Wednesday, November 6, 2013

FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips Mends with Tradition (1972)

"Writing On: Irna Phillips Mends with Tradition"
November 6, 1972

It's safe to say that among soap-opera script writers, 71-year-old Ima Phillips is the grandmother of them all. Her career goes back to a 1930 radio serial out of WGN Chicago entitled PAINTED DREAMS, and it comes up to today. She is the head writer on CBS-TV's long-running AS THE WORLD TURNS.

Today's soap operas, however, turn Irna Philips off. "The daytime serial is destroying itself, eating itself up with rape,abortion, illegitimacy, men falling in love with other men's wives --all of which is often topped by a murder, followed by a long, drawn-out murder trial," she says.

She's very critical of what she calls "this trend toward sheer escapism," although she acknowledges that the public seems to be buying it. "Nevertheless," she says, "I feel my obligation to the viewing audience is to write constructively.

The essence of the drama is still conflict, of course—conflict within each person,conflict in the relationships between two people. But these relationships don't have to be sordid to be interesting. I'm trying to get back to the fundamentals: for example, the way in which a death in the family, or a serious illness, brings the members of that family closer together, gives them a real sense of how much they need each other, how much they're dependent on one another."

This sidestepping of sensationalism represents something of a change of heart for Miss Phillips, a change at least partially brought on, she says, by the experience of helping her adopted daughter (Miss Phillips has remained unmarried) through a broken marriage and of lending a hand while her adopted son and her daughter-in-law went through the birth of their first child.

"She's very much concerned with getting back to the older values," says Tom Donovan, a producer at CBS and a longtime friend and former working associate of Miss Phillips. "She's avoiding the more theatrical characters to get back to real people, to family roots—to moral problems, if you will. In other words, to things that have been sidetracked in this terrible malaise that's abroad in the land."

Another friend who goes back with Miss Phillips to the days when THE GUIDING LIGHT was a radio serial, the actress Charita Bauer, would agree with Mr. Donovan.

"Her storylines are believable because, despite the rigid format they're put into, they truly reflect life," she says. "And this commitment of hers to the traditional family values and to strong family ties is present in all of her writing because she really believes in it—it's not just a gimmick."

Miss Phillips was teaching speech, drama and play production at a college in Dayton, Ohio, in 1930 when she took a trip to Chicago to try out as an actress (her main ambition at the time) with WGN.

"The station manager told me my voice was not pleasant, that it was too low for a woman, but he signed me up anyway to do a program called THOUGHT FOR THE DAY," she recalls. "I got a release from my teaching contract, took the job with the station and was promptly fired a couple of weeks later. But soon after that, the station asked me if I'd be interested in writing and performing in a family drama that would in effect be a continuing story, to run for ten minutes every day. The serial, called PAINTED DREAMS, became the first of its kind on the air, with all the voices and even sound effects done by Miss Phillips and another woman who worked with her on the show.

"There were six characters on PAINTED DREAMS," Miss Phillips says. "I took two of them and she took the other four, plus an Irish Setter named Mikey. She was an expert at imitating barking dogs. But we never had to do male voices—the men were all offstage. Male characters weren't introduced on the air until two years later, on another serial I wrote called TODAY'S CHILDREN, which was on WMAQ in Chicago."

Miss Phillips both acted and wrote during her first seven years on the radio, "but I finally had to give up acting to devote full time to my work as a writer. You might say I never stopped acting, though, because I dictate all my scripts. That allows me to play the parts of all my characters and give them dialogue that sounds like real, colloquial speech. And I avoid tape recorders—I dictate to another person, to get that essential human contact, that other person's reaction to my dialogue, that raised eyebrow that tells me a word or a phrase doesn't sound right. Dialogue that's typed or written out often sounds stilted when it's spoken by actors. That's why writers wedded to the typewriter find working on television serials so incredibly difficult."

The latest Nielsen nationals put AS THE WORLD TURNS at the top of daytime with a 10.6 rating and a 35 share, and Miss Phillips thinks one of the big reasons for this success is that the show is still done live. (AS THE WORLD TURNS and EDGE OF NIGHT are the only two live serials left on the air.)

"I'm out of patience with pre-taping way in advance because that locks you in," she says. "Daytime dramas should be flexible so that you can rewrite an outline if it doesn't seem to be working out in the performance. I'm usually about three weeks ahead on my outlines, but I have no objection to changing horses in midstream on a moment's notice. And of course another advantage of a live show is that it gives you a 'first night' charge of excitement that you just don't get with tape or film."

If Miss Phillips is something of a sociologist in her approach to the content of her scripts, she's also a technician of form. As a veteran script carpenter, she disdains voice-over-narration and flashbacks as "lazy devices." She also tries to keep away from plots that so overwhelm the characters that they become mere cardboard weather vanes, spun this way and that by the whims of melodramatic exigency.

"Characters have to be multidimensional," she says. "The story has to come from the characters, to the point where your viewers will get to know a character so well they can predict this or her behavior in a given dramatic situation."

Miss Phillips also steers clear of the unrelieved depression that characterizes some soap operas on the air by creating characters whose sole function on the show is to provide comic relief. But those quarts of numberless tears that are jerked out of soap-opera addicts hour after hour, day after day, still constitute the main appeal of the genre. "Women often get together later on to talk about that day's shows," Miss Phillips says.

"But they watch the shows in solitude. When there's a lot of crying to be done, they want to do it alone."

Irna Phillips — head writer, CBS-TV daytime serial AS THE WORLD TURNS; b. July 1, 1901, Chicago; BS in Education, University of Illinois, 1922; MA in speech. University of Wisconsin, 1924; taught school in Missouri and Ohio, 1924-30; has written radio and television serials since 1930, among which are: PAINTED DREAMS, THE GUIDING LIGHT, TODAY'S CHILDREN, YOUNG DOCTOR MALONE, THE ROAD OF LIFE, WOMAN IN WHITE, THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS and LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING; unmarried; adopted children: Thomas Dirk, 30, and Katherine Louise, 27.

- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips Essay On The Soap Opera
- FLASHBACK: World Has Turned 3,200 Times (1968)
- FLASHBACK: More Wise Words From Irna Phillips
- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "Script Queen" 1940
- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "With Significance" 1945
- FLASHBACK: Phillips Still In Lather Over Soaps 1970
- A WORLD APART Creator Dies at 65
- 60 Years Ago Today - The First Daytime TV Soap
- AS THE EARTH TURNS Original Story Bible
- FLASHBACK: CBS Slipping From Daytime Lead (1972) - B. Donald Grant Moves from NBC to CBS
- FLASHBACK: He's (Bill Bell) Wed to a Celebrity 1958


  1. Thanks for posting this. Imagine a soap getting a 10.6 rating and a 35 share today!

  2. Love this piece on Irna Phillips - Bravo! The comments about taping so far in advace are especially insightful. This kind of caring rarely exists anymore, unfortuately. If Goutman and Passanante shared these views perhaps ATWT would not have gone into the dumpster during the final months - an would still be on the air. Irna Phillips and Douglas Marland will forever be deeply missed!