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Interesting article on radio plays by a well-known radio writer:

© Mike Harris; reproduced by permission. First published in The Handbook of Creative Writing edited by Steven Earnshaw, published by Edinburgh University Press, 2007; website at: ......http://www.eup.ed.ac.uk

Writing for Radio:
Mike Harris

Radio Drama is a hybrid. Like theatre, words are crucial. Like film, scenes can cut rapidly from any place or time to another. Like prose fiction, we consume the product alone, hearing, ‘with our minds’ completing the physical images of people and places in our imagination from the merest suggestions. 

Radio plays that sound like theatre generally confine themselves to a few locations and try to tell the story entirely in dialogue. But sets, costumes and facial expressions are of course not visible on radio and non-verbal sub-text correspondingly hard to do. As a result the dialogue has more information to deal with. If it doesn’t carry this extra burden lightly, the mike will pick it up and draw attention to every plodding line. So, it’s best to detect the problems in the script before that happens. Here’s a case in point from At the Gellert by Gillian Reeve:

 

 (We are listening to rock music on a Walkman)

OLD WOMAN: Karen, can I trouble you to lay the table?

KAREN: (walkman stops) Sorry, course. [...] (pots being cleared under) So when did you come here to England?

OLD WOMAN: After the revolution I found I had no reason to stay, my parents were dead, Andrash was taken away, our houses had been confiscated, my job was to inculcate my pupils with the communist view of history.

KAREN: I’d love to be in a revolution, it must be so exciting.

OLD WOMAN:  It is an excitement I was happy to leave behind. Although you could say that Hungary has been in revolution ever since. It is in a big one now with capitalism taking over from communism. What shall I find when I go back next month? So much will have changed.

KAREN: You’re going back next month?

OLD WOMAN: Oh yes. I told your mother when I came to look after `your grandmother.

KAREN:  Eastern Europe sounds so grim and depressing.

OLD WOMAN: Actually Hungary is in central Europe.

 

The lack of sub-text and dramatically significant in-scene activity, the weight of un-dramatised back story on the dialogue, and the failure to exploit potential sources of conflict (‘Karen, can I trouble you to lay the table?’ ‘Sorry, course’) turn the scene into a ponderous lesson in Hungarian history and geography (‘Actually Hungary is in central Europe’). There are theatrical radio plays in which the quality of the writing triumphs over the essential perversity of choosing conventions that emphasise the limitations of a form more than its possibilities. Compare the opening scene of Jill Hyem’s almost perfectly constructed psycho-chiller Remember me:

 

(a music box plays an unsettling tune)

NANCY: (approaching) Mrs Weedon, Mrs Weedon (door)

THELMA: (with us) yes?

NANCY: There’s someone on the phone, long distance, wants to know if you’ve got a double room for the coming week.

THELMA: Well you know we haven’t – we’re booked solid over the Easter holidays.

NANCY: Thought I’d better check, only they said they were acquainted with you.

THELMA: Oh. What was the name?

NANCY: I think he said Sutton.

(music box lid slams shut. Music stops)

Would that be right?

THELMA: Yes, Nancy, yes, that’s right, good girl. Leave it to me. I’ll deal with it.

 

In which far less is said, to far greater, and appropriately ominous, effect.

 

On the whole, though, Radio Dramas that exploit its similarities to screen drama are a more interesting technical proposition. Here’s a whole scene from Ken Blakeson’s army wives drama Excess Baggage:

 

Interior quarters

DENNY: Three Bedrooms, Sarge?

SERGEANT: Yes, three bedrooms ...

DENNY: But I put in for two …

SERGEANT:   Well you got three, didn’t you! Three beds, one bath, one reception, one dining, one hall and one shithouse…you!

 

The mike then cuts like a camera from parade ground, to bedroom, to pub, and back, rapidly interweaving the stories of several army families. This ‘cinematic’ approach need not be confined to gritty realism. In The Falklands Play Ian Curteis inter-cuts seamlessly between Whitehall, Washington, Buenes Aires, mid-Atlantic plane flights and half a dozen other locations, to tell the political story of that war as a gripping drama-doc.

