Obituary: Raymond Raikes

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BETWEEN THE years 1947 to 1975 the addition of the line "Produced by Raymond Raikes" at the end of a Radio Times drama billing would create in listeners the anticipation of a spirited production of the highest quality which would be both hugely entertaining and probably educative. It would also be directed with utmost professionalism and incorporate the latest developments in sound technology.

Despite his classical training and his love of the classics, Raymond Raikes was a romantic. He positively burst with enthusiasm and had the ability to communicate it. He had a mind as well stocked as his personal library or, even, the Garrick Club library, where he was for many years an assiduous member of the Library Committee. It was perhaps fitting that it was in his own library that he died, peacefully amongst the books he loved, having just returned from hospital after terminal cancer had been diagnosed. Here it was that he applied himself to studying hieroglyphics after his retirement from the BBC in order to read Egyptian texts. In the last few years of his life he also busied himself here in learning Russian. He was already proficient in French and ancient Greek.

But he wore his learning lightly, and his physical appearance belied a serious intent. In younger days his looks were distinctly romantic and it was not by accident that in his earlier career as an actor he played romantic leads such as the young naval officer in the West End success While Parents Sleep (1931) or a white-uniformed Ruritanian in Blossom Time, the 1934 film starring Richard Tauber. In later years he continued to have the look of a former matinee idol, or a rather raffish bandleader. He drew incessantly upon a du Maurier cigarette (when they were available) and he doubtless chose the brand in memory of Gerald, the actor-manager. Once, an actor-manager is what he would have been.

In spirit he was very much a ladies' man and he always insisted on not looking at the cast in the studio in case the visual attractiveness of an actress should deceive him into thinking she was giving a better aural performance than was the case. In reality he shared a happy 60-year-long relationship with his adoring wife, Wendy, and for 28 years of his BBC career he was sustained and guided by his indispensable secretary, Jean Bower.

Raymond Raikes could not escape being stage-struck from an early age. Although a philanthropic forebear, Robert Raikes, had helped to found the Sunday School movement, his father, Charles, a man of private means, was besotted by the theatre. In 1925 he built himself a small, private theatre in the semi-basement of his Upper Norwood house and here the young Raikes worked as actor, director, stagehand and administrator whilst his father designed the scenery.

After school at Uppingham he went to Exeter College, Oxford, and there came under the influence of Nevill Coghill and the Oxford University Dramatic Society (Ouds). In one of the society's productions, James Elroy Flecker's Hassan with music by Delius, he played the lead opposite a promising young guest actress called Peggy Ashcroft.

On leaving university he appeared in numerous plays and films and after a year with the Birmingham Rep he achieved his ambition of joining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1935, where he played in his beloved Shakespeare for several seasons. Among his roles were Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Laertes to Donald Wolfit's Hamlet.

War interrupted his theatrical career. A friend who had worked with him at his father's theatre was the BBC announcer Alvar Lidell. He suggested that Raikes enter a competition being held by Forces Broadcasting, who were looking for announcers. Raikes was co-winner with Franklin Engelman and spent two years in BBC Presentation before joining the Royal Signals, with whom he served in Italy and North Africa. On his return to London he followed George Melachrino, the bandleader, as RSM of his unit where most of the personnel under him were, he claimed, members of dance bands of the period. Whilst drilling his men by day he was translating plays from the Greek by night. One of these, Iphigeneia in Aulis by Euripides, was to be his farewell BBC radio production in 1975.

On demobilisation there was no post available for him in the Presentation Department, but those were wise days at the BBC and in 1947 he was appointed to the Drama Department. The fish was in water and he took to it as a good fish would. First he worked on the soap opera The Robinson Family, and then, grasping all the production opportunities which it offered, Dick Barton, Special Agent, the popular daily thriller serial. Having served an apprenticeship at the coalface of popular radio, Raikes found his true niche producing plays for the new Third Programme, for the "World Theatre" series of great international classics and for the "National Theatre of the Air", of which he became executive producer in 1961.

