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Decommissioning the Friday Play

Friday 19 March 2010, 15:33

Mark Damazer Mark Damazer

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David Hare and David Tennant

Drama on BBC Radio 4 is in rude health. The network continues to be the biggest commissioner of original dramas in the UK with 650 hours of drama and readings this year alone. Recent plays illustrate the breadth and ambition of our output: David Hare's Murder in Samarkand, starring David Tennant; Lenny Henry's Othello; and the entire le Carré Smiley series, featuring Simon Russell Beale. We continue to attract the best writers and performers to work on the network.

However, there has been some publicity recently about the decommissioning of the Friday Play. Let me fill in the background. We used to commission 32 fresh plays a year for 9pm on Fridays. The other 20 weeks were repeats of earlier Friday plays. But while our aim is always to offer original drama of the highest quality, we work to a budget and sometimes have to make difficult decisions about where to invest. Rather than spread the budget more thinly over all our drama strands I decided to decommission a single strand - the Friday Play. This will enable us to maintain investment in the quality of the hundreds of plays we broadcast elsewhere across the network. The Friday Play was reduced to 12 new plays last year, before being decommissioned this year.

The thinking behind this being that not only does the Friday Play have the smallest drama audience, but that the best plays we commissioned for the Friday Play strand will also find a home elsewhere, whether on Saturday afternoons or on weekday afternoons. We will continue to commission challenging scripts that examine difficult and contemporary realities. Every now and then there may be a theme or a treatment that just won't work in a daytime slot, in which case we will run it on Friday night. It will be a rare occurrence but let us see what transpires. I should add that drama is not disappearing from Friday nights: we will be scheduling a mix of drama repeats and omnibus editions of narrative history series.

Radio 4 remains absolutely committed to original drama. Looking forward to the next few weeks alone you can hear: a new production of Stephen Poliakoff's Playing with Trains; Goldfinger, played by Sir Ian McKellen and supported by an all star cast; and the 1980s season, including three new plays by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, Danny Brocklehurst and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. As a matter of course over the next year there will be nearly 200 single plays. And the opportunities for new writers on the network remain unrivalled - the Afternoon Play alone will premiere the work of around 40 first- and second-time writers for radio next year - some of whom we hope will be the heirs of Stoppard, Pinter, Orton et al...

Mark Damazer is Controller of BBC Radio 4

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    Comment number 1.

    The Friday night play was a necessary alternative to the all-too-short dramatisations heard elsewhere on R4. Was its small audience a result of its placing in the week? Whatever happened to Saturday night plays?

    When R4 suffered its "overhaul" some years ago, nearly all plays (and other programmes) were forced into hourly news-friendly slots, seriously damaging the impact of many. I find it hard to believe that longer plays are less economical to produce than the truncated plays offered ever since.

    Scripted radio drama, comedy and features are by far the most important elements of R4, making the station probably unique in broadcasting. Whittling away at the time devoted to full-length and innovative drama is, I think, a weak response to the general crisis affecting the country and the BBC.

    Maybe a few pay cuts "up top" would pay for more plays, and feed a few more writers and actors!

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    Comment number 2.

    Oh dear, yet more proof of the dumbing down of a once great radio station, couldn't you have just scrapped all your so called comedy (especially the "Now Show")?...

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    Comment number 3.

    Perhaps those of you that have commented, or indeed, the blog author, might like to continue this debate on our facebook group
    'Speak up for Radio Drama now!'
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=370813630387&ref=mf

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    Comment number 4.

    Oh yes, as if plays such as The Hanging, Chicago Conspiracy Trial or Walk Right By Me could be broadcast on Saturday afternoon or during the week (tough on those of us who have to work for a living). The majority of scripts in the Saturday afternoon slot comprise: takeoff, cruise and landing [1]: they are shopping plays. The plays cited in sentence 1 are specifically for evening consumption. What about the Friday plays that are sexually explicit or disturbing (e.g. the play about the two women who met via the internet culminating in a murder or the US play about the son who narrates the story of his father’s life as an undertaker – in great detail)? Pinter’s A slight Ache was broadcast in the Friday evening slot relatively recently – impossible to broadcast this in any afternoon slot.

    Why is Radio 4 so hostile to quality drama?

    Notes

    [1] Ms. Caroline Raphael – a former commissioning editor for R4 drama – was always encouraging listeners (via Feedback) to give ‘non-linear’ drama a chance. OK, she should have been ticked off for stealing the language of engineers, but we understood what she meant.

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    Comment number 5.

    #3. At 8:40pm on 19 Mar 2010, rfrankwilson wrote:

    "Perhaps those of you that have commented, or indeed, the blog author, might like to continue this debate on our facebook group" ../spammed URL cut/..

    Why don't youcontinue this debate here...

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    Comment number 6.

    "Why don't you continue this debate here..."
    Fair question. I guess the answer is because I would prefer a better informed debate and I'm not that informed. Those that have joined the group are.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 7.

    #6. At 11:27pm on 19 Mar 2010, rfrankwilson wrote:

    "Those that have joined the group are."

    Well you would say that, after all you want to attract people to 'your' Facebook page...

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    Comment number 8.

    Hi rfrankwilson, Boilerplated is making the point that debate about BBC decisions like this one ought to happen on the BBC web site. This is a valid point - and that's why we provide forums like this and ask management to explain themselves here - but with approaching half the licence fee-paying population on Facebook it begins to look rather Canute-like to insist that the debate always happens here. I'd be happy to connect to the two forums together, though, and I'll keep an eye on your Facebook group.

