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The richness of radio drama.

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 20:56 UK Time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

thewire.jpgOn Tuesday night I saw the National Theatre's terrific production of Wole Soyinka's Death and The King's Horseman. I left the theatre buzzing but on the way home I did my usual scan through the theatre programme for radio credits. Full marks to Claire Benedict - she was superb on stage AND in the programme, listing a number of radio drama productions in her profile. Not such a great score for Rufus Norris I'm afraid. His direction was exhilarating but what a disappointing profile in the programme! This records his triumphant production of Festen 'at the Almeida, in the West End and on Broadway', but makes no mention of his adaptation for Radio 3. OK - I won't hold a grudge - I don't think Rufus Norris or the cast will have actually written the programme notes themselves - space is limited and actors and directors have diverse CVs. But it's a symptom of the way radio drama, though appreciated by thousands of listeners, can have a surprisingly low profile in the wider cultural world.

Throughout the year we broadcast a mix of new writing, classic stage plays and adaptations. Add Radio 4 and it's a huge commitment to new interpretations of classic works and new writing, so sometimes frustrating that radio drama gets so little press attention. A striking new play at London's tiny Bush theatre will attract reviews across the national broadsheets. Vastly larger audiences will hear a new work on radio and yet it will often be overlooked save for the valiant efforts of radio critics.

The richness of radio drama is on my mind as I've spent much of this week talking to drama producers about their ideas for the 40-odd works we'll commission this year. The commissioning round has just opened and it's always a thrill to meet so many creative producers and writers. In a few weeks the boxes of scripts will arrive, daunting in their number, along with the proposals that exist only as a few paragraphs ready to grow to full length dramas once commissioned.

Perhaps we just need to shout about it more. Here goes, anyway. This Sunday on Radio 3 we've a brand new play from American playwright Richard Nelson, Hyde Park-on-Hudson. I've just listened to the brief introduction he's recorded. I'm ambivalent about lengthy introductions on radio but here I think it serves like a theatre programme to give a little context - but I'd love to know what you think. Then we've a new adaptation by Glyn Maxwell of Dostoevsky's The Gambler. It's got a glorious performance by Patricia Routledge as the wealthy Aunt refusing to die. Later in the month there's a chance to hear a radio adaptation of the Traverse theatre's production of Fall by Zinnie Harris. Though it was first staged at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe very few people around the UK will have had a chance to see it. It's just one example of the way radio drama can reach audiences other productions may never reach.

Abigail Appleton is Head of Speech Programmes and Presentation at BBC Radio 3


  • Comment number 1.

    Keep up the good work, Abigail. I am delighted to see you so stimulated by great drama. So are we! Cheers! c.

  • Comment number 2.


    On your point about introductions to radio dramas, I think there is often too little information available and an introduction/context to a play is welcome (I know poets often say if a poem has to be explained it's a failure but ...), say 5 minutes. Where a classic play is representative of an era or school, a feature would be interesting now and again too.

    Radio drama is a bit special and the huge amount that Radio 4 produces must mean that there's still an audience for it. One thing I think hasn't always worked 100% has been transferring experimental drama to Radio 3. Often on stage there are special effects, lighting and other visual techniques - spectacle which is an important part of the production. On radio the loss makes for a show which seems somehow 'lacking' even if the listener isn't quite sure why. Probably a bit disappointing, but not necessarily worth abandoning all attempts.

  • Comment number 3.

    Agreed, french frank. Stage drama and radio drama are different and too often too little thought is put into "translating" from one medium to the other. This is especially the case with "experimental" stage drama where the listener is quite often just left lost.

  • Comment number 4.

    What I would add to my point is that a couple of times I've listened to the play and then looked up a review of the stage version (as AA says, there's seldom a review of the radio play - though occasionally one might be flagged up in advance by a critic). I've been struck that visual features have figured prominently in the reviewer's write-up. I think there have been two such plays, one of which was possibly the last (?) one by the Théâtre de Complicité. Sorry, nothing more precise comes to mind.

    I expect the production teams are well aware of this :o)

  • Comment number 5.

    I disagee with french frank. Radio 3 listeners should be prepared to jump into the deep end of contemporary drama, without relying on some didactic introduction. Good radio drama producers should, in communicating the drama, Abigail, make such didactism unnecessary.

  • Comment number 6.



    Five syllables are always a struggle for kleines c, although Radio 3 listeners, in general, a more than up to the challenge.


  • Comment number 7.

    I suppose it depends who is going to say what sort of thing: I wasn't thinking in terms of a preparatory English lesson. And if the introduction is billed as, say, 19.55-20.00 the people who disdain the waterwings can plunge straight in at 8pm as the play begins :-)

    It's for the producer to decide the individual case (and preferably not the playwright). 'Interesting' is just as valid as 'useful' or 'indispensable'.

  • Comment number 8.

    I guess that it would be more intelligent radio than a trail, which for regular listeners, tends to become more of a trial, french frank. Cheers (brunch)!


  • Comment number 9.

    Many thanks for your comments on the blog. I certainly want to avoid overly didactic introductions but we'll experiment with different approaches. In the long run, for example, I'd like to be able to put more context around some of the dramas on the web pages, particularly the classics, which listeners could look at before after listening as they pleased. It's a choice we often have in other areas of cultural life. I've just bought an edition of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier with a substantial introduction. I found the first few paragraphs offered some useful signposts but have decided I'll go back for the detail once I've read the novel. Of course, another day, I might simply have plunged right in as kleines c recommends for drama.

  • Comment number 10.

    To be honest, I didn't think that Richard Nelson's introduction added anything essential (or even rivetingly interesting!) so, again, it depends who says what. More info on the website would be very welcome.

    I quite agree about book intros: sometimes I don't feel in the mood to read them - they can be very lengthy - but then, I usually have some idea about the novel beforehand. That's why I will have bought it. I frequently go back to the introductions, sometimes years later.

    Since you mention FMF, I think Parade's End did a darn good job of reducing the four books to a single play. Has Radio 3 not done The Good Soldier? (Or am I thinking of The Good Soldier Schweik?) .... :o)

  • Comment number 11.

    I meant, of course, that Radio 3 did a darn good job of Parade's End.


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