Even with the most obscure works which he relished unearthing and presenting, he never lost the popular touch learned from the daily cliffhangers of Dick Barton. He spoke the language of actors, even if somewhat indistinctly on the studio talk-back, since the cigarette never left his lips whilst working, and his notes were punctuated by a distinctive cough whenever it did.

He made the process of realising the most arcane minor Jacobean script into a piece of fun. He introduced audiences to the wealth of our more obscure English heritage with plays like The London Cuckolds by Edward Ravenscroft (performed this year at the Royal National Theatre), Arden of Faversham, A Woman Killed by Kindness, A Journey to London, Love in a Village, Lionel and Clarissa and Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Julius Brutus.

He directed 17 of Shakespeare's plays on radio, the Agammemnon trilogy of Aeschylus, The Wasps and Lysistrata by Aristophanes, The Bacchae, Medea and Hippolytus by Euripides. He had the ability to make the most flamboyant, theatrical Restoration comedies comprehensible and acceptable in a medium best suited to the understated and the quiet in drama.

Raikes had begun his career as a man of the theatre and, for him, radio drama was another form of theatre. Most continental broadcasters have a Drama Department, involved with specially written works, and a Radio Theatre department, which concentrates on existing literature. Had he been Polish or Hungarian there is no doubt as to which of these departments he would have belonged. He preferred the absent author to the present one, because the absent cannot interfere.

He was no academic purist, but a scion of show business who always referred to a production as "the show". He rewrote parts of plays by absent playwrights for the sake of clarification, "improved" contemporary translations of Greek texts and "eased" translations by living French writers such as Henri de Montherlant or Jean Anouilh. The works of the latter he did much to promote via radio before his meeting popular success in the West End theatre of the Fifties. A scholar would note that the hand of Raikes is evident in most of the Shakespeare texts he directed. For the average listener this blasphemy would only make things clearer.

With the arrival of stereophony he felt the requirements of the stage could even more easily be transferred to the radio studio and he pursued the innovation with enthusiasm, often in the face of managerial opposition. His first stereo experiment, scenes from Sherlock Holmes, was transmitted well after midnight on 6 July 1958, hardly prime time. His innovative endeavours received international recognition when his production of The Foundling by Peter Gurney, with music by Humphrey Searle, received the Prix Italia for stereophonic production in 1965. In this annus mirabilis for him he was also awarded the Prix Italia for his production of The Anger of Achilles by Robert Graves, with music by Roberto Gerhard.

No tangible award was accorded to his greatest achievement, in which his desire to educate and inform combined with his need to entertain. This was a mammoth survey, in 13 parts, of English drama from its earliest beginnings to the present day entitled The First Stage. Written with John Barton and presented by him, this was broadcast on the Third Programme, 1956-57.

While Raymond Raikes was working at the BBC, the kind of plays and programmes he produced was staple diet on radio and remained so until the Birtian revolution of recent years. The enthusiasm of this one man was trusted and encouraged by successive controllers and two heads of Radio Drama - Val Gielgud (though not without some struggle) and Martin Esslin. Audiences were made aware of a wealth of dramatic literature which they would not otherwise have encountered in performances either because of the prohibitive costs of production in other media or because of the absence of a nearby theatre.

There would be no place for such as him in the non-smoking, accountancy-led BBC of today in which a mere 30 new drama productions per year appear on Radio 3 and only a handful of plays longer than one hour's duration are made for Radio 4. Those who are old enough must be grateful for the riches they have enjoyed. For the young it is another matter. And will there ever be anything again on radio to thrill us as did Dick Barton, Special Agent . . . "Produced by Raymond Raikes"?

John Tydeman

Raymond Montgomery Raikes, radio drama producer: born London 13 September 1910; married 1939 Wendy Howard (one daughter); died Bromley, Kent 2 October 1998.