Shouting Quietly

by Mike Bartlett

Reproduced by permission of the Society of Authors

The 29th of January marks the inaugural BBC Audio Drama Awards . While the Society of Authors and the Writers' Guild have been awarding the Imison and Tinniswood prizes to writers for a number of years, (for best first radio play and best new radio play respectively), these awards mark the first time that acting, directing and technical achievement is similarly recognised. The awards are taking place in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House, will be presented by David Tennant, and have already been reported across the national media. Quite right. But why has it taken so long? The theatre world, with a much smaller audience and reach, is awash with the Evening Standard Awards, the Olivier Awards, the Theatre UK Awards, the Stage, the “Offies”. Why has radio been so reluctant to celebrate and publicise its achievements?

I found, as I began to write radio plays alongside theatre work, that it was the prospect of stage plays that people found more immediately exciting. If I send an email about a forthcoming stage play at, say, the Royal Court, my friends and colleagues would be eager for a ticket and keen to find out what it was about. A similar email about a play on Radio 4 would be met with silence or an assurance that they will “try to catch it”. The play in the theatre would be reviewed in all the national papers the following day, but I would be lucky if the radio play received a single preview mention. This despite the fact that nearly every home in the country could have access to the radio play for free. I realised a few years ago that I had internalized this difference between theatre and radio, so that I was less likely to tell my friends about the radio plays, when often I was extremely proud of the writing and the production. I’m not sure why, but I became slightly quiet about them…

We have a tradition of producing and listening to radio drama in this country unmatched across the world. Since the 1950s, most of our major dramatists, actors and directors have worked in the medium, often returning to it throughout their careers. It reaches a wide audience, finding listeners in kitchens, in lorries, in the workplace or the iPod. It covers every imaginable topic and genre and, enlisting the audience through their imagination, has the potential to touch and change lives, in a very different and more personal way than television, film or theatre. It has to be protected, enriched and most importantly, it has to be publicised.

Of course there are legitimate criticisms of radio drama. That it plays safe, that its audience is limited in its diversity, that sometimes it feels under-rehearsed. We know that these are, on occasion, fair. A radio play is normally recorded in three days, with, in fact almost no rehearsal. The pay for everyone concerned is pitiful. However, despite all this, there are always many truly remarkable pieces of work. The best of these have the best actors in the country telling stories that could only really be achieved on the radio. (For example, Duncan MacMillan's I Wish to Apologise for my Part in the Apocalypse, available from Amazon.)

I have been astonished at how quietly some of this remarkable work goes out into the world. Sometimes it is almost as though it is hidden. Most of the best plays I’ve heard I’ve only caught because a friend or colleague has said I should catch them on iPlayer, after the event. We need to find ways to publicise what is available, in advance. Plays should be available to download, for free if at all possible, they should be advertised on BBC television, and websites, and certainly covered more often on Radio 4 platforms like Front Row and Loose Ends. Actors and writers should be giving high-profile interviews about the plays in the way they do for television or theatre work. They should appear on This Morning and BBC Breakfast, in the Radio Times and the Sunday Times Culture section. The form should start shouting as loudly as everyone else.

There are also surely ways of improving the reach of the work. Why does the radio not work with new writing theatre companies like the Royal Court or Hampstead – sharing resources and, crucially, publicity, allowing plays only performed in London to reach national audiences, very soon after they are reviewed in the press? For example, Nick Payne’s new work, Constellations, was sold-out before it even started rehearsals, but opened to glowing reviews in every national newspaper – why can’t radio capitalise on this publicity and broadcast it straightaway? Could there be radio drama crossovers with Radio 1, Radio 2 or Radio 6 Music, to encourage a new audience?

The BBC Audio Drama Awards are a wonderful idea and will, I have no doubt, be a huge success. But I hope this will be the beginning of a wider change, where radio drama is valued and promoted as the exciting, provocative and important dramatic form that it already is. This can only benefit writers and listeners alike.

Mike Bartlett

(This piece appeared on the Society of Authors blog, Jan 2012 ... and is reproduced by permission)

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