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Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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2.0. Orson Welles. The radio drama

I remind the reader that the four parts of this essay are the result of a drastic selection meant to address the most representative characteristics of each genre (in this sense, radio is not an exception). This is mainly due to lack of space, but also to allow the reader to keep memory of what he/she reads and to focus on the most important facts. With regard to Les Misérables on radio, our survey starts in 1925 with a BBC production, the first one of which I have clear traces. Following productions are a little bit less than ten, all by BBC (1939, 1944, 1976 and 2001; I will come back on the latter at the end of this chapter). Thus, Great Britain seems to have the lead, as the musical productions by Cameron Mackintosh (see Part IV) in 1985 demonstrates. Also France does not fall too much behind, but its radio productions are as diverse as to even include a sort of conference. In fact, in 1953, André Maurois dedicated 10 programs to Hugo and the characters of his book. Claude Santelli’s version from 1961 to 1968 follows. It featured such actors as Michel Galabru, Victor Lanoux and Claude Rich interpreting the parts of the novel dedicated to Cosette, Gavroche and Jean Valjean. Another French radio version is Jean Bellorini’s adaptation of Book IV performed in 2013 by the acting company Air de Lune. In 2010, though, the same playwright, along with Camille De la Guillonière, had already made an adaptation for seven actors and two musicians of the part of the novel titled Tempête sous un crâne. France, as will be explained further on, occupies the first place as to the quality of its radio productions.

In order to prove what I have just said and despite what historical data maintain (that there are many radio editions of Hugo’s novel), I will deal here mainly with the Orson Welles’s version of 1937. This work marks Welles’s transition from the Campbell Playhouse to The Mercury Theater on the Air broadcasted by the U.S. MBS (Mutual Broadcasting System). Despite being recent history, the vicissitudes behind this production are not completely clear. In fact, many U.S. sources do not ascribe the adaptation of Les Misérables to a specific company, which is quite odd. Moreover, the CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) seems involved in the production since the very beginning (pictures of the setting confirm it), but some sources reports the presence of the MBS. At the end of my research I could assess that reality was somewhat different. Les Misérables, that MBS wanted to produce, was such a big success that the repertoire of the recently born The Mercury Theater on the Air was quickly spread throughout the United States. At the same time, CBS commissioned Welles to prepare several radio shows of increasing magnitude.25 These objective data could explain, at least to some extent, the coexistence of MBS and CBS in the same production: the latter joined and, during the preparatory stage of the radio drama, eventually replaced the former.

25 Consulting and comparing the cited websites and Digital Deli Outline (last accessed January 2015) have been of paramount importance.

A version by the Lux Radio Theater is quite peculiar, especially if one ‘looks’ at it without taking into account when it was produced. It was broadcasted from 1934 to 1955 by the New York NBC (later on, the Lux Radio Theater would work for CBS and, eventually, again for NBC). The Lux Radio Theater specialized in radio adaptations of movies. Hence, in 1952, Earl Eby directed for the radio Robert Newton (Javert) and Debra Paget (Cosette) interpreting the same roles already featured in the film Les Misérables directed by Lewis Milestone (see following chapters) the same year. After other radio adaptations in 1982, 2001 (probably the longest, with twenty-five episodes) and 2002, one of the last I know of is a French version in fourteen episodes broadcasted by France Culture Radio in 2012.

It has already been mentioned in the Sources, but it is worth to recommend once more visiting the Internet Archive website, a non-profit library with millions of free books, movies, software, music and more. Although mainly focused on North-American culture (including Canada), this library includes many other very important collections (for example, the Library of Congress in Washington). The Internet Archive possesses several pages of particular interest for those who conduct research overseas, i.e. the pages dedicated to the Old Time Radio that contain many rare radio programs. One of these is, of course, Welles’s adaptation of Les Misérables.26 Other pages in the Television Archive section are also very important for delving into the video productions of both Western and Eastern Europe (including Russia).27

26 (last accessed January 2015).

27 Actually, besides the interest for other phenomena, there are many other websites where one can freely download Welles’ adaptation. I will mention just one for all: wellesnet – the Orson Welles web source (last accessed October 2014).

The famous program The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles, sponsored by Campbell’s Soup – featured also in a recent episode of The Simpsons Cartoon – was broadcasted on October 30, 1938. It had two main effects: making Welles famous all over the world and putting many U.S. citizens’ nerves through the mill. It also generated a large amount of bibliographical material that demonstrates how relevant that event was. In fact, I agree with who says that The War of the Worlds, to which I pay my tribute, marked the entrance of media in the adult age. But let us go back to Les Misérables. Welles chose Hugo’s work to start a new series of theater On the Air. The whole program lasted 2 hours and 28 minutes and was divided into 7 half-an-hour parts – in fact thirty minutes was believed to be the longest span of time a listener could keep his attention focused on the same program. Among Welles’s works with The Mercury Theater, Les Misérables was the only subject that got divided into several episodes. It is not clear to me whether this was an isolated experiment meant to be repeated, or whether the overall plan was to reduce every program to one episode – as it actually happened – and grant Hugo’s work a special treatment, partly justified by the extent of the novel.

