Mary Hope Allen, radio producer and writer: born Ashtead, Surrey 5 December 1898; married 1946 Captain John Merrington (died 1970); died Cambridge 26 March 2001.
Mary Hope Allen was a pioneer of radio. During and after the Second World War, when millions used to tune in regularly to the wireless, "produced by Mary Hope Allen" was a phrase with which listeners from all over Britain were familiar.
She was born in 1898 and educated at Downe House, where she met Elizabeth Bowen, the first of her life-long friends and correspondents. She later adapted Bowen's The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day for radio. Further education was at the Slade School of Art. Students there were divided between those with an intense vocational bent and those for whom it was a fashionable alternative to university. Allen never had pretensions to being a serious artist. She was however quite prepared to face down the redoubtable Professor Tonks who reduced some to tears by his withering criticisms; Allen just laughed at him. One of the many friends she made at the Slade was Mary Attenborough ("Att"), later to be the painter Mary Potter.
Allen's first regular job was with the Weekly Westminster Gazette, a literary paper the nature of which can be judged by the fact that Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party first appeared in its columns. She started as secretary to its editor, Naomi Royd Smith, who told her "there may be a journalist lurking inside you" and asked her to write the theatre reviews. Before long Allen was also the critic for the Manchester Guardian and had acquired a professional knowledge of the theatre that was the mainstay of her future career. At the Weekly Westminster she had made friends of many of the contributors, including Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Rose Macaulay. With Walter de la Mare, she continued to exchange letters until he died.
Allen's theatre background got her a job at the BBC in 1927, where her first task was to read through every play in the repertoire to see which were suitable for broadcasting. This took a year, after which she persuaded the Director-General, Sir John Reith (another tyrant who failed to subdue her) to let her write programmes. She put together a series of "mosaics" which blended verse and music. Notoriously, she wrote about the Great Plague of London, which spared listeners nothing. Drawing rooms were invaded with realistic groans and screams; and Allen was rewarded with outraged reviews and indignant letters.
In the early days, radio dramas largely consisted of adaptations of West End plays. Other departments mirrored other art forms, such as concerts and lectures. In 1935 Reith set up a "Programme Research Section," a team of four that included Allen, to explore what could be done with work written specifically for radio. After two years of hit-and-miss experimentation, the section was absorbed by Val Gielgud, Head of the Drama Department, who added "and Features" to his department's name to cover the work of Allen and her three colleagues.
Val Gielgud insisted that his writers should produce their own programmes. Allen was at first horrified, but later wrote, "How right! I gradually got confident and had the pleasure of seeing scripts through from start to finish." The system became the norm and "writer/ producer" is still the only adequate way to describe the job.
By November 1939 Drama and Features had been evacuated to Manchester. Allen moved into a large house overlooking Platt Park that had been taken by Laurence Gilliam (head of the features section) and "Att" Potter and her husband, the writer Stephen Potter Allen had helped Stephen get into the BBC. Occupants fluctuated, but there were usually about 10 BBC executives or actors living in 66 Platt Lane. The growing hazard of air-raids increased the camaraderie: a Picture Post article on the "BBC at War" showed a tin-hatted Gilliam in the cellar with Allen working on a script on a camp bed.
A frequent visitor to the house was J.B. Priestley, with whom Allen was falling in love. At the end of 1940 he was broadcasting his morale-boosting Postscripts, which brought him mail by the sackful. Allen produced many of his subsequent talks and co-authored with him a play, Goodnight Children, that was staged in Manchester. Stephen Potter's diaries have many references to Allen's happiness at the time of her association with Priestley.
Allen was a great talker. She let it be known that she had been invited by the Sitwells to spend Christmas at Renishaw. "I shan't go, of course," she added. "One cannot go there and offer Edith Sitwell a jar of Boots Bath Salts for Christmas." Anything bizarre made her laugh. After a visit to an Essex school, for a programme in her round-Britain series My Working Day, the playback from one child was "I noticed that Miss Allen had very clean teeth."
Allen got the point, and responded, more quickly than anyone. Priestley told her "it is like talking to the ear-drum itself and you seem to see things with the optic nerve direct".
For a long time radio suffered from non-acceptance by the intelligentsia. It was a clever toy, but nothing of real value could be expected to come out of it. Allen countered this with And So to Bed, in which for five minutes before the midnight news some celebrity actor, author, politician would read his chosen bit of verse or prose. This gradually drew more writers into the BBC net.
Drama and Features separated at the end of the war, Allen staying with Drama, where her main interest had always been. There she remained as one of the department's most reliable and prolific producers. One of her triumphs was Sartre's Huis Clos, which she produced for the Third Programme in 1946, in the first week of its existence.
After retirement in 1958 Mary at last had more time to spend with her husband, John Merrington. The BBC continued to offer her work and she undertook the adaptation for radio of several Henry James novels. Her husband died in 1970, when she disposed of her London flat and went to live in her 1639 house in Buckinghamshire. There she gardened and cooked Aylesbury duck for her friends, most of whom were actors from the BBC repertory company or the London stage, with whom she had worked so closely all her life.
By Julian Potter