On Stage With Allan
The producer of the CBC's Stage 47 operates on the principle "people are more intelligent than I'm told"
THREE years ago Canadian radio listeners began tuning in on a series of Sunday night radio plays which were disturbingly different from what they’d been used to.
In tone the dramas were more of the head than the heart. In theme given more to broad social problems than boy meets girl. Mostly they ended in mid-air, rarely if ever in the approved romantic clinch.
Listeners, whose tastes ranged from daytime soaps to Monday evening Lux, were inclined not to like these plays which were introduced under the name of Stage 44. Some said they couldn’t understand them. Others complained they didn’t solve anything. A few thought them unfit for polite ears. Although Stage was a sustaining program of the CBC, many people were certain it was CCF propaganda.
By these adverse comments the producer of the show, Andrew Edward Fairbairn Allan, is practically unmoved. As an employee of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation he has no sponsor to satisfy, no goods that have to be sold. As a product of a Scottish Presbyterian manse, he cannot be shaken—or at least only slightly—from what he believes to be the right in radio drama.
This year Producer Allan, with Stage 47, is in his fourth year of his Trans-Canada theatre, his fifteenth year in radio.
For the position he holds, that of supervisor of drama for the CBC, Andrew Allan is a comparatively young man. His exact age is 39 as of last Aug. 7, but in spite of his thinning hair and the second fold of flesh beginning to soften his jaw line, he seems considerably younger. From a distance there is an air of unreality about him which in a public gathering is a little startling.
The first thought on seeing him is that someone’s smuggled in a statue modelled in off-white plaster and dressed it in a business suit for the occasion. This is partly because Allan combines very regular features with an extreme pallor of hair, skin and eyes. It is partly because he has a way of settling himself in an attitude which he holds till there’s some good reason for moving.
He’s about five feet nine and 170 pounds. Unlike many radio artists, he dresses in a matching suit of clothes, wears a shirt with a collar and tie, is smoothly shaven and well-brushed. He looks more like a business executive than an impresario.
The most arresting of his features are his eyes, which are large, round and prominent and of a blue so pale as to look almost transparent.
These pale-blue eyes topped by a broad forehead make Andrew Allan look like what he is— a young man of considerable intelligence and intellect unmuddled by emotion. He has been both actor and writer and talks with a flow of words that sounds as though he’d learned his lines for a performance.
Corwin Liked It
OCCASIONALLY he soars into superlatives, but on the subject of his own work—and of Stage 47 in particular—he is more like an auditor going over the year’s business. He can tell you that in 1946 CBC staged 262 dramatic performances, written by 91 authors, all but a couple of whom were Canadians, at an average pay of $70.60 a script. On Stage he keeps a chart beside him listing the 36 plays of the past season with titles, names of authors and where they live. The subject matter, Allan carries in his head. He can tell you that out of 36 plays, 19 had social content, the rest were for entertainment... He can give a quick summary of almost any play he’s produced.
Stage is a dramatic series which might be compared to Columbia’s Workshop of the Air in that it was designed, Little Theatre fashion, primarily to give experience to writers and performers, with no thought of attracting a great mass of listeners. In three years Stage has achieved exactly that. It has built up a repertory company of some 25 actors, drawn out of hiding or into radio 79 Canadian writers.
Stage’s 44 and 45 series received awards from Ohio State University and a big hand from Jack Gould, radio editor of the New York Times, and plaudits from Norman Corwin. Gould, under the heading of “Canada Shows Us How,” wrote that in Stage Canada had the kind of radio drama Americans should be doing and were not. Corwin wrote that the only genuinely experimental drama was being done by the CBC in Stage and that so far as he knew there was nothing freer in radio anywhere.
“I think that’s true,” says Producer Allan, who never tires of carrying the torch for radio à la CBC. He works for a salary that is probably a quarter of
what he would earn in American commercial radio. He doesn't mind that, because, he says, “I could never be happy working that (commercial) way.