Just to grasp the technological context of the time, which is fundamental to understand certain aesthetic choices, one should recall the amount of devices created in order to induce the audience to a kind of literary experience that would be new and different than the classical reading of a book. This implied first to create a bridge between literature and theater, and then build another one between literature and radio, that is, a union between literature and technology whose development and consequences are still within us nowadays.

However, the texts available for consultation at that time did not concern that bridge. Despite being of high interest for any radio enthusiast, information was reduced to mere technical explanations, some of which are still valid at present. Other sources were only useful to gather the necessary documentation for the writing of a manual about history of technologies. Nevertheless, I am convinced that a radio amateur should go first of all through a simple textbook in electrical engineering.28 Then, he/she should move to the physical principles behind a transmitter and a receiver (those same principles that linguistics first, and information theory and semiotics later, frequently employed for analytical reasons). In addition to the waveform – band, frequency and wavelength – that the receiver picks up from the transmitter,29 it would also be mandatory to study the oscillator, the modulator, the amplifier and the antenna of a transmitter as well as the homodyne, the heterodyne and the super-heterodyne of the receiver. Thanks to the Multiplex System, such a technology eventually evolved into stereophony (from 1977). Television also used the same bandwidth as radio – from short to long waves – and quickly became the most pervasive communication medium.

28 I suggest first the reading of Aldo Locatelli, Corso di elettrotecnica per allievi delle scuole tecniche industriali e tecnici d'officina, con 286 figure (Turin: S. Lattes & C., 1959), especially Chapter XII, ‘Radiotelegrafia e radiotelefonia,’ 214-31. Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

29 Main modulation techniques are: amplitude modulation (AM) used since the very beginning (in Italy since 1924) and frequency modulation (FM) with a reduced SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) and a wide frequency band (20Hz to 20kHz) that covers the whole theoretical frequency range a young person, especially if female, can hear. Indeed, it is well-known that at the age of fifty the male hearing system is subjected to a progressive deterioration, whereas women maintain a good sensitivity for high frequencies much longer than men.

The reader must be reminded that for a complete, overall understanding of how a radio works it suffices to know the basic principles of a transmitter (the receiver just operates in the opposite way). If one is not much versed in technical matters, he/she can think of a popular device present in every house connected to internet: the modem. Its name derives from the contraction of two words: the modulator and the demodulator, that is, two opposite, mirror-like operations that concerns also cinema and soundtracks. Radio still works in a similar way.30

30 For a deeper explanation of these concepts see Heinz Richter, Radiotecnica, It. trans. M. Mariani, (Bologna: C.E.L.I., n.d.). Last accessed Winter 2015. It is not clear to me whether this is a complete version, in any case be careful because after the first free downloading the website asks for a non-free subscription.

The present technological framework offers a good platform both for work and leisure. However, I will not talk here about digital broadcasting, that is, the radio of the near future. As already partially mentioned, in Apple iTunes (and now also in Apple Music) one can purchase single tracks, full collections (something like CDs) or even films, but without the DVDs’ options that allows to quickly change language or add subtitles. One can also download books, video-books, audio-books31 and applications for iPad and iPhone, and can subscribe to podcast or iTunes U (higher education courses released by universities from every corner of the world in collaboration with Apple). All of them – except Apple Music in Apple Store – without any fee.

31 A video-book is thought for a conventional reading, but it uses a specific device to achieve it (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, Android tablet or a PC). The reader has a whole array of available options: color and texture of the ‘paper,’ font type, size, color, reader’s comments, bookmarks and, sometimes, even the reading speed (usually available for Apple iPad, Android tablets and, of course, personal computers with any kind of operating system: Microsoft Windows, Android, Apple OS/iOS and Linux).

In short, everything that is not commercial is free. Other computer industries followed Apple’s example. Even Microsoft, ‘caught out’ by its main competitor, after having announced measures meant to bridge the initial gap, seems now vying against Apple (see the OS 10 and Surface 4 Pro). Meanwhile, other options contend the market, probably because they are cheaper, i.e.: video-books and audio-books for the Kindle tablets (Amazon), freely convertible to Apple readers. In sum, the only real alternative to Apple is Google-Amazon that can offer a large number of applications, books, video- and audio-books for Android smartphones and tablets through Google Play.

In an iTunes U, I serendipitously found a seminar dedicated to Le mélodrame, Centre national de documentations pédagogique32 with an interesting lecture by the French historian and writer Bernard Chambaz titled Lecture des Misérables de Victor Hugo33 (October 1, 2013: 8 minutes and 58 seconds of engaged and honest reflections on Hugo’s novel).34

32 “National Center of Pedagogical Documentation”, in French in the original text [ET].

33 “Lecture on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables”, in French in the original text [ET].

34 Excerpt from Bernard Chambaz à la recherche de Victor Hugo, series “Recherche d’auteur”© SCÉRÉN-CNDP France 5 – 2001. DVD editions La littérature populaire, une révolution culturelle (XIXe siècle et debut XXe siècle), Collection “Présence de la litterature“© SCÉRÉN-CNDP - 2888 - TDC N. 1061 Le mélodrame - October 2013.

