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4 New Short Audio Dramas Commissioned

BBC Writersroom North

BBC Writersroom recently worked once again in collaboration with BBC Radio Drama North and the BBC Radio 3 programme The Verb (Radio 3's cabaret of the word, featuring the best poetry, new writing and performance, presented by Ian McMillan). Writers had the opportunity to be commissioned to write a 5 minute audio drama script and appear as a guest on one of the programmes. This time around, they were challenged to create a piece based on the theme of "Space" and each one of the successful writers gave it a unique translation.

Faith Lawrence, Producer of The Verb, shared her thoughts on this year's scheme:

"The writers of the 2019 Verb dramas brought us short dramas that played with tone and language, in unpredictable and intriguing ways. The writers dived deep into the names of characters (in ‘Hag Stones’), explored the resonance of particle physics for relationships (‘A Quark In My Cosmos’), entered the vocabulary of desire (‘Personal Space’) and exposed the language of power and control (‘Borders’). Each one allowed us to see how we are writing our lives – like an x-ray of the present moment in sound. They all enlivened and enriched the programmes that featured them."

The writers were relatively new to audio drama and made discoveries during the process, not just about the medium, but also about their own writing.

Please enjoy listening to their Verb Dramas and find out more about their experiences below.

Listen to Personal Space written by Matthew Ingram and performed by James Quinn and David Judge.

'Personal Space' by Matthew Ingram

One of the things that particularly struck me about the process of taking 'Personal Space' from script to broadcast was how different the experiences were when drafting production scripts rather than spec' scripts. I wasn't going to be at the piece's recording, and I knew that the record was going to be quick (only two hours to record the whole thing, in fact). With this in mind, I had to think as much as possible about clarity in my production scripts, considering whether I'd expressed everything I wanted to as clearly as I possibly could before handing the script over to producer/director Lorna Newman and her team to create the final piece.

All those things I'd heard or read about scripts becoming roadmaps, blueprints, templates or 'a series of provocations', as Simon Stephens calls them, became true then. Which isn't to say that the artistic processes involved in writing an initial spec script are invalid - all the questions around what you're saying and how you're saying it are totally necessary and are ultimately what drive the piece - but writing Personal Space made me realise that at the point of writing for production, I had to think much more pragmatically about the script - because just writing the thing wasn't the end goal anymore, the end goal was making the thing, and the script was the only place that I could influence the decisions being made.

That's a more concrete learning, I guess, but a more abstract learning from the process was learning that I could write for radio. I remember chatting with Head of BBC Writersroom Anne Edyvean and Script Editor, Marigold Joy, about a year ago and being asked about what radio drama I enjoyed. I told them that, while I'd read and enjoyed copies of verse plays or poetry collections that had originally been written for radio, such as Pink Mist or Black Roses, I didn't think that radio drama was 'for me'. I didn't listen to Radio 4 or Radio 3, where most radio drama is commissioned, so in my head at the time, that obviously meant that I wouldn't be particularly interested in writing radio drama.

Writing Personal Space taught me that there is a space for me in radio drama, and has inspired me to challenge myself to write in media or genres that I don't think are 'for me'; to deal with curve balls such as unexpected opportunities to write in unfamiliar media in my own way, and to trust my sense of voice to carry me through that.*

*And you can bet I listen to a lot more Radio 4 and Radio 3 now!

Listen to Hag Stones, written by Allison Davies and performed by Sacha Parkinson, James Quinn and Angela Lonsdale

'Hag Stones' by Allison Davies

I love audio drama, so I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to pitch for The Verb Dramas on BBC Radio 3. There’s a beautiful intimacy about radio. You can take your audience anywhere you want to go. Anyone for a trip into the event horizon? Well, maybe I’ll keep that in my back pocket for next time.

The idea for Hag Stones, came from a small beach in Northumberland, a ‘thin place’ where you can imagine stepping into other worlds. Sometimes we don’t realise our own worth and I wanted to explore that, and write something that was ultimately hopeful, which is where my character Ellie came in.

