MY RADIO DRAMA SWANSONG ~ Catherine Czerkawska



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, catherine@wordarts.co.uk

This article sent by Catherine Czerkawska and reproduced by permission, 2005

Nigel Deacon, Diversity website

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James Follett

Until now my experience of book readings has been limited to licensing my books as talking books. Talking books are, as their name implies, just that. They are not subjected to editing or abridgement unless the occasional 'he said' or 'she said' is inserted for clarity. As a consequence an average length English novel of around 90,000 words can amount to a ten-hour recording on about five or six compact cassettes.

When the BBC approached me with a view to producing readings of my 'The Silent Vulcan' trilogy totalling nearly half a million words my reaction was 'Blimey -- it'll have to be abridged a little.' Then, when they said about a week later that each book would be allowed only eight 20-minute readings, my reaction was 'Bugger -- they'll have to be abridged a lot!'

Anyway, for the money they offering with their new treasury-approved budget I switched on my pooter's word-cruncher -- never switched on for less than five grand -- and started work on the first book 'The Temple of the Winds'. The timing of a reading of one typical full page meant that as a talking book without editing the book would've taken about 1000 minutes to read. Compare that with the BBC's requirement of 160 minutes! It was going to be a long haul.

Editing is something I'm good at. The first pass took a day. It was mostly dialogue tightening and descriptive passages chopped, and resulted in a reading time of around 600 minutes. Dumping the salacious material brought it down to about 500 minutes.

This is when abridging starts to get more tricky because chunks of text have to re-written. For example, instead of reporting a heated meeting verbatim with all the dialogue and arguments set out in a complete scene, it is necessary to rewrite along the lines of: 'the meeting was stormy and it was decided that...' Sometimes such treatment, though brutal, can dispose of an entire chapter. This phase brought the reading down to approximately 300 minutes.

I was getting there and had reached the stage when some restructuring of the book was needed such as losing characters. After a lot of thought, I dumped two characters, one quite major, and rewrote several passages to accommodate the changes. This took some time, at least two days, but it did the trick and I ended up with a total reading time of 200 minutes. In other words, I was there.

All I had to do now was split the revised text into eight parts, look for suitable cliff-hanger episode endings, and carry out a few nips and tucks, with additional cuts bracketed for recording but which could be implemented during final edit to provide exact running times. All fairly routine stuff but it was done. I suppose it took about a week. I was about to print the scripts when the phone rang. It was the BBC to tell of a rule I no idea existed: that authors aren't allowed to abridge their own material! Perhaps they thought that writers would be too close to their own material to do an objective job. I don't know, but I was miffed because I thought I'd done a professional, workmanlike job, and I had had some experience of adapting material for Radio 4 in the past. Still, it meant that I had no further work to do on the project except cash the cheques.

The job went to Amanda Davis. The readings end next week after a six month run, and are scheduled for a repeat. She did an excellent job and it's interesting to note that she dumped one of the characters that I'd dumped. In places I felt she'd left out some important points that could've been covered with a few words, but she did an excellent job although there was a bit of a cringe-making howler in today's episode (part 7 of The Silent Vulcan -- the final book. Midnight repeat) when she said that a showman's steam engine (a Charles Burrell beast) had about 300,000 watts output -- omitting to mention that most of that output came from a Centrax gas turbine generator. Fingers crossed, maybe no-one will notice

The reader was Nigel Anthony -- an actor experienced in talking books readings. He did a first class job, so well in fact, that with some scenes I ended up with the impression of having heard a play.

My only reservations about the production is that I feel weekly readings are wrong. It's asking a lot of listeners to stay with a programme over a period of six months. Perhaps I'll get a chance to do something about that showman's engine in the repeat.

James Follett. Novelist. (G1LXP) http://www.jamesfollett.dswilliams.co.uk. Readings by Nigel Anthony of the final book in The Silent Vulcan trilogy on BBC7 Saturdays 1840 with midnight repeat. All 24 episodes to be repeated. A whole year hogging 7th Dimension!

This article located by Greg Linden and used with James Follett's permission. Many thanks.

Nigel Deacon, Diversity website, 2005

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