What I said so far is meant to point out that all the technology we have and will have in an ever increasing quantity does not and will not represent a ‘revolution’ unless mankind instills some of its own vitality in it. In fact, any kind of feeling as it can be found in any tale – anguish or calm, ferocity or serenity, sensual disinhibition or serene chastity, sincerity or deceit, fervent faith or cautious agnosticism, positive and collective outlook on life or bitter individualism – nowadays must share its space with technology.

This is why radio is a medium of particular importance, the first of its kind. With its technical-conceptual simplicity radio does not alter the relationship between transmitter and receiver and does not interfere with the message (or, at least, it does so to a lesser extent than other media). Human voice’s vibes and speaker’s sounds captivate the radio listener in such an intense way that other ‘more complete’ media can only dream of. In fact, a message transmitted with other media does not convey very often its essence as radio does. Radio involves only one sense: the hearing. Heart and brain catch signals from one sole source. Also for this reason I speak about the radio experience as ‘purity’ and ‘essence.’ What we hear daily as ‘normal’ sounds augments its presence through radio reception and words eventually catch our attention. It is as though the voice coming out of the speaker is able to drag us to the source of what it is saying. However, it is not just a matter of loudness. In fact, we can ecstatically listen to a music we know very well and we already possess on CD or LP because it sounds somehow ‘different.’ This happens also when we listen to a well-known interpretation: that music seems to be as precious as an unexpected present that we are gifted enough to appreciate.

To say radio means highly enhancing human sensitivity. Indeed, by stimulating only the sense of hearing the whole body can get involved in the experience. A sentimental breath becomes the sentimental breath through which we can also hear the broken panting that often goes with it. Likewise, a slum becomes the slum, that is, the quintessence of an act of predetermined or sudden violence whose short, almost anechoic sound may leave a long resonance within the listener. Moreover, radio did not pass through a period of individual consumption as cinema did before becoming a collective experience (when the first cinema theaters were open to the public at the beginning of the XX century). Radio has always been one and the same throughout its history.35

35 It is true that between the two technological extremes – the very beginning and the digital era – headphones allowed individual consumption. Most of the times, though, one would use headphones to listen to CD’s compilations.

Cinema underwent many more substantial changes than radio. I have already mentioned above about the passage from individual to collective consumption. After having become a collective show, the ‘silent art’ turned into a ‘sound art’ that many artists and intellectuals disesteemed (e.g. Charlie Chaplin, René Clair, Béla Balázs, Rudolph Arnheim, etc.). However, the new situation was not an ‘abstract’ problem, just food for intellectuals – or for solitary intellectuals36 – in fact many cinema actors committed suicide because they could not afford acting for an audience with their own voice. The change from black-and-white to color was not received so tragically but, still, did not please everybody: several cinema masters, from Ingmar Bergman to David Lynch, kept using black-and-white. Cinemascope, anamorphic lenses, 70mm (instead of the ‘classical’ 35mm), the consequent change from the 4:3 screen format to the other more ‘spectacular’ sizes (16:9, 1.85:1, 2.40:1, etc.), Dolby System, Dolby Digital 5+1 and DTS norms, all measures suitable for placing the viewer in an immersive, mobile acoustic dimension similar to the one produced by the images, frequently changed the essence of cinema both for the director (e.g. the help offered by computer graphics) and the spectator (let us not even speak, for the sake of cinema, about the unfortunate return of 3D). Instead, radio highly benefitted from technical improvements (again, the implementation of frequency modulation and stereophony) that did not alter its essence, since, in any case, there is always someone speaking and someone listening. The former can either alternate his/her voice with a voice at the telephone37 or be the only voice speaking. In both ways the essence of radio does not change, and for this same reason radio has always been true to itself.

36 The play on words between “per soli intellettuali” (only for intellectuals) and “per intellettuali soli” (for solitary intellectuals) got lost in the translation into English.

37 This was a revolutionary idea that, later on, cell phones highly enhanced.

History had at least two ‘prophets’ of the radio’s potential: Walter Ruttmann who recorded and edited Weekend (Berlin, 1930), a phonofilm that, as far as I know, still needs to be thoroughly studied; and Rudolph Arnheim who, six years later, published Rundfunk als Hörkunst, a collection of essays on the artistic potential of radio listening.38

38 Rudolf Arnheim, Rundfunk als Hörkunst, mit einer neuen Enlleitung dess Verfasser [Ein neues Vorwort, 1978] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2001 [1936]). Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Now it is time for some personal confessions. Since I was a boy up to my late adolescence, I took pleasure in listening to radio theater and lyric operas. In both, but especially in the former, vocal vibes widened my inner self and filled the space around me: a gradual increase in the tone of the voice had an effect similar to the passage from a long shot to a close-up in cinema. Also, an unintelligible murmuring could become important because of its signifier. This would apply to non-vocal sounds as well: an approaching tapper, the wind hissing, a window slamming, the irregular ticking of raindrops… All of them were interesting sound events that yielded concrete emotions: fear, excitement, tension… Everything was as ‘authentic’ as it were heard from the real source. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870), Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883), Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, 1939, interpreted around thirty years after it was written by Lina Volonghi featuring Anna Fierling under the direction of Luigi Squarzina), and La fidanzata del bersagliere by Edoardo Anton39 (1963)40 were among my favorite friends for at least fifteen years between 1954 and 1969.

