scripts and microphones

british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook

Page Five

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Tom Stoppard's successful and significant stage play, Indian Ink, was conceived and first produced as the radio play In the Native State. I am prepared to argue that John Tydeman's radio direction was better than any stage presentation of the text. Britain's foremost living woman stage playwright is Caryl Churchill. But the majority of her first experiences with professional drama production were as a radio playwright. There were 9 productions with BBC radio drama up until 1973 when her stage work began to be recognised at the Royal Court Theatre. Hanif Kureishi, regarded as one of Britain's leading Asian writers, famous for his film My Beautiful Launderette and his novel The Buddha of Suburbia was first produced in radio. Tom Stoppard's first professional production was in the fifteen minute Just Before Midnight slot on BBC Radio which showcased new dramatists. Joe Orton was discovered by radio drama and first produced in this slot.

In 1963 BBC radio director, John Tydeman, advised rewrites and a change of title and The Ruffian On The Stair became Orton's dramatic debut. John Tydeman also read one of his stage scripts, Entertaining Mr Sloane, and suggested he send it to the influential agent Peggy Ramsey who confirmed that he was a writer of outstanding promise, and married the script with theatre producer Michael Codron. The play rapidly snowballed into a West End success. Sue Townsend, Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Plater, Anthony Minghella, Angela Carter, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Louis MacNeice are a few other literary luminaries whose roots were planted in radio drama. Ayckbourn worked with the legendary radio drama director Alfred Bradley in Leeds. Giles Cooper, who is better known for his radio plays, started as a radio actor. Robert Bolt learned the craft of writing by producing scripts for Children's Hour. The radio productions in 1960 of Harold Pinter's two short plays, A Slight Ache and A Night Out, are credited with creating the favourable critical climate for his first major stage success, The Caretaker.

Several critics have argued that radio is the natural home for the theatre of the absurd, and there was something approaching a revolution in radio drama between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, with Giles Cooper, Samuel Beckett, Rhys Adrian, Frederick Bradnum, Harold Pinter, James Saunders, Barry Bermange, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard.

It is now clear that the early exponents of original writing for radio felt compelled to compensate for its blindness by celebrating rich verbal textures and colours for the ear. Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood' is an obvious example of this achievement. The new generation of writers engaging the absurdist tradition employed minimalist styles of dialogue and the power of subtext in language to stimulate the imagination of the radio drama listener. Original radio plays of exceptional stature have bridged the 'Look Back In Anger' generation with the present day. They include David Rudkin's Cries from Casement As His Bones Are Brought to Dublin (1973) and John Arden's Pearl (1978), Robert Ferguson's Transfigured Night (1984) and Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution (1984) and Anthony Minghella's Cigarettes and Chocolate. (1988).

One of the paradoxes of radio drama is that highly accomplished and revered writers who have chosen to specialise in this field remain locked in a cabinet of obscurity. Rhys Adrian died in 1990 having written 32 plays for radio, all of which had been broadcast. Their literary quality is marked by the fact that most were broadcast on the Third Programme and then Radio Three. This is the BBC's cultural channel which is stamped with the kudos of intelligentsia approval. John Tydeman directed 27 of them. Adrian received several awards, yet a writer whose drama 'reflected a questioning mind and a sensitive ear for the agony and laughter of ordinary lives' has no mainstream cultural resonance. The same can be said of Giles Cooper who in the late 1950s and early 60s had a didactic force which paralleled the desire to recognise new voices and directions in British theatre. He cultivated the art of dramatically counterpointing the exterior and the interior of characters who felt themselves 'trapped in the contemporary machinery of modern life and who were unable to escape'.

Cooper wrote over sixty scripts for BBC Radio. His 1957 play The Disagreeable Oyster, along with the production of Samuel Beckett's All That Fall were fundamental in creating the need for a permanent sound workshop to create aural images based on effects and abstract musical rhythms. The BBC's annual radio drama writing awards were named after him and his radio script Unman, Wittering and Zigo was made into a film starring David Hemmings. Yet he could never be said to be a household name. If you cared to mention his name within earshot of a contemporary cultural crowd, you might be greeted with the withering question "Who?"

