1937 Czech dramatization of White Fang restored in time for radio centenary

Until recently, it was thought that the oldest full-length radio play preserved in the Czech Radio archives was from after the Second World War. But that changed thanks to a chance discovery of a Czech adaptation for radio of Jack London’s 1906 novel White Fang, which though in a very poor condition, was restored and digitised.

The recordings of the play were discovered in the radio archives around 12 years ago by Miloslav Turek, and at first they appeared unusable. They were bent out of shape from years of being stored incorrectly, as Turek explains.

Miloslav Turek | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“I found them in a box, but they were in so bad a state that it wasn’t possible to play the whole thing from beginning to end. You could only play parts of it. So I unpacked them from their original packaging, put them on a hard surface, and weighed them down with the heaviest boxes I could find.”

And almost miraculously – and as if just in time for the centenary of Czech Radio – they evened out over time, allowing the recording to be played once again.

“For 10 years I didn’t think about them, and then, after a decade, I took the boxes off, took out the recordings, and to my surprise and delight, they had straightened out and you could play them completely normally.”

The recordings look like gramophone records to the untrained eye, but there is one crucial difference, says Mr Turek. Gramophone records are played from the outer edge to the middle, while these recordings are played from the middle to the outer edge.

After being re-wound, put together and edited, the recording has now been digitised and will be available for people to listen to on the Czech Radio website.

Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“Of course it would be possible to broadcast it as part of the regular programming, but the technical quality doesn’t match current broadcast standards and lots of radio people would probably be embarrassed by it. On the Internet, however, only people who are truly interested will listen to it, and I think that for these people it will be an incredible experience, because they’ll never have heard anything like it before.”

This 1937 dramatization of the well-known novel about a wild wolfdog in northwestern Canada is the oldest surviving radio play in Czechia. Although the first radio plays were recorded in the 1920s, none of these have survived. And, says Mr Turek, no older ones are likely ever to be found.

“There is 100% no chance of finding another complete radio play like this in the archives. This find is simply unique and such a thing won’t happen again, because when the archive was moved from Přerov to Prague, every corner and every box was searched to make sure there was nothing else there. And the idea that someone could have recorded a whole radio play at home on an amateur device is completely out of the question.”

Even at the time he made the discovery, he had thought there was no chance of finding anything so old.

Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“When I first started working in the archives, the oldest radio play we had was from the post-war period, 1947 or so. Soon after that, I started cataloguing Karel Höger’s estate after his death, and among his collection I found a private recording, which must have cost a lot of money, sometime from the start of 1945. It was a recording of Jan Neruda’s play Prodaná láska (“Sold love”) and it was also complete. We said then that we wouldn’t ever be likely to find anything older. And then I found White Fang!”

And, Mr Turek says, the recording is special not only due to its venerable age, but also for another reason.

“White Fang is the only recording of a radio play which was broadcast live. It premiered in 1937, on 4 December at 8.15pm and was recorded from a live broadcast on a total of 14 sides, so roughly 3 minutes on each side.”