39 Edoardo Antonelli (Naples 1910-1986).

40 More than twenty years ago I wrote what is at present the only book entirely dedicated to Morricone, but at that time I did not know what I just recently found out: the music composed for theater and then used in my beloved Anton’s radio drama was his. (Music taken from the 1963 comedy theatre directed by Edoardo Anton, recorded on February 1963 at the Studio B of RCA Italy - Rome. First original authorized CD pressing Cometa Edizioni Musicali ‎- HCMT144, 1991.) Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

In Welles’s adaptation of Les Misérables I found all the emotions I mentioned above. But there is more.41

Characters and interpreters (starring)

Jean Valjean, Orson Welles
Javert, Martin Gabel (costarred)
Fantine, Alice Frost
Cosette (adult),Virginia Nicholson

Supporting Cast

William Alland, Ray Collins, Betty Garde, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Hiram Sherman, Everett Sloane, Richard Widmark, Richard Wilson

Writer, Orson Welles (adaptation)

41 For this chapter I consulted: Kay Hickerson, The Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming and Guide to All Circulating Shows, 4th rev. ed. (Hamden, Connecticut: J. Hickerson, 2011), plus three supplements published in December 2013; John Dunning, On the Air. The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Michele Hilmes, Radio Voice: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). Source: Archive S. M., Florence. See note 49 for the main consulted texts on radio.

The understanding of the artistic possibilities radio can offer and the expressive balance Welles achieved in its reduction of the very long novel is remarkable. Therefore, no serious losses are felt, even if one knows Hugo’s work very well. This means that radio had reached at that point a dramaturgical autonomy. For example, in the first part Valjean, after having served his sentence, receives a lot of wasted food at his request for a meal and a place where to sleep. Here, the director makes a step back to when Valjean, while repeating his own name, listens to and comment about both his first sentence to prison and the other sentences that came after each attempt to escape from jail. There is no need for many explanations; it is what in cinema is called a flashback, that is, the same solution Welles applied twelve years later to build the whole narrative structure of Citizen Kane. (Note that by doing so, Welles was able to impregnate the flashback technique with unexpected aesthetic values.42) In Welles’s Les Misérables the voices from the past overlap with the voices of the present, so that a very effective allusion to the two-faced personality of the main character is realized. Valjean’s voice splits into ‘before’ and ‘after’, which is just an illusion since both time dimensions belong to the same person.


Orson Welles and other actors in CBS studio, 1937.

42 Hansjörg Pauli, “Bernard Herrmanns Musik zu Citizen Kane”, in Sergio Miceli (ed.), Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Musica & Cinema (Siena, August 19-22, 1990), “Chigiana”, Rassegna Annuale di Studi Musicologici, XLII, new series n. 22 (1990), 321-35.

Les Misérables, 1937

From Episode 2: "Javert".

Another directorial feature is found in the use of noises that often get in very loud, notably in the most dramatic moments. This happens, for example, in the second part when Monsieur Madeleine (Jean Valjean), who is now mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, strenuously lifts a cart that is squashing a peasant. The scene takes place under the eyes of the inspector Javert who has not recognized Valjean yet, but, since he remembers the exceptional strength of prisoner ‘24601,’ starts feeling suspicious. After loud and excited interjections, all the voices stop shouting and for a few seconds one can hear only the creaking of the wood. Although weak, this sound fills in one’s entire perceptive space and is sufficient to give him/her the sense of both the protagonist’s exhausting effort and the inevitable revelation to the inspector of Valjean’s real identity. As early as 1937, about fifty years before the appearance of acoustic engineers and sound designers, Welles had already well understood that ‘noises,’ both in cinema and radio were as important as music. In fact, they could even be the acoustic protagonists of a scene.

With regard to the music, after having dreamed for years about prestigious collaborations between Welles and the composer (the pictures from the 1940s in my possession seemed to confirm my illusions), I have to say that whoever he was his musical commentary is not particularly original. I do not even know for sure, despite my thorough investigation, who he was. Perhaps, the orchestra conductor Frank de Vol, but it could also be one of those minor musicians who were and did nothing to be anything but anonymous, mostly in the case of a radio drama. In Welles’s Les Misérables there are between two and four original pieces for each episode – or for an important passage – all of them in the symphonic style of the XIX century. A more precise stylistic definition would refer to the early Hollywood ‘school’ that was still influenced by silent films’ music: Ërno Rapée, John S. Zamecnik, Samuel L. Rothapfel, Carl Breil, Louis F. Gottschalk, Hugo Riesenfeld, David Mendoza, William Axt and many others. These were the models who enriched radio and cinema stories with an average but well-crafted music.

In Welles’s adaptation there is space even for an internal level music episode due, I think, to a directorial choice and probably inserted to confer a sense of truthfulness to the scene.43 In the penultimate part, the fabrication of the barricades is rendered by means of noises that picture the construction process while a choir of young people sings La Marsellaise. It neither fades in from the start, because it must not give the impression of having being intentionally inserted, nor possesses the unbearable characteristic (whether idealistic or ingenuous) of being artificially sung by a professional choir.44 Although obvious, the impact of that choir on the listener is one of the most memorable, even when compared to other choirs in cinema.

Les Misérables, 1937

From Episode 6: "The Barricade".