“People need to realize that Canadian radio is good,’’ says Allan. “Not always good, but neither is American radio.”
He feels that Canadians, like the Scots, can’t see anyone getting along in the world without saying he’s “getting too big for his boots” and immediately wanting to “cut him down to his own size.”
For Allan this criticism is all in the family, because he himself is both Scottish and Canadian.
He was born in the fishing town of Arbroath, in Angus County, on the North Sea, where his father was a i ’resb y ter ia n clergy man.
While an infant he was taken to Australia, to the little mining town of Mount Morgan, where there were houses for the rich and galvanized huts built of kerosene tins for the poor.
When Andrew was four the Allans moved to the Brisbane district, where tin huts were exchanged for banana plantations and snakes. A year later they moved to Sydney, where he learned his ABC’s and where the Allans stayed for two years. They went back to Scotland, travelling by way of Victoria and Vancouver which have come to be Allan’s favorite part of Canada.
On their return to Scotland the Allan family paused briefly and then returned to America, making their home in New York. By the time he had left high school in New York Allan had started to write and act.
When the family moved to Peterborough, Ont., he went to the University of Toronto. He acted in Hart House theatre dramas, toured the province with a student company presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” became drama editor of the Varsity, university daily, and worked on the Peterborough Examiner as a reporter during his holidays.
Flophouses to Radio
In 1929-30, his third year at university, he became, in succession, editor of the Varsity, a champion of freo Hp;*ech and a public figure. It started one Sunday night when Allan read in the church page of the Globe that a Toronto minister had declared in a sermon that godlessness was being taught at the university.
Allan replied with an editorial in the next day’s Varsity, and in the rumpus that followed the paper was suspended by the university authorities.
The editorial was ironical at least it was meant to be and a great many people saw the irony in it. It said something to the effect that “sure, sure atheism was taught it was given to the students in little pellets,” Allan recalls.
“There was some politics mixed up in the reaction, because the Globe and the Star, which had been needling the Tory Government of the time, jumped on it - things must have been dull— and built it up out of all proportion. The incident has become sort of a. legend around the university, but l can’t think of anything less significant,” says Allan.
Allan found himself in a spotlight far brighter than the one on the stage of Hart House where he was acting at the time. “Reporters beseiged me in the wings of my dressing room,” he recalls, “and I even woke up one morning to see one sitting on my bed.”
By the following term the scandal died down, the publication of the Varsity was resumed, “But by that
time,” says Allan, “I was famous for being a thoroughly bad boy.” He denies, however, that there is any truth in the rumor that he was expelled. He says he did not take a degree because he had not chosen his course well.
“I did not know what I wanted to do and was both too shy and too opinionated to ask any advice. I wanted to pretend I knew everything,” he says.
The second reason for leaving without a degree was the depression, his father was accepting only a subsistence portion of his salary and Allan felt he should be self-supporting.
Like many young men in the early 30’s he did not have much luck. He sold overalls, kitchenware and books in a Toronto department store. He went back to Peterborough, thinking he might get work on the Examiner, found there was no money in it and wound up playing the role of a trained bear in an anniversary celebration, handing out gum to the children on the streets.
He went to New York, where he had friends on the Herald-Tribune. All they were able to do was to give
him small research jobs and his funds ran low.
“I lived in a horrible dive on 11th Street,” he remembers. “It wasn’t even a room—a cupboard with no ventilation.”
From there he moved down to 25cent flophouses. “The number of people who come out dapper and slick from those places would amaze you,” he says. “But don’t think there’s anything picturesque about them.”
After a few months Allan borrowed his fare back to Toronto, started to write a play, which he knew would be bad. His luck turned through a chance meeting with Wishart Campbell, the singer, who asked Allan,
“Why don’t you try radio? T happen to know CFRB is looking for someone.”
