In Radio We Had a Giant
It is 43 years since Andrew Allan died and I’m sure that, even then, most young Canadians responded to his death with “Who?”. But his death brought sadness mixed with a great deal of nostalgia to those of us who had once depended upon Andrew Allan for the greater part of our Canadian culture. The 1940s. It was wartime. We were lonely and rationed and unsure, and for those of us with a taste for better entertainment there was very little theatre to see, especially out here in the West. Then what to our wondering ears should appear...!
“Good evening. This is Andrew Allan.”
“There was no better studio producer in the world,” said writer Lister Sinclair. “And now that radio is past that period, there never will be again.” Radio had its day but what a glorious day: Andrew Allan perfected the sound of radio; learned to use it as a vehicle of communication capable of transmitting the most subtle emotions, the most glaring conflicts, the most breathtaking excitement. He helped develop several of Canada’s best actors and writers. He brought Canada to the notice of the world.
From 1944 to 1956, as director of the CBC drama Stage, he delighted his radio audience with a wide variety of plays. There were classics, comedies, fairytales, satires, tragedies and dramas. They would be on the air for one hour every Sunday evening. and they would always be good. For his contribution, Andrew Allan earned a place among the outstanding artists who helped to give Canada a national identity. He had adopted Canada. He was born in Scotland, the son of a Presbyterian minister, but his father brought his family to Toronto where he became popular for a series of radio broadcasts about Scotland. The Allans had been in Australia and New York before settling in Ontario. Andrew entered the University of Toronto but didn’t stay to graduate. Instead, he turned to radio and journalism.
In 1938, when the free world was watching the European dictators anxiously, Andrew Allan published an article in Saturday Night, “Democracy, Cheer Up”. My high school history teacher was so impressed by the article he read it to our class. Allan was daring us to apologize for democracy. “Are we to shirk, just because it is difficult?” he asked. That was my introduction to Andrew Allan. The following year, Allan himself would be one of the first to suffer tragedy because of the war. He was sailing from England to Canada with his father on the ship Athenia. The ship was torpedoed and his father was lost. Andrew was rescued after many hours clinging to a piece of wreckage.
Back in Canada, he tried to join the forces but was rejected on medical grounds. He returned to radio, and so it was in 1943 that a series of halfhour radio plays out of Vancouver, Baker’s Dozen, came to the astonished ears of the perceptive segment of the Canadian public. My mother became an instant fan and I caught her enthusiasm. Allan’s next move was to Toronto, where he became head of Drama at CBC Radio. The weekly one-hour drama known as “Stage” was born.
I recall those Sunday nights in 1945 and ‘46 when my mother and I would attend evening service at the church, cut out at the last line of the benediction and run hell-bent the half block to our apartment to hear Stage. We would leave the radio on with the volume down so it would be good and warm and ready to go, because we were church-goin’ folk, but Stage came on at 8 sharp and we didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
My chief dream was to be an actress, a dream that seemed far from realization in Saskatchewan in 1945, but in 1946 Lorne Greene established The Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto - and Andrew Allan was to teach radio production there. I gave up my exciting life as a country schoolteacher and headed east. There were to be several creative people at the school and I was eager to learn from them - writer Lister Sinclair and actor Mavor Moore among them - but Andrew Allan was the drawing card. I didn’t just want to act; I wanted to act for Mr. Allan.
I had sensed, away out here in the west, that something fantastic was happening in Canada. Aware of Allan’s tremendous success in Vancouver, CBC had brought him to Toronto to head the CBC drama department. They had also extended Stage to a 60-minute program. A small nucleus of actors and writers with whom he’d worked in Vancouver simply picked up and followed him. He was building up a kind of radio repertory theatre and, now that he was head of CBC drama, no actor or writer would stand much chance in Canadian radio unless they reached the eye and ear of Mr. Allan.
It was soon legend that he hated administrative duties, but he carried power with unusual ease. There was authority in his stance, dynamism in the way he used his hands in the signal code of the radio producer. Radio producers, because they sat in elevated booths and controlled performers with gestures, were known at CBC as “God”. Around the Academy of Radio Arts, Andrew Allan was known to the students as “God”. To put it mildly, we students were impressed.
In May 1950 Lister Sinclair wrote in Canadian Forum, “Canada stands in the world today at the very top in the difficult field of radio drama. This achievement is due to Andrew more than to any other single person .... It is now commonplace to say that the CBC Drama Department has, in Andrew Allan, a genius at its head.”
Geniuses are born constantly but accidents of time produce the soil in which they flourish. America could not have produced the Allan phenomenon because it was too old, too large, too diverse and too commercial when radio was invented. Creative shoots poke their heads through the soil of any country now and then, but some are hardier and more colourful than others. Once, Canadian painters drew together to express the uniqueness of their country in a collective outburst we call The Group of Seven. Later, with the help of fine actors, fine writers and the music of Lucio Agostini, Andrew Allan created what he might have called a living Canadian “thing” and he was the heart that made the thing pulse.
Andrew Allan had a broad cultural background, particularly in literature, and he used words like a cook until they amalgamated into a blend that had unity. You didn’t listen to an Andrew Allan production with the intelligence. You felt it. You took in the communication intuitively by a kind of osmosis. To use one of his own phrases, “You did it with the liver.”
The talent for producing drama simply by sound is what made him a towering genius of Canadian radio. I had the chance to sit in the control booth as an observer when he produced Joseph Schull’s The Concert in 1948. Watching him meld actors and music into pictures was like watching a great musician conduct a symphony. He could give of the creative core of his nature and project it into a work of art more complex than the work of those who work alone.
Many times since I attended the radio academy I have felt buoyed up by Mr. Allan’s contagious creativity as if, by crossing his path, I had caught it. His appreciation of literature was a big part of his secret. He called radio “the perfect stage for the word”, and he placed emphasis on discovering and developing writers. Havinq a musician like Lucio Agostini working on the show raised Stage yet another notch.
Andrew Allan was a complex man whom few really knew: proud, lonely and enormously talented. He spent much of his productivity fulfilling his role as head of drama for CBC and doing it splendidly, yet he spent much of the rest of his life searching for purpose. His contribution to Canadian culture was intangible and as a result it has been hard to remember. He didn’t leave things we can touch, like books or paintings. He left sounds, which slipped over the airwaves and, in their transient passage, made an indelible impression upon his listeners.
Of course Canada was taking the prizes, winning the awards for radio drama. Andrew Allan worked on productions besides Stage. In the 1970s I was teaching sociology and I made use of a series of anthropological programs entitled Ways of Mankind which Andrew Allan produced in 1952. I made sure to tell my students the plays were planned by an American anthropologist and financed by American money but they came to Canada for the talent. My young students might not have recognized the name of Andrew Allan by that date, but they looked proud to hear that Canada had had such a splendid reputation.