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Sounds amazing: how audio drama is thriving in the digital age

Lockdown Theatre Festival: Love, Love, Love; Shoe Lady; The Mikvah Project; Rockets and Blue Lights. Photos: Helen Maybanks/Manuel Harlan/The Other Richard/Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Lockdown Theatre Festival: Love, Love, Love; Shoe Lady; The Mikvah Project; Rockets and Blue Lights. Photos: Helen Maybanks/Manuel Harlan/The Other Richard/Brinkhoff Moegenburg

While streamed performances have proved hugely popular during lockdown, there has also been a resurgence in audio drama, a form that is reinventing itself. As Audible continues to make high-profile plays available and ahead of a new festival on BBC Radio, Fergus Morgan charts the development of radio drama over the past century


Bertie Carvel has been busy during the coronavirus lockdown. Not only has he become a dad for the first time – his wife, the actor Sally Scott, recently gave birth to a baby boy, who restlessly gurgles away throughout our conversation – but the Olivier-winning actor has also founded a new festival of audio drama, set to launch on BBC Radio in June.

“When the theatres closed, there was all this beautiful, important work that suddenly stopped,” Carvel says. “Productions that had been developed and rehearsed and worked on by actors and directors and creative teams for months. We couldn’t let all that work go to waste. I thought we had to do something.”

Carvel did something. He emailed every artistic director he knew. He contacted BBC Radio. He teamed up with independent production company Reduced Listening and veteran radio producer Jeremy Mortimer. The result is the Lockdown Theatre Festival – a collection of prematurely closed shows, acted by the same casts, but repurposed and repackaged to be broadcast over the airwaves instead of performed on stage.

It was a practical challenge to produce. Sterilised studio kits had to be sent to every actor, together with a crash course in how to use them. Zoom performances with whole casts would then be set up with each performer recording their own lines and Mortimer and his team subsequently syncing them and stitching them into one show.

The complexity of working like this compared with recording a regular audio drama, Mortimer says, is “like flying Concorde compared to driving a Mini”.

‘We couldn’t let all this beautiful, important work go to waste’ – Bertie Carvel, founder of the Lockdown Theatre Festival

The Lockdown Theatre Festival starts over the weekend of June 13 and 14, when BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 will broadcast four plays whose runs were cut short by coronavirus – Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love (from the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre), Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights (from Manchester’s Royal Exchange), Josh Azouz’s The Mikvah Project (from the Orange Tree Theatre), and EV Crowe’s Shoe Lady (from London’s Royal Court).

Carvel hopes that is just the beginning, though.

“My pipe dream is for every show that was cancelled to find a new home at the festival,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be amazing? Because we are not just making some little radio plays in response to coronavirus. We are taking fully rehearsed stage productions and preserving the integrity and the spirit of them, with all their depth of characterisation and understanding of the text. And that is very rare on the radio, these days.”

The Lockdown Theatre Festival is one of several similar initiatives that have sprung up in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. There’s also The Understudy, an audio adaptation of David Nicholls’ novel produced by Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre and starring Stephen Fry. And there’s a radio version of David Greig’s Adventures with the Painted People, which was set to have its world premiere at Pitlochry Festival Theatre this summer.

Hampstead Theatre associate company the Mono Box has launched The Monologue Library, an online collection of audio recordings featuring famous actors reciting their favourite theatrical speeches.

And all that is in addition to the hours and hours of content already available online and over the airwaves. Just as the coronavirus crisis has stimulated a surge of digital theatre on our screens, it has also sparked a wave of theatre via our headphones, the latest, unexpected development in an audio drama landscape already undergoing seismic shifts.

Early days of radio drama

Audio drama, for decades and decades, meant BBC Radio drama. The Corporation was founded in October 1922 and broadcast its first scene – an extract from Julius Caesar – in February 1923. From there it went pretty much unchallenged in the field until the 21st century.

