Speaking up for Radio Drama (1999)


With acknowledgement to "Equity Magazine", June, 1999 issue. These are extracts from an article in this journal.

"All is not well at the BBC Radio Drama Company. Once 40 strong, it has been reduced to a core of 6, and the new Radio 4 schedule, drawn up by Controller James Boyle, has attracted criticism of "dumbing down", with claims that radio drama is a casualty. BBC Radio Drama, 75 years old this year, is unique in the world for providing high-quality, diverse drama on radio. The BBC Radio Drama Company continues to gain plaudits, as do long-standing drama serials such as "The Archers", but radio as an intellectually challenging medium is being driven by the same commercial constraints as TV, say the critics. Leading radio actress Miriam Margolyes is quoted as saying "Radio is dying - it has become a news medium", whilst Timothy West has called Radio 4's decision to leave difficult, foreign and longer plays to Radio 3 as "patronising". Chair of Equity's Audio Committee Ted Kelsey summed up the net result of changes to the range of drama produced : "radio's ability to work upon the imagination is limitless and still comparatively cheap. These great advantages seem to have been forgotten"..


Criticism of the reduced role of The BBC Radio Drama Company has been particularly harsh. Margolyes has said how deeply saddened she is that "current heads of Radio feel so little interest in the Company", whilst Martin Jarvis warned "it would be tragic if the only drama associated with Radio was that of the RDC's demise" There are extra actors being used to supplement the RDC's core strength, but, as West points out, these actors are not being employed on a secure long-term basis.


The BBC has risen to the criticisms, Head of Radio Drama Kate Rowland claiming there are 700 hours of new production each year, with 90-minute plays still being broadcast. Shakespeare will be highlighted on R3, D.H. Lawrence on R4. But the BBC's Annual Report shows a 5% decrease in radio drama broadcast since 1997 and the RDCV is a shadow of its former self. In recent months, Jenny Abramsky has acknowledged that drama has not had the money for development, and pledged that the BBC would put more into it.


But some doubt the strength of this promise. Timothy West believes that, whilst the BBC is theoretically committed to radio drama, that commitment has been "modified by signficant changes in management structure, smaller budgets, undue reliance on focus groups".



Although the views expressed in this article could be interpreted as enlightened self-interest, there does seem to be a more general concern at the route radio drama is taking, and I also quote from a piece written by Tim Heald in the 5 August issue of "The Stage"


British Radio Drama used to be a world leader, the BBC Radio Drama Department the Holy Grail for aspiring writers commanding the respect of the country's theatre establishment. There are allegations of the blacklisting of writers, directors and independent production companies, and evidence that "Producer Choice" (John Birt's internal market) has resulted in 5.1 million being siphoned from radio drama production each year from 1998. In the latest BBC Annual Report, there is not one mention of radio drama achievement in the presentation of R4's output................since 1989, there has been a significant decline in BBC funding of new writing in radio drama. Since 1995, when, e.g Len Deighton's "Bomber" appeared, there has been a substantial undermining of core radio drama cultural activity for the purposes of pseudo-market economics in a NHS-style internal market, where economies of scale and the notion of marginal profit are now as important as aesthetic imperatives. And from 1998, radio drama's main carrier, R4, began to concentrate the process of commissioning on the basis of audience figures and research..............programming selection depended on sustaining existing audience size, increasing ABC1 listeners, preventing loss of audience though ageing and, where possible, achieving audience growth. Editorial independence and commissioning power was taken away from Producers, all programming slots had to be bid for by a selected panel of approved suppliers.


Another important factor in any decision to commission has been the ability of a radio drama production to generate additional income through merchandising in the cassette, book, TV and multimedia...........applying the capitalist dynamo has the effect of keeping innovative production as cheap as possible............innovation tends to be in the short form of programming content, monologues and low-cast productions have increased...........the proportion of new writing and newly-commissioned radio texts has declined vis--vis dramatised literature or adaptations of film and theatre scripts, a trend which substantially reduces the costs of paying original writers and engaging producers with the dramaturgy of working with writers to develop an original script to completion and suitability for production.


The directives to new writers on unsolicited scripts in 1998 in a combined TV and Radio New Writing Initiative contained excluding parameters rather than inclusive encouragement............in 1999, funding for new writers is in terms of tens of thousands of pounds, in 1989 it was hundreds of thousands, and the overall budget probably exceeded 1m. The reduction in radio drama lengths at BBC R4 to an hour or less means that the opportunity to write feature film-length stories of 90 minutes or more has declined. There is also evidence of a growing lack of enthusiasm from first-time and established writers to consider writing for the medium.


In a limited survey I conducted, one well-established writer informed me : "3 years ago, they asked you to offer them a page of A4 pitching instead of the finished play. 2 years ago, they asked you to offer one paragraph of pitching, 1 year ago they asked you for one line. I no longer want to consider producing anything for an organisation that commissions the production of plays on the basis of one line"


Subsequent investigation showed that the "one line" request, at least in relation to radio drama, had been somewhat apocryphal, but it was confirmed that writers had been invited to submit ideas for plays in a single paragraph. There is no doubt, on the basis of this limited survey, that morale over the BBC's policy on commissioning new and established writers is extremely low. There is also a palpable sense of fear of blacklisting from writers who did not wish to be quoted 'on the record'. Similar views have been expressed to me by professional freelance Directors and Executives in several well-established independent production companies. The result, in 1999, is a crisis for radio drama and a challenge to the New D-G, Greg Dyke, to reverse the decline.


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