vt Death at a Broadcast
UK / 69 minutes / bw / Phoenix, Associated British Dir: Reginald Denham Scr: Basil Mason Story: Death at Broadcasting House (1934) by Val Gielgud, Holt Marvell (i.e., Eric Maschwitz) Cine: Gunther Krampf Cast: Ian Hunter, Austin Trevor, Mary Newland (i.e., Lilian Oldland), Henry Kendall, Val Gielgud, Peter Haddon, Betty Davies, Jack Hawkins, Donald Wolfit, Robert Rendel, Gordon McLeod, Bruce Lester; plus Hannen Swaffer, Vernon Bartlett, Eric Dunstan, Gillie Potter, Elisabeth Welch, Eve Becke, Ord Hamilton, the Gershom Parkington Quintette, Percival Mackey and his Band, all as themselves.
A murder-mystery movie filled with evocative shots of BBC Broadcasting House in London (in fact the interiors were recreated elsewhere) and cameo appearances by a number of broadcasting celebrities of the day as themselves—Hannen Swaffer, Vernon Bartlett, Eric Dunstan, Gillie Potter, singers Elisabeth Welch and Eve Becke, and musicians Ord Hamilton, the Gershom Parkington Quintette and Percival Mackey and his Band. The opening shot, heralding the credits, shows the mast atop Broadcasting House in what’s perhaps intended as a parody/homage of the RKO logo.
During the live broadcast from Broadcasting House of Murder Immaculate, a new radio play by Rodney Fleming (Kendall), a cast member, Sydney Parsons (Wolfit), is strangled on air; as he was working in a remote studio and as his character was supposed to be strangled at that point in the play, no one thinks twice about the ghastly cries and gurgles except to remark that Parsons is doing a better job of it than he did at rehearsal. In due course the body is found and Inspector Gregory (Hunter) of the Yard rounds up the suspects in the traditional manner.
The strangler creeps up on Parsons (Donald Wolfit).
As radio controller Sir Herbert Farquharson (Rendel) remarks to his producer, Julian Caird (Gielgud), “Oh, it’s ghastly, Caird. To think that we broadcast the murder and that millions of people must have heard the man being actually strangled.”
Inspector Gregory (Ian Hunter) and his men investigate.
It soon emerges that Joan Dryden (Newland), the play’s female lead, was being blackmailed by Parsons over past indiscretions and, although she remains doggedly tightlipped about this—just about everyone in the movie, including the men, speaks like the Queen—we assume it was with Parsons that said indiscretions were perpetrated. That’s arguably Death at Broadcasting House‘s one successful piece of misdirection. Joan might be a suspect were it not for the fact that, during the audible commission of the crime, she was in the main studio surrounded by other cast members.
Joan Dryden (Mary Newland/Lilian Oldland), whose stormy private life seems to lie at the heart of the mystery.
Joan’s husband and co-star Leopold “Leo” (Trevor), on the other hand, had stepped outside that studio for a few minutes, claiming to feel ill and wanting to grab some air before his next cue arrived. After it’s revealed that he’d discovered something of what was going on with Joan, Gregory’s boss, the Police Commissioner (McLeod), insists that Leo be arrested. Gregory isn’t entirely averse to this, although convinced Leo’s innocent, since it clears the deck a little for him to try to catch the real villain.
Peter Haddon as Guy Bannister, the fop’s fop.
Other suspects abound. The play’s producer, Julian Caird, was away from the control room during the crucial minutes, repairing—he says—a faulty signal light in one of the studios. His assistant, Peter Ridgwell (Lister), held the fort during his brief absence so can’t be a suspect, but the same can’t be said of Herbert “Bert” Evans (Hawkins), head of programme research, who clearly likewise had a past with Joan and still nurtures feelings for her. And then there’s Evans’s aristocratic-goofball acquaintance Guy Bannister (Haddon)—think Monty Python’s “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch—who was wandering all over Broadcasting House at the time, supposedly looking for the Variety studio . . .
The youthful Jack Hawkins as Bert Evans, clearly a mighty gust in Joan’s storm.
Gregory’s big break comes when he learns that the broadcast was being recorded—unusual in those days. The device used (which alas we never get to see) was a cutting-edge piece of technology called the Blattnerphone, a precursor of the tape or wire recorder: instead of using spooled magnetic tape or wire it had big spools of steel tape. (You can find more about it here.) Although in practice the fidelity of Blattnerphone recordings was poor, for the purposes of the plot it’s assumed to be good enough that one can hear the murderer’s wrist watch.
