MY RADIO DRAMA SWANSONG ~ Catherine Czerkawska
ABRIDGING A BOOK FOR THE BBC ~ James Follett
BBC RADIO DRAMA
I read Dr Stefan Buczacki’s complaint about BBC arrogance in the spring issue of the Author with a great deal of sympathy. When they go off you, they do it in a big way! Until recently I was proud to call myself a radio playwright. With some 100 hours of radio drama to my name, roughly divided between original plays and dramatisations, I loved the medium, though it was never, thank God, my only interest. My problems really began when my regular (and award winning) producer was suddenly and inexplicably made redundant and the head of radio drama in Scotland made it clear to me that I was not one of his favourite writers. However, I had plenty of interest from other producers elsewhere in the UK, and so continued making submissions. I was working in theatre as well by then, so didn’t really notice my dwindling success rate.
My last radio production was over two years ago, an original Woman’s Hour serial called “Voices from Vindolanda”, based on the Vindolanda Tablets found at Hadrian’s Wall. It was not a happy experience. BBC N.I. suddenly and arbitrarily imposed a script editor who outranked the producer with whom I had been working. Now I’d be the first to admit that the development process - while not always comfortable - can be very helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees in your own work. But her idea of the plays differed radically from mine. Moreover, I had already been forced to change my original concept to suit London’s strictures. Since this was to be a “Woman’s Hour” serial, they wanted all the “voices” to be female. I had managed to negotiate a compromise on that one since there weren’t too many female voices in a Roman Fort, and very few female writings on the tablets themselves. I had been working on the scripts for months with the “official” producer so I wasn’t about to start tearing the whole thing apart a few weeks before the scheduled recording date.
I had always collaborated happily with producers but had never had my whole creative vision called into question in this way - not even as a raw beginner. Vindolanda was eventually made with an excellent cast which included Amanda Root and Freddie Jones, but I felt that as I wrestled with the script editor’s demands that the piece be rewritten as a sort of “Country Diary of a Roman Lady”, she and I had both missed faults in the bigger picture, and the production could certainly have been better. I got some good feedback from listeners, but that production, sadly, marked the end of my career as a radio writer. Not for lack of trying though.
Over the past few years I have lost count of the number of submissions made and rejected either informally at the pre-offer stage or formally after various “rounds”. These have included at least three series of short plays including one about a psychic detective (before TV ever did it) and a one off play about a Scots Italian going back to Italy. There have been dramatisations galore including Piers Plowman, a retelling of an Icelandic saga, adaptations of two successful stage productions of my own plays and a number of ghost stories by different writers. There was a complete, original and experimental monologue called The Price of a Fish Supper which attracted the enthusiasm of a couple of producers, but little else. There were several other dramatisations to which my name was attached by hopeful companies. ALL of them have been turned down. Producers could be forgiven for thinking that my name is the kiss of death on any offer.
Last year, more in sorrow than in anger, I wrote to Caroline Raphael whose official title is “Commissioning Editor for Drama and Entertainment.” She oversees the whole commissioning process for Radio 4 and with her, or so I’m lead to believe, all final decisions lie. She assured me that my work was valued but pointed out that I was submitting through too many Independent Producers while most drama was now being produced in-house. Therefore the odds were against me. (This was perhaps because most of my contacts seemed to have fled the BBC at the earliest opportunity!) Having written to Jeremy Mortimer in London and to Gaynor MacFarlane in Edinburgh (twice), I wasn’t even given the courtesy of an acknowledgement, never mind a reply. I therefore asked Caroline if she could perhaps put me in touch with a more favourable producer.
“I’ll see what I can do” said her email. But since then - other than a few more rejections for proposals submitted by enthusiastic but frustrated young producers - I have heard nothing. It seems to me that I have effectively been blacklisted, and there is not a thing I can do about it. Although my past productions can still be heard on Radio Seven (where presumably they are deemed good enough to fill the airwaves cheaply) Caroline certainly isn’t interested in anything new coming from my direction.
My most recent proposal was for a dramatisation of a powerful ghost story by Margaret Oliphant. This was a requested resubmission of a previously rejected offer. Again it was turned down with a request that it be re-resubmitted later. However, this time, things had changed for me, if not for them. I had just had a huge clearout of old scripts. In true “Life Laundry” fashion, it swept my mind clean as well. As I looked through them, I realised how much the struggle to revive a flagging career in radio drama had been hampering my other creative writing. It was inevitable I suppose. A little while ago I acquired a new agent who is also a superb - if very rigorous - editor. I began to spend most of my time writing prose and learning from her incisive questioning. Now the ideas are coming thick and fast, but they are all for novels and stories, not for plays. I simply don’t find myself thinking in radio terms any more. All I needed to do was to give myself permission to stop banging my head against that particular brick wall. So on this occasion, instead of the usual weary agreement to resubmit, I simply said “Tell them to forget it.” And you know what? It felt good!
Of course, I am angry and resentful that the decision has been forced on me in this way and the financial implications have been hard. On reflection, it would have been much better if they had had the courage to say right out “Your writing doesn’t suit us any more” instead of all this “we value your work” nonsense. But now that I have taken control of the situation, it is a huge relief. I wake up each morning thinking “I don’t have to waste any more of my life writing radio proposals!” and the sense of elation is incredible. I just don’t want to do it ever again, which is as good a reason as any to give up.
So why am I writing this? Well it isn’t really a complaint because I neither want nor expect any redress. But partly, I think, I want to close a chapter in my writing life And partly I want to issue a small warning. To younger writers I would say, by all means write for radio - it is a voracious medium and an interesting one. You will learn a lot, and at its best the process can be enjoyable and instructive. But however much you may grow to love the medium itself, never put all your eggs in one basket (though what writer is ever so foolish as to do that?) and always be aware that sooner or later you, or the people you are working with, will probably fall from grace. The BBC is particularly prone to these little purges. It’s OK though. There is life after radio and a pretty good one too. These days when people say to me “You write for radio don’t you?” I now reply “Not any more I don’t!” And surprisingly enough, even as I say those words, I find a big stupid grin spreading across my face!
Catherine Czerkawska, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article sent by Catherine Czerkawska and reproduced by permission, 2005
Nigel Deacon, Diversity website
ABRIDGING A BOOK FOR THE BBC -
Until now my experience of book readings has been limited to
my books as talking books. Talking books are, as their name implies,
just that. They are not subjected to editing or abridgement unless
occasional 'he said' or 'she said' is inserted for clarity. As a
consequence an average length English novel of around 90,000 words
amount to a ten-hour recording on about five or six compact
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