The novel and short story are both print-based, non-performance forms but Radio Drama’s most distinctive output has more in common with them than either stage or screen. This is because voices on radio transfer directly from the studio mike to the listener’s mind without the distraction of little people emoting in boxes, or actors gurning and gesticulating for the benefit of the back circle. As a result Radio drama is at least as intimate as prose fiction and so direct address of all kinds can be especially effective.

Michael Butt uses the most apparently simple form of it in A Fire in the West. A mother, father, sister and former boyfriend talk directly to mike as each tries to understand why Cirea burnt herself to death. The style is so intimate and the dialogue so ‘real’ that we wonder if we’re not listening to a documentary. Then, as the testimonies inter-cut and conflict, we slowly realise that this is an artfully constructed drama about the impossibility of ultimately understanding anyone. The technique is similar to a novelist using several narrative voices, but the impact is specifically radio. It brings the emotions and evasions of the characters right inside our heads.

It’s not surprising therefore, that radio dramatists often allow their protagonists to address the listener directly with their thoughts. One of the earliest and best examples of this is Tyrone Guthrie’s Matrimonial News. Florence, a 30-something shop-girl who fears that she’s ‘on the shelf’ is waiting for a desperate blind date in a café. And that’s it. The rest is psychological. Guthrie does radio stream-of-consciousness:

 

FLORENCE: [...] Ten years younger that would make me twenty two –

ten years younger that would make me tootaloo

twenty two to two tattoos at Tooting.

I don’t feel a bit different –

Not a bit –

 

Characters appear and disappear in her thoughts in short, sometimes only one-line, montage scenes that summarise neatly great swathes of monotonous time:

 

MAN:  (Very quiet and very near) Then you don’t have any say in the management of the business?

FLORENCE:   I hate the business

(shop bell)

CUSTOMER:  Good morning.

FLORENCE:   Good morning.

(shop bell)

I hate the business.

 

Giles Cooper’s comic tour de force Under the Loofah Tree uses a similar approach, dramatising the rich fantasy life of Ted as he takes a long luxurious soak in the bath, harassed by his spouse, child and an encyclopaedia salesman. Gerry Jones puts it to more disturbing service in the Kafkaesque Time After Time, in which a character eventually decides that he’s ‘all alone talking to myself in the madhouse’. 

Most radio dramas inter-cut between direct address and dialogue, so a lot of the art is deciding when, how and why to do that. But it should never be forgotten that radio drama is drama. So, whether you’re telling the story using dialogue or direct address you’re always doing it through action and conflict (see ‘Introduction to Scriptwriting’ for a more detailed discussion of the practicalities of this). In Matrimonial News, Florence’s restless personified thoughts contradict each other constantly:

 

ALICE: Why you look a picture in that blue!

FLORENCE: Oh dear, I wonder if I ought to … I don’t know what mother’d say.

MOTHER: What’s that flo?

FLORENCE:  Nothing mother.

MOTHER: Oh yes it is – you needn’t try to have me on.

FLORENCE: Go away.

MOTHER: You needn’t try to keep me out of your thoughts, you can’t you know.

FLORENCE: Can.

 

When the direct address is continuous, be it in the form of un-personified thoughts or any other kind of ‘monologue’, it needs to conflict within itself – expressing doubts, contradictions and so forth etc – and/or to be in conflict with the dialogue on either side. Here’s Stoppard doing both simultaneously, in ‘M’ is for Moon Among Other Things.

 

(Alfred is reading the paper):

 

CONSTANCE: (thinks) [...] Thirty days hath April, June, is it? Wait a minute, the Friday before last was the twenty-seventh …

ALFRED: (thinks) I found her to be a smooth-as-silk beauty with the classic lines of thrust of…’

CONSTANCE: Alfred, is it the fifth or the sixth?

ALFRED: Mmmm? (thinks) surging to sixty mph in nine seconds …’

CONSTANCE: Fifth?

ALFRED: Fifth what?

CONSTANCE: What’s today?

ALFRED: Sunday … (thinks) ‘…the handbrake a touch stiff … ’

 

Direct address never works when it’s used simply because the writer can’t work out how to convey information dramatically. Here’s a bad lapse by Louis MacNeice in Persons from Porlock (our protagonist is pot-holing):

 

HANK: (calling) Peter, you OK?

PETER: (calling) I’m Ok. How are you?

HANK: (calling) Fine. (to self) I’m not though. Talk about back to the womb! Difference is the womb was soft.

 

Nowhere else in the script are we given access to thoughts so their sudden arrival here simply draws attention to the fact that they’re being used to clumsily dump information on us.

The one exception to this rule is when the words of direct address are so vividly written that the listener does not care whether they’re conflicted or not. Norman Corwin was the grand master of American radio drama in its heyday, and his beautiful Daybreak is narrated by a pilot following dawn around the world. Here’s how it starts:

 

PILOT: A day grows older only when you stand and watch it coming at you. Otherwise it is continuous. If you could keep a half degree ahead of sun-up on the world’s horizons, you’d see new light always breaking on some slope of ocean or some patch of land. A morning can be paced by trailing light. This we shall do …

 

So if you think you’re that good, you can always try it. But it’s over-used by bad dramatists who’d prefer to be writing prose fiction or poetry, and it shows.

Direct address works best of all within a framing device that complements the sound-only nature of the medium.  Anthony Minghella employs an answer machine at the start of Cigarettes and Chocolate. Its messages deftly establish six different characters and kick off the story by making us wonder why Gail is not answering. A good part of the rest of the play consists of these people one by one visiting Gail to find out why she has, literally, stopped talking. Gail does not reply to them, so they deliver self-revelatory monologues straight to the mike, putting the listener in the position of the silent protagonist. In If You’re Glad I’ll be Frank Tom Stoppard imagines that the telephone speaking clock is not a recording but a constantly live telephone ‘broadcast’ given by Gladys, whose estranged husband Frank hears it and tries to rescue her. Tape recorders, call-centres, short-wave radio, letters, mobile phones, diaries, taxi-cab calls, intercoms, all-night radio call-ins, and many other such devices, all isolate or evoke the human voice, and provide appropriate contexts for inventive radio drama.

There’s another possibility in radio drama worth mentioning, which is to experiment and self-consciously play with the form itself. Here’s Beckett in All That Fall:

 

MRS ROONEY: All is still. No living soul in sight. There is no one to ask. The world is feeding. The wind – (brief wind)- scarcely stirs the leaves and the birds – (brief chirp)- are tired singing. The cows – (brief moo) – and sheep – (brief baa) – ruminate in silence. The dogs – (brief bark) – are hushed and the hens – (brief cackle) – sprawl torpid in the dust. We are alone. There is no one to ask

 

Beckett is a dark comedian who never loses sight of character, conflict and popular art forms. The above clearly owes much to Spike Milligan’s use of radio in The Goon Show. Experimentation in German radio drama (Horspiel) is rather different. Peter Handke’s Radio Play (No 1) abandons characterisation, consistent narrative and disassociates sound from words to produce an effect analogous to a Magritte painting:

 

A screech owl cries. A car tries vainly to start.

[…]

INTERROGATOR A: why do you speak of the cat’s naked ear?

INTERROGATED: do you sell peach preserves?

INTERROGATOR A: why do you clap your hands in an empty room?

INTERROGATED: what do you mean by that?

 

The tiger hisses. A brook splashes. Water gurgles. Whistle.

 

His later work ‘dispenses with language altogether to become a play of pure sound’ (Handke 1991: P194) prompting the observation that a radio play that dispenses with narrative, character and language in favour of ‘pure sound’ isn’t a play at all but either aural performance art or a form of modern programme music, for which one is more liable to receive an arts council subsidy than a Radio 4 commission.

It is of course one thing to describe what can and can’t be done in general with radio drama. It’s quite another to do it in detail. Here are some tips.

 

Close your eyes and listen for a minute. Try and remember what you heard. If you’re running a group ask everyone in turn. Differentiate between sound, words and music (if there were all three). That’s radio drama. If you don’t hear it, it’s not there.

 

Audiences can’t see actors and locations in Radio Drama, so it’s absolutely essential to answer three questions within a few lines of the start of nearly every scene: Where are we? Who’s there? What’s going on? This is how it’s done:

 

Characters need to name each other and keep doing so, without the audience noticing. Characters in a scene who don’t speak and aren’t referred to for any length of time simply ‘disappear’.

Music can give a general cultural signal at the start of a whole play or a new scene. Vaughan William’s ‘Lark Ascending’ might suggest a yearning English summer. ‘White Riot’ by The Clash is probably anticipating violent urban realism. Music can also help create atmosphere; adding pace and tension within a scene (as in bring up driving rhythm) or a mood (run sad theme under). It can also be used ironically. Go from, ‘White Riot’ to a cricket match on a village green and the listener will expect ructions in paradise. 

Sound effects pin things down more. If it’s church bells after ‘Lark Ascending’, not only is it England in summer but we’re in a village. Follow ‘White Riot’ by lots of spitting, and it’s almost certainly a punk gig in 1977. Some music and sound effects can be instantly evocative but most aren’t. For example, cicadas always mean ‘hot and abroad’ but rain on radio is just as likely to sound like someone rustling through long grass. Does a burst of Tchaikovsky mean we’re in Russia, or just in a bit of an emotional state? And no combination of music and sound effects is going to tell you, ‘Ibiza, Sunday Afternoon, 2005, Chantelle Smith applying sun-block to burnt skin’.

For a precise picture in the listener’s imagination, you need words. You almost always need words, actually. For example, the very first scene of Excess Baggage:

 

We are outside

CORPORAL: (shouts). Squad will fix bayonets. (Pauses.) Fix bayonets!
(sound effects: ten men fix bayonets) Squad ... Squad shun!

 

An exterior acoustic would have given us ‘outside’ but it’s the dialogue that tells us a squad is being drilled. The sound of fixing bayonets merely confirms it. Not all dramatic situations allow basic visual information to come out so unobtrusively. The classic bad radio line, ‘put down the gun that you are pointing at me’, illustrates the problem. Here’s Norman Corwin solving it in Radio Primer:

 

(Desk drawer opening; something heavy being removed)

JB: What are you doing?

RM: What does it look like?

JB: Like suicide. But don’t be hasty (shot).

 

The word ‘gun’ is never said. We hear a drawer being opened and the clunk of something heavy. JB’s question, and the actor’s delivery would suggest that something’s wrong. The line, ‘like suicide, but don’t be hasty’ does most of the rest and the shot clinches it. But most important of all, the information was transmitted within dramatic conflict, which is what the audience are paying attention to, not the slick technique. Here’s Harold Pinter smuggling visual data inside a conflict of sensibilities in A Slight Ache:

 

FLORA: Have you noticed the honeysuckle this morning?

EDWARD: The what?

FLORA: The honeysuckle.

EDWARD: Honeysuckle? Where?

FLORA: By the back gate, Edward.

EDWARD: Is that Honeysuckle? I thought it was … convulvus or something.

 

But it’s not just a question of Who, Where, and What at the start of each scene. We need to know the where the characters are in physical relation to each other throughout the play. This is called ‘perspectives’ and it might seem complicated, but it’s just about the microphone.

The mike in radio drama is like the camera in film. It does long shots, medium shots, close-ups, and tracking. Several actors two-three feet away from the mike are having a conversation or an argument. Two actors closer to it are talking privately. Two actors very close up are probably in bed, and an actor right on the mike is generally voicing thoughts. An actor coming into a location is approaching a mike. An actor leaving a location is going from the mike. When we go with an actor, the mike stays close to him whilst he simulates movement by walking on the spot and the other actors literally move away from it.

And that’s it. There’s no absolutely fixed way of writing this but the following vocabulary is ok: approaching, going, we go with, off a bit, right off, close, very close. Or you can simply write it out as we would hear it: in her head, or thinking, or, leaving the room or, entering the room etc. Norman Corwin again, doing movement and perspective with great precision in Appointment:

 

(Cell door clangs shut; two pairs of footsteps on stone floor).

 

VINCENT: (yelling further and further off mike as Peter and the guard walk down the corridor). They can’t do this to you! Peter! (Rattling of steel door). God in heaven, let me out of here! ... Peter.

TURNKEY: What’s the matter with that guy? (Steps come to a stop). In there. (Wooden door. When it shuts, Vincent’s uproar cuts off).

 

The footsteps are appropriate here because they would be audible in a jail acoustic and in any case serve a dramatic purpose in the scene. Inexperienced radio writers over-use footsteps to suggest movement (footsteps on carpets?) but this is generally done more effectively by characters approaching or going and by them speaking as they do so.

Val Gielgud, Head of BBC Radio Drama from 1929 to 1963, suggests, rightly, that sound effects should normally be used sparingly and only for a dramatic purpose because their ‘significance… decreases in proportion to the amount of their use’ (Gielgud 1957: 89). Battle and action scenes can be confusing because, ‘one sound effect unaided by sight is liable to be horribly like another’ (Gielgud 1948: 51). The Rule is always, put it in dialogue as well.

And, in general, keep things simple, to begin with at least. Small casts (2 or 3) are easier to deal with than big ones (seven is liable to be your budget maximum anyway). Each character should be ‘aurally distinguishable on immediate hearing’ (Gielgud 1948: 22). Differing genders, ages, and accents are obviously good for this and should be specified.

The only other technical vocabulary worth using in radio scripts occurs at the end of scenes. They can cut, fade out, fade in, fade to black, and cross-fade, just like a film and with the same dramatic effects. It’s more acceptable in radio than theatre to give directions to actors in the script (‘angrily’, ‘long suffering’, etc.) because rehearsal time is shorter and it can be helpful if there is ambiguity in the line and a particular interpretation is essential to the plot. Otherwise don’t. Actors know what they’re doing.

 

Let each member of a group choose one from several short and deliberately difficult radio scenarios and then try and write it in one half-page scene. Here’s a couple from my list, but they’re easy to make up:

1) Rachel, a pushy young journalist from a working class background, is being rowed down the river Nile at night by an Egyptian peasant who happens to be mute. Also in the boat is Ali, assistant chief of the Cairo police, who is risking his life to show her the secret installation. He also fancies her.

2) A child ages from three to the verge of death in old age. The subject has several different careers and lives in more than one country. You only have five lines of dialogue for the subject but can have in addition one line each for up to five other characters. Read the results and discuss what was easy, what was hard, and why.

 

Once the play is written, it has to be sold. In the UK, Canada, and Australia the national public service broadcasters are the main (effectively the only) significant national market. In the UK BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3 produce between them about 500 plays a year, and most of them are original, which is possibly more than anyone else in the world, in any medium. Therefore you’ve got a much better chance of selling a new play here than to radio than to stage or screen. There’s no point in writing a script longer than 60 minutes (about 50-55 pages, depending) because, outside Radio 3 (which tends to use well-established writers) there’s no spot for it. Because there are more afternoon plays than any other, you’ve got a statistically better chance of selling one, so start at 45 minutes (40ish pages).

You can send your script to any in-house producer at a BBC production centre (London, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast). There’s usually one with a special brief to develop new writers, or you can send it to specific new-writing initiatives that pop-up every so often. Since 10% of radio drama is now ‘outsourced’ you can send it to independent producers as well. They can be hungrier for new material than the officials but they also have a statistically smaller chance of selling it. Go to The Radio 4 Drama website for addresses, contacts and detailed information about formatting and programme content. Make sure the script is formatted correctly and don’t put clip art on the front page unless you want them to think you’re barking. Then don’t hold your breath. There’s lots of you and not many of them. If the producer hasn’t replied in, say, three months, a polite reminder is in order. In six, send another reminder, and after that try another producer (my record is 2 years waiting for an outline to be read, and I was an established radio writer by then). It’s worth persisting. They pay, and the audience for an afternoon play in the Uk can be as many as a million people (Radio 4 2005: 20).
In Canada information on writing for the CBC’s Sunday showcase and Monday Night Playhouse (and  contacts for specific producers) can be obtained from http://www.cbc.ca/showcase/writersguide.html. In Australia the only national producer of radio plays is ABC Radio National. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/

 

 

Acknowledgements, and references

Radio Drama is alive and kicking but almost no recordings are commercially available. The failure of the BBC to exploit either its current output or its vast back catalogue of great radio plays is, in the age of the audio book, truly remarkable, and a significant cultural loss to the nation. So if you’re thinking of writing a radio play you need to listen to lots of them live, or catch up on the previous weeks output on the BBC website. Podcasts and online broadcasting now give anyone with a computer and the internet access to Radio plays from all over the world.

Most of the published scripts listed here are out of print but can be obtained relatively easily from online second-hand sites such as abebooks.co.uk. The very best source of information on British Radio Drama and writers is not the BBC but the non-profit making, wholly unofficial ‘Diversity’ website  (<http://www.suttonelms.org.uk/>) which I cannot recommend highly enough and to whose webmaster, Nigel Deacon, I am very much in debt for information, the loan of his personal recordings, and unstinting help and assistance.

 

References

Beckett, Samuel All That Fall (TX Third Programme 13.01.57), All That Fall London: Faber (1978)

Blakeson, Ken (1999), Excess Baggage (TX Radio 4 22.02.98), Best Radio Plays of

1988 London: Methuen/BBC Publications.

Butt, Michael, A Fire in The West (TX Radio 4 06.09.03).

Cooper, Giles (1966) Under the Loofah Tree (TX BBC 03.08.58), Giles Cooper: Six Plays for Radio, London: BBC Publications.

Corwin, Norman, Daybreak (TX Columbian Broadcasting Service 22.06.41); Radio Primer (TX CBS 04.05.41); Appointment (TX CBS 01.06.41) in

Thirteen by Corwin (1945), New York: Henry Holt.

Curteis, Ian, The Falkland’s Play (TX BBC Radio 4 06.04.02).

Gielgud, Val (1957), British Radio Drama 1922-1956, London: George Harrap.

Gielgud, Val (1948), The Right Way to Radio Playwriting, London: Elliot.

Guthrie, Tyrone, Matrimonial News  (TX BBC 1930 approx.) in Squirrel’s Cage and Two Other Microphone Plays (1932), London: Cobden-Sanderson.

Handke, Peter, Radio Play (No. 1) (TX 1968) in German Radio Plays (1991), ed.  Frost and Herzfeld-Sander, New York: Continuum.

Hyem, Jill, Remember me (TX BBC Radio 4 20.05.78).

MacNeice, Louis, Persons from Porlock (TX Third Programme 30.08.63), in Persons from Porlock and Other Plays for Radio (1969), London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Minghella, Anthony, Cigarettes and Chocolate (TX Radio 4 06.11.88) in Best Radio Plays of 1988 (1999), London: Methuen/BBC Publications.

Pear, T. H. Voice and Personality, in British Radio Drama, ed. John Drakakis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinter, Harold A Slight Ache, (TX BBC 29.07.59) in Plays 1 (1997), London: Faber.

Radio Four Commissioning Guidelines 2005.

Reeve, Gillian, At the Gellert (TX Radio 4 unknown).

Stoppard, Tom If you’re Glad I’m Frank (TX BBC 1966), M is for Moon (TX BBC 1964), in Stoppard the Plays for Radio 1964-1983 (1990), London: Faber and Faber.

 

 

 

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