I was lucky enough to work with Producer/Director Sally Richardson who did a brilliant job, helping me knock the final draft into shape and looking after the recording, and I was proud and delighted when I heard the finished piece go out. The process did wonders for my confidence too. It was inclusive from start to finish and made me even more passionate about writing longer pieces for radio.

Listen to Borders, written by Willow Mirza, performed by James Quinn, David Judge and Sacha Parkinson

'Borders' by Willow Mirza

Verbs the Word…

When I was asked to write something for BBC Radio 3 I jumped at the chance and immediately sat down to write a symphony that would smash old Wolfgang out of the water. I was then politely informed it was a Radio Drama they were after… probably for the best, I haven’t touched a piano since I was 8 and that was on one of those keyboards with the light up keys.

Coming up through the BBC Comedy Writers Room, The Verb was my first REAL job so I was bright eyed and full of wonder about what the script to production journey would involve. After submitting my script ‘Borders’ I was put in touch with Emily Demol the producer I’d be working with to get my drama from paper to airwaves. With Emily’s guidance I spent a week or so on re writes (this sounds terrifying, but mostly we just chatted about our favourite TV shows, and agreed to change a few words here and there to tighten up the script).

Any new writers out there wondering how to even start in this over-saturated market, I urge you to give radio a go it’s a great medium (and if you make it on to The Verb the amount of cake they give you is unbelievable).

Listen to A Quark in my Cosmos, written by Jesse Schwenk, performed by James Quinn and Angela Lonsdale

'A Quark in my Cosmos" by Jesse Schwenk

This is the first time I’ve written for radio. But I really love The Verb programme and its celebratory atmosphere, so that was very inspirational.

I think I learnt two things:

Firstly, 5 minutes is very short, practically a micro-drama, so the events of your story already have to be at quite a high level of pressure: the stakes have to be high and events coming to a head. Don’t wait for anything, plunge straight in, at the near-apex of the crisis. Trust that the audience will pick it up.

BUT at the same time the audience needs the situation set up quickly and clearly, so they can orientate themselves. For example, in Quark, Brenda started life as a vague-ish character, probably Ian’s sympathetic work colleague; in later drafts she became the cleaner, because it established her role for the audience more quickly and definitely, and also explained how she might be all over the building and know a bit about everyone’s business.

The second thing I learnt is that radio as a dramatic medium is much more fluid than I thought; it’s alright to let the atmospheres dominate. For instance, you can be in a perfectly ordinary scene – say two friends discussing something in the aisle of a supermarket – and then one of the friends starts thinking about something that bothering them – and radio will just happily move off to this much more internalised place and follow that character’s inner voice and thoughts, or even go to something more abstract, like the narrator’s voice, or discussing a topic that’s poetic but relevant (e.g. in Quark’s case it was the life of subatomic particles).

So in Quark, my excellent director Andrew Smith encouraged me to experiment and play about. In the opening scene, what started in the first draft as a dialogue (between Brenda and Ian) followed by a monologue (from Ian) became much more ‘layered’: in the final draft, as Brenda drones on, Ian wafts off into another world, of thinking about Richard and the delicious world of quarks and quantum particles – until he’s brought back down to earth by Brenda.

I learnt that radio is a very poetic medium, and as long as you have a strong line on the emotional journey of the characters, radio can wander through different layers – e.g. realistic dialogue, narration, inner thoughts, music – without the thread of the story being lost.

I’ve got the radio bug now. Luckily, I’ve got another commission for an episode of an upcoming BBC Sounds podcast series, and the writers are really being encouraged to push the boundaries and mix things up, which is great.

I’d encourage everyone to think about writing for radio. Really, it’s an amazing medium, prosaic and poetic all at the same time; you can set anything anywhere – the possibilities are endless. There’s no medium quite like it.

Listen to The Verb on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

Listen to our recent Music Monologues from new writers for BBC Radio 3 - each inspired by a different piece of music

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