John Mortimer in his autobiography Clinging To The Wreckage describes how the BBC radio drama director Nesta Pain repeatedly badgered him into writing his first radio play, Dock Brief. He says the experience was 'to his lasting benefit'. She elicited a rewrite of the language for one of the central characters, and Mortimer realised he 'was able to learn something of lasting value from a director'. Dock Brief became the catalyst for a meeting with theatre producer Michael Codron and launched his career as a playwright. John Mortimer's son Jeremy has been at the heart of the BBC Radio Drama Department over the last two decades and has developed an international reputation as a dramaturge and director. He originated the national young writers' festivals which have ushered in a new generation of writers and opportunities for multi-cultural expression and representation.

Economic instability and the political pressure to reduce public expenditure presents hazards of boom and bust fluctuations in investment and production. The radio drama production environment becomes insecure and inconsistent. The pre-requisite for public funding is sometimes predicated on how well state funded radio drama performs in comparison with the audience surveys of its commercial counterparts. BBC Radio Drama has been a casualty of these socio-economic dynamics. The play form for Radio Four has now been limited to one hour. The Script Unit has been abolished, the status of new writing downgraded, and bold and 'dangerous' plays have been ghettoised onto Radio Three which caters for the minority intelligentsia. John Tydeman's outstanding direction and production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in 1993 was placed on Radio Three. Its two and a half hour length would not have been a discredit to Radio Four, which in 1995 studded its Sunday schedule with eight half hour sequences of a surround sound dramatisation of Len Deighton's novel Bomber. Impressive productions of Shakespeare's plays are rarely scheduled on Radio Four and now seem condemned to a form of elitist cloistering on the successor to the Third Programme.

The pressures which liquidated the new dramatist's television studio play in favour of filmed series and serials have been visited on Radio Drama. Economic ideology imported by the Director-General, John Birt, and multi-million pound surveys produced by outside management consultants, with audience focus groups have marginalised talented and experienced editors and producers such as John Tydeman, Martin Jenkins, Sean McLaughlin, Jane Morgan and Nigel Bryant. Children's drama, or young story telling sequences have been liquidated. The first Radio Five Network between 1989 and 1994 pioneered a 'young in mind and young at heart' approach to radio drama production. Editor Caroline Raphael introduced new writing and performing voices. The network became an alternative production base for writers and actors, but was then sacrificed on the altar of BBC programming politics. The network made way for a more successful twenty four hour news and sport channel.

Caroline Raphael became the Radio Drama Department's first woman editor and she has been followed by the award-winning and innovative Manchester director Kate Rowland. However, children's drama has not survived as a regularly scheduled mainstay of BBC radio drama production and broadcast. A minority half hour Radio Four slot on Sunday evenings has not been preserved in the new controller's scheduling changes which took effect in April 1998. It could be argued that the death of children's drama on BBC radio is an astonishing failure of public broadcasting philosophy and is in marked contrast to the experience in the USA where independent production companies maintain successful series and broadcast projects on a wide range of station formats.

Eva Stenman-Rotstein at the publicly funded Swedish Radio Broadcasting Corporation has steered a series of evolutionary changes to young people's radio drama that has captured a new generation of listeners. Story-telling for children and young people has reinvented itself and 'delivered' audiences.

