Frederick Bradnum

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The Independent Online

Sidney Frederick Joseph Bradnum, writer, radio producer and dramatist: born London 8 May 1920; married 1951 Anne Calonne (died 1988; one adopted son); died Chichester, West Sussex 25 December 2001.

In the late 1990s the writer Frederick Bradnum submitted a new radio play to the BBC drama department in Broadcasting House. He received – though not by return; the process took some weeks – a package for "Writers New to Radio", explaining the nuts and bolts of the craft: how to utilise the medium, how to define character through sound, how to plot. How, in short, to write a radio play.

Bradnum was arguably one of the greatest half-dozen or so British radio dramatists of the 20th century. His body of work by then covered around 70 original plays in one form or another (from 20-minute experimental "music concrète"-style radiophonic poems, through powerful hour-long indictments of the social system, to 90-minute entertainments for the old Saturday Night Theatre) as well as a staggering 140-odd adapted dramatisations (from the Classics to John le Carré).

Initially he was not quite sure whether to be amused or to hurl his typewriter though his office window. After a while (as he said a year or so later) he "gritted his teeth a bit" then, ever the professional, got on with the next submission – which this time got "mislaid" and then, when he re-submitted, was rejected (almost by return) as "unsuitable".

The 1990s will not go down in radio-drama history as its finest decade. In retrospect it was a time of anti-entertainment, quelled creativity, squeezed budgets, "the market", and weaselly Birtian cant (at one stage a distinguished and highly approachable head of radio drama was sent on a course to learn how to "interact" with his colleagues). New commissioning editors, with new commissioning techniques which rigorously excluded outside submissions unless plays were "challenging" or "realistic" or "socially aware" (as though such themes had never been pursued before), tended to view writers such as Bradnum as élitist, hopelessly unfashionable and, in John Drummond's chilling phrase, "tainted by experience".

Ironically, Bradnum's last broadcast play, The Terraced House (1994; director, Jane Morgan) was a perfect little 30-minute vignette of tension and horror which touched on child-sex abuse; his last adaptation that of John Fowles's roaring best-seller The French Lieutenant's Woman (1993, in three parts; Janet Whitaker), with David Threlfall and Amanda Redman as the doomed lovers, and Norman Rodway as the Mephistophelean narrator. Both hardly the work of an élitist.

Frederick Bradnum was born in 1920 in Fulham, south-west London, his father (who before the First World War had led an adventurous life as a wandering cowboy in Canada) a senior clerk at Battersea power station. The family moved to Roehampton, where Bradnum left school at 15 to work in an architect's office, becoming (after night-school) a junior draughtsman at the local council. He wrote poetry on the side and joined the Territorials, serving with the BEF in France on the outbreak of the Second World War, and then with Special Forces in Norway.

He was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade in December 1940. With the Commandos he served in Greece (shepherding minor royals off Crete, he said, on one of the last boats out) and took part in raids on Norway and the French coast. Wounded during a raid on St Nazaire in May 1942, he spent several hours in the water and was considered permanently unfit for general service. After seven months in hospital he was given a staff job, and spent the rest of the war in an administrative role in SOE, and then in Central Archives. He emerged from the conflict an Acting Major at 26, but was to draw on his wartime experiences in one or other fictional form for the rest of his life.

After the war Bradnum helped launch the "48 Theatre" in London before joining the BBC, working his way up through the ranks (at one time on the road with Wilfred Pickles). A long stint as producer followed (1950-61), mainly for the old Third Programme, then the leading cultural voice in the civilised world.

Bradnum took to studio production like a fledgling to flight, swiftly mastering studio techniques and within the shortest time possible producing, directing, adapting, writing. With the blind actor Esme Percy (a noted Shavian) he put out a season of Shaw plays; solo he adapted half a dozen plays by the poet W.B. Yeats. He was attracted to the poetic – strong influences on his own early work were the verse dramas of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry (his own contributions to the Third's massive retrospective From the Fifties in the autumn of 1961 were productions of The Cocktail Party and A Sleep of Prisoners). He adapted Auden (For the Time Being, with music by Malcolm Arnold), Shaw (a much-praised Back to Methuselah) and Lorca, directed Ibsen and Strindberg, and indulged in his fancy for 16th- and 17th-century Spanish dramatists by producing plays by Calderón, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina. He also produced/directed two major "Classic Serials", Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad's Romance and Disraeli's Coningsby.

