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THE DECLINE & FALL OF RADIO DRAMA ~
by Barry Pike

NORTHERN EXPOSURE: PROMOTING NORTHERN WRITERS ~ by Donald Campbell

"THE DECLINE & FALL OF RADIO DRAMA"

(A PESSIMIST'S VIEW)

Over the past 10 years - since, that is, I became seriously (and belatedly) interested in off-air recording of radio drama - I have written repeatedly to the BBC, usually to complain. At first it was John Tydeman who responded; more recently, it has been Marilyn Imrie (to engage whose ear I had to break through the barrier of the people at Ealing whose sad duty it is to frustrate and fob off those who write letters of complaint). Kate Rowland, newly appointed to succeed Ms. Imrie as Head of Radio Drama, will doubtless be hearing from me.

My first letter to John Tydeman was long and closely-argued, protesting at the relentless dreariness of many of the plays broadcast in the closing years of his reign when the rot began to set in. Then (mid-1980s) as now (late 90s), many radio plays draw upon the darker reaches of human experience, reminding the listener how horrible life can be for those who fall foul of it in some way. Agog to record as much as I could, I was continually frustrated by the sheer bloody awfulness of most of what was on offer.

Mr. Tydeman replied, politely and thoughtfully. He had evidently read my letter and addressed the points I raised in it, assuring me that there was no BBC policy favouring gloomy plays about extreme social problems over those designed primarily as entertainment. The reason why so many current plays were of the kind I was objecting to was that the world was becoming nastier and the plays were following suit. If the plays were violent and angst-ridden, it was because life was now like that - as any newspaper or newsreel would clearly demonstrate. The BBC Drama Department broadcast the best of what was submitted and there was no official pressure on writers to produce the cheerless problem plays that so dominated the medium. This latter point was recently confirmed by Alison Joseph, a radio dramatist with whom I was able to raise the question.

Be that as it may, the outcome for those listeners who seek simply to be entertained has been grim and disheartening. Week after week - year after year - has brought plays about the ills and injustices of Society : racial hatred, sexual trauma, drug addiction, violent crime, mental illness, terrorism, child abuse, rape, extremes of poverty and cruelty. There was a play set in a flat in a tower block in which members of ethnic minority groups recalled their sufferings at the hands of torturers. In another, having "decapitated an intruder, Owen locks himself away....." One Sunday on Radio 3 a man murdered his parents. More recently, Jude has given up all his possessions to work with the homeless; a madwoman has battled to recover her sanity; a Northern Irish prisoner in an English jail has responded angrily to his situation; buildings important to ethnic minorities have been desecrated; and an old man has been burnt out of his home. There is more, much more, of the same, on and on. It never stops. In one particularly dreadful week we were offered freedom fighters in Cyprus, a man whose balls had been blown off, Sandra driving her mum mad, a brain-damaged boxer, a Down's Syndrome girl taking to the woods with a boy who can't talk and the wretched life of an Indian lavatory cleaner.

My objection to all this is that it is joyless and depressing, life-negating and devoid of comfort and reassurance, such as we all need. It is the last thing one wants after a hard day at work (or an easier day at home, for that matter). There seems to me, also, something pious and self-regarding, something programmed and preachy about such plays, as if their authors' main concern were to stir the conscience rather than to intrigue and amuse with a well-told story. I do not, of course, suggest that all plays should be devoid of tension and should dodge serious social and emotional issues (which would eliminate much of the best, from Shakespeare to David Hare); but there is a relentless grinding-in-the-face about so many of the plays in question, as if they seek deliberately to disturb, even to alienate, the listener who dares to be comfortable, despite the misery in the world. I switch on the radio to be stimulated, amused, surprised, intrigued, even provoked - but basically to be pleased. Like Jane Austen, I have no wish to "dwell on guilt and misery" and wonder why the bulk of radio drama should adopt, even by implication, a 'holier-than-thou' stance. Isn't its function, after all, to entertain?

