The Black Museum

Overview

The Black Museum (1952-1954) was a weekly OTR dramatic murder-crime anthology series produced in London, England, by Harry Alan Towers. Hosted and narrated by Orson Welles. All fifty-one original episodes survive.

Significance

Orson Welles was a well known American radio actor and director, noted for his many appearances on The March of Time since 1935, his work with The Columbia Workshop on their production of "The Fall of the City" in 1937, and his starring the title role of The Shadow for its 1938 season. On 30 October 1938 he achieved immediate international notoriety for his production, direction, and starring role in The War of the Worlds with The Mercury Theatre of the Air. Notoriety brought a sponser, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse. Wells remained until 31 March 1940. In 1941, 1942, and again in 1946, Welles starred in "The Hitchhiker," a radio drama written for him by Lucille Fletcher. Later, Welles starred in the The Adventures of Harry Lime (1951-1952).

Both crime and detective stories were popular Old Time Radio (OTR) genres from the 1940s-1950s. This popularity coincided with rising concerns for emerging criminal activities, especially organized crime, and containment efforts at all levels. The Black Museum is acknowledged as the best of four series focused on The Black Museum, Scotland Yard, London, England.

Background

This is Orson Welles, speaking from London.
(Sound of Big Ben chimes)
The Black Museum . . . a repository of death. Here in the grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard is a warehouse of homicide, where everyday objects . . . [Welles named 3-4 different] . . . all are touched by murder.
(Dramatic music)

Following this opening, Welles described a specific artifact found in The Black Museum. His description led to a dramatization of a true crime or murder.

At the conclusion of each episode, Welles reprised his closing from The Mercury Theatre on the Air saying . . . Now until we meet again in the same place and I tell you another tale of the Black Museum, I remain, as always, obediently yours.

Both crime and detective stories were popular Old Time Radio (OTR) genres from the 1940s-1950s. This popularity coincided with rising concerns for emerging criminal activities, especially organized crime, and containment efforts at all levels.

The Black Museum was the best of four radio drama series focused on a collection of crime and murder artifacts held at Scotland Yard. The collection began with The Prisoners Property Act of 1869. This act empowered Scotland Yard to retain or store items of prisoners' property for training purposes. In 1874, The Central Prisoners' Property Store was established to house these exhibits. Commissioner Sir Edmund Henderson, other government dignitaries, and a few newspaper reporters visited the Crime Museum, as it came to be called, at Scotland Yard in 1877.

Allegedly, turned away from the visiting party, a reporter from The Observer coined the name, "The Black Museum." The name stuck, but the museum was never open to the public. It was only used for training police officers. This sense of mystery, along with the reputation of Scotland Yard, and its growing and meticulously cataloged collection of crime items, provided a source of inspiration for popular crime novels and pulp fiction worldwide. From the 1930s through the 1950s hundreds of Scotland Yard's cases were chronicled.

The Secrets of Scotland Yard

The first was Secrets of Scotland Yard, possibly produced by Harry Allen Towers, and distributed by his company, Towers of London. During World War II, Towers repackaged and distributed radio broadcasts via electrical transcriptions (ETs; record albums) to British military forces overseas. After the war, he developed a successful career as an independent radio, television, and film producer in London. Towers saw economic opportunities in a radio series focusing on the largely unknown Black Museum collection. A syndicated (commercially sponsored) radio series, he reasoned, could give a hint of these secrets.

The Secrets of Scotland Yard was hosted and narrated by American actor Clive Brook. Percy Hoskins, a crime journalist for London's Daily Express consulted and is credited with writing most of the stories and scripts for the 110 episodes (72 survive). Hoskins later consulted with Wyliss Cooper, who wrote the Whitehall 1212 series for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the United States (see below).

Distribution of Secrets of Scotland Yard was hampered by the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) ban against commercial broadcasts throughout the British Empire. Towers turned to his network of ET pressing operations and broadcast outlets around the world as a way to distribute his program without violating BBC rules.