“In the early days, radio drama really meant the classics,” says Hugh Chignell, media historian and author of British Radio Drama, 1945-1963. “Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare. If there was a production of a classic play on the London stage, the BBC would often bring the cast in and broadcast it live with the original cast.”

Gradually, the BBC began to produce original plays written specifically for radio. In 1939, with war looming and the drama department under the pioneering leadership of Val Gielgud (brother of John), the Radio Drama Company was formed, creating a rotating in-house cast of actors that still survives today. It was with these actors in the post-war period, on the newly created Third Programme, that the medium had its heyday.

“There is a general consensus that the 1950s was a golden era for radio drama,” says Chignell. “It was before television drama had taken off and you had these daring writers like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter writing real masterpieces specifically for the radio. Really interesting, incredibly bold work.”

Much of that work is still available. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, first broadcast in 1954 with Richard Burton, is on YouTube. So too is the original 1957 recording of Beckett’s All That Fall, perhaps the defining piece of audio drama from the period. Another classic – the 1959 broadcast of Pinter’s A Slight Ache – isn’t, but subsequent productions are.

That zenith came and went. The Home Service became Radio 4 and the Third Programme became Radio 3. The Archers, which first aired in 1951, rumbled relentlessly on, but despite the occasional highlight – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978, The Lord of The Rings three years later, Tom Stoppard’s In the Native State in 1991 – radio drama rarely caught the public imagination.

“There came a point when the BBC was producing very bread-and-butter drama,” says Chignell. “It was churning it out to fill the hours in the schedule. Somebody once wrote that the Afternoon Play was ‘programming to hoover to’, and they were right, really.”

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Actor Bertie Carvel founded the Lockdown Theatre Festival, to be broadcast on BBC Radio later this month
Actor Bertie Carvel founded the Lockdown Theatre Festival, to be broadcast on BBC Radio later this month

Reinvigoration and competition

The prophecy made by WH Auden in the 1960s that the rise of television rendered radio drama a “dying art” seemed to be slowly but surely coming true. But then came the internet and a decade or so later, a whole new way of releasing and consuming audio drama was developed.

Until the late 2000s, apart from a brief period in the 1970s and 1980s when audio drama also existed on nascent commercial radio, the BBC had essentially zero competition in the field. Now, though, says Mortimer, the producer of Lockdown Theatre Festival and a man who worked in pretty much every position in BBC Radio Drama during the three decades he spent there, it does.

“One of the greatest problems at the BBC is that there was never any competition when it came to radio drama, so there was never any impetus to improve,” he says. “It’s only really in the last five years that the concept of scripted audio fiction has begun to take off elsewhere. There is competition now in a way that there hasn’t been for decades.”

Carvel is right when he points out that hearing a rehearsed stage production as an audio adaptation on the radio is rare these days. It is more common to find episodic audiobooks, modest two-handers, or classic plays performed by august actors. However, Audible, the audiobook giant founded by journalist Don Katz in 1995 and bought by Amazon for $300 million in 2008, is one company taking fully fledged drama straight from the stage. It is the company most obviously vying for the BBC’s crown.

Audible has acclaimed one-woman plays including Girls and Boys, starring Carey Mulligan, and Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, performed by Sophie Melville. Also in its catalogue is Sam Shepard’s True West, with Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn reprising their West End roles. And then there’s a seven-hour audio adaptation of the National Theatre’s Olivier award-winning revival of Angels in America and soon an audio version of Dael Orlandersmith’s Fringe First-winning Until the Flood.

‘There is an incredible appetite for democratising theatre and making it accessible’ – Kate Navin, Audible

In recent years, Audible has been getting increasingly involved in the theatre world. In 2017, the company launched a $5 million fund dedicated to creating original drama, commissioning more than 25 emerging writers including Charlotte Josephine, Elinor Cook, Gary McNair and James Fritz to write audio plays exclusive to its platform.

