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Hurrah for adventurous radio feature-making

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 16:51 UK Time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

We've a long interview with Martin Amis coming up in Night Waves next Thursday - the occasion of course is his new novel which is already stirring up debate and I'm looking forward to hearing his conversation with Philip Dodd.

But it was something Martin Amis wrote some time ago that came to my mind earlier this week. It's a short story, and I've not read it for a while, but I remember it inverts to wonderful comic effect the worlds of Hollywood and poetry publishing - so that screenplay writers submit their work to little magazines and poets are flown to Los Angeles first class. It struck me that Amis might have chosen radio feature-makers instead of poets for this absurd reversal of fortunes when on Tuesday night I was listening to independent radio producer Alan Hall introduce the first event from a new organisation - In The Dark.

alan_hall.jpgHe described radio documentary makers as occupying a territory between journalism and art. For those of us that love the crafted radio feature, that's often its great strength but lack of easy categorisation may also contribute to its relatively low profile against other cultural forms plus of course the nature of the medium. In the Dark aims to challenge this and is devoted to celebrating and enriching the culture of radio documentary and claiming a place for it alongside film and TV, photography, journalism and the arts.

It was formed last year by a documentary filmmaker turned radio enthusiast, Nina Garthwaite, who plans a series of public listening events aimed at creating a community of discussion and criticism around radio feature-making. Tuesday's event also marked the beginning of a partnership with the London International Documentary Festival which has inspired her. It was a hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking night packed with radio professionals and listeners from this country and abroad. I was rather relieved it wasn't held completely in the dark but the lights were certainly dimmed low as we sat back to listen whilst looking, someone said afterwards, as if we were all gazing up at an invisible screen watching the programmes in our heads.

Though the main event was 'Mighty Mac' a prize-winning documentary from Ireland's RTE, the evening began with a couple of shorter extracts from seminal programmes including, to launch it all, an extract from Monument - 'The Twist' composed by Ian Gardiner and produced by Alan Hall in 1993. This programme launched Radio 3's Between the Ears series and went on to win a Prix Italia. I admit to having felt rather proud in this international company that Radio 3's longstanding support for adventurous radio features was being acknowledged in this way.

This coming Saturday the latest Between the Ears takes as its theme a moment in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard once described as the most significant sound effect in world drama. Within the programme the theatre director Tom Morris talks about the incredible power of sound in theatre claiming 'the ear is often a freer gateway to the imagination than the eye.' It's a sentiment that would have gone down well at In The Dark.



  • Comment number 1.

    Does this 'documentary feature' cover the range between the Sunday Feature which is usually close to straight reporting (travelling, interviewing people, information) and the Saturday music feature on the one hand, and Between the Ears on the other which is more of an audio artwork?

    I wonder what kind of subjects are being considered (will they find their way on to Radio 3?!).

  • Comment number 2.

    There was a 'Ballad of the Radio Feature' on Radio 4 a couple of years ago, french frank, a hybrid form which can sometimes appear closer to music or poetry than to news reporting.


    I should like to see Radio 3's features closer to music or poetry than the straight reporting which predominates on Radio 4. I guess that 'A History of the World' could be more audio artwork, on occasion, for example.

    Abigail Appleton, too, seems to be wondering what kind of 'adventurous' subjects are being considered 'In The Dark'. This particular blog entry seems to be a call for suggestions. All the best,


  • Comment number 3.

    I was wondering, in a spoilsportish way, whether the key factor isn't the purpose of the documentary. The Essay isn't a documentary, but the style - a voice in the studio with a well-written script, speaking for fifteen minutes - comes over as refreshingly simple, needing nothing else. Sometimes the journalism comes over as too busy and too formulaic:

    a presenter with tape recorder delivers commentary to the microphone
    in the background we hear:
    - screeching birds
    - a car driving past on a gravelly road
    - a voice calling out incomprehensibly ('Oh-ay, oh-ay!')
    presenter, slightly breathless, expresses emotion audibly ('Gosh ... that's incredible!')
    we are taken to meet A Person Who Knows Something
    - questions
    - answers, rustle of papers
    the presenter gives some thoughtful comments

    Is it true that listeners find this style 'interesting', vivid, immediate? I find I'm putting the various features/sounds into categories and the format begins to sound clichéd. How to make it sound new?

    Coming at it from the other side you can start with the sounds and combine them into something coherent. So much imagination needed but also much more freedom.

  • Comment number 4.

    I enjoyed reading 'the information' by martin amis


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