43 The first formulation of the theory of levels dates back to the end of the 70s. In synthesis, this is what I mean by “levels.” Internal level (diegetic) indicates musical events belonging to the scene of the movie. The musical source is in display or its vision can be legitimately imagined. Sometimes it corresponds to playback. It shows no artistic intentions from part of the author. External level (non-diegetic): undetermined musical source; indexing function; ubiquity; it can be the typical accompaniment/commentary, even with a leitmotivic function. When it reaches the limits of expressive neutrality, it can be a generic background. Normally it reveals the author’s artistic intentions. Mediated level (metadiegetic): internalized musical source, which can be identified with memory, the emotions of a character, or any kind of subjective sonic mimesis, a sort of acoustic ‘point-of-view’ shot. It can acquire any function from the other levels, especially the leitmotivic function. It does not reveal the artistic intentions of the author. For further readings, see Sergio Miceli, “Miceli’s Method of Internal, External, and Mediated Levels: Elements for the Definition of a Film-Musical Dramaturgy,” ed. and trans. by Gillian B. Anderson, with the assistance of Lidia Bagnoli, Music and the Moving Image 4/2 (2011), 1-29; Id. Film Music: History, Aesthetic-Analysis, Typologies, (Milan - Lucca: Ricordi BMG Hal Leonard - LIM, 2013); Ennio Morricone and Sergio Miceli, Composing for the Cinema: The Theory and Praxis of Music in Film, lessons transcrib. by Rita Pagani, ed. by Laura Gallenga, trans. and ed. by Gillian B. Anderson (Lanham Connecticut: The Scarecrow Press, 2013); Marco Alunno, “La Teoria dei livelli ha già compiuto trent'anni. (Auto)biografia di un modello analitico,” in Roberto Giuliani e Renata Scognamiglio (ed.), "Su la testa!" Musiche e saggi per i 70 anni di Sergio Miceli (Lucca: LIM, forthcoming).

44 In the same year as Welles’s Les Misérables (1937), fascist cinema produced in Italy several propagandistic films. One of them was Scipione l’africano (dir. Carmine Gallone, music Ildebrando Pizzetti). Every choir piece at a clear or presumed internal level was sung by professional singers.

Welles also dared to bravely neutralize one of radio’s principles by using silence, which is in radio what a long black screen would be in cinema; and he did it much earlier than cinema itself (see, for example, the way Lars von Trier ‘breaks through’ the images in Dancing in the Dark, 2000).45 Therefore, I will let John McDonough present some remarks that I completely agree with. They were extracted from a series of observations published in The Wall Street Journal in 1998:

Welles looked upon words as a musician saw notation: as a text of mute symbols awaiting an actor's interpretation, without which language could never achieve its inherent beauty. It was a thoroughly classical tradition that served as ballast to his often fearless experimental impulses. It also helped liberate his performances from the period canons of radio production grammar, now often embarrassingly quaint to modern ears. He condenses an astonishing emotional range into his Jean Valjean, from the quivering desperation of a convict seeking lodging to the thunder of vengeance against injustice and finally to the peace of forgiveness. It's a performance that ranks alongside his best: Kane, Lime and Quinlan.
Because radio could not stand silence, Welles understood its power to make an audience squirm and hold its breath. In part two, as Valjean struggles to lift a wagon from a trapped victim, Welles takes exorbitant quantities of seconds to torment his audience with dead air, save only for the faint squeak of creaking wood. No one else would have dared it.46

45 See the analysis made by Renata Scognamiglio in Sergio Miceli, Film Music, 660.

46 John McDonough, “Radio Days: Orson Welles’s ‘Les Miserables’” In The Wall Street Journal (last accessed December 13, 2014).

The author’s opinions are so sharp and refined that it would be worth to copy and positively comment upon his article as a whole. Unfortunately, there is no enough space to do so. As customary, I wrote the web address in the note, so that the reader who urges to learn more about it knows how to do it.

A more recent review by an anonymous author said instead that because of the duration of each part Welles’s adaptation is “perfectly suited for listening during a commute.” It’s really true: to each his own deserved listening.47

47 Anonymous, Re-Reading Les Misérables, review series in (last accessed March 15, 2015).

Orson Welles, The Ultimate Collection, 2010. It contains 70 radio programs from the Campbell Playhouse and The Mercury Theater. In Apple iTunes, online edition. No other data. Here is the list of the seven parts of Welles’s Les Misérables:






The Bishop

July 23




July 30



The Trial

August 6




August 13



The Grave

August 20



The Barricade

August 27




September 3


The radio version by Orson Welles can be easily found online in many recorded editions (both on CD or MP3), but most of them are just a reduction of Hugo’s novel.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.
Internet Archive (several accesses in 2013-2015).
YouTube (several accesses in 2013-2015).

Les Misérables, produced and directed by Orson Welles - Mutual Network, 1937 (2011). It contains the seven parts of the radio adaptation. The duration of each part is slightly different than the ones listed above, but the text is the same. In Apple iTunes, online edition. No other data.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

I decided to compare Welles’s with other two very recent versions: the BBC’s version that was produced in 2001, that is, after sixty-five years of media evolution, and a 2012 French adaptation.