It has even branched out into producing live theatre on both sides of the Atlantic – at the Minetta Lane Theatre and on Broadway in New York, at the Barbican and the Arcola Theatre in London, and at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Audio versions of these plays, including Jake Gyllenhaal in Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall and Lisa Dwan in Colm Tóibín’s Pale Sister, are available online, or soon will be, as is a collection of hit plays from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

“We’ve learned that there is an incredible appetite – and need – for democratising theatre and making it accessible to listeners who may not live in traditional theatre hubs like New York City and London,” says Kate Navin, Audible’s artistic director for theatre. “It’s been really exciting to see our members engage with new voices and new storytelling in this way.”

Audible has responded to the coronavirus crisis in a similar way to the BBC, too. It has partnered with the Williamstown Theatre Festival to create audio versions of all seven of the festival’s cancelled shows – including a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Bobby Cannavale and Audra McDonald – and Navin says that the company is hoping to release more “paused” productions as audio dramas soon.

But Audible isn’t the only other game in town. Just as tech companies followed one another to establish their own podcast platforms – Audible Podcasts, Spotify Podcasts and Google Podcasts all aped Apple’s original app – they are all following each down the road of audio drama as well. Last year, Spotify acquired Gimlet Media, the podcast producer behind 2016’s hit David Schwimmer-starring audio drama Homecoming, for $230 million.

Audible has released audio versions of West End and Broadway productions
Audible has released audio versions of West End and Broadway productions
Kate Navin, Audible’s artistic director for theatre
Kate Navin, Audible’s artistic director for theatre

A new generation of audio content

Audible, Spotify-backed Gimlet, and companies like them, have two big advantages over the BBC when it comes to producing audio drama. The first is obvious: money. They have deep, deep pockets that can afford the biggest names and the biggest shows. The second is that, unlike the BBC, they are free from the responsibilities of state broadcasting – the scheduling slots and the budgetary constraints – and that, according to Chignell, allows for more a more dynamic approach to audio drama production.

“It will probably prove very difficult for the BBC to keep up because companies like Audible are just so much better at innovating,” he says. “They are capable of responding much more quickly to audience needs, whereas the BBC is much more of an institution. It has salaries to pay and slots to fill. It has a way of doing things.”

Whereas traditional BBC radio drama was made to be broadcast on a specific day at a specific time – to fill a particular programming slot in a particular schedule – this new wave of audio content is designed to be listened to whenever and wherever. And just as it breaks the boundaries of time and place, it breaks the boundaries of genre; as megahit mystery podcasts like Dirty John and – the one that started it all – Serial proved, audio storytelling can take many forms.

“The really strong scripted fiction coming mainly out of the US is showing that there are other ways of doing drama than the classic BBC way,” says Mortimer. “The BBC is caught in a hard place between the demands of satisfying a rolling schedule of broadcasts and an audience that tunes in for certain things at certain times on the one hand, and trying to meet the demands of a generation that are much more interested in discovering their own content and listening to it in their own time on the other.

“Trying to satisfy the conflicting demands of those two groups of listeners is a real problem,” he continues. “It’s the same problem the BBC is facing with Netflix when it comes to television. I do believe there is a new wave of really good work coming, but it is not just going to be on the BBC.”

The Whisperer in Darkness on BBC Sounds
The Whisperer in Darkness on BBC Sounds
Alison Hindell, BBC Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama and fiction
Alison Hindell, BBC Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama and fiction

Evolution at the BBC

From this angle, with a range of fleet-footed corporate behemoths and an army of independent producers lined up against it, the BBC’s status as the world’s premier producer of audio drama looks under threat. But the notoriously slow-to-change organisation is, slowly, changing. It stopped doing everything in-house in the 1990s, and innovative independent producers – The Wireless Theatre Company, Goldhawk Productions, Naked Productions – now provide a portion of its content.

