Radio’s renaissance

Ben Dowell

It commissions 150 plays a year, many of which have audiences of up to one million, but Radio 4 is still best known for its current affairs output. Ben Dowell meets two executives determined to raise the profile of drama at the station

BBC Radio 4′s commissioning editor for drama Jeremy Howe was pleased to read critic Michael Billington’s glowing assessment of John McGrath’s play about 1950s national service, Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, at London’s Finborough in May.

“It is a very good play, after all,” Howe, who has been in the post for the past six years, says. “But it is also more than 40 years old and will probably be watched by around 500 people for the whole run.”

Radio 4, on the other hand, deals in a different scale. It commissions 150 single plays a year – easily the largest number in the UK in any medium – including introducing 40 first and second-time writers to radio every year.

Around one million people tune into Radio 4′s afternoon play every weekday – which is, the network estimates, around the same number of people who pay for a ticket to all three of the National Theatre’s auditoria – the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the Cottesloe – every year. That’s quite a statistic.

But when did you last read a national newspaper review of a new radio drama? One that occupied as much space as theatre reviews can in the broadsheet press – like The Guardian’s for the RSC’s Julius Caesar, which was recently on its front page? As Howe asks: “How many column inches do we get?”

Drama’s profile problem is something that the station’s controller Gwyneth Williams is trying to address. She wants it talked about more on her network – so much so that the next year or two will see culture taking a front seat there.

Williams believes that with the recent political, global and economic uncertainties, the emphasis has been on the factual. But now she wants to use arts and culture “to unpick the current affairs agenda”, adding that the focus would be set more squarely on arts and culture in their own right, as well as using them as a tool to “deepen the news agenda”.

“We are in for very much a long haul with this,” she says, promising that her network will become more of a “playground for artists and writers” in the coming months. It is, she admits, an acknowledgement that Radio 4 has in recent years been a little too dominated by an emphasis on news and current affairs.

“There’s a new mood abroad and now feels the right time to put the emphasis on culture on Radio 4,” she says, adding that in a time of low economic growth “people turn to culture. They need nourishment and want pleasure and enjoyment”.

“There is so much wonderful culture on Radio 4 – I just want to highlight it and make it beat louder,” says Williams.

Among the forthcoming big commissions are drama adaptations of Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck novels from the 1960s and 1970s – Beck is seen by many as the first modern European fictional detective. An epic adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles is also due, and in 2014 Radio 4 will undertake what it claims is the biggest ever one-off radio drama commission – Tommies, about the First World War. The as-yet uncast drama will begin in autumn 2014 and follow the trajectory of the conflict in real time, with the final broadcast in autumn 2018, the centenary of the war’s end.

The recent Ulysses drama, in which a whole day was handed to the James Joyce classic to mark its 90th birthday, was another case in point. It was a “big stunt for want of a better word”, says Howe, but the commission also shows how serious Radio 4 is about boosting its profile and harnessing attention. The station also grabbed more than its usual share of column inches with its epic dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s Soviet magnum opus Life and Fate last year.

For Howe these projects prove drama can be an integrated part of the network, where he admits news coverage provides the “spine of the schedule” as well as the spikes in listening figures.

“But I don’t see why Radio 4 cannot be defined by its drama,” he adds, agreeing that while TV can provide “channel-defining faces”, radio is “defined by its content” – like Ulysses, as content rich a project as you could imagine.

“I used to work on television – but I was drawn to radio because of the range and diversity of the content. And audiences love it – the figures have really been sustained over the last few years while in television they are fragmenting,” he says.

Howe believes that deepening the news agenda is not simply about getting more news-based drama commissions, but also getting under the skin of important issues. He cites a recent drama about the French 1950s technocrat Jean Monnet and his work harmonising the French and German coal and steel industries after the Second World War, which was aired recently at a time when the whole idea of the European Union was coming under scrutiny.

“Drama gets into the emotional hinterland in a way that is quite different from news,” Howe says. “It’s about the way we live now.”

In the week we speak, the range of drama on offer at the station includes an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ book Talking it Over, Harriet Wilson’s memoirs, a drama about the Song of Songs, a play by new writer Christine Murphy about a gay Iranian refugee, and another play called Bell in the Ball about blind cricket.

There is no doubt about the breadth and diversity of plays broadcast. But Howe admits that his dramas are “slightly unsung”. Why? Is there too much on? Is it because much of it – like the 2.15-3pm Afternoon Play – is aired when most people are at work?

Howe says these are factors in radio drama’s relatively low profile. But he is also mindful of the fact that the more competitive TV and bigger publicity departments “shout louder” for attention. He is also puzzled at the way radio drama is spoken of as a generic whole – as either very good or something less good.

“The fact is we do a lot of things that are very good, some not so good. You wouldn’t say films are rubbish, so I don’t quite understand the way we are spoken about,” he says.

Williams, for her part, believes that radio drama has “come into its own at the moment”.

She says Ulysses was “wonderful, sensuous and full of life” and does not have much truck with those who criticised it for being too episodic.

“Who would want to read it in a sitting?” she says of the experience, which she believes “opened up this magnificent book to people who hadn’t read it”.

“Ever since I got the job [of Radio 4 controller in 2010], news has been ubiquitous and of course I am proud of the way we do it on Radio 4. But the arts can help you want to understand why and how things happen with a lot more depth,” she says, adding: “A proper mix is, well, I don’t want to sound too pretentious, it is about what it is to be human and to live in a civilised society.”

The next few years may just be a really good time to be making radio drama, then.

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