Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Radio | Fiction | Mr. Pipes Will See You Now. Mr. Pipes WILL SEE EVERYONE NOW.

See no evil, hear no - oh, no, shit, hang on, I can see it.

ANNOUNCER: The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Words.


ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen: the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.

ORSON WELLES: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, man had created an artistic medium that was capable of creating a wider variety of illusions than had ever been attempted. We know now that as one loquacious Mid-Western gentleman would attempt to adapt a classic of the burgeoning science-fiction genre, a novel which was patently unreal, dealing in possibilities which required an incredible suspension of disbelief, for this same medium, that this same gentleman's vast, cool, and unsympathetic intellect would lead him to play a prank upon his audience. An experiment in creative adaptation which highlighted the clear difference between the slow stateliness of the old art and the immediacy of the new.


ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our programme of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from Orson Welles.

ORSON WELLES: Afterwards Mr Welles specifically labelled the play as a prank - as a method of, as he put it, saying 'Boo' to a million people, no different from the April Fool's jokes newspapers play on their customers every year to this day. And certainly the fact remains that newspapers, through the written word, are capable of distorting reality to the same extent (as they did when they exaggerated the extent of the 'chaos' caused by the famous broadcast). But when we look at radio as the first medium in which fiction and reality could be presented together, side by side - potentially with no clear delineation between the two. Indeed, the very limitations of radio - the fact that it inhabits only an audio-space - means that the repeated assertions that War of the Worlds was fake went unnoticed by those who tuned in to a particular point. Imagination had its part to play. You can hardly imagine such a prank being so successful on television, where - no matter how large the budget, how jerky the camerawork or how magnificent the special effects - the cracks would begin to show.

PARKINSON: Except for Ghostwatch.

ORSON WELLES: Well, yes. But that played brazenly off the credibility of your non-fiction persona. It was also more of an ingenious attempt to manipulate viewers - is it really true that the writer wanted to play a silent, high-pitched frequency during the show's recording that would cause the audience's pet dogs to howl in distress in their own homes? You'd have caused a riot. Additionally...ah, godfuck it, you're right, aren't you?

MICHAEL PARKINSON: I think the issue you're trying to drive at, Orson, is actually one of the nature of our media. Both War of the Worlds and Ghostwatch did clearly state that they were fictitious. Hell, Ghostwatch was even on a drama channel. It had Craig Charles in it. I got possessed at the end! As an entire programme, it clearly didn't hold up to scrutiny. But with television and radio, unlike books - unlike films at the cinema - we switch on, and we start watching, in medias res, without any context. You would not dip in to the novel of War of the Worlds as a 'casual reader' and accept without question that it was a true story, would you?

ORSON WELLES: Whereas in order for both of our 'pranks' to function, context had to be removed - phone lines that were down for my broadcast, a BBC helpline that was oversubcribed for yours...yes, I see. Whereas novels simply aren't fast enough to create in ordinary, non-delusional people the impression that obvious absurdities are real. They can fake history, but not the present - and you'd need a fantastic string of coincidences in order to remove the possibility of context.

MR. PIPES: I actually disagree with that one. Reports of people actually going out to try and buy copies of the parapsychologist's book from Ghostwatch, in spite of all the newspaper headlines discussing the hoax the next day, suggest that there's actually a problem with word-of-mouth context (families calling each other up) trumping the dominant narrative, or even just an issue with people refusing to listen to any sort of logic when their emotional experience has been so powerful. Hell, I even knew someone who thought the Blair Witch Project was real, and the slightest amount of research would disprove that fact. Or what about the reports of the man phoning the BBC switchboard afterwards who insisted than Sarah Greene really had died during Ghostwatch and that it was now being covered up?
MICHAEL PARKINSON: Thank you, Orson. Now, we're lucky enough to have two quotations by famous fictional people on the show with us tonight. Marilyn Monroe and Homer Simpson.

MARILYN MONROE: I didn't have nothing on. I had the radio on.

HOMER SIMPSON: It isn't actually a quotation by me - it's a quotation by a nameless couple who discuss the fact that I attempt to cover the smell of my own flatulence by turning on the radio.

MARILYN MONROE: Both jokes concerned with the idea of radio occupying a very real space in the other senses beyond the audible. Yes.

MICHAEL PARKINSON: But we already know this, don't we? When we talk about the idea that horror is at its most frightening when little is seen, we're actually not going far enough - horror is at its most frightening when we see nothing at all. And while you were right, Orson, to accept that my prank worked successfully despite being on television, how much of Ghostwatch was actually a radio experience? The voices caught on tape, the howling cat-sounds, the phone-ins later on when viewers report their own hauntings caused by Mr. Pipes' manipulation of the televisual may be a truism to say that the imaginative space for sound is more convincing than that of the written word, but nevertheless, the failure of much of modern visual horror as a whole to take the possibilities shown by radio and use sound more effectively, to use voices more effectively...

MR. PIPES: Yes. Not just as that old professor reciting the Necronomicon or the ravings of madmen in Bioshock. To create the illusion of a present, not just the past...

MICHAEL PARKINSON: But hang on...wasn't Ghostwatch based around the true story of the Enfield Poltergeist? And didn't it take place ON THIS VERY BLOG?

[MR. PIPES possesses the internet through Silkworms Ink. Blogs all over the web are covered in nothing but manic repetitions of old nursery rhymes. Lights up.]

ORSON WELLES: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that this article had no further significance than to riff on old beloved hoaxes. So goodbye, everyone, and remember - there's no such thing as a radio play any more, and if you should encounter in your back garden a disembodied voice speaking words that create a unique atmosphere of dread imagination...then you're probably watching a television drama in which the characters encounter an audio recording.


1 comment:

  1. One of the neatest bits of underplaying in the Ghostwatch script, incidentally, is the use of a certain nursery rhyme in association with Pipes (who, we are led to believe, is a cumulation of at least one child molester)

    "Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step, two step..."

    The unspoken line is, of course, "Tickle you under there!"