Making Radio Drama - the bad news and the good news


Stephen writes:

At the BBC Audio Drama Awards in January, Claire Grove, who died late last year, was rightly given a posthumous award for her Outstanding Contribution to Radio Drama. I was lucky to work with Claire in radio for over ten years, most recently on the Classic Chandler dramatisations and two original plays about Raymond Chandler’s experiences in Hollywood, Double Jeopardy and Strangers on a Film with Patrick Stewart as Chandler. Claire was a wonderful person to collaborate with. Totally positive, totally focused, totally enthusiastic, totally generous. You’d come out of a session with Claire on a draft of your script totally clear about what needed to be done and totally fired up about getting down to the revisions. But then Claire loved and respected writers and made us all feel very special.

I was also lucky enough to collaborate with her on a book about radio drama, 'So You Want To Write Radio Drama?'. So far as I know this is the only book which represents a genuine collaboration between a writer and a producer / director. Here are some of our thoughts.

Classic Chandler, produced by Claire Grove


Radio drama takes place inside your head, not in front of your eyes. It’s what gives it its wonderful freedom, both for the writer and for the listener, but it’s also why some things you might like to do simply won’t work in radio.

The bad news first

Let’s begin by looking at some of the things radio drama doesn’t do well:

1. Any sort of big lavish spectacle, battle, riot or teeming social event which depends for its effect upon us being able to see and appreciate the scale of what’s happening. Of course, radio can suggest armies on the march, pitched battles, cheering crowds thronging the streets and the ball to end all balls with a few evocative sound effects, but there’s not going to be a gasp of surprise or joy from the audience.

This became clear to us when we were working together on a radio dramatisation of Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair. In any stage, screen or television version of the book, one of the big set pieces is the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. It’s a chance to display aristocratic ladies in beautiful frocks and officers in magnificent military uniforms, descending staircases and dancing beneath chandeliers in a glittering ballroom. We were pretty convinced that this was going to be a key scene in the radio version. But when it came to it, we had a bit of a shock. We realised that there could be music and there could be crowd noises and listeners would know we were at a ball, but there was no way to make it any more impressive than that. Our big scene wasn’t a big scene any more.

2. Linked to this, Hollywood-style car chases are also out. Cinema audiences may gasp as cars nearly collide or race over bridges just before the bridges collapse into the river below. But in radio, this comes down to some car noises and a commentary which would have to spell out what doesn’t need to be spelled out in visual terms (‘Oh no, I can’t believe it… The bridge looks like it’s collapsing… Not sure I’m going to make it!’, etc.).

More seriously, anything which needs a very detailed physical choreography isn’t going to work on radio. The silent sequence in which the hooded stalker pursues the heroine relentlessly through the forest is never going to make an impact on radio. There are other ways of doing it on radio, but not that way.

Related to this is the idea, which may at first seem odd, that scenes involving sex and/or violence are often more disturbing on radio than on film or television. Given only sounds to trigger the imagination, some listeners can draw on their own experience and create mental pictures far more shocking and graphic than was intended or even suggested. Radio doesn’t have the same control as film or television over what is being conveyed in physical terms. Which, again, is both good and bad.

A favourite story on this topic comes from a producer who received a letter about a radio drama she’d worked on from a listener who said she had been so disgusted by what she’d heard that she had had to switch the radio off. The letter ended, slightly plaintively, asking if the producer could tell her what happened next.

3. By and large, radio doesn’t work well if there are more than three people in any given scene. This is basically a matter of how many voices a listener can follow and still keep track of who they are and what they’re saying. Skilful casting, of course, can make characters more distinctive so that listeners will then find it easier to tell the voices apart. But a basic problem remains: without visual information, it’s very difficult to understand a conversation or argument taking place between, say, five or six people.

In a film or theatre, a ‘silent presence’, somebody who is present and says nothing, can be very powerful. The fact that they say nothing can add a real tension to the scene. We are waiting for their intervention, or realise the arguments they’re hearing are totally irrelevant to them.

In radio, there is no magic in a silent presence. Unless the person present is kept in our minds (e.g. ‘But you’ve said nothing for the last five minutes’), then as far as the listeners are concerned, they don’t exist. In any case, too many voices clamouring for attention can only lead to confusion.

Radio is not therefore – to take a silly example – the ideal place for a wedding reception scene in which dozens of people related to the bride and groom erupt into very specific recriminations and punch-ups.

Claire Grove at a question and answer session for Radio 4's Bloomsday in June 2012.

There’s more, inevitably, but let’s move on to –

The good news

To repeat, radio drama takes place inside your head, not in front of your eyes. Which means:

1. As a writer you have a very intimate relationship with the listener. You talk softly into the listener’s ear. There’s no need to shout or lecture. The words you have written will be heard in the same way as the words of a poem. Of course, the actor’s voice interprets – as it does with any oral performance of a poem, even by the author – and the producer and sound engineer choose the sound effects, but there are no visuals to draw the listener away from the words and sounds which the writer has imagined. The communication is therefore much more direct and personal than it can ever be with theatre or television.

2. From both the writer’s and listener’s point of view, this relationship is very precious. At the centre of most of original radio drama is an opportunity for a writer to speak with the voice that is theirs and no one else’s. And the writer’s individual voice is valued in a way which is rare in television There’s a place for this in theatre, of course, but in radio many many more people will be listening to what you have to say.

3. You can set your play anywhere, any time, with a cast of thousands. We’ve already talked about the downside of this: spectacle doesn’t work on radio. But the positive aspect is good news. You want five thousand Egyptians worshipping their Pharaoh before a completed Pyramid? You wish to create one of the battles of the English Civil War or the American War of Independence? You want a polite dinner party swept away by a tidal flood? Or a dog swallowing the whole of North Wales? None of these things present any great problem, particularly given the skills of most sound engineers and their teams.

‘I like radio for the pictures’ is the cliché. But the budgetary restraints upon your imagination really are very minimal. If you can imagine it in terms of words and sound effects then it can be achieved.

But previous cautions do apply. The five thousand Egyptians are just background noise. Where’s your focus? On the Pharaoh and his architect? On one of the slave labourers and his best friend? You can juxtapose the two, of course, but you’re never going to take anybody’s breath away with your recreated Pyramid.

4. Is there any other dramatic medium in which you could quite plausibly choose to make a doughnut your principal character? Or a chair? A picture painted by Rubens? The ghost of a dog?

And if we’re talking human beings, how about a hundred-and-fifty-year-old woman? Or a long-dead Holy Roman Emperor who wants to get out of his tomb and sort out the modern world? Or a hermaphrodite who’s signed up for a course with the Open University on gender politics?

The freedom can sometimes be frightening. Most of us choose to stay closer to home. But it’s still true that in radio drama the world is your oyster. Or indeed an oyster’s world could be your radio play.

Claire Grove's production of Raymond Chandler's Playback, adapted by Stephen Wyatt is BBC Radio 4's Saturday Drama, 8th March at 2.30pm and on BBC iPlayer for 7 days


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