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Post  eddie Wed Jan 25, 2012 7:55 am

The awards giving radio drama a voice

Radio drama can get overlooked. Is a new awards ceremony about to change that?

David Edgar, Monday 23 January 2012 22.00 GMT

Radio drama Kenneth-Branagh-prepares--007
Resolutely invisible … Kenneth Branagh prepares to perform in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Steven Spielberg calls Tom Stoppard to ask him to work on a movie. Stoppard says he's busy writing something for the BBC. Spielberg asks if he's really prepared to turn down the opportunity to work on a major film to do a piece of TV. "No, not television," replies Stoppard. "Radio."

Underlying this anecdote is what many would like to believe about radio drama: that there's huge amounts of it, that you get terrific casts (actors can often fit it in around other work), that it frees up writers to write what they want. Much of that is true. BBC Radio remains the largest drama producer in the world. Averaging around 900,000 listeners, the Afternoon Play gets a larger audience daily than the National theatre's yearly box office on the South Bank, and audience numbers on Radio 4 are on the up. And, unlike the tortuous development process of TV, the writer only deals with the director.

So why don't playwrights write for radio all the time? Well, it's not well-paid. It's facing cuts in cast sizes and slots (plays over an hour are now effectively restricted to Radio 3, and the Friday Play was axed as a regular slot last year). And both the work and authors remain resolutely invisible. The well-known radio writer seems like a contradiction in terms – not least because newspapers have cut back on reviewing.

Hence the decision to mount the first BBC Audio Drama awards this Sunday. As the title suggests, the corporation broadcasts the overwhelming bulk of radio drama, much of it commissioned from independent producers (there's also an award for online-only drama). Like any awards ceremony, the idea is not just to honour the best, but to up the profile of the whole.

But is there a deeper problem here? Television drama has had most impact when it's had a particular flavour; in the 80s, say, when BBC drama was political and gritty (Boys from the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness) and ITV flooded its schedules with historical nostalgia, from Brideshead Revisited to The Jewel in the Crown. Hence the strategy to focus radio drama output by shifting it towards fact-based treatments of contemporary Britain (the awards shortlists include plays about the Soho pub bombings and the making of the coalition government), as well as "event" drama broadcasting. Last September, one week of Radio 4's drama schedule was entirely given over to Mike Walker and Jonathan Myerson's dramatisation of Vasily Grossman's banned Stalingrad epic Life and Fate. There has also been an increase in themed seasons and series, and a greater emphasis on narrative rather than studies of character.

This isn't the only thing that feels as if it's following in television's footsteps: the rise of the drama series – particularly in the well-worn grooves of crime and punishment – makes radio drama feel more like its televisual equivalent. The Saturday-afternoon slot does occasional radio versions of stage plays, but otherwise it, too, concentrates on genre dramas with starry casts.

But the more focused the scheduling, the more it becomes led by commissioners rather than producers or writers; the more fact-based drama there is, the less there is of the writer's fictive imagination. At the same time, commissioning power is less diverse. In the 90s, drama made by and for the World Service was frequently rebroadcast on Radio 4, providing a contrast in source, aesthetic and taste; but World Service drama has now gone. The BBC's obsessive concentration on Salford has led to a decline in other regional voices: there is now virtually no original drama production in the West Midlands beyond The Archers.

Radio drama's ultimate justification lies in doing things that television can't do, or isn't prepared to. So it's good that radio broadcasts versions of stage plays, does classic adaptations television wouldn't touch (such as Brian Sibley's nominated adaptation of Titus Groan), and ringfences slots for innovative work and writers new to radio: one of its great achievements has been launching the careers of writers, from Tom Stoppard via Lee Hall to Mike Bartlett.

And it doesn't need to copy other media; after all, one of the great advantages of BBC radio drama is that it isn't in serious competition with anyone. It should bother less about pretending to compete, and concentrate on one of the things it does best – encouraging people to write things for it that they can't write for anyone else.

• David Edgar is a playwright and president of the Writers' Guild.
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