I am not seeking to suppress such plays and replace them with the sort of material I like (delightful though that would be!). No doubt they have their admirers and merit a place in the schedules. It is, however, instructive to note that they never appear as commercial audiotapes, unlike the classics and crime stories that dominate this market. (My italics - Ed.). Rather, it is their prevalence that I object to, the fact that there is no avoiding the damn things (at least in the pages of "Radio Times"). They are, like a section of society it is no longer politically correct to refer to in this context, always with us and have largely shouldered out traditional entertainments, whether by Shaw or Rattigan or E.F. Benson and R.D. Wingfield.

BBC Radio celebrated the 80th. birthday of of Christopher Fry with a revival of "Venus Observed", but his recent 90th. birthday was ignored by the drama department. Similarly, Anthony Powell's 90th. birthday was disregarded and the chance to revive the Bradnum/Gauld "Dance To The Music Of Time" was not taken (try getting the drama department to broadcast anything from the Archive!). Rumer Godden's 90th. birthday was widely celebrated by BBC Radio, which perhaps says much about current thinking at Broadcasting House. She deserved her celebration, but so did Fry and Powell - and so does William Trevor, who has written much for radio and is 70 this year (a fact of which Marilyn Imrie was apprised by me some time ago). His being Irish may help to ensure that he is given his due, though it ought not to be relevant. But perhaps it's time I wrote to Kate Rowland.

BARRY A. PIKE./ Dec 98.

The above article has been reproduced now, in May 03, for readers to judge whether there has been an improvement in the last five years. My own view is that with the advent of bbc7, the improved afternoon plays in the last two years, the 90 minute plays during holidays, and the strong possibility that 90-minute dramas are to appear soon on bbc7, things are getting better. Barry tells me (July 03) that "Dance to the Music of Time" has recently been broadcast on bbc7...

Nigel Deacon

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NORTHERN EXPOSURE by Donald Campbell ...(Apr. 2002.)

It was propitious that just after the appearance of Allen Saddler's article in "The Stage" I attended a workshop run by the BBC at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was for experienced (not me) and budding (me) writers of radio drama. Perhaps this article might at least act as a partial antidote to his words. Alan's article contained sad truths about approaches to producers and the scenario of the 'missing' producer and merely confirmed my own beliefs - garnered through being a "time-served" and "failed" radio dramatist. After my twenty years of endeavour you might well ask "Why does he keep on trying?" Pass!

The January seminar gave some hope for those interested in writing or listening to radio drama. About forty people attended with the sex ratio in favour of the female by about 65/35. The age range ran from old (me) down to twenty, with the majority in the 40 to 50 age range. Melanie Harris, a BBC Northern (Manchester) producer, ran the event. Some practical exercises were done towards the end of her discourse and the whole was capped by the audio presentation of four openings to radio dramas. You would not wish a "blow by blow" account of the three hour session so I have chosen those nuggets of information which you might find positive or hopeful. My own conclusions might not be so positive or so hopeful.

To begin then. The BBC are, they say, seriously committed to finding new radio playwrights and this initiative (Northern Exposure) is running concurrently in centres in Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool and Newcastle - each with a slightly different focus. Perhaps the oddest contradiction in the Leeds project is that a competition based on the "radio drama" centre is NOT for a radio script but for a 25 minute TV drama! This at a time when there are no 25/30 minute slots for TV drama, nor, for that matter, do such slots appear on radio. Logical?

The need for new radio drama, we were told, is because of the wide variety and type of plays now heard on Radio 4, Radio 3 and the World Service. You will be pleased to hear that the World Service is still commissioning plays, good news, but these productions are rarely heard on BBC National Radio.

