Czech Radio revives tradition of live plays

Sound effect specialists Jiří Litoš and Petr Šplíchal

Czech public radio broadcasting, which marks its 100th anniversary on Thursday, relied from its early days on the popularity of radio plays. Until 1948, it was a common practice to broadcast these plays live, as it was technically difficult to record them on tape. Czech Radio recently renewed the tradition, employing its veteran sound effect specialists.

One of Czech Radio’s newly recorded live radio plays, which are also streamed on video via YouTube, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In addition to actors and musicians, it also features specialists in creating sound effects.

The two men, dressed in white overcoats, appear on stage alongside the other performers, using various props to create sounds that would otherwise be played from the computer or added to the recording later, such as opening windows, knocking on doors, serving tea, or, in this case, cracking a skull…

Rozhlasová hra živě: Podivný odkaz doktora Jekylla a pana Hyda

The horrible sound is in fact a coconut cracked in a special device, made especially for the occasion, explains one of the sound effect specialist, Petr Šplíchal.

“When I told our friend, a Czech Radio maintenance worker, that I needed a skull crusher that would look good on camera, he came up with something like a standing drill with a lever and a handle. It is even equipped with five fingers that push on the skull. I cut the coconut in advance to create a nice crunchy sound.”

Jiří Litoš and Petr Šplíchal | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

Other props on stage of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde include a tub of water with a tractor tire which represents a corpse being thrown in, as well as different types of floors and tiles, which are also used to simulate the opening of a tomb.

The tradition of live radio plays was revived in 2017, after a break of more than seventy years, with a live performance of Sherlock Holmes in the State Services. Director Vít Vencl explains how the idea came about:

“Czech Radio’s station Dvojka wanted a detective radio play for the summer, but there wasn’t enough time to make a regular full-length play. That’s why we got the idea to stage it live.

“So it was actually an attempt to reconstruct the way radio plays were made when the recording and technical possibilities were not what they are today.

“Unlike these days, everything from the individual actors to music and sound effects had to be done in real time, just like in a theatrical production.

“To prove that the play is staged live, it had to be captured on video, so that that the audiences could actually see what was happening.”

The live radio plays with old-fashioned sound-effects were hugely successful with the public and Czech Radio has since staged several other productions, including Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue or the previously mentioned Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a Gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson.