Radio Drama: Then and Now
Stephen Wyatt

First published in ALCS NEWS, Dec 2014.
ALCS is the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.

Radio dramatist Stephen Wyatt's speech from the
2014 Annual General Meeting of the ALCS.

I am honoured to be invited to talk about radio drama here in the Radio Theatre in the heart of Broadcasting House, particularly as the ALCS has an honourable history of support for radio drama in its sponsorship each year of the Tinniswood Award for the best original radio drama script.

Thinking about being here and talking about radio drama took me back irresistibly to the 1934 black-and-white film enticingly entitled Death at Broadcasting House. It’s a murder mystery based on a novel co-written by Val Gielgud, the then head of radio drama. Although many of its interiors were recreated in the studio, the film still offers an extraordinary insight into what the world of radio drama was like in the early 1930s.

Death at Broadcasting House centres on the premiere of a new radio play, written by a famous West End writer and it’s almost as if Broadcasting House is an extension of the West End. The actors arrive outside Broadcasting House in limousines and emerge in full evening dress to graciously sign autographs for eager fans before proceeding inside to deliver their scripts to microphone. Of course, everything was broadcast live in real time, a fact upon which the plot hinges. There is a live string quartet inside the studio to provide background music throughout the broadcast and the author sits smoking a cigarette in a separate room with a phone by his side so he can discuss his next West End script while the broadcast continues. An unpopular blackmailing actor (played by Donald Wolfit) is located in a separate studio so that he can record a scene where he is strangled from behind. At rehearsal he’s been less than convincing but the producer is delighted with the conviction of his on-air performance until he realises the actor was actually being strangled at the time. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the playwright did it.

But perhaps the most startling detail comes when the screen fills with the newspaper headlines the next day. One of them screams: “25 million people hear actor strangled on air". Even if there’s a slight exaggeration, that’s an awful lot of people to be listening to the premiere of a radio play.

How times have changed. I would like to say that radio drama is the Cinderella of dramatic writing except that there is absolutely no chance of a Fairy Godmother turning up and sending her off to be the belle of the ball. The recent inception of the Radio Drama awards may have gone some way to redress the balance but there’s very little serious critical consideration of radio drama in the media and that includes Front Row. There are a few honourable exceptions to this neglect, notably Gillian Reynolds in The Daily Telegraph. But most radio critics, let alone critics elsewhere, feel it’s okay to announce as The Independent’s late radio critic did that he wasn’t ever going to review radio drama because he couldn’t stand “all that Acting” with a capital A as if that settled the matter. So much for an incredible diversity of output. By and large, an extended preview, i.e. a hundred words or so, is the most public attention a radio play is going to get. If you’re lucky.

The financial rewards are decidedly modest too. I hear accounts from writers who’ve led courses on the novel and the screenplay that participants sometimes turn up filled with the notion built on the shakeiest of foundations that they’re going to write a bestseller or a Hollywood blockbuster and earn fame and fortune. In my experience, on the other hand, participants in radio drama courses are mostly pretty sane and level-headed with a genuine love of the form. Just as well as anybody seeking fame and fortune via radio drama would be very seriously delusional indeed.

And yet...

The announcements of the death of radio drama have proved again and again to be wildly exaggerated. It’s survived the coming of sound to film and the advent of television (both black and white and colour), the inventions of the CD and the DVD and the rise of the internet. And indeed new technology has probably now helped its survival. iPlayer means listeners can get hold of a radio drama whenever they want to instead of having to sit by their radios waiting. Furthermore, in order to watch a film or television drama, your eyes have to be fixed more or less on the screen whereas radio drama really can be appreciated while you are doing other things.

All in all, radio drama within its more modest 21st century limits and comparatively limited budgets appears to be in robust health. The audiences may, apart from The Archers, rarely be in millions but the average Afternoon Drama still attracts 800,000 listeners which compares favourably with the number of people going through the doors of the National Theatre each year. And even in these straitened times, 190 new Afternoon Dramas are commissioned every year, again a figure that compares favourably with the commissions for original drama available anywhere else.

