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Reflecting on the BBC Audio Drama Awards

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Alison Hindell | 13:30 PM, Monday, 30 January 2012

Richard Burton and Douglas Cleverdon

The 1963 production of Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton with Producer Douglas Cleverdon

The BBC will be 90 years old this November and that feels like a good moment to be celebrating one of the longest-lived programming genres with the first ever BBC Audio Drama Awards.

In the UK, drama has been on-air since the earliest days of BBC radio (from February 1923), initially with extracts from plays by Shakespeare, then plays for children and the first original play written specially for this new medium was Danger by Richard Hughes in 1924. Set in a coalmine after a cave-in, the characters had to communicate in the dark without sight of each other, a situation, it was felt, that reflected the particularity of this new medium - the dark, that is, not the disaster.

The presence of drama programming quickly caught listeners' attention and comments: as early as the late 1920s came letters complaining that the sound effects or the background music were too loud - and that is still the case 80 years on!

By the time World War II broke out, drama and comedy were felt to be such necessary contributions to British morale that a group of actors was contracted to 'play as cast' and evacuated for a short time, with other BBC staff, to Evesham in the first months of the war.

This repertory company soon returned to London and became established as the Radio Drama Company (RDC), remaining a constant part of BBC audio drama productions ever since. Hundreds of actors have passed though its ranks including Julian Rhind-Tutt, Emma Fielding, Alex Jennings, as well as Bertie Carvel and Nina Wadia, two of the award-givers at the ceremony on Sunday.

The RDC company members have also been complemented by many, many freelance actors and most showbiz names from the past 80 years have graced the microphones including, just in the last year, Kenneth Branagh, David Warner, Dawn French, Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Irons, Janet Suzman, Ian McKellen and, of course, David Tennant - to name but a few.

The other pillar of the history of audio drama is, of course, the writers.

Vital in launching many careers and nurturing and developing new writers all the time, it's worth mentioning a few names from the honours boards such as Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood is probably the world's most famous radio play), Tom Stoppard, Anthony Minghella, Bryony Lavery, Sue Townsend, Lee Hall, Harold Pinter, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Samuel Beckett, Christopher Hampton, Kwame Kwei-Armah and David Hare.

More recently, Lenny Henry has had his first play commissioned by and broadcast on Radio 4 and Mike Bartlett, now a prolific stage writer, cut several teeth in radio. He's written a blog on these awards, too, on the Society of Authors site.

No survey of the history of audio drama would be complete without a mention of the longest-lasting soap opera in the world, The Archers. Beginning in 1951 as 'an everyday story of country folk' with the aim of delivering agricultural advice and tips to Britain's farmers, it remains firmly at the centre of many listeners' hearts and is heard by 5 million people every week.

Of course, audio drama is not the sole preserve of the BBC. Internationally, there is still a significant presence of the medium on European and other Anglophone public broadcasting organisations, as well as some commercial production (largely non-broadcast these days).

And it's particularly interesting to see, over the last few years, a burgeoning online presence for the form. Often, but not always, short-form, it's fantastic that the power of storytelling through dialogue and sound alone is continuing to fascinate new makers as well as listeners.

So these Audio Drama Awards (hosted and organised by the BBC but not exclusive to BBC broadcasts) are designed to celebrate the talent, effort and achievement of all those individuals who contribute to this very particular and specialised form.

It's been heartening, as we have pulled the event together, how many people on hearing about the plans have responded that it's about time too. For such a prolific genre with such significantly-sized audiences it gets surprisingly little attention and we thought it was time to shout about it.

Alison Hindell is Head of Audio Drama

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