfather from the far corners of the world - Giles Cooper has created his own worlds and made them terrifyingly real.
"Dangerous Word" is the least fantastic of his plays - it is concerned with the administration of justice in modern Africa. A man is sent to be district magistrates in Combermere. He finds the white community there arrogant, complacent, and totally cut off from the coloured community around them. He is determined to give equal justice to black and white, but he carries this out like a fanatic. Opinion turns against him, and he finds his actions being misinterpreted. He persists and disaster follows. Giles Cooper has said that the play is the tragedy of a man who sees himself as a dispenser of justice and is cast down for his arrogance. He discovers there is no absolute justice.
The above is summarised from an article by Michael Bakewell written in 1961 in "From the Fifties" in the book of the BBC radio drama series.
..............the Cooper hero stands, invariably, on chaos; he feels values shifting under his feet; and for him values are so closely linked to the physical world that thevery ground shifts and changes, too. His confused ideas turn into realities and rend him; he puts his faith in half-digested political notions, in material goods, in his own barely-explored personality. The faith is always tested and found wanting; the physical and mental universe rocks, and the hero is faced with darkness and nothingness. Often he disintegrates; he scuttles back into his regimented and mindless existence and pretends nothing has happened. Just occasionally he learns enough to acknowledge the absence of a rock of faith, the reality of nothing............... (summary of part of an article by Frances Gray, 1981).
GILES COOPER Original BBC plays and dramatizationsThieves rush in 28.3.1950 30min The forgotten rotten bough 17.6.1950 45min Never get out 3.7.1950 90min New games for old 18.11.1950 45min Small Fortune 14.4.1951 60min The private line 5.8.1951 60min The sound of cymbals 16.1.1955 60min Brass Farthing; Rupert Croft-Cooke/ Home 23.6.1951/2115 Three Names For Nicholas; Rupert Croft-Cooke/ Home 5.1.1952/2115 The Happiest Days Of Your Life; John Dighton/ Home 5.7.1952/2115 Dolly Reforming Herself; Henry Arthur Jones/ Home 1.11.1952/2115 The Feast; Margaret Kennedy/ Home 17.1.1953/2115 The owl & the pussycat 15.2.1953 60min The Volunteer Home 21.4.1956/2115 Mathry Beacon Third 18.6.1956/1925 The Disagreeable Oyster 1957 45min Without the Grail 13.1.1958 90min Under the Loofah Tree 3.8.1958 40min Unman,Wittering & Zigo 11.1958 90min Part of the view 12.1.1959 60min Caretaker 20.4.1959 90min Before the Monday 4.6.1959 45min A crown of gold nk 7.7.1959 Pig in the middle 4.10.1960 75min One Night In Styria; David Howarth/ Light 20.12.1961/2031 Dangerous Word Home 19.2.1962 A perfectly ghastly joke Home 27.4.1962/2230 I Gotta Universe 15.8.1963 30min All the way home 13.9.1963 50min The Object 17.4.1964 45min The lonesome road 23.5.1964 45min The Freewheelers 6.1.1965 45min Where The Party Ended (45 ) Light 24.3.1965/2040 Something from the sea 18.3.1966 90min All the way home nk 1966 Happy Family 26.11.1967 rpt 90min Kittens are Brave R3 30.1.69/2025 The Volunteer R4 5.9.1970/2030 The Wrong Box (Stevenson,ad) R4 8.1.1972 The Disagreeable Oyster R4 5.12.1973/2015 Under the loofah tree R4 c1973 Everything in the garden R4 10.10.1977/1945 The return of General Forefinger R4 6.1984 The Object R3 1.7.1984/2015 Mathry Beacon R4 9.7.1984/2015 Before the Monday R4 28.11.1986 Everything in the Garden (adapted) WS 1.12.1986 Unman, Wittering and Zigo R4 2.3.1992 Under the loofah tree R4 7.2.2006
Carried by Storm (1970s?) 90min
compiled from info. supplied by Barry Pike, Roger Bickerton and Michael Bartlett
The Day of the Triffids (Wyndham); serial, 2 versions -sci-fi enthusiasts know the dates; c1958 and 1960 I think.....
Artists in Crime (Ngaio Marsh), 5 part serial adaptation, NZBC, Jan 1973; surprisingly not broadcast by BBC.
First broadcast on BBC Third Programme, 18 Jun 56. The cast:
Gunner Evans-Dudley Jones
Bombardier Ling- Janette Richer
-other parts played by Sheila Moloney, Elaine Macnamara, Shelagh Kennedy.
Produced by Donald McWhinnie.
THE DISAGREEABLE OYSTER....1957
15 Aug 1957, BBC Third Programme. Cast:
Bundy and Henry - Hamilton Dyce
Bundy Minor and Abernacle- John Graham
Alice, Olive....Kathleen Helme
Rigg- Arthur Young
also stars Beryl Calder, June Tobin, Haydn Jones, Malcolm Hayes. Produced by Donald McWhinnie.
Mervyn Bundy, the main character of this play, is divided into two parts - Bundy Major and Bundy Minor. Bundy Major is the real person. Bundy Minor is the bit inside him - his second thoughts, or his conscience, or whatever you want to call him. The only thing we really know about him is that he's inside Bundy Major, and he can't get out.