Besides the interpretive excellence of the English cast – considering that a BBC program is usually a guarantee of good quality – a few lines are sufficient to understand that this version sounds more like a film without images than a radio drama. Music is not ‘XIX-century-like,’ but rather contemporary film music enriched by a large amount of sound effects. Note that I am not talking about literal contemporary music, but light or pop music with no other historical identity of its own except being vaguely contemporary. Voices’ goal is not just to be understood, but rather to provide an actual filmic interpretation. The intimacy/depth that are typical of a radio drama are rarely conveyed, so many are the effects and background voices that mix with those of the main characters. The mistake – if it can be called such – consists in mimicking a soundtrack,48 whereas, according to me, it would have been much better to stay close to the essence of radio, which originates in intimacy.

48 With soundtrack I mean the union of three components: dialogue, effect and music. In cinema, the soundtrack is used in the final editing.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. A BBC Full-cast Dramatization. First Broadcasting BBC Radio 4, between December 31, 2001 and February 1, 2002. Produced by Jerry Mortimer and Sally Avens. Direction [?], Cast and Credits (only some of them here): Victor Hugo, Joss Ackland; Jean Valjean, Roger Allam; Javert, David Schofield; and Monsieur Gillenormand, Leslie Phillips. The names of eighteen characters and interpreters plus five names of actors without corresponding characters follow. Five CDs, running time: 6 hours and 15 mins. Box set with a four-page booklet, no date, no other data. From
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.49

49 Here is the previously announced bibliographic note on radio. While perusing a quite comprehensive catalogue on multimedia publications from 1971 to 2015 (by The MIT Press), what struck me most was that there were no publications about radio. Even in the homepage of a far poorer website as Quelli della radio is (last accessed October 2015), there is a link to the pictures of the fair “La Radio, il Suono” (the eighth edition was celebrated on March 7 and 8, 2015). Anyway, following my personal judgment, I selected a group of texts to be consulted for the present research: M. E. Becchis, Chiacchierando di Radiofonia (Turin: Stab. Generali Aversano, 1929); Proceedings of the “I Convegno Internazionale di musica” (Florence: Le Monnier 1933) with papers by Aban Berg, Darius Milhaud and Alfredo Casella, among others (papers specifically on radio were: Adriano Lualdi, “Due nuove vie per la musica: Radio e film sonoro”; André Coeuroy, “Problèmes intérieurs et extérieurs de la radio”; and R. Aloys Mooser, “Le contrôle de la critique musical sur les auditions radiophoniques”); O. Montani, Corso pratico di radiofonia (Milan: n.p., 1933); Rudolf Arnheim, Rundfunk als hörkunst (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2001 [1936]); “La Radio e la musica,” in La Rassegna musicale, X (1937, XVIII of Il Pianoforte),” 9-10 (it contains the answers to a three-question survey Guido Maggiorino Gatti, founder of Il Pianoforte, proposed to Franco Alfano, Ferdinando Ballo, Massimo Bontempelli, Luigi Dallapiccola, Lele [Fedele] d’Amico, Andrea della Corte, Gianni Gavazzeni, Vittorio Gui, S.A. [Sebastiano Arturo] Luciani, G. Francesco Malipiero, Ugo Pannain, Goffredo Petrassi and Ildebrando Pizzetti); Proceedings of the “II Convegno Internazionale di musica (Florence, 1937)” (Florence: Le Monnier, 1940), mostly dedicated to sound film and only partially to radio; E. Ravalico, La moderna Supereterodina. Funzionamento, riparazione e taratura degli apparecchi radio (Milan: Hoepli, 1938); id., L’apparecchio radio (Milan: Hoepli, 1963); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 1964); Marshall McLuhan and Quentyn Fiore, Il Medium è il messaggio, It. trans. Raffaele Petrillo (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1968); Franco Monteleone, La radio italiana nel periodo fascista. Studio e documenti 1922-1945 (Venice: Marsilio, 1976); Roberto Grandi, Radio e televisione negli Stati Uniti. Dal telegrafo senza fili ai satelliti (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1980); Daniele Doglio and Giuseppe Richieri, La radio. Origini, storia, modelli (Milan: Mondadori, 1980); Albert and André-Jean Tudesq, Histoire de la radio-télévision (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1981); Anna Lucia Natale, Gli anni della radio (1924-1954). Contributo ad una storia sociale dei media in Italia (Naples: Liguori, 1990); Gianni Isola, Abbassa la tua radio, per favore... Storia dell’ascolto radiofonico nell’Italia fascista (Scandicci, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1990); Franco Monteleone, Storia della radio e della televisione in Italia. Società, politica, strategie, programmi 1922-1992 (Venice: Marsilio, 1992); Angela Ida De Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi (eds.), Nuova Musica alla Radio. Esperienze allo Studio di Fonologia della RAI di Milano 1954-1959, bilingual Italian-English ed., with CD (Roma: CIDIM-ERI, 2000); Angela Ida De Benedictis, ‘Opera prima: “Ritratto di città” e gli esordi della musica elettroacustica in Italia,’ in Nuova Musica alla Radio. Esperienze allo Studio di Fonologia della RAI di Milano 1954-1959 (Rome: ERI-RAI, 2000); id., “Art à la radio - art pour la radio: réflexion sur le Prix Italia, suivies d’un panorama des édition 1949-1970,” in Musique et dramaturgie. Esthétique de la répresentation au XX siècle, under the direction of L. Feneyrou (collection «Série esthétique» 7) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2003); id., Radiodramma e arte radiofonica. Storia e funzioni della musica per radio in Italia (Turin: EdT - De Sono, 2004); Seigfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media. Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. G. Custance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006). In December 2009, Marco Capra with the Casa della Musica and the Casa del Suono in Parma organized a conference chaired by Angela Ida De Benedictis: Radio e musica 1930-1950. Some of the participants were Franco Monteleone, Enrico Meduni, Giorgio Pressburger, Carlo Piccardi, Adriano Mazzoletti, Stefano Zenni and Fiamma Nicolodi along with many people working for RAI. More bibliography: Angela Ida De Benedictis, “Toscanini e la radio, ovvero: dell’altra metà dell’etere...,” in Marco Capra and Ivano Cavallini (eds.), Arturo Toscanini. Il direttore e l’artista mediatico, proceedings (Lucca: LIM, 2011); Angela Ida De Benedictis and Maria Maddalena Novati (eds.), L’immaginazione in ascolto: Il Prix Italia e la sperimentazione radiofonica, bilingual Italian-English ed., with 6 CDs (Milan: Rai Trade - Die Schachtel, 2012); Angela Ida De Benedictis, “«Don’t think of the image». The Radio Dramas of Ivan Fedele and Giuliano Corti,” in Claudio Fertonani (ed.), Ali di Cantor. The Music of Ivan Fedele (Milan: Ed. Suvini Zerboni, 2012); id. (ed.), La musica alla radio, 1924-1954. Storia, effetti, contesti in prospettiva europea (Rome: Bulzoni, 2015); id., “Nino Rota e la radio, ossia: una radiogenia timidamente nevrastenica”, in Roberto Giuliani and Sergio Miceli (eds.), Bernard Herrmann & Nino Rota, proceedings (Lucca: LIM, forthcoming); Roberto Giuliani and Federica Di Gasbarro, Le Orchestre Sinfoniche della Radio Italiana e la Nuova Musica: cronistoria di un viaggio oltre le «modeste conoscenze di una abusata tradizione» (forthcoming). Finally, here are two very important websites I often consulted: Radiomusuem (last accessed October, 2015) that has, among other things, 683582 detailed records on radio equipment and a complete translation of the site in English, German, Spanish, French and Italian; and also Le Radio di Sophie (last accessed September-October 2015) that has, among many other things, a free download area with a number of brochures and some rare books (the administrators very politely ask for a small donation). Source for some of the listed texts: Archive S. M., Florence.
The French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan, author of Radiophonie, is a different matter. Although his contribution on the subject is very famous, it might be useful to provide some information about it. Lacan’s assessment is the answer to one of seven questions Robert Georgin asked him. They were then released in three versions. I have already commented on the first. The second was recorded by TRBF (Belgium) and broadcasted on June 5, 1970 (France Culture would do the same later on). Now it is freely available at The third version was printed in Scilicet 2/3 (Paris: Seuil, 1970) Lacan’s modifications to the three versions of the interview were studied by Patrick Valas in Help transcription!. An illustrated version of the interview is found at The third version has also been translated in English by J. W. Stone. After such a well-deserved examination of the sources, I must conclude, though, that the interview’s title might mislead the reader. In fact, the text is actually a typically philosophical presentation – from Plato to Jakobson, from Saussure to Lévy-Strauss – that never really focuses on ‘normal’ phenomena concerning radio. Some believe that, in the end, a philosophical dissertation works with anything. However, confusing this precious collection of Lacan’s thoughts with an argumentation about radio would be very reductive.

