Jeremy Howe, Commissioning Editor, BBC Drama and Fiction on Radio 4
Jeremy talks rules, the advantages of radio drama and how to sustain your career as a writer.
I’m Jeremy Howe. I’m the Commissioning Editor for Drama and Fiction on Radio 4. That means, as Commissioning Editor for Drama and Fiction, I commission shedloads of drama and shedloads of reading, so I am responsible for things like The Archers, for all the plays you hear in the afternoon, all the plays you hear off the back of Woman’s Hour, pretty well all the drama actually, The Book at Bedtime Short Stories, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
It’s a very big portfolio. It’s great actually and it’s this huge kind of trainset that I get to play with. And I think one of the really exciting things about drama on Radio 4, because of its scale, is you think OK yes we can do the entire works of Zola and we’ll do it, we’ll strip it across a week. So we had 27 episodes of Emil Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. And I can’t think of many other places in the known universe where you could do something of that scale. Including readings, the number of hours we do – drama readings – is somewhere in excess of 400 a year, or 400 hours of originations is a lot of drama.
I think the interesting shift from being a producer, which is was before I did this job, on being a commissioning editor, is you think about the audience all the time, and you try and get into your head onto your radar what will the Radio 4 audience think about it. And Radio 4 has a distinctive and different audience. And it doesn’t mean that you kowtow to, it’s not dumbing down to an audience at all. It’s what’s, what’s in it for the audience, where will this story lead them? How will they be fascinated by this story? What will work for them? What is a good listen? What is an arresting listen? And I think one of the real privileges of working for Radio 4 is you’ve got one hell of a smart audience. So, for example, if you do a play about economics, you need to make sure your economics is right, because people who earn their living in banking will be listening to your play. We had a really interesting experience last year.
We did a play about the financial meltdown in Greece. And one of the people we wanted to talk to was Vanis, Varoufakis, who was the Chancellor of Greece during, or the equivalent of the Chancellor, he was in charge of their finances. And he wouldn’t speak to us. I can’t remember why he wouldn’t speak to us. He was busy giving lectures in America or something, but the interesting thing was he tweeted throughout the broadcast of the play saying it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that. Well we’d done our research and it was like that. But, but you know that the Radio 4 audience are informed, they’re curious, they’re, they’re interested, and I suppose my job as the commissioning editor is to try and feed that appetite really. And one of the first things you think about when, when an idea crosses my desk is what’s in it for the audience? What’s going to draw them in, what’s the hook?
The audience for the afternoon, the plays that go out in the afternoon at 14:15 are listened to on a daily basis by somewhere just short of a million people, or to put it in a slightly different context that is the same size as the entire audience that go and see plays across a year at all three auditoria of the National Theatre. That’s every day we are hitting an audience of a million people. Now, in terms of the reach, say, of EastEnders, that’s quite small, but a million people is a lot of people.
There is one unbreakable rule in my book: is it a good story? Story, story, story. But I think what you’re, you’re driving at is taste. Um, and I think taste, it’s, it’s a tricky one for the BBC. It’s a chall… And It’s not a tricky one, it’s, taste is a challenging thing for the BBC and my experience has taught me that there’s probably no subject I think that we cannot do in, for example, the afternoon slot, which is [clears throat] where a lot of our drama goes out. You just have to handle it in a very, um, distinct and clever way. And I think the important thing, I think the important thing that I’ve learned about taste and programmes and drama on the BBC is the one thing you don’t do: never ambush your audience. Don’t take them prisoner by surprise. Lead them into it; set it up. And the other real rule about taste is the best armour against making programmes that people think are offensive is to make them brilliantly. Excellence is your best defence.
The main advantage for me for radio drama is it’s about writing. It’s a fantastic place for writers. It’s, it’s the place to write, because there is really very little between what the writer writes and what the audience hears. I mean of course you need production, you need very good performances, but when you compare the quality of writing on radio and how direct it is, with say the same in movies, I think if, if you have a good script in radio it’s very hard to turn it into anything other than a good play. I don’t think the same is true of films. You don’t need a good script to make a good film. The latest Bourne movie, I thought it was a really good film but I don’t think it was a particularly good piece of writing.
So it’s, it’s a very pure medium from the writing point of view. I also think it’s a very intimate medium. So, I think, I can still remember my first job in the BBC was in Belfast, and I was driving down from Belfast to Dublin one Saturday afternoon and I listened to a Graham Greene play. And I remember stopping the car and just making sure I heard the end of the play before I, I, I went and checked into the hotel. It just has, it has a real way of getting under the skin. It’s very, very intimate. There’s a power in radio and it, it, it reminds me, it’s kind of like you stick a needle into the, into the vein of a writer and it’s, your kind of mainlining on that, that flood of, of ink. So it’s a very good storytelling medium.
I think the other great thing about radio is it’s very, very immediate. So yesterday we had a play that went out at 2:15 – which wasn’t about Brexit, it was about Frexit. It was about what might happen to the European Union if the far right win the French presidential elections. We commissioned it less than six weeks ago. And so you’ve got, you can turn things around very quickly on radio. You couldn’t do that in film or television. It would be pretty hard to do it in theatre, I think.
Well I think the great thing about audio drama is, audio generally, is it’s incredibly portable. So you can download a file onto your iPhone, stick in a pair of headphones and easily listen to it on your walk to the station. So the portability is extraordinary and it’s, I mean you can do that with, with, with television etc. etc., but there’s a massive diminution in the quality etc. etc. There isn’t in audio. And so it’s become a very portable medium.
I remember when I first started working in, in radio – which was about 400 years ago – it seemed to me that I was on a burning platform that everyone was saying about this is the end of radio, television’s going to take over, and 400 years later radio is booming. It’s audio is doing really well, audio is sexy. I think the other advantage of audio has over television and film is it’s relatively inexpensive to make, and so, I mean money counts for everything. The Crown is brilliant but at ten million pounds an episode, or whatever it costs, you don’t get many Crowns. Drama on radio is an expensive form of radio, but radio itself is really relatively cheap to everything else.
So there’s a, kind of, a longevity about it and so it can go out on all sorts of platforms. And I think one of the things I’m quite surprised about is when I used to work in short films, there was this plethora of gorilla filmmaking, and there isn’t the same plethora of gorilla audio making, but I think that is going to happen, as long as you can get it out on a platform. Of course the BBC is the world’s most brilliant platform so we’re feeling, we’re not, we’re not feeling smug but it is a, it’s a, it’s a great starting point.
I think we’re facing in two directions at the same time. I mean, as a society, as consumers, as a culture, and the BBC and Radio 4 is part of that, is there’s this appetite for the enormously long boxset: ooh let’s sit down and watch the entire Game of Thrones this weekend. But because we’re time poor, um, and we’ve got lots of other alternatives that we can spend our time doing, you know, there’s an appetite for shortfall. And I think, you know, we’re kind of, Radio 4 is facing in both directions. I mean the longest of long form ever, um, because it’s 65 years long, long form, is The Archers. I mean that’s extraordinary. I mean so there’s a writing opportunity there. Um, but on Radio 4 we do dramas which are 90 minutes long, we do dramas which are 15 minutes long. I’ve just commissioned a drama this week which will be 10 four-minute episodes. