Radio 4 Commissioning Guidelines - Spring 2009
Programme type: AFTERNOON PLAY
Tape duration including opening and closing announcements: 44’
What this slot is for
Story Story Story
Take the audience on a journey.
The Afternoon Play is about storytelling. You can do virtually anything in the
Afternoon Play – as long as you are telling the listener a good story.
What we broadcast here
The glory of the slot is its enormous range. Anything and everything goes here:
contemporary and period drama; comedy; biography; issue-driven plays; dramadocumentary;
family plays; crime and thrillers; poetry; romance; fantasy; etc. It can be a play;
or a dramatisation (of short stories, letters, memoirs or non-fiction – but
avoid material we could dramatise elsewhere, eg the Classic Serial) or a dramatised
feature; or a narrative poem; or a sequence of interlinked short plays. Or a play half in French.
But: do you have a good story to tell the Radio 4 audience?
Obviously, we have to work within the constraints of entertaining a large audience
(roughly 750000 per afternoon), but there is no drama slot within broadcasting with
as much editorial latitude as Afternoon Play. Find new ways to tell stories and we
will play it out here. Be imaginative!
Grab the audience at the beginning and keep them guessing and intrigued until the
All series, serials and pilots will be commissioned in the commissioning round.
The volume of Series vs Singles is now about at the right level – roughly 40 of the
190 slots will be series, etc – and of course we are looking for returners (Brief Lives,
No 10, McLevy etc) so the volume of new series will be low.
However we are looking for striking new ideas using series, - ie plays with a selfcontained
storyline with characters who follow through from episode to episode.
More specifically, we want low-format, contemporary, domestically-set series. No
detectives, no hospitals or medicine, no period, please.
We are keen to have either
(i) a returning domestic series that really cuts through (this is the Holy Grail
(ii) the Radio 4 equivalent of The Street.
We want heroes. Character is as important as situation/setting. Pilgrim and McLevy
are heroes, and wonderfully flawed ones.
Rather than commission a whole run for a new series we are tending to commission
a single stand alone play – and if it works as a single and we think it has the legs for
a series we will commission more episodes, eg the Lenny Henry Bad Faith started
out as single and is now a series.
No more than six parts, please. If you want to develop a series, please discuss it at
the earliest opportunity with me. The writer or writers are crucial.
We are also looking for portmanteau collections of plays. Find an umbrella or a
format or a theme (eg, Arabian Afternoons is a contemporary riff on The Arabian
Nights) and group three or four plays. The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare
Retold were both very clever ways for BBC ONE to reinvent the single play; the key
to their success was retelling familiar but great stories in a completely fresh way.
We are looking to commission one serialisation stripped across the week: there is
very limited scope here. The title has to be iconic, eg the Gospel according to St
We will also commission the occasional two-part play or dramatisation, but these will
need to be outstanding (eg Rumpole or two linked plays about Enron, etc.)
Obviously, if we are broadcasting more series and serials in the afternoon, we shall
be doing fewer singles. However, singles will be the bedrock of the Afternoon Play.
The first question you will need to ask yourself - does this stand out as a single?
Our singles need to have a hook to pull in the audience. Your idea needs to
whet the audience’s appetite, to draw them in and to make it a must-listen. This is
not about star casting, but about how gripping, different, exciting the story and the
premise are. What will make our audience listen?
Of course it needs to be a good play – but the Offers that get through invariably have
something else to offer our audience.
Simplicity is crucial.
We are keen to encourage writers to write for particular voices, for particular actors,
eg we are working on an idea written for David Bower (Hugh Grant’s brother in Four
Weddings and a Funeral).
What we are centrally looking for are stories about life as experienced by our
audience now or which give a window onto their lives. We will favour contemporary
stories over period.
However, we are still very keen on history and biography, but:
(i) Simply dramatising someone’s life is a non-starter. The rule of thumb is: will
the play work if you substitute the name of the famous person for a name like
Smith? If the answer is No, then it probably isn’t a good play and the answer
is No, we won’t want it. Your subject also needs to be someone the audience
care about. Last year we broadcast a play about the cast of Beyond the
Fringe, a bunch of people every listener to Radio 4 will have an interest in –
while we have not commissioned plays about Byron, John Clare, Scott
Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway etc. who in our view are people we think the
audience should care about.
(ii) Please don’t make the history obscure. We are much more interested in
dramatising the big events (eg the collapse of Enron) and the key players
than the byways and the nonentities, although it is often interesting in story
terms to look at great events from the point of view of bystanders. You need
to be aware of Writing the Century still running in the Woman’s Hour drama
slot for the next year.
(iii) Is it relevant? Does the history have a real resonance with now. Plays that
look at history to discover the present are always welcome. Think how plays
like Brian Friel’s Translations, Brenton’s Romans in Britain or Brecht’s Galileo
all look at the state of the times through the prism of history. I think that the
way to develop these is not to think of some spurious link between the event
you want to dramatise and contemporary life, but to decide on the burning
contemporary issue you want to dramatise and then find the historical parallel.
No plays about previous credit crunches, etc please – if we are going to cover
the recession (or is it a Depression?) we would far rather commission plays
about how people are coping with it now than how they coped with it
We will do a very few single dramatisations in this slot – but they will need to be
markedly different from the dramatisations we play out in Woman’s Hour and the
Classic Serial – Listen to My Year Off by Robert McCrum – it is exactly the kind of
dramatisation we want in the slot. The End of the Alphabet was breathlessly
beautiful and simple.
It is very unlikely that we will commission short story dramatisations from writers we
commission into the Classic Serial.
Think about the audience. There is only so much gloom they can take. This is not a
social-work slot. Of course, we want plays about contemporary social and domestic
issues (eg we have Dignity about assisted suicide coming up) but they need to be
handled imaginatively and, often, with a light touch.
Shameless takes people at the very bottom of the heap and makes them fun and life
affirming. It is very entertaining.
Plays should be about something. This is not a green light to fill the slot with plays
about issues. But even the most imaginative flight of fancy needs to connect with life
as the audience lives it.
We are always looking for good comedy drama.
Explorations of the world of the imagination play well in the afternoon. We have just
commissioned a play about a precocious rabbit who gets excluded from school.
Cavity, which just went out, is about a couple conducting a sexual relationship
through a wall.
There is always room for poetry, but making it work to fill a 45’ narrative is tough.
Drama-documentaries do well in this slot and we are being offered very few.
I think it is easier and more creative to think of these more in terms of documentary
features in a drama slot, ie drama informed by journalism, by feature making
approaches and techniques, etc etc than hardcore drama doc which is quite a limited
But please think how the drama and the actuality are going to work together. Would
the story be better treated as a documentary feature? You will need to have a track
record in documentary production to get these off the ground.
Every year we will commission over 40 plays in the afternoon by first or second time
writers new to writing for radio. This means over 20 Afternoon Plays will be by new
talent in this round.
New, different and diverse voices are the lifeblood of Afternoon Play. New,
engaging, exciting ways of telling stories is what the slot is about. New writing and
writers are central to this – but please make sure new talent is both writing for our
audience and not recycling the kind of play that they think will work for the Radio 4
audience, which too often feels like a script written 10 years ago.
A writer’s second commission is as important to us as the first.
Radio 4 Guidelines