For the writer, no fame or fortune certainly, or a very modest amount of both, but for him or her still a very large amount of creative satisfaction. With television having all but abandoned the original one-off play for series, soaps and genre episodic drama, radio is a place where the writer can actually write what he or she wants to write with a comparative amount of creative freedom. And if you can get a play bought or a new play commissioned – and that is, of course, still a big if for the competition is high – then your producer is also your director is also your casting director is also your script editor and if you have a good working relationship with them there is nobody out there wanting to disturb it or interfere. Unlike television series work. you are not subject to the internal politics of the whims and power struggles of executive producers, producers, executive script editors, script editors and anybody else who feels entitled to give an opinion of your first (or possibly fifth or sixth) draft.

I want to talk now a little about the process of writing for radio and what its strengths and weaknesses are as a form. Drama on radio does come in different lengths and different formats but for anybody beginning in radio, there is really only the Afternoon Drama. This is the entry point for anybody who wants to write for radio without a track record and the freedom it offers also means that experienced writers return to it again and again. But there is also a severe time limitation. An Afternoon Drama lasts 45 minutes (more like 43 minutes 30 seconds with all the announcements) which in practical terms means you have approximately 8000 words, including all directions and the names of the characters in the margin to unfold your story. For all the freedom, the length of time you have to explore your idea is simply not up for negotiation.

In 2013 Nick Hern Books published a volume called So You Want to Write Radio Drama? which I wrote with Claire Grove. Claire was a wonderfully creative producer and a huge encourager of new writing talent in radio who died tragically just before the book was published. But her wit and wisdom are still there in the book, which represents so far as I know the only book on radio drama ever written in collaboration between a writer and a producer. One of the things we talked about was the strengths and weaknesses of radio drama in a section we called The Bad News and the Good News.

Radio drama takes place inside your head, not in front of your eyes. It’s what gives it its wonderful freedom, both for the writer and for the listener, but it’s also why some things you might like to do simply won’t work in radio.

The bad news first.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the things radio drama doesn’t do well:

1. Any sort of big lavish spectacle, battle, riot or teeming social event that depends for its effect upon us being able to see and appreciate the scale of what’s happening. Of course, radio can suggest armies on the march, pitched battles, cheering crowds thronging the streets and the ball-to-end-all-balls with a few evocative sound effects, but there’s not going to be a gasp of surprise or joy from the audience.

This became clear to us when we were working together on a radio dramatisation of Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair. In any stage, screen or television version of the book, one of the big set pieces is the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. It’s a chance to display aristocratic ladies in beautiful frocks and officers in magnificent military uniforms, descending staircases and dancing beneath chandeliers in a glittering ballroom. We were pretty convinced that this was going to be a key scene in the radio version. But when it came to it, we had a bit of a shock. We realised that there could be music and there could be crowd noises and listeners would know we were at a ball, but there was no way to make it any more impressive than that. Our big scene wasn’t a big scene any more. The result was that the scenes at the ball focused almost exclusively on the main characters, which in story-telling terms was perhaps no bad thing.

2. Linked to this, Hollywood-style car chases are also out. Cinema audiences may gasp as cars nearly collide or race over bridges just before the bridges collapse into the river below. But in radio, this comes down to some car noises and a commentary which would have to spell out what doesn’t need to be spelled out in visual terms (‘Oh no, I can’t believe it … The bridge looks like it’s collapsing … Not sure I’m going to make it!’, etc.).

More seriously, anything needing very detailed physical choreography isn’t going to work on radio. The silent sequence in which the hooded stalker pursues the heroine relentlessly through the forest is never going to make an impact on radio. There are other ways of doing it on radio, but not that way.

Related to this is the idea, which may at first seem odd, that scenes involving sex and/or violence are often more disturbing on radio than on film or television. Given only sounds to trigger the imagination, some listeners can draw on their own experience and create mental pictures far more shocking and graphic than was intended or even suggested. Radio doesn’t have the same control as film or television over what is being conveyed in physical terms. Which, again, is both good and bad.

A favourite story on this topic comes from a producer who received a letter about a radio drama she’d worked on from a listener who said she had been so disgusted by what she’d heard that she had had to switch the radio off. The letter ended, slightly plaintively, asking if the producer could tell her what happened next.

3. By and large, radio doesn’t work well if there are more than three people in any given scene. This is basically a matter of how many voices a listener can follow and still keep track of who they are and what they’re saying. Skilful casting, of course, can make characters more distinctive so that listeners will then find it easier to tell the voices apart. But a basic problem remains: without visual information, it’s very difficult to understand a conversation or argument taking place between, say, five or six people.