Episodes of Secrets of Scotland Yard were produced in 1947. As early as December 1948, they were broadcast by Lourenço Marques Radio (LM Radio), a "pirate" radio station located in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. South Africa was the intended audience, and Secrets of Scotland Yard was introduced to English-speaking listeners over the next two years (if the entire series of 110 episodes was aired). More information at The Definitive Secrets of Scotland Yard website.

The Black Museum

Towers began working on a second radio dramatic series, The Black Museum, in 1948-1949. For this series, Towers contracted Orson Welles, who was in Europe to escape a listless Hollywood career and studio interference. Towers wanted to make radio drama he could sell around the world. He reasoned that Welles' creative ability, and name recognition for past successes could help. Welles wanted to make money to finance his independent film projects. A deal was struck.

Towers contracted Welles to appear in The Black Museum (fifty-two episodes; 1952-1954) and The Adventures of Harry Lime (fifty-two episodes; 1951-1952 season). Towers also produced "The Final Problem," an episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Sir John Gielgud as Holmes, Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson, and Welles as Professor Moriarty. The series aired Sundays, 2 January-5 June 1955 on BBC.

The Black Museum directly competed with Tower's Secrets of Scotland Yard which had already covered most of Scotland Yard's most famous cases. The Black Museum was forced to take a different approach. Welles' creative and acting abilities, along with dramatizations of morbid and gruesome cases, often told from the criminal's point of view, were designed to produce a sensational appeal for the series. This approach was successful and The Black Museum is much recommended over the competition.

As he had done with Secrets of Scotland Yard, Towers used broadcast outlets around the world as a way to distribute his program without violating BBC rules. Perhaps the earliest broadcast of The Black Museum was by Radio Luxembourg, a "pirate" radio station, beginning in May 1950. This provided exposure for the series in Europe and England.

Whitehall 1212

The third radio dramatic series focusing on The Black Museum was Whitehall 1212, written and directed by Wyllis Oswald Cooper (1899-1955) and broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 1951-1952. Cooper was noted for Lights Out (1934) and Quiet, Please! (1947-1948). Percy Hoskins, a crime journalist for London's Daily Express consulted for the series. Each episode was a dramatization of a Scotland Yard case by an all British cast (at Cooper's insistence) and hosted by Chief Superintendent John Davidson, curator of the Black Museum.

Fabian of The Yard

In 1952(?), episodes of Fabian of The Yard, were offered via South African syndication(?). This was the fourth radio drama series to focus on The Black Museum.

Plot

Each episode dramatized a crime or murder associated with artifacts in The Black Museum, Scotland Yard's "warehouse of homicide where everyday objects . . . all are touched by murder."

Cast

Narrator (Orson Welles)
Producer (Harry Allen Towers)
Writer (Ira Marion)
Music composer / director (Sidney Torch)

Resources

Radio logs at Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs website
Episodes at Internet Archive website
The Definitive Black Museum at Digital Deli Too website

Episodes

Totals

Total episodes: 51
Surviving episodes: 51

Timeline

May 1950
Perhaps the earliest broadcast of The Black Museum was by Radio Luxembourg, a "pirate" radio station. This provided exposure for the series in Europe and England. Order of episodes unknown.
1 January-24 June 1952 and 30 September-30 December 1952
Thirty nine episodes broadcast in the United States via the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS). Order of episodes unknown.
28 September 1952-28 June 1953
Thirty nine episodes broadcast via Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Order of episodes unknown.
An unknown number of episodes were broadcast via Armed Forces Radio and Television Services (AFRTS). Dates of broadcast(s) and order of episodes unknown.

Inventory

Information and description for each episode of the series. Learn more.
All episodes are available at the Internet Archive website.

Exemplary Episodes

Three episodes from The Black Museum series.

  • Episode ET 14

    A Tan Shoe, Left Foot
    E.T. #14, 15 January 1952
    A murder aboard a train and a missing payroll.

  • Episode ET 39

    The Gas Receipt
    E.T. #39, 29 January 1952
    A receipt for ten gallons of petrol is the clue to a murder of a police constable, shot to death by four bullets.

  • Episode ET ??

    A Wooden Mallet
    E.T. #unknown, 5 February 1952
    On Guy Fawkes day, a man's body is found inside a burning car.