The BBC Radio Drama Department

(paraphrased by N.D. from "The BBC from Within", by Lord Simon, 1953)

There are no written directives to the Drama Department. A tradition has been built up: to try to broadcast the best drama of every kind, to give the best performances, to maintain standards of decency and good taste, and to give the public an opportunity to hear all the different kinds of drama in which they are likely to be interested.

Mr. Val Gielgud was appointed Head of Drama about 20 years ago, and has held the post ever since. He has a strong and experienced staff including 17 producers and a script unit of six, who read plays, adapt and translate. With their help, he makes up his mind what plays to propose to the Editors of Home, Light and Third Programmes. The actual selection of the individual plays is the result of an interplay between the Drama Department staff and Editors on the one hand, and the opinions of the public on the other, as gauged by professional critics, individuals in talks and letters, and in other ways.


The BBC has been astonishingly successful in building up immense audiences for drama. Every Saturday evening a play is given lasting normally one and a half hours; the audience is about 10 million. Saturday Night Theatre is heard by nearly one third of the adult population. Recently a similar play of slightly more popular character has been given every Wednesday evening on the Light Programme; it attracts between 12 and 13 million. This would fill the Albert Hall about two thousand times.

On Monday evenings rather more difficult plays are given -on one in four Mondays a classical play of international reputation; these have a smaller audience but it still runs to 3 or 4 million. 6 million listened to Shakespeare's Henry V .

The Third Programme specialises in more esoteric plays such as the Modern French school or the minor Elizabethans, but also covers the work of classical dramatists. The audience is a small one by BBC standards but at 200,000 it would still fill the Albert Hall 30 times.

The total number of plays performed in 1951 on the Home, Light and Third Programmes was 360, 200 of which ran for an hour or more. This does not include plays produced in the regions.


One of the problems of radio drama is what length plays should be. The Head of Drama has written "The comparative freedom of BBC productions from the tyranny of the stop-watch is largely responsible for the success and prestige of our dramatic output". The BBC puts the artistic needs of the play first. Sponsored broadcasting puts timing first. (...note from ND.....compare this with 2005......)

The actual time of performance of an average play in a London theatre is about one and three quarter hours. Radio producers and writers almost always find it possible to reduce this by a quarter of an hour without affecting the artistic merit of the play.


The quality of the performance of the individual play depends on the producer, the actors, and the conditions under which they work. The conditions include the necessary engineering services, the number, size and equipment of the studios, the time available for rehearsal, the music, and the money available to the producer for the engagement of the actors and all these other services. The Head of Drama believes that the conditions at the BBC are at least as good as in any other radio drama department in the world.

Over the same period a large number of actors have gradually gained experience in radio. As all leading actors live and work in London, they are easily available at Broadcasting House, and they practically all appear from time to time on radio. Standards of acting have been much improved by the Repertory Company, a group of actors who for a period devote the whole of their time to radio acting. Gladys Young and Laidman Brown have been the leaders. Mr. Gielgud writes:

"To a large extent, credit is due to the Repertory Company for the establishment of a standard of radio acting acknowledged to be the best in the world". (....... ...note from ND....I had to decode this slightly from the rather stilted "BBC-speak" of the day.)

An important point is the time given to rehearsal. The BBC Drama Department devotes four or five days to the rehearsal of important plays. Under sponsored radio in the USA, about half this amount is normal.

Perhaps the most important single factor is the producer. A team of skilled and experienced producers has been built up over the last generation. They have less influence than they would like over the selection of plays, and often they would like to have more money available. But once a play has been selected, the producer has full freedom to adapt as necessary, to cast the play, and to produce it.

John Fernald, a well-known critic, made the following interesting comment in a report to the BBC Governors in June 1952:

"One of radio's great assets is that it can create dramatic atmosphere far surpassing that which is possible on stage, film or television. In the higher expressive arts, the artist asks us to perceive his truth not through all our senses but only through some , upon which we can concentrate in an imaginative way. An example was the BBC's handling of the Royal Funeral. Which had the greatest emotional impact - the sound broadcast, or the television? Assuredly the former, because it left much to our imaginations and the latter left nothing".

Lord Simon, 1953.

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