At CFRB, Toronto, Allan was the junior of two announcers, put the station on the air at dawn, signed it off at night, and was on the job 16 hours a day. He also wrote continuity and arranged sustaining programs, was, in fact, production manager of the station without either the title or the salary.
Back to Canada
“I was supposed to make extra doing commercials, but I was so lousy that nobody asked for me.” However, the money was more than he had ever made before and Allan stayed with it until CFRB came under new management.
“I wanted to make money, I had been poor for so long, so I decided to mine it down to the last vein,” says Allan. He did announcing, wrote sustaining continuity, and solely for the interest of the thing did a soap opera called “The Family Doctor,” written, produced and on occasion acted in by himself.
For extra money he did a weekly his-
torical drama for the CBC, a weekly play for CFRB, and a program for the Nova Scotia fisheries. They added up to eight drama scripts a week, and by the winter of 1937-38 Allan describes himself as completely used up. In that mood, on a “grey grim winter day,” he was sitting in a Yonge Street coffee shop when he saw, in the window of a travel agency across the street, an announcement of the next sailing of the Queen Mary. He announced to friends, “I’m sailing for England.”
In London, working for an advertising agency with a large radio billing, Allan reached the big name class and produced shows with George Formby, Gracie Fields, and did some acting on
the BBC. He also revisited Scotland, saw a good deal of France and had a “bang-up summer on the Riviera.” When war became a certainty he hurried back to London and received a call from his father, who was in Scotland, and who said his mother was very ill back in Canada. He suggested they sail back together on the Athenia. The Athenia was torpedoed and Rev. William Allan was lost.
With the hope of being sent back overseas, Allan joined the CBC— which promptly shipped him in the opposite direction, to Vancouver. He attempted to join the Navy and was turned down as medically unfit, got called up by the Army and discharged for the same reason.
The four years he spent in Vancouver laid the foundation for Stage.
“Here,” he says, “I found a group of young people who were hep to radio and were eager to do something they hadn’t a chance to do. With two dramatic productions a week on the western network we built a group and evolved a style of performance. We became a company, and with Fletcher Markle’s series, ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ which was heard in the East as well, Canadian radio drama grew up.”
Allan also did a series of three George Bernard Shaw plays. He received written permission from GBS, who warned him: “Do not attempt
to improve on my plays.”
In the spring of ’43 the CBC brought him to Toronto, and the following fall he began the Stage series. Following the leader from Vancouver, Markle, Bernard Braden, John Drainie and other members of the western company came to Toronto to form the nucleus of Stage repertory players.
In producing Stage, Allan says he had three things in mind—first, to encourage Canadian writers, second, to show there are writers in Canada who can compete with writers anywhere; and third, to provide a platform from which to jolt people into a realization of problems we all share.
In his jolting he runs up against a good deal of criticism. Many listeners don’t want to be jolted and complain they don’t understand the plays or that the plays don’t solve anything. Allan explains, not without impatience, that the plays weren’t meant to solve anything but simply “to illustrate the facets of contemporary life.”
Because it occurred to him his writers may have exhausted the possibilities of the half-hour form of radio drama, Allan started Stage 47 last fall with hour-long shows, most of which are adapted from the classics. This has not affected the listener rating and Allan says the fan mail is the best he has had. He will switch back to the half-hour show only if the CBC finds it necessary to cut its budget.
The current rating of Stage is around 10. This means that in 10% of the 1,500,000 English-speaking homes with radios in Canada someone listens to the show on Sunday night. Here are some other Sunday figures for comparison: Edgar Bergen and Charlie
McCarthy 37.7; Fred Allen 23.5; Album of Familiar Music 20.9 and Music for Canadians 14.8.
Allan doesn’t think radio polls are reliable, but he feels they do give some indication of interest. Stage 45 had a rating of 20, which supports his own feeling that the 1944-45 season was his best.