In a film or theatre, a ‘silent presence’, somebody who is present and says nothing, can be very powerful. The fact that they say nothing can add a real tension to the scene. We are waiting for their intervention, or realise the arguments they’re hearing are totally irrelevant to them.

In radio, there is no magic in a silent presence. Unless the person present is kept in our minds (e.g. "But you’ve said nothing for the last five minutes" ), then as far as the listeners are concerned, they don’t exist. In any case, too many voices clamouring for attention can only lead to confusion.

There’s more, inevitably, but let’s move on to....

The good news...

To repeat, radio drama takes place inside your head, not in front of your eyes. Which means:

1. As a writer you have a very intimate relationship with the listener. You talk softly into the listener’s ear. There’s no need to shout or lecture. The words you have written will be heard in the same way as the words of a poem. Of course, the actor’s voice interprets – as it does with any oral performance of a poem, even by the author – and the producer and sound engineer choose the sound effects, but there are no visuals to draw the listener away from the words and sounds the writer has imagined. The communication is therefore much more direct and personal than it can ever be with theatre or television.

2. From both the writer’s and listener’s point of view, this relationship is very precious. At the centre of most original radio drama is an opportunity for a writer to speak with the voice that is theirs and no one else’s. And the writer’s individual voice is valued in a way which is rare in television. There’s a place for this in theatre, of course, but in radio many many more people will be listening to what you have to say.

3. You can set your play anywhere, any time, with a cast of thousands. We’ve already spoken about the downside of this: spectacle doesn’t work on radio. But the positive aspect is good news. You want 5,000 Egyptians worshipping their Pharaoh before a completed pyramid? You wish to create one of the battles of the English Civil War or the American War of Independence? You want a polite dinner party swept away by a tidal flood? Or a dog swallowing the whole of North Wales? None of these things presents any great problem, particularly given the skills of most sound engineers and their teams.

"I like radio for the pictures" is the cliché. But the budgetary restraints upon your imagination really are very minimal. If you can imagine it in terms of words and sound effects then it can be achieved.

But previous cautions do apply. The 5,000 Egyptians are just background noise. Where’s your focus? On the Pharaoh and his architect? On one of the slave labourers and his best friend? You can juxtapose the two, of course, but you’re never going to take anybody’s breath away with your recreated pyramid.

4. Is there any other dramatic medium in which you could quite plausibly choose to make a doughnut your principal character? Or a chair? A picture painted by Rubens? The ghost of a dog?

And if we’re talking human beings, how about a 150 year old woman? Or a long-dead Holy Roman Emperor who wants to get out of his tomb and sort out the modern world? Or a hermaphrodite who’s signed up for a course with the Open University on gender politics?

The freedom can sometimes be frightening. Most of us choose to stay closer to home. But it’s still true that in radio drama the world is your oyster. Or indeed an oyster’s world could be your radio play.

There are undoubtedly changes coming to radio drama and coming very soon The world of contemporary radio drama may well one day seem as quaint as that depicted in Death at Broadcasting House seems to us today. Some of these changes are because of financial restraints and bureaucratic reorganisations and some of them are because there are different expectations from audiences of what they want. There’s also the whole field of new technology on which I am no expert but a one minute drama, for example, delivered directly to your iphone is a distinct possibility, and the way younger people approach listening is also bound to affect the form of the genre in the future. And there’s no reason why the future world of radio drama should be dominated by the BBC as a matter of course.

Some years ago I was asked by ALCS whether I thought radio drama will always have a place in the BBC. This is what I said then and I still feel the same today.

I certainly hope so. During the sixties and seventies, radio drama was often seen as on its way out, eclipsed by trendy new visual media. I don’t think that’s true today. Young people nowadays have technology that gives them unprecedented opportunities to listen as and when they want to. In fact, it’s far less constricting than having to sit and watch a screen. Hearing stories is always going to be part of that listening and so I believe there’ll always be a place for drama, even though its form and length may change. If that’s the case, the BBC Radio will always find there’s an audience eager for what it can provide.

Thank you.


Stephen's book So You Want to Write Radio Drama?, co-written with Claire Grove, is available now.

Reproduced by permission of Stephen Wyatt.

© Stephen Wyatt, Diversity Website.


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