All websites last accessed May-June 2015. Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

Let us move, then, to the French adaptation by Hélène Bleskine produced in 2012 and repeated in 2014 (direction by François Christophe;50 literary advising by Caroline Ouazana).

(the following is just a selection and is organized according to the first appearance of each character in the 14 parts of this adaptation)

Philippe Magnan


Jean-Marie Winling

Jean Valjean

Michael Lonsdale

Monseigneur Myriel

Laurence Mercier

Mlle Baptistine

Christine Pignet

Mme Magloire

Julie-Marie Parmentier


Hervé Furic


Emmanuelle Grangé

La Thénardier

Fabrice Deville


Vincent Schmitt


Corinne Martin

young Cosette

Lisbeth Arazi Mornet

Sœur Simplice

Remi Goutalier


Clément Bondu


Florence Loiret-Caille


Aurélie Nuzillard


Emmanuel Lemire


Other interpreters and background voices

Original music by Krishna Lévy.51
Interpreted by Françoise Guéri, Christophe Guiot, Laurent Lefèvre, Philippe Nadal and Françoise de Maubus.

Foley, Patrick Martinache.
Miking, editing and mixing by Catherine Déréthé and Sébastien Labarre.
Assistant director Laure-Hélène Planchet.

Hélène Bleskine.

Keywords for search engines:
Realizzazioni Radiofoniche | Grandi Classici | Les Misérables | France Culture | Victor Hugo | François Christophe.

Website: (last accessed September 20, 2015).