...Highly stylised handling...as rich as a cartoon film in outrageous comic invention and as sober as a Chekhov play in its concern with human beings. ....from an essay by Donald McWhinnie...
WITHOUT THE GRAIL....1958
BBC Home Service, 13 Jan 58. Cast:
Innes Corrie- Peter Howell
Hazel- Betty Baskcomb
Das- Roger Snowdon
Driver- Satish Bhatnagar
Leila- Renee Goddard
Derek- David Enders
Suban- Bakshi Prem
Felix- Michael Hordern
Siri- Geoffrey Matthews
Produced by Donald McWhinnie
UNDER THE LOOFAH TREE....1958
Third Programme, 3 Aug 58.
Edward Thwaite and Father- Hamilton Dyce
Muriel and Mother- Kathleen Helme
Mother and Rory - Patricia Hayes
other cast members- Gabriel Wolf, Haydn Jones, John Dearth, John Hollis.
Produced by Donald McWhinnie.
A simple fable of a man having a bath, but within this framework the author concentrates a pungent assessment of certain contemporary beliefs - a curiously touching but merciless scrutiny of a certain kind of human being. He uses every shorthand device of imaginative radio to paint a man's life, his aspirations, and his will to survive. This is forty-five minutes of highly distilled experience crystallised into a sound - complex: words, rhythms, evocative noises, fused into a kind of musical score which constantly stimulates the ear and the imagination. ....taken from some remarks written by Donald McWhinnie in his introduction to a volume of Giles Cooper's plays, published by the BBC in 1966.
UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO....1958
Third programme, 23 Nov 58.
Headmaster- Anthony Viccars
John Ebony- Peter Howell
Cary Farthingale- John Sharp
Nadia- Violet Loxley
Cuthbun- Jonathan Bailey
Cloistermouth- Leonard monahan
Orris, Boy 1- Jonathan Margates
Bungabine- John Graham
Unman- Nigel Anthony
Lipstrob- Jonathan Scott
Aggeridge- Michael Walker
Terhew- Anthony Adams
Wittering- David Spenser
-other cast members: Jean England, Alice Esmie-Bell, Harold Young, Will Leighton.
Produced by Donald McWhinnie.
A MAN IN THE ZOO....1959
By David Garnett, ad. Giles Cooper, Third Programme, 19.1.1959
BEFORE THE MONDAY....1959
Third programme, BBC, 4 Jun 59.
Desmond- Kenneth Griffith
Jane- Frances Cuka
Alfred- Toke Townley.
Produced by Michael Bakewell.
A PERFECTLY GHASTLY JOKE....1962
30 minute ghostly tale with Kathleen Helme and Gabriel Wolf.
KITTENS ARE BRAVE...1969
A duel between a trendy media man and a disillusioned priest.
A BRASS FARTHING 28/02/71
The novel by Rupert Croft adapted by Giles Cooper
With Marjorie Westbury & Tim Seeley
Time: shortly after the war.�800,000.00 is quite a lot of money.
What would you do with it if such a windfall came your way?
Katharine Riddle hadn't a clue until she met a strange young man
and with him formed the company of Riddle & Rapier, money
Mr.Riddle Arthur Ridley
His daughters:Katharine �Marjorie Westbury
His Sons In-law:
Herbert Wylt-Fraser �John Justin
Gordon Milton-Derek Prentice
Eric Farmer-Lionel Gamlin
�� � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �
Produced by Archie Campbell
THE WRONG BOX....1972
By R.L.Stevenson, ad. Giles Cooper; 90m. Dramatisation of R.L.S.'s classic comic tale of a large cash prize which goes to the last survivor. Producer David H Godfrey.
UNDER THE LOOFAH TREE....2006 remake
7 Feb 06; Michael Maloney/Bernard Cribbins/Jenny Funnell/Ian Masters/Thomas Helm/Sandy Walsh/Sam Kelly".
The 2006 version of this well-known Cooper play starred Michael Maloney "in the bath", with Jenny Funnell as his long-suffering wife, Thomas Helme as the boy who cried when he couldn't get in to use the loo, and Bernard Cribbins as the Sergeant Major and traveller. It was produced by Martin Jenkins.
Kathleen Helme played the wife in both the 1958 and 1973 versions, and I thought the slightly squeaky, helium-infused timbre of her voice gave the play an extra edge of surrealism which I missed in the rather less quirky voice of Jenny Funnell, but that may be down to personal taste. I felt the wife should sound plaintive, like Charlotte Jones sounds as Susan Carter in the Archers.
The pre-announcement said that the production was made to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Cooper's death. The play was preceded by a conversation between Ric Cooper and Michael Bakewell, in which they discuss Cooper's work.
Particularly interesting was the comment that Cooper first gained acclaim in the world of radio drama, not with one of his own plays, but with an adaptation of William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. Bakewell observes that it shared a theme with many of Coopers plays, of how easily civilisation could descend into barbarism. That idea also sounds very like Friedrich Durrenmatt, particularly in A Dangerous Game and The Visit.
Durrenmatt was fond of a dramatic technique called "alienation" in which certain characters would talk in a highly stylised manner, perhaps speaking in rhyme, or saying each line twice, to distance the reader from the character. I think Cooper excelled at this too, for instance by having the dead mother-in-law's lines on speed, like a vinyl album played at 45rpm.
Ric Cooper's conversation with Michael Bakewell is transcribed here.