Does the BBC give us the plays we want?

Clive Lever suggested I write something about the demand for ninety-minute plays.

I hesitate to do this because I'm no expert. And I think there's more in this discussion than the question of whether we can concentrate for an hour and a half, and whether the BBC will supply plays to satisfy the demand. Anyway for what it's worth, here's my opinion about current BBC radio drama, and for the impatient, my comments about 90 minute plays are towards the end.

I often wonder what style of drama is most popularly received ............. but I suppose it depends what you mean.

There's lots of music to hoover to in the afternoons. Some drama is like that. Light plots, not too demanding, easy listening; switch on halfway through and you can still make sense of the plot, and even if you can't, it's only 45 minutes - soon over.

Some of these 45m plays are little gems, and you can generally tell which ones are best by seeing who wrote them. The late Don Taylor, Don Haworth, Moya O'Shea, Guy Meredith, Judy Upton, and so on - all of these people write good original radio plays. But although they are often superb, they do not have mass-market appeal, and are never made available commercially by the Beeb.

Do you include light comedy-drama serials and series in a definition of "drama"? Series etc. like "King Street Junior", the Simon Brett series (several of them), the Mark Taverner serials (In the Red, Higher Tables, Lower Orders), etc attract big audiences.

The Sherlock Holmes series attract big audiences too. Examine the current BBC Collection (I don't have a list to hand, but it's not difficult to locate) ........ the dramas which have been made available commercially by the Beeb are the ones which have the biggest mass appeal. Adaptations of classic serials, Holmes, Middlemarch, Lord of the Rings, and so on.

Historical - well, there's docu-drama, biography, ancient history, not so ancient history........and then the fictional versions of all of these. Recent history is well appreciated - we've had plays about Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb designer (a beautifully written play), submarine disasters (Thetis, etc), airship disasters...if that's what you mean by history, then I think it's very well-received.

Domestic drama is fine if it's well written, but it can be intolerably dull, and audiences have less patience with it.

Ethical - I don't think most afternoon play listeners want to be preached at, but ethical dilemnas - these are interesting for smallish audiences who are sitting and listening; less easy if you're hoovering.

Comic - yes, usually well received. Especially if there's a good cast. Bernard Cribbins, Bill Wallis, those chaps out of "last of the summer wine" , Mike Mears - they are the experts at this sort of play.

Classic - I don't like these very much, so am not really the person to ask.

Does the BBC produce what listeners want? Well, there is a very vocal minority which wants the return of 90-minute plays; these give more opportunity for plot development and interest. But I guess we don't have too much to grumble about - there's one 90m serious play on R3 each week, 4 or 5 new 45m afternoon plays in the afternoons, a serious one hour play on Fri nights, an adventure/thriller type 60m play on Saturday afternoons, and a few 90-minuters (sometimes split into two and put out on adjacent days) on special occasions.

One of the problems is that you can't tailor the supply very accurately to the demand. There are not many geniuses around, and most radio plays by definition are pretty average. The number of really outstanding stories is limited. But we have BBC7, and they are putting out a few better things from the past, which is a real treat, from time to time (e.g.Sword of Honour, by E. Waugh). And the number of collectors of plays seems to be growing rapidly - or perhaps they're just coming out of the woodwork. Tape swapping is on the increase.

Most people want good stories, well-told, with good casts, a decent length if it's in the evening (60-90m); shorter if it's in the afternoon. It doesn't matter whether it's a radio original or an adaptation from a novel. Some of the best radio ever has been dramatisation - e.g. Duncan Kyle's "King's Commissar", dram. by Neville Teller - or "The Sword in the Stone" by T.H.White- another Teller dramatisation. And don't forget the role of the producer. A good story can be wrecked by poor casting or realisation.

What we don't want are preachy plays, bad casting, shouting (as a substitute for a plot), screeching tyres, tales of woe. There have been some pretty poor offerings this year - I remember three plays about sculptors about two months ago. These were quasi-biographical, but as soon as the play built up any atmosphere, an expert butted in to explain what was going on..... then we had a bit more action, followed by another expert interruption, and so it went on.

However, you cannot blame the playwright for producing this material if it's what the commissioning editor asks for. Even the best writers have to do it from time to time under the current BBC regime, and it's a big achievement to get a broadcast. There is a place for programmes about art, with dramatised illustrations, but it's not the drama slot.

I seem to have wandered a bit from "90-minute plays" ... anyway, Clive, I hope these ramblings are of some interest. And yes, I think a 90-minute evening play, once a week, would be a very welcome addition to the Radio 4 schedules. I'd vote for it.

Nigel Deacon / 2006 / Diversity website

Back to top

Radio Plays
Wine Making
Cosby Methodist Church
Gokart Racing
Links to other sites
Contact Us