    By the way, I notice that BBC radio drama producer and director Jeremy Mortimer (recent work including the brilliant Plantagenet Classic Serial) has posted on your Facebook wall. Jeremy knows his stuff and getting people like him involved in the debate is really important.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

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    Comment number 9.

    Hi Steve, I understand the point being made although I'm sure you will understand that I cannot accept that "debate about BBC decisions like this one ought to happen on the BBC web site." Isn't that a bit like saying debates about democracy in China should only happen in China? After all, as you point out, Jeremy has posted on 'my' facebook wall, and, so, presumably, he does not subscribe to that view.
    I must add, though, that while I understand boilerplated's viewpoint, the point is rather aggressively made - perhaps that's what happens when you adopt a pseudonym.

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    Comment number 10.

    9. At 4:14pm on 20 Mar 2010, rfrankwilson wrote:

    "perhaps that's what happens when you adopt a pseudonym."


    When all other rational argument fails, attack the messenger...

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    Comment number 11.

    I think the fact that nobody is contributing to this forum now apart from three people says it all.

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    Comment number 12.

    #11. At 00:41am on 21 Mar 2010, rfrankwilson wrote:

    "I think the fact that nobody is contributing to this forum now apart from three people says it all."

    No thanks to you, and your thinly disguised personal abuse, enough to scare off all but the hardened troll hunters...

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    Comment number 13.

    This is a failure of nerve, of ambition, of distinctiveness, and vision. The signal you send to the world is that you, and the wider BBC, are in retreat.

    I understand little of the rationale behind Alison Hindell's move back to Wales, but from an outsider's point of view, it does rather smack of her being, ahem, 'put out to pasture'. The fact that you are dispensing with her Head of Drama post, and will submerge drama into the documentary area, displays a lack of direction for drama, and leads one to feel it is merely limping along on a shoestring without a clear Radio 4 vision. The World Service has had its drama cut. All these things add up to paint a picture of the current state of radio drama. It is not as you suggest, despite the excellence of many of its offerings, a picture of rude health.

    Notwithstanding your gamble that you could get away with the Radio 4 changes before the Strategy Review was announced, the termination of the Friday Play is deliberately flouting the BBC's newfound concentration on its five editorial principles, the third of which includes "ambitious UK drama". Of all the drama slots, the Friday Play slot ("Original new writing. Contemporary, ambitious work from established writers and writers new to the medium of radio.") was the one that allowed you to keep a valid and consistent claim on 'ambitious', but without the Friday Play, I feel you're either throwing in the towel or declaring a disinterest. It will mean that we can kiss goodbye to Radio 4 dramas considered to be a bit too edgy or adult for a daytime slot. Yes, there have been some duffers (but what strand of any kind is immune to that?), but where will the next Sony Award winners like No Background Music and What I Heard About Iraq come from if you are axeing the strand? Your offer of an occasional 'every now and then' production is of little comfort. As Gillian Reynolds observes: "What is universally agreed is that excellence is occasional and only comes from a critical mass of constant production."

    I'm surprised you lowered yourself to talk about ratings, but you should perhaps have admitted two of the causes of the Friday Play having the lowest drama ratings (450k?) is it being given no publicity and you hammering its slot over the last few years with compilation repeats of daytime documentary content. It is evident the slot has irritated you for a number of years. If you are to axe content on a populist basis, please have the decency of making such an argument transparent by comparing the ratings value with non-drama content. As it is, you have merely confirmed that your cuts target is drama. It is fortunate that Drama on 3 is not in your fiefdom.

    The BBC uses radio drama to groom writing talent for its primary drama target, namely TV. It saddens me the BBC should be cutting back its future pool of talent. Cutting back on radio drama, which costs less than 5% of the TV equivalent, doesn't make sense in a pan-BBC context, whether that context is a resource-counting budget one or a quality-content one. Axeing any radio drama strand is not consistent with Mark Thompson's wish to "ensure an uninterrupted flow of investment into high-quality content". By downsizing and downgrading radio drama, you are flying in the face of the BBC's new direction of 'doing more of what we do well'. The BBC is the only significant volume player on the radio drama planet. It is one of the BBC's great, and unique, and most distinctive gifts to the world. And you want to throw that contribution away? Isn't the Friday Play precisely the kind of output that the BBC wants to make more of, rather than less?

    I don't think Steve Bowbrick intended irony when he described drama as Radio 4's "best-kept secret", but it's certainly going to be more of a secret now isn't it?

    Russ

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    Comment number 14.

    For bloggers, here is the concurrent discussion on the BBC message boards:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766771?thread=7361312

    So is radio drama safe in Mark Damazer's hands?

    I don't know! It seems inevitable, with budgets under pressure, that the BBC will show more repeats and less new drama, both on radio and television.

    Does it matter? If the loss of the Friday slot produces better radio drama elsewhere, it could be a smart move. We might be about to see something of an online renaissance.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704240004575085313479028540.html

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    Comment number 15.

    Mark, I've posted your explanation of the decommissioning on the 'Speak up for Radio Drama now! facebook page under discussions. Perhaps you might want to add further comment?

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    Comment number 16.

    I think the drama on Radio 4 is great. I have never considered the Friday Play a "booked seat" affair. I'm often not in the mood for drama at 9 o'clock in the evening, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the series on America, Space and the objects in the British Museum.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    15. At 10:07pm on 22 Mar 2010, rfrankwilson wrote:

    "Mark, I've posted your explanation of the decommissioning on ..//.. [a] facebook page under discussions. Perhaps you might want to add further comment?"

    If he does he should add it here, where you care to paste his comments is between your and your hat siz....

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    The Friday Play has been uniformly awful (and always too long) for as long as one can remember - waiving the Gregory Whitehead/Signorney Weaver work. Good riddance.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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