The launch of BBC Sounds in 2018 was a significant moment – a technological marking of territory that the institution has long held – and it has has a string of successes: Julian Simpson’s imaginative HP Lovecraft adaptation The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and its sequel The Whisperer in Darkness; John Dryden’s ongoing fantasy epic Tumanbay; and Helena Merrimen’s Tunnel 29, an ambitious Cold War amalgam of drama, archive news and reporting that Mortimer says “brings different things together in a way the BBC just hasn’t done in the past”.

Alongside these digital frontiers, BBC Radio is still producing new drama, week in, week out, all year round, with three regular slots on Radio 4 (15 Minute Drama and the Afternoon Play on Radio 4 every weekday, the Saturday Drama on Radio 4 every Saturday, and Drama on 3 on Radio 3 every Sunday), plus, of course, The Archers. Hours and hours of free content that has nurtured many writing and acting careers.

‘With the licence fee, we are able to provide drama free at the point of use’ – Alison Hindell, BBC Radio 4

“The scale and ambition with which we are able to tackle audio drama at the BBC is significant and I don’t think yet rivalled,” says Alison Hindell, BBC Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama and fiction. “And of course, with the amazing benefit of the licence fee, we are able to provide our drama free at the point of use.”

In fact, Hindell welcomes the challenges posed by other companies’ rapidly increasing interest in audio drama.

“I welcome the advent of Audible and all the other companies who are discovering the power and appeal of this genre,” she says. “The more writers and actors can practise their skills, and those skills are very specific in audio, the better for all of us.”

And there is another aspect of BBC Radio’s output to recognise, she adds, one that is not necessarily fulfilled by Audible and its competitors, and one that is particularly crucial during the coronavirus crisis: radio drama’s social function. For many listeners across the country, the plays put out by BBC Radio are the only possible way of going to the theatre, the only time they will be told a story.”

She continues: “It is particularly poignant at the moment to reflect on the companionship that radio offers. Radio 4’s longstanding, loyal audience can depend upon certain things. They can be relied upon to transport the listener away from the real world and into the story. For some, that escapism is a real tonic in the current situation.”

For older generations, BBC Radio still provides an essential service, agrees Mortimer, adding it still fills a gap that Audible will never be able to fill. Carvel concurs – radio’s remarkable potential to unite us when we are apart was at the forefront of his mind when he created the Lockdown Theatre Festival.

“At a time like this, it is obvious why beaming stuff into people’s homes is a social service, but even outside of a global pandemic, that is true,” he says. “My mother died in November, and the way she accessed the world, about which she was endlessly curious, in her final years was through television and radio. Radio is the most incredible medium, and it is important we continue to work in it.”

Ten audio dramas to listen to in lockdown

Under Milk Wood
The 1954 BBC version of Dylan Thomas’ classic poem-play, featuring Richard Burton, is on YouTube.

All That Fall
The original 1957 BBC broadcast of Beckett’s striking, seminal soundscape is also on YouTube.

In the Native State
Tom Stoppard’s 1991 drama, in its original recording with Felicity Kendal and Peggy Ashcroft, is on BBC Sounds for a limited time.

Magnitsky the Musical
Released in January, a satirical musical by Robert Hudson and Johnny Flynn about the remarkable background to the Magnitsky Act legislation, available on BBC Sounds.

Gimlet Media’s first fictional podcast, a psychological thriller series featuring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer, available everywhere.

Angels in America
Audible has six hours and 53 minutes of Tony Kushner’s two-part epic, featuring the acclaimed National Theatre cast of Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and more.

Iphigenia in Splott
Sophie Melville performs Gary Owen’s short, sharp and unforgettable one-woman play, also on Audible. Lockdown Theatre Festival The first four cancelled plays of Bertie Carvel’s festival are on BBC Radio 3 and 4 in early June, then available on BBC Sounds.

The Monologue Library
Short, sharp and superb theatrical speeches recorded by famous actors for the Mono Box.

The Understudy
A new adaptation of David Nicholls’ novel, featuring Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey, Sheila Atim and more. Produced by Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, the show is raising money for theatre charities.

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