A further development at the BBC in 1997 saw the Radio Drama Department losing its editorial independence and become a production server to network controllers and commissioning editors whose decisions depend on the expectation of audience building and satisfaction. BBC World Service radio drama has lost its brilliant autonomous production culture. The devaluing of the licence fee has reduced the budgets and consequently the scope for diversity and scale of production. The suffocating market bureaucracy of 'Producer Choice' has meant that the BBC's radio drama directors / producers have to show due consideration for paying for the cost of even one editing razor blade. The same amount of paper work is expended in the ordering of an item of equipment costing one pound as commissioning an established writer to produce a script for five thousand pounds. The Radio Drama repertory company of actors diminished from about 30 in the early 1980s to only 6 in 1999. When a pressure group and academics sought to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the broadcast of 'The Comedy of Danger' actors and producers said they feared for the future of radio drama. The Giles Cooper Awards set up to recognise new writing in radio drama were deleted.

It would appear that 'professional autonomy' in radio drama production at the BBC is facing its greatest intensity of constraints and pressures. Between 1995 and the year 2,000 BBC radio production and broadcast has undergone radical changes in 'institutional organisation'. Any initial occupational socialisation by staff has been rapidly re-aligned. This has resulted in compulsory and voluntary redundancies. Unlike Reith and successive Director-Generals it would appear that Sir John Birt has rewritten the aims and objectives of the institutional organisation. On the inside market economic imperatives and catastrophic management and technology changes. On the outside the BBC's public service remit remains, but Parliament is being asked to increase the BBC's room for manoeuvre in commercial and global fields and to enjoy complete autonomy with regard to the changes to the institutional organisation.

The only regulatory constraints have been to account for policy, actions and complaints before the House of Commons committee on Media, Culture and Sport. The Office of Fair Trading has sought to prevent a non-competitive cartel operating in television independent production where there has been a statutory threshold of 25% of output. The obligation in the context of national radio networks was 10% and only voluntary.

The economic constraints have been increases in inflation and operating costs beyond the proportionate increase in licence fee income, the risk of licence fee non-payment, and the need to divert existing programming budgets for radio and television to support a 17 million pound investment in Internet media and digital/satellite channel projects such as the twenty four hour news channel 'News 24'.

One strategy for maintaining professional autonomy in BBC radio drama production has been the move to ensure corroboration and confirmation of 'cultural creativity'. This is the recognition of artistic merit through awards and independent critical coverage. It is postulated that the reputation generated by such accolades protect the artist/professionals from the oppressive constraints of institutional organisation. Unfortunately a new trend is emerging to disturb the certainty of the 'cultural creativity' factor. There is evidence that the BBC realises that public opinion and Parliamentary approval for the BBC's licence fee depends on winning cultural celebration and approval, primarily within the UK. At what price and at what cost will the BBC ensure that it wins the major prizes? The advantage of this imperative is that the BBC is constrained to support professional infrastructures of production which can consistently achieve recognition for cultural creativity.

It is problematic when the BBC controls the mechanism for cultural recognition and manipulates the parameters for selecting 'cultural creative achievement'. For the edition of 11th to 17th July 1998 the Radio Times, the largest selling magazine in Britain and with the BBC as the major shareholder, decided to invite its readers to 'vote for your all-time greats'. It explained that: 'As there are so many memorable programmes and people to choose from, we asked a panel of experts to help you decide by nominating what they have enjoyed most'. The magazine explained that anyone was open to 'disagree with their suggestions, just add your own'. People sending in their votes were automatically entered for a competition to win a widescreen television. Here was an example of the BBC through its powerful Radio Times gathering together the 'great and good' of broadcasting to identify the 'best radio drama' in Britain produced and broadcast over the previous 75 years. Not surprisingly all the nominated productions had been made by the BBC. One of the panel, Paul Donovan, was to later declare in his Sunday Times newspaper column that the BBC had had virtually no competition in radio drama. Eight of the nominated productions were titles in the BBC's Radio Collection of audio cassettes which had a majority share of the spoken word market. The promotion therefore had a hidden commercial purpose and resonance masquerading as a cultural creative celebration and appreciation.

The productions selected were:

'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1989 starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.)

