Radio 2 pairs rock and roll with drama

Fiona Macrae, Hannah Arterton and Samantha Robinson Girl band: Fiona Macrae, Hannah Arterton and Samantha Robinson

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The pilot episode of a groundbreaking Radio 2 music drama inspired by the 80s music scene will be broadcast on Tuesday evening.

Shout to the Top, named after The Style Council hit, follows the story of a three-piece, female guitar band with big ambition and has been produced in-house in a unique collaboration between Radio 2 and BBC Drama.

The hour-long play, which is 40% music, is the idea of the station's head of music, Jeff Smith, who enjoyed TV shows such as Rock Follies in the 1970s and the more contemporary US-made Glee, and saw an opportunity to make a successful transfer of the music-comedy-drama format to radio.

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Bands like Elastica and Lush never quite got the breaks 20 years ago in the way that say, Coldplay did later on. The girl bands were pop bands.”

End Quote Jeff Smith Head of Music, Radio 2

Smith produced the Evening Session on Radio 1 during the time which Shout to the Top is set in, and categorises the era as recent-enough history musically, which means programme-makers haven't yet begun to revisit it.

"There was some brilliant music," he says.

"But bands like Elastica and Lush never quite got the breaks 20 years ago in the way that say, Coldplay did later on. The girl bands were pop bands.

"My idea was to think what it might have been like if the more cult-ish bands with female guitarists had become really big."

Clash of culture

Putting together a convincing cast and credible writing team was part of the challenge.

EastEnders' Shane Richie has a key role and Hannah Arterton, Fiona Macrae and Samantha Robinson - chosen for their singing as well as acting performances - play the band members.

Writers Roy Boulter and Louise Wener both have a background in the music business. Boulter was the drummer with The Farm and Wener fronted Sleeper, which did well in the 1990s.

"If the script is about a number one hit and that number one hit is an original piece of music, it's got to be really good or the audience won't buy into it," points out Toby Swift, the programme's director.

"You're setting yourselves up really, especially as listeners only get to hear the song once."

He's confident the fictional Velveteens are really good, and says it's remarkable how the three individual actors immediately felt they were part of real band.

Swift is the London-based editor of BBC Drama, which usually makes programmes for Radio 3 and Radio 4. Having what he terms a "new space to play in" was exciting for his team, though he acknowledges there was a certain clash of culture, when drama met rock'n'roll.

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The language of our departments is different and we had to re-calibrate. Normally we're trying to push the narrative forward all the time. In Shout to the Top we had to find a way to stop for the songs.”

End Quote Toby Swift Shout to the Top director

"The language of our departments is different and we had to re-calibrate," he says.

"Normally we're trying to push the narrative forward all the time. In Shout to the Top we had to find a way to stop for the songs. They're like little ad-breaks really - although far more natural and relevant to the plot."

iPlayer link

Short vignettes of the play, which contains plenty of covers from the Britpop era as well as the new songs, will run on Ken Bruce's show at the beginning of the week, before the Tuesday transmission.

The clips will continue on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to entice potential listeners to iPlayer.

Last April, Radio 2 broadcast a live re-enactment of the sinking of the Titanic, produced in the style of an unfolding news story, set to a soundtrack of songs the band famously continued to play as the ship went down.

This aside, drama hasn't featured prominently on the station since the soap Waggoners Walk ended in 1980.

Smith hopes his drama will prove to be a first episode rather than a one-off.

"The pilot establishes the band, but there's definitely scope for a series," he says.

"It's designed for a mainstream Radio 2 audience. There are full music tracks, which you don't tend to hear in drama, and dialogue is sometimes clean and sometimes mixed with the music.

"That gives it real pace. What you'll hear is an hour of genuinely innovative radio."

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