scripts and microphones

british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook

Page Four

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The influence of Gielgud and dictatorial Director-Generals such as John Reith and more recently John Birt raises the issue of ownership versus control and 'professionalism' within a radio broadcasting culture. In a sense the shareholders of the BBC are the licence-payers but it is arguable whether they have any direct control or influence over day to day and yearly management of the corporation.

Strategy is certainly not directed by licence-payers. The BBC is only obliged to produce a private company audit to Parliament rather than the more rigorous reporting demanded of local authorities by the Audit Commission. The BBC engages in 'audience consultation' campaigns but these have often been criticised for being palliatives and gestural. In reality licence-payers are powerless in relation to BBC decision making. BBC managers and Director-Generals are unique in having allocative as well as operational control. The analysis of the history of Reith's control over staffing culture and programming content suggests that there have been and continue to be powerful conflicts between the skills and expertise of professional values to which BBC radio programme making personnel aspire and the ideological intentions, political aspirations and cultural imperatives of senior management.

In 1977 the academic writer Tom Burns conducted three hundred interviews with BBC staff and detected a cult of the professional where references on quality, motivation and objectives had more to do with peer approval and impression. He found that three imperatives were often in conflict with one another. They were:

1: Reithian view of public service and responsibility to the licence-payer.

2: Referring to fellow professional standards- the cult of the professional.

3: Audience ratings as a measurement of judging the success or failure of the programme.

During Reith's period of stewardship the first imperative was predominant. Under Sir John Birt , the third and then second imperatives would appear to be the priorities on the basis of interviews with BBC radio drama directors past and present.

The post Second World War period has been a particularly rich one for British radio drama, although in recent years the insecurity engendered by the digitised and multimedia age has meant that it has become a casualty of fashion and the BBC's ventures into digital and Internet communications.

The soap opera not only survived but expanded. Drama director Val Gielgud allowed Mrs Dale's Diary to fill the vacuum left by the Robinsons. Hilary Kingsley speculated that Gielgud was probably persuaded that the nice middle-class doctor's wife Mrs Dale was not really a soap person. A BBC document reveals that they thought Mrs Dale's Diary was 'not a soap opera of the kind which abounds in American radio.' Mrs Dale outlasted Val Gielgud and had a twenty one year run between January 1948 and April 1969 where its popularity after 5,531 episodes was such that Liberal MP Peter Bessell tried to introduce a parliamentary reprieve.

Dick Barton - Special Agent captivated the imagination and spirit of adventure during the post war rationing period. The Department of Agriculture's desire to improve farming efficiency and the demand by listeners at a public meeting in Birmingham for a rural Dick Barton led to the creation of 'The Archers' which has become the world's longest and most successful soap. It still commands the highest audiences on the BBC Radio flagship, Radio Four. It had a slow and somewhat conservative approach to responding to changing social mores and the changing nature of British society. It was about twenty years before it recognised the presence of a substantial Asian community in the Midlands. The 'Usher' character then became something of a cliché for presenting every kind of racial issue that had been neglected up until her introduction in the story.

'Waggoners Walk' which started on BBC Radio 2 in April 1969 sought to capture the tensions of student protest, sexual equality, contraception and a more socially mobile society. It was a product of the 'swinging sixties' 'rebellious youth culture', 'the Beatles' and fall out from student protests against Britain's support for America in Vietnam. It featured three young women, Tracey, Lynn and Barbara sharing a flat in Hampstead. One had an illegitimate child and married a homosexual (who later 'reformed'), another's marriage broke up and the third lived in sin. Waggoner's Walk threw itself into social problems such as abortion, child custody, hypothermia, murder, and confrontations of every kind. By 1974 it had an audience of four million listeners which was much higher than the Archers. There was even a competition so that listeners could write their own plots. The suggestion that the whole cast board a bus which was then driven over the edge of a cliff was somewhat portentous because the series was axed in June 1980 as part of a money-saving plan.