In 1946 Stage’s rating dropped by half, where it has stayed, with a few points variation upward, ever since. In 1946 Stage received no honors from the U. S. and Allan blames this partly on lowering his own standards.
“In response to protests from certain
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sections I did curtail expression somewhat. I deleted what might be regarded as partisan political views. That weakened the plays, and I regret having done it,” he says.
For writers and actors Allan has provided the nearest thing to a national theatre in Canada. When he started in radio, writers were considered to be doing all right at five dollars a script. Actors were frequently expected to work for nothing but experience. As CBC Drama Supervisor Allan has raised the writing fee for a half-hour drama to a $50 minimum, $100 for a Stage drama. Actors have taken care of themselves with ACRA (Association of Canadian Radio Artists), a union Allan regards as a good thing.
Even more advantageous to writers and actors than the pay is Allan’s realization that the only way to build up a company of professional excellence is to give his people sufficient work to earn a livelihood. Outsiders do break in—in both fields—but Allan points out “there is a livelihood for only a limited number.”
Every Sunday night brings to the microphone the familiar lead voices of Tommy Tweed, Bernie Braden, John Drainie and Jane Mallett-—actors who in some cases are also writers. Among the writers are other regulars such as Len Peterson and Lister Sinclair, both of whom are highly regarded in the U. S.
This little company finds Allan a satisfactory boss. Actors respect his struggle for perfection, his insistence on a clean-cut reading of the lines as written. They are fascinated by his discipline, which he achieves by putting everyone on ice, making a quick switchover from Tom and Bernie to Mr. Tweed and Mr. Braden the moment they go into rehearsal. There is no temperament about Allan but there is artistry, they say.
In his sound effects a train whistle must give the correct number of toots. His actors’ accents must be from the right country and county. His historical data is checked and rechecked. Most of all they admire the incidental music worked out by Allan and Lucio Agostini. Sometimes it moves the actors themselves to tears.
He lives alone in a small apartment filled with a disorder of books for which he has inadequate shelves. Most of his meals are eaten in restaurants, and his great pleasure is to invite his friends out to dine elegantly with good food and the right wines. Those who know him find him good
company, with a polished wit, a talent for the classical pun, an appreciation of the scholarly jest from others.
He is always, however, the doubtful quantity at any party, for he is given to moods in which he is silent and morose. Some of his friends attribute this to what they regard as his persecution complex—“He thinks people arealways talking about him and criticizing him.”
Others think he ought to be married, but regard him as too demanding in his tastes to take this step in the immediate future.
Allan’s job as it meets the public ear only extends over the 39 weeks which Stage will run this season. But not more than a month of the remaining time can be considered holiday. After the last show has gone over the air there’s the tidying up from the past season, the planning for the next one. “I have to have five or six plays ready in advance for the new season.”
That done, the Supervisor of Drama makes a tour of other CBC regions “to see what’s being done there,” does productions in centres like Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Last summer Allan went to the University of Wisconsin, by invitation, to speak on production under national radio and to conduct a 10-day series of discussion groups illustrated by discs from his own shows. These various duties usually wind up in time forhim to take four or five weeks’ holiday. These weeks he spends in Vancouver, busmanlike, working on a novel which he is writing in the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He works on this anywhere from four to 12 hours a day with time off for ocean bathing.
“I regard myself primarily as a writer,” he says.
In radio there are different estimates of Allan.
As a writer, they say, he’s given to a use of cliches he would not tolerate from the writers he employs.
As a producer he is regarded as excellent to the point of danger— danger that before long he will leave Canada for the U. S.
He has produced one big New York show, planned as one of a series, with such extravagances as an Arnold Sandergaard script, Kurt Weill music and $1,500 worth of talent all poured into one hour. Allan says no offer followed the test piece, that he doesn’t think he’d be interested if it did.
Meanwhile he is back on the air with Stage 47 —a fourth yearof drama based on his theory that “people are more intelligent than I’m told they are.” -jç