Evans (Jack Hawkins) and Caird (Val Gielgud) do some sleuthing.
Accordingly, Gregory calls in a wrist-watch expert (in fact, one of his own men done up in whiskers and a phony Swiss accent), rounds up the suspects, and makes a great show of having his “expert” compare the ticking of their watches to the recorded sound. The result of this experiment is a big fat zero—it’s an absolute red herring in terms of any plot function it might have (and was presumably better-handled in the source novel). However, soon after, Gregory gets his man . . .
Inspector Gregory (Ian Hunter) interviews supercilious playwright Rodney Fleming (Henry Kendall).
Gielgud, brother of the celebrated actor Sir John Gielgud, is today probably remembered best for his work in broadcasting—much of it done in Broadcasting House, in fact!—but he also did much else, including the writing of a surprising number of mystery novels, both with and without Holt Marvell (a pseudonym of lyricist Eric Maschwitz); none of them are particularly well remembered today except, presumably because of the movie, Death at Broadcasting House itself. There’s a bibliography of these novels here.
Vernon Bartlett and Eve Becke, two of the contemporary celebrities who give cameos.
I was puzzled by the use of multiple studios for the performance of a simple radio play. Apparently, though, it was customary at the time. As Caird explains to a glassy-eyed Inspector Gregory, “You see, radio drama depends almost entirely upon the proper use of the technique of multiple studios. . . . You’ll see at once that’s the only way a radio dramatic producer can get aural perspective.”
So far as this viewer was concerned, the movie’s biggest conundrum of all remained unsolved by the time the closing credits came. A variety show is being broadcast live, on a different channel, from one of the other studios—this gives us the opportunity for some of the cameos mentioned above. One of the acts involved is a lineup of scantily clad synchronized female tapdancers. Was tapdancing really broadcast on radio? And, if so, did the dancers really get into their skimpy stage costumes for it?
On Amazon.com: Death at Broadcasting House (Death at a Broadcast) [Reg.2 ] The original novel is also listed there: Death at Broadcasting House (Scarlet Dagger Crime) (That’s the large-print edition, I know. Go look at the prices on the other editions and you’ll see what I mean.)
12 thoughts on “Death at Broadcasting House (1934)”
This sounds like fun and an interesting look at the early days of radio. Nice shot of Evans and Caird with their silhouettes in the background!
It’s indeed pretty jolly . . . and makes a nice double bill with the much later The Voice of Merrill (1952).
Oh I have to see this! My goodness was Jack Hawkins ever so young? also great Python reference for Haddon’s fop 😀
I now what you mean about Hawkins! It’s hard to rid myself of the image of him as a grizzled cop/ex-soldier/tough guy.playing John Creasey parts. And now here he is as young romantic wotzit!
Oh, poot! “now” = “know”!
Definitely a rather unique subject, and it appears the execution was pretty fine. This is yet another you ave unearthed with your usual spirited application. Love that final shadow cap! Most interesting.
If you get the chance to watch it — if it comes on TMC or whatever — do jump at it! It’s a very slight piece, but one of those that seems to fill in a gap in the story of UK movies.
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I saw this years ago and remember loving it as a period piece. Doesn’t someone do a great version of Stormy Weather (or something similar) in the middle?
Elisabeth Welch belts out a great song and, although I couldn’t tell you for sure if it was Stormy Weather (although the piece was posted relatively recently, it’s some months since I wrote it/watched the movie), that was one of her trademark songs.
I love the movie too, however hokey it is!
In the extras on one of the Fred Astaire musicals, he talks about how he was asked to do a tap routine on radio in the thirties and it was a surprising hit leading to a regular radio gig. Over time he evolved a system of doing the entire routine in a small square which was easier for the microphones to pick up. So tap dancing, which was enormously popular at the time, was actually broadcast on radio.
Many thanks for that info — I hadn’t known that and would never have guessed.
I remember as a kid hearing variety presentations on the radio that would sometimes include a conjurer. Of course, you could tell by the oohs and aahs of the audience that the prestidigitator had done something clever, but really it was such a silly thing to present in a nonvisual medium.