Intro to the UK International
Radio Drama Festival


When I first found out about this event, which takes place each year in Feb or Mar, I was slightly surprised.

Radio drama in Herne Bay? International?

One of the organizers contacted me in 2017, asking if I knew about the festival, and asked if I would like to give it a try.

I couldn't go that year, but in Jan 2018 I was contacted again. I went down to Herne Bay 8 weeks later to see what was going on. A 400 mile round trip by coach and train, but it was a revelation. I'll be there again next year.

The UK International Radio Drama Festival is the creation of the International Arts Partnership, based in Sussex. The festival involves people gathering in small, intimate venues and listening to high-quality radio plays from around the world with occasional interludes for tea, coffee and cake; then for the really keen, meeting in a pub afterwards and talking about them. It lasts for five days, Monday - Friday.

All very civilised and very English; a long way from today’s multi-media onslaught of hi-tech entertainment. If you judge radio drama by the amount of coverage it gets on BBC Arts programmes, you might think it had disappeared. FRONT ROW, the daily Radio 4 Arts programme, happily ignores it. But radio drama is bubbling away in the background all through the year, with audiences of about a million people per day. There are more people listening to radio drama in one week than attend all of the stage plays in the country in a year.

The Archers, Radio 4’s long-running saga of country folk, has an audience of about five million. “The digital age has reinvented radio drama,” said Jonathan Banatvala, Moving Theatre’s artistic director.

For a brief period each year, Herne Bay becomes the centre of the radio drama universe. The usual venues are Pettman House in the High St and Beach Creative gallery in Beach Street. Dramatists from around the world take part and in 2018 there were fifty entries from countries all over the world: UK (both BBC and independent), Belgium, Canada, Australia, Romania, Croatia, Czech Republic, Iran, Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Russia ...

Pettman House, the main listening venue, and a view looking the other way.
(Click the pictures for better photos.)

Inside Pettman House, listening intently.
(Click the pictures for better photos.)

I wondered about the language problem. How can you understand and hear a play in an unfamiliar language?

No problem, they said - you have an English script.

This didn't sound too convincing; I was a bit dubious before trying it ... Anyway, my first experience of it was with a Romanian play, "Ping-Pong". So I grabbed a cup of tea and a slice of cake and sat back in my chair, finger on the script, anticipating difficulties.

Off we went ... the introductory music started, and then the dialogue began. For a line or two I was thrown; then somehow I got synchronised and concentrated on the script. To begin with I followed it line by line, and after about thirty seconds, something extraordinary happened. Suddenly I could hear the characters speaking, and I could follow it all. The language barrier disappeared; it was not going to be a problem. What a surprise! My brain was filling in the gaps; it was very like watching a film with subtitles.

Inside Pettman House, knitting and listening; inside the other venue, Beach Creative (wheelchair access - click the pictures for better photos.)

Now - why has Herne Bay been chosen for the festival, given that the International Arts Partnership is based in East Sussex? Here's Jonathan again:

“We’ve been to events like this in glorious conditions around the world, such as Croatia, Rome and Berlin, but there wasn’t one in the UK. We chose Kent because there is a genuine commitment to the arts here. And Herne Bay is a beautiful, windswept seaside town with lots of cosy places – it’s a celebration of England in winter.”

This account would not be complete without a mention of the social side of the festival. It's great to be able to mix with radio drama specialists, and with those who bridge the gap between drama / feature or drama and the stage: actors, sound techicians, producers and organizers. Meeting in the pub afterwards and having some intelligent conversation with like-minded people is incredibly valuable and often leads to opportunities. Here's a picture of us on the second night.

radio drama discussion in the pub, Herne Bay

I hope we see more of you, next year!


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