In the mid-1950s, together with the radio producer (and friend of Beckett) Donald McWhinnie and Desmond Bristow, he tentatively began what would later become the celebrated BBC Radiophonic Workshop, writing the first – probably only – radiophonic poems, of which Private Dreams and Public Nightmares (1957), with the voices of the actors Frederick Treves, Joan Sanderson and Andrew Sachs (all then young bloods) mixed in with electronic music and random electronic sound-patterns, was the most successful.

In 1961 Bradnum suffered a breakdown brought on by a combination of pressure of BBC work and his memories of the war. He left London, diving into the deepest Sussex countryside, and almost at once decided to pursue a solo writing career. For the next three decades he wrote almost exclusively for the radio, during what may fairly be regarded as the drama department's "golden years". It was a period of brilliant writers, electrifying productions, hugely creative directors, wonderfully distinctive radio voices. Even the trash had points of interest.

Bradnum's masterpiece in the adaptations line was his 26-hour dramatisation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, produced by Graham Gauld at intervals over a period of four years (1979-82) and utilising a stellar cast of radio voices. His adaptation of Kingsley Amis's The Riverside Villas Murder (1976; Harry Catlin) was both funny and poignant. He transformed a number of Simenon's seemingly unbroadcastable Maigret novels (1977, with Maurice Denham as the eponymous Chief Inspector) into riveting playlets, and – the writer Rene Basilico having already nabbed the good stuff: Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People, etc – even managed to make something of le Carré's overblown and rambling The Honourable Schoolboy (1983, two parts; Roger Pine, with Martin Jarvis as Jerry Westerby, Peter Vaughan as Smiley). He successfully tackled Hardy, Wilkie Collins (an excellent The Dead Secret in six hour-long instalments), William de Morgan, Kipling (The Light That Failed), Richard Hughes, Henry Green's on the face of it impossible Nothing, and a superlative Rogue Male (1989, starring the late Simon Cadell in fine form). Bradnum was nothing if not catholic in his tastes.

His own plays resonated with a distinctive irony (of the sharpest) touched with an at times rich gallows humour. His take on the Lord Lucan affair was Creepers (1977; Jane Morgan) with the late great Jack May at his most louche, Ian Holm at his most apologetic, and Philip Bond (the Lucan figure) at his most whiningly mad.

Bradnum's various brushes with the Intelligence services sparked off a number of dramas, including The Recruiter (1971: who recruited the Cambridge spies?) and Hedgehog (1961; Archie Campbell: echoes of the Burgess and Maclean escape, with Stephen Murray as a blackmailed innocent); and there were many echoes of the Second World War – The Man Who Lived Among Eskimos (1981) concerned an SS officer who escaped justice after the war by fleeing to Greenland, and the heavily autobiographical No Going Home (1957), with David Spenser in the Bradnum role and John Sharp as a comically lunatic sergeant intent upon foiling the brass from gaining possession of two comfortable railway carriages their squad has "liberated", won a Prix Italia and featured music by Humphrey Searle.

The Odd Business at Narvik (1988) was a deeply personal statement about war and memory and loss, featuring a battle he himself had taken part in overlaid with sounds and voices from the Great War, in which his father had fought; at times, supernaturally, both conflicts seem to be taking place at the same time.

Bradnum was particularly adept at the "drama/doc" – a feature which combined the best elements of both disciplines. Notable successes were Chloroform for Mr Bartlett (1957, the notorious Adelaide Bartlett case), A Terribly Strange Man (1971, Wilkie Collins, a favourite writer), the Sony Award-winning The Dream of George Crabbe (1975), A Small Speck of Evil (1984, Guy de Maupassant and the syphilis that killed him), Rimbaud at Hara (1965, the last years of the poet in Ethiopia), A Putney Christmas (1971, Swinburne bullied by Watts-Dunton to keep him from drink and laudanum), Whom the Gods Loved (1970, the life and death of the fighter-pilot Richard Hillary).

It was Freddy Bradnum's luck that his life coincided with the best years of a medium – radio – whose techniques and disciplines suited his creative psyche like a tight-fitting glove. In life he was both a warrior and a poet, a combination which invariably sparked off the best in his writing – e.g., his wholly sympathetic portrait of Aylmer Conyers (superlatively played by William Fox), the army man who wasn't a blockhead, in Anthony Powell's Music of Time.

A disciplined man, even when rejected he still sought to "get things down" on his typewriter every day. His legacy – the dramas, adaptations and productions that filled his creative life – now lies in the BBC Sound Archives. Unless, of course, the BBC, in its arrogance and stupidity, has wiped the tapes.

Jack Adrian