50 He suddenly passed away on December 26, 2013. It has been said about him: "laisse derrière lui une œuvre radiophonique dont le talent et la sensibilité resteront dans nos mémoires à jamais. Et pour lui rendre hommage, hommage qui continuera avec la diffusion de fictions dont il venait d'achever la réalisation et que les auditeurs pourront découvrir dès le mois d'Avril, la fiction a souhaité rediffuser Les Misérables de Victor Hugo."
"he left a corpus of radio works that shows a talent and sensitivity we will never forget. To pay our tribute (that will continue with the broadcasting of the fictions he had just completed and about which the listeners will find out more in April) we wish to begin with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables." [ET].

51 One of the most interesting film music composers in France. He worked, for example, in: The Fall (dir. Tarsem Singh, 2006), Le dernier trappeur and Loup (dir. Nicolas Vanier, 2004 and 2009 respectively).

Thus, Bleskine commented each part:

Mais si l’histoire des Misérables a ému tant de lecteurs – roman-fleuve où rien ne manque, le suspens, les digressions, les interrogations, les personnages incroyablement présents, leurs destins entremêlés – c’est aussi grâce à une langue. Celle d’un grand poète de la littérature. Cette adaptation radiophonique a voulu rendre compte de cette langue puissante et incroyablement vivante en la faisant entendre littéralement car l’histoire a presque fini par oblitérer la singularité de la voix qui la porte. On reconnaît la trame, les personnages mythiques, le Paris des révolutions, mais on a perdu ce qui est écrit. C’est assez difficile à exprimer, mais c’est ce que l’on découvre lorsqu’on se laisse envahir par le livre. C’est comme si l’on touchait du doigt les fibres de notre patrimoine dans ce qu’il a de meilleur, dans ce qu’il peut nous rendre meilleur. Victor Hugo aime l’Histoire et il nous la fait aimer. Dès lors, le choix de l’adaptation pour la radio fut de faire entendre sa voix. […]52

52 (last accessed September 20, 2015).
“But if the story of Les Misérables has touched so many readers – a saga where nothing is missing: suspense, digressions, questions, incredible characters, their destinies intertwined – it is also through language, which is that of a great poet of literature. This radio adaptation tried to account for this powerful and incredibly lively language by making it hear, literally, because history has almost obliterated the uniqueness of the voice that speaks it. We recognize the plot, the mythical characters, the revolutionary Paris, but we lost what is written. It's hard to express, but that's what one discovers while getting engulfed in the book. It is as if one finger touched the fibers of our heritage in all that is best for and in what it can make us better. Victor Hugo loves telling stories and he makes us love it. / Therefore, the concept of this adaptation for the radio was to make his voice heard. […]” [ET]

Indeed, the beautiful voice of the Narrator (Hugo himself) is often present for long stretches. There is more. In my experience as a radio listener I have never heard the voice of a character reading a letter being joined and, eventually, replaced by the Narrator’s voice reading the same text: a slow audio lap-dissolve that only Welles might have used before Bleskine.

Another choice that marks the difference between this and the BBC production even greatly consists in always keeping agitated voices in the background. The result is a very animated backdrop with the narrator’s voice describing the scene through Hugo’s unique words on top. In other terms, here are two opposite components sharing the same acoustic space: on the one hand the ‘realistic’ background made of noise and voices that efficiently but superficially impacts the listener, on the other hand the ‘abstractness’ of the words that the Narrator/Hugo uses to get the ‘reader’ involved in the story.

Even the voices of the actors are as one would image them to be, which means that they have been carefully and wisely selected. The most remarkable are: the voice of Monseigneur Myriel that the narrator lets speak during the crucial meeting with Napoleon; the dark and deep voice of Jean Valjean that, possibly intentionally, recalls the tone of Harry Baur in the 1934 Raymond Bernard’s and Arthur Honegger’s masterwork (see Chap. 3.1); and the unforgettably quiet voice of Marius. Actually, all the actors seem to be very good. The program was on air in 2012, that is, two years before Tom Hooper’s musical film (see Part IV) came out. Since both adaptations made a similar selection of the episodes from the novel, one could wonder who inspired who. It is likely, though, that as they were created nearly at the same time, no reciprocal influence could occur. Yet, one feels that Hooper already knew the French radio version.

All to the good for Hélène Bleskine’s and François Christophe Les Misérables whose above mentioned unusual blend of characteristics revives the intimacy and purity of the radio dramas of the 1960s and represents, in my opinion, one of the few adaptations that really can compete with Orson Welles’s.

Les Misérables, 2012

From Episode 1.

I am going to conclude with some words on music. As I have already said, all compositions are original, which gives us a sense of France Culture’s noble ambitions. Krishna Lévy composed a series of chamber music pieces that rarely takes over the scene. The main theme’s melody is a waltz and is played by a bassoon that repeats it almost unvaried through the first episodes. A sort of improvisation-like, more ‘contemporary’ (that is, non-thematic) cues follow. But, in the last episodes, the simple bassoon melody that we always heard ‘on the opening and closing credits,’ comes back. Generally speaking, the music is appropriate, well-done and, above all, mixed in such a way that only the Narrator and the other voices are constantly on the foreground. That way, they receive their proper space, even for a long time.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

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