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), an unconventional priest named Father Ronald 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 phony 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 humor 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 dispatched 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 realize that we had grossly misled the country and were playing into the hands of the Bolsheviks?”
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 defenses 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 specter 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 centers 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 programs in case their sales were impacted. Unlike the reaction in America however, the general public seemed less concerned at the furor 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 agasin 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 dramatization 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.