At a time when television now commanded the centre of attention in terms of domestic entertainment, it could be argued that liquidating such a popular story telling form in radio was another example of the BBC cutting off its nose to spite its face. New attempts to launch soap operas on the radio by the BBC have been heroic failures. They include 'Citizens' which tried hard to be a radio 'Eastenders' but failed to be eclectic in its audience objectives, lacked a community cohesion in plot and tried to be too worthy with contemporary issues at the expense of basic dramatic values. The origination of new BBC soaps has been the preserve of the BBC World Service where the objective has been to promote an image of a new multi-cultural Britain. Other motives have been to 'help third world countries' devise popular soaps that promulgate social action and education. Exports of the British radio soap opera tradition have taken root in Moscow where Prime Minister Tony Blair was persuaded to play a cameo role on a visit to Russia, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa.

The post war establishment of the Third Programme, later becoming Radio Three provided a platform for more abstract and experimental explorations of the audio drama story telling form. Combined with the scope and soundscape for popular and challenging writing on the Home Service, later to become Radio Four, BBC Radio Drama enjoyed something of a golden age during the 50s 60s and 70s. Indeed the inauguration of Independent television in 1955 was upstaged and overshadowed by the death of Grace Archer in a dramatic episode of the Archers on the Home Service.

In this period British radio drama developed confidence in its exceptional and intrinsic characteristics:

A: Narration was employed more fully in radio communication. It has not been a popular story telling device in cinema and was rather rare in Western theatre. It borrowed from the tradition of the Chorus in Greek tragedy and Brecht's pioneering work with Berliner Ensemble who was introduced to Britain along with Samuel Beckett through theatre clubs and the enthusiastic critical evangelism of Martin Esslin and Kenneth Tynan.

B: Narration marked the natural and elegant symbiosis between radio playwriting and literary prose. Its power is directly linked to the ability of radio to render the speaker invisible.

C: The logic of narrative voice in radio drama stimulated a diametric rebellion by avant-garde and experimental writers who derived their inspiration from the absurdists. Samuel Beckett's 'All That Fall' directed by Donald McWinnie in 1957 is an example of this. The need to establish notions of realistic sound as symbols gave birth to the BBC radiophonic workshop.

D: Narration as a story telling concept was explored in unique ways such as 'Under Milk Wood' where it functioned as a verbal camera. The Greek choral narrative structure in independent radio's dramatisation of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in 1990 was another example of radio narration serving the purpose of verbal camera.

E: The narrative long shot in radio could establish with a few words and within a few seconds a fictional reality that would be financially prohibitive in any other medium.

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1978 which was produced by the Light Entertainment department acquired cult status and had been substantially constructed by the writer Douglas Adams through narrative framework and imagery which was as rich and imaginative as any cinematic science fiction blockbuster such as 2001 or the Star Wars Trilogy.

The production challenge of establishing the world of self-parodying cosmic fantasy, weird life forms, time warps, a major character with two heads, visits to bizarre planets, interactive and loquacious computers became an opportunity in the radio medium. The transfer to television was a failure. Imaginative stimulation on the radio turned out to be tacky and unrewarding in a modestly budgeted studio based drama shot on video.

F: In radio drama fantastic and symbolic worlds with characters and creatures never visually realised found their home. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels transferred into audio dramatisation with energy and verve during the 1980s. It can be argued that Henry Reed's 1947 radio adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick was more effective than the John Huston film that struggled to transform the novel's allegorical texture into special effects and superficial representations of reality.

G: Radio drama could give life to inanimate objects and it could be argued that a postmodernist tradition took root in the work of Don Haworth whose 1975 play 'On a Day in a Garden in Summer' was populated with vocalised 'characters' who were in fact plants. A 1998 BBC radio drama production anthropomorphised two goldfish with cognition and imagination. (The Goldfish Bowl by Shaun Prendergast).

H: Radio Drama was a natural home for Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, where ghostly apparitions resonate fully with the listener's imagination so that Hamlet's father and Banquo are I: The century's progress in psychiatry, psycho-analysis, psychology and psycho-pathology find in radio drama the most flexible medium of expression. What better space than the theatre of the mind? Louis MacNeice's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves' which requires the expression of six disembodied consciousnesses belonged in radio rather than film, television or theatre. The composer John Cage created 'Roaratoria- An Irish Circus' out of James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake.'

So the post war period fostered the recognition and development of leading playwrights in a modest and growingly self-confident milieu. Samuel Beckett produced a canon of radio plays for the BBC which are substantial contributions to his cultural value as a writer. His respect for the medium is such that he left a codicil in his will preventing the stage adaptation of his radio texts.


© Tim Crook, 1999

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