New drama should be "up to the minute", should thrust barriers aside, should be written with passion, and - seemingly most important of all - conflict and issues should predominate. Perhaps I should rephrase the last item to read "modern issues should predominate". Writers are now asked to contact producers directly, and, to this end, a number of email addresses were supplied. Being old-fashioned I can't help but observe that of the eight or nine producers based in Manchester only one was male. I hasten to add that I am not a male chauvinist - pig or otherwise -but the tail seems to have overtaken the dog and might account for some of the attitudes.

Allen asked "Where are the producers?" Well, now we know and we are invited to get to them individually. This is certainly refreshing.

There is also a team of experienced readers who handle the thousands of scripts but to get your script opened it is absolutely necessary that a three line "puff" of the work is to be seen before the script per se. This should be along the lines of "How can Becky overcome the bullying at school, learn to love her step-sister and come to terms with her wayward mother?" This "treatment" should be accompanied by a personal "sell-job" by the writer on the writer. A detailed set of character studies is advisable. Once these have been negotiated by a reader there must be an attention grabbing first line - we have now reached the script. These items are what move the reader into the script proper. Even then the whole script may not be read if the first ten pages or so are of unacceptable quality.

Should any one of these requirements fail to come up to scratch the whole script is dumped. This information is valuable to the writer and indicates (just as with job interviews) that criteria are applied in order to weed out duffers and save time.

Plays should, preferably, have three characters and no more than six. Sadly the inference was that listeners are now unable to differentiate between more than half a dozen players. This kicks into touch any possibility of, say, a Wimsey play like The Nine Tailors ever being heard again,- or try John Moffat's excellent Murder on the Orient Express. Have we become a nation of morons, or is that just a BBC perception? I weep! But fear not - BBC Radio Collection still SELLS to those of us who can handle more than three characters. An interesting comment by our workshop leader - remember, she is an active and current Manchester-based producer - was along the lines of: "There are too many dull and tedious plays today". I agree, if she means those that get aired but perhaps she meant to add the word "submitted" to her comment.

As Allen suggests - once in the pipe line - plays are subject to the slow grinding of the millstones of the BBC. Three months would be a minimum before your work might be rejected. There was a positive suggestion from Mel Harris - "If no response within three months then chase up the individual producer and action will be taken. Keep on chivvying the producer." In this way shall writers keep producers on their toes.

One of the most telling moments was when the openings of four already-aired plays were played to the group in order for the group to "vote" on the motion: "Would I want to continue listening to this play?"

The first sounded like a documentary to start with but then turned into a more regular sounding item - it became both poetical and pretentious. Most disliked it once the poesy began.

Second on the scene was a kind of monologue which apparently dealt with autism. Half the room liked it; the other half "switched off".

Third was an opening with interesting dialogue - it also had tension- but the content was not clear and the room was split again.

Finally we heard what was a tautly constructed and irresistible thriller about a missing wife. The whole room, bar one, wanted more of this. We loved it.

I had the temerity to suggest that there were not many thrillers on the BBC these days and was sharply told "There's a challenge for you, then!"

Thrillers are, presumably, not exacting, don't push frontiers or challenge perceptions. However the mixed bag of people and ages were unambiguous in their choice. This was, for me, the major downside of the day as it re-enforced my preconceptions about entertaining plays on BBC radio - a missing link and likely so to remain.

The BBC initiative I applaud but I cannot see many, shall we say, "entertainments" being produced as we lumber on into the century.

The BBC will (as seen in the sixties with Children's Hour) "go their own way" but it would be nice to think that people of the calibre of Frederick Bradnum, R.D.Wingfield, Peter Whalley and Ivor Wilson might find a way into the system with unpretentious entertaining stories. If they can find a producer. By the way - do not attempt historical dramas. They are not wanted by the Beeb.

A final and depressing thought for those of us who regard the past few years as demonstrating a severe decline in the style, output and (where have the 90 minute plays gone?) length of radio dramas; Kate Rowland is the supremo of the Northern Exposure initiative. Mmm!

Donald Campbell / April 2002

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