R. E. Jeffrey was a playwright, actor and manager, who was director of the BBC's first Aberdeen radio station, 2BD, and the BBC's first head of radio drama.
Jeffrey was a Glasgow-based actor and elocutionist.
Drama Producer, 5SC Glasgow
Jeffrey led radio drama output at the BBC's Glasgow station, 5SC, and became a pioneer in the art. Before his arrival, the microphone had been used to present as faithful a reproduction as possible of what was going on around it, but Jeffrey’s great innovation was to explore radio’s potential for stimulating the imagination by taking listeners to places beyond the confines of the studio. When 5SC staged a dramatised production of excepts from Walter Scott’s romantic epic Rob Roy on 31 August 1923, the ‘experiment’ represented the most ambitious radio drama so far attempted anywhere in Britain. In it, Jeffrey played the part of Rob Roy MacGregor, while his wife played Helen Macgregor. The production was the first provincial programme to be relayed throughout Britain when it was staged again, a few weeks later, on Saturday 6 October.
Station Director, 2BD Aberdeen
Jeffrey was promoted to director of the BBC's first Aberdeen station, 2BD, which launched on Wednesday 10 October 1923.
Building on his achievements at 5SC, Jeffrey established the first drama company in the BBC with the ‘2BD Repertory Players’, headed by himself and Joyce Tremayne. It consisted of local amateurs, members of the station staff and gifted students from Aberdeen University, such as Eric Linklater and George Rowntree Harvey. The Players put on a variety of productions during 1923 and 1924, the first of which was An Evening of Excerpts from Shakespeare’s Plays on 8 November 1923. But the company did not officially appear as the '2BD Repertory Players' in the listings until 14 February 1924 for a production of Scenes and Characters from Dickens.
BBC's first Dramatic Director, head office
One of his initial acts as the BBC's first Dramatic Director was to recruit the London Radio Repertory Players.
Jeffrey wished to signal his debut by introducing greater realism into radio sound effects which, at the time, were very primitive. He began with the sound of a gun, and to the dismay of the staff spent his first few hours firing a shotgun over the banisters into the well of the staircase. He did not succeed: the noise sounded like flat champagne. A few months later Jeffrey was allowed to spend £50 'for experimental purposes in connection with the production of sound effects', and in November 1924 A. Whitman joined Jeffrey's staff as an 'effects man'. It was not until 1927 that the 'dramatic control panel' was brought into regular use, and radio drama began to develop rapidly in its own right.
Jeffrey's arrival was also accompanied by an effort to discover new plays and new ways of handling old ones. Under his supervision, in January 1925, Nigel Playfair produced the first play actually written for broadcasting: Danger by Richard Hughes, which was set in a coal mine. It was followed soon afterwards by the first of the many radio plays written by L. du Garde Peach, a comedy called Light and Shade.
Radio drama had made only limited progress by the end of 1926, although there was talk even at this stage of the emergence of a new art form and Jeffrey had firm ideas about what could and could not be done on the air. He believed, for example, that radio plays should not normally last more than forty minutes, that they should be concerned with 'some situation, emotion or experience which will be appreciated, or rather, applicable to the average mind', and that they should adopt 'broad methods of building and sustaining the required picture'. Clever dialogue was not necessary: 'dramatic action is seen in complete detail by all those who listen with close attention'. He believed also that the best radio plays had genuine advantages over stage productions: they would grip the listener more and appeal more profoundly to his 'mentality, imagination and emotion'. Jeffrey wrote several articles in the Radio Times on this subject, took great interest in a competition to find the best radio play, and won the good will of many famous actors and actresses who appeared in early BBC performances.
On 15 November 1928, Jeffrey submitted a letter of resignation to John Reith:
Dear Sir John,—The supporting of my position of programme director and the carrying out of the necessary work and development of my department have of late become increasingly difficult. The unconsidered or ill-advised action taken with respect to the contract, coupled with the personal humiliation attending upon it, shows that my continuation under the existing circumstances would be unprogressive and unprofitable. I therefore tender my resignation, together with my regrets that such a course has been rendered inevitable.
Despite Reith accepting the resignation, Jeffrey withdrew his letter five days later and it was arranged to give him another chance.
As part of a re-organisation at BBC Head Office, Jeffrey was replaced as director of productions in January 1929 by Val Gielgud, an author and dramatist and former assistant editor of the Radio Times.
Later he became director of programmes at Head Office??, a post which he held for six years. For his work he was given a specially created post, that of Programme Research Director, supervising all the creative work of drama, variety and general entertainment.
British International Pictures
He resigned to join British International Pictures on 22 March 1929 as director of films.
Universal Pictures announcer
It was as Aberdeen announcer that Jeffrey earned national fame for the beauty of his voice. In March 1931 it was announced he had joined Universal Pictures Ltd in the UK as their 'Universal Talking News announcer'. He was sometimes referred to as the 'Golden voice of the silver screen'.
- '"Rob Roy" by Broadcast Wireless', Glasgow Herald, 31 August 1923, 4.
- 'Aberdeen BBC Station Director: Parting Gifts Presented', Press and Journal, 27 June 1924, 5.
- BBC Yearbook (1930), 'The Old BBC', 169. Sourced in Briggs, Vol. I, 183.
- Minutes of the Control Board, 14 October 1924, BBC WAC. Sourced in Briggs, Vol. I, 183.
- For Jeffrey's views, see three articles in the Radio Times — 'Wireless Drama' (6 June 1924), 'The Need for a Radio Drama' (17 July 1925), and 'Seeing with the Mind's Eye' (5 November 1926).
- 'Seeing with the Mind's Eye'
- Briggs, Vol. I, 256–7.
- 'BBC Resignation: "Personal Humiliation" of Mr R. E. Jeffrey', Press and Journal, 10 June 1929, 7.
- 'BBC's New Director of Drama', Glasgow Herald, 4 January 1929, 12.
- 'Film Appointment', Press and Journal, 14 March 1931; 8.
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