The Archers (first national broadcast 1951)

Bomber (1995, starring Sam West)

Cigarettes and Chocolate (1988, starring Juliet Stevenson and Bill Nighy)

Jude the Obscure (1986, starring Michael Pennington)

Lord of the Rings (1986, starring Ian Holm and Michael Horden)

Spoonface Steinberg (1997, starring Becky Simpson)

A Tale of Two Cities (1989, starring Charles Dance)

Under Milk Wood (1954, starring Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts)'

It is not clear that all members of the panel were involved in the selection of the radio drama nominees, but only 10 out of the 27 'experts' had any professional or critical experience of radio. None were radio drama directors or producers. Only two had had any experience of writing radio drama and one of those specialised in comedy sketch writing. No one from independent radio, which by this time commanded the majority share of UK listening, was invited to join the panel. Despite the presence of the screenwriter and playwright Alan Plater as a member of the panel, the Radio Times feature on the competition omitted any mention of the authors or writers of the productions nominated. The artists associated with each production were the 'stars' in stage, screen or television. This assertion of the 'star' or performer in the hierarchy of importance suggests a down-grading of the writer which had been a feature of the film world and television. As Hortense Powdermaker had stated in her anthropological investigation of 'Hollywood, The Dream Factory':

'From a business point of view, there are many advantages in the star system. The star has tangible features which can be advertised and marketed- a face, a body, a pair of legs, a voice, a certain kind of personality, real or synthetic - and can be typed as the wicked villain, the honest hero, the fatal siren, the sweet young girl, the neurotic woman...Here is a standardised product which they can understand, which can be advertised and sold, and which not only they, but also banks and exhibitors, regard as insurance for large profits.'

The Radio Times had decided that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Len Deighton, Anthony Minghella, Thomas Hardy, Tolkien, Lee Hall, Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas were not important enough to identify.

It may well be premature to mark the recent changes at the BBC as the start of a snowballing decline of BBC radio drama and the potential extinction of a great tradition. On the 27th of January 1997, BBC Radio Four transmitted a rather simple monologue by Lee Hall performed by the young actress Becky Simpson. The single voiced narrative was interspersed with the simple adroitness of operatic extracts sung by Maria Callas. Spoonface Steinberg was part of a series called God's Country, but the charming, moving and truthful expression of a 7 year old character who was affectionately known as 'Spoonface' because of the shape of her face touched every adult's protective parental instinct and resonated the cruelty of death through the injustice of the child's agony. Spoonface is seven years old, Jewish, autistic, very bright - and terminally ill with cancer. The character presents a dimension of natural courage which we would all wish to find and the depiction of the heroic role in a character so young is in itself a brave step in the genre of dramatic writing. It is the doctor who introduces Spoonface to the passion of opera and she is able to apply her homespun philosophy to the divas who complete their performances with spectacular stage deaths.

It was a rare event indeed for a BBC radio production to stimulate the receipt of hundreds of letters and phone-calls. The one hour production was immediately introduced in bookshops as part of the BBC's Radio cassette Collection and has become a best-seller. The marketing of the anonymous quotation: 'This was the most poignant piece of radio I have heard for years. I am a truck driver and was in tears' may be apocryphal, but the response of Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph: 'Hall's writing is funny, intense and poetic', Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times 'Inevitably harrowing but also blackly funny' and Sue Arnold in the Observer 'Magnificently performed by 10 year old Becky Simpson' were real enough. It is most unusual for the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, to find a commercial benefit from marketing an original play by a relatively obscure new writer.

A more challenging concept in the audio-drama genre is where improvised or scripted live performance interacts with contexts of reality. This type of storytelling has a satirical or entertainment purpose and often involves duping people with impersonations and delivering a hoax frame of narrative for the listener. Chris Morris whose series 'Blue Jam' in the early hours of the morning on BBC Radio One has developed the role of a contemporary 'dissident bard'. The humour and improvisation is socially and politically satirical as well as demonstrating postmodernist styles of ambient sound texture and dislocated and disrupted narrative direction.


© Tim Crook, 1999

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