Kate Chisholm

Woman of a thousand voices

Plus: filmmaking in North Korea and James Baldwin tells it like it is

‘On air, I could be the most glamorous, gorgeous, tall, black-haired female… Whatever I wanted to be, I could be… That was the thrilling part to me,’ said Lurene Tuttle, talking about her career as a star of American radio in its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. She was known as ‘the Woman of a Thousand Voices’ because of her talent for voicing any part, from child to OAP, glamour puss to gangster moll, hard-nosed executive to soft-hearted minion. On Saturday we heard her in full flow on Radio 4 Extra in an episode of Suspense, brought out of the archive from June 1949 for the three-hour special celebrating The Golden Age of American Radio. It was terrifying.

Tuttle starred opposite Joan Crawford, who was so nervous about being on radio she insisted the episode was prerecorded (the episodes usually went out live, with a full orchestra in the studio providing a dramatic musical backdrop). On this occasion Crawford was the good sister Clara, against Tuttle’s jealous, crazed Adele. As the two screeched at each other, the lamps flickered, I swear, and my pulse rate soared. The best thing I’ve heard for a while — in spite of its completely over-the-top plot, with Clara’s husband killed with a knitting needle and her son murdered in a beach hut. Tuttle and Crawford were so convincing, so in character, not just reading or voicing the script, I felt as if I was watching it unfold on the big screen, in black-and-white, a tussle between two Hollywood goddesses.

They had money for radio in those days, the big brands sponsoring long-running shows, such as the Lux Radio Theater, when Hollywood stars reprised their film roles in adaptations that were broadcast live, with an interval, just like in the cinema. We heard Marilyn Monroe being interviewed in an intermission, stumbling over her words, giggling nervously, and dropping in a plug for the sponsor (Lux soap flakes).

‘Lux helps a lot,’ says her interviewer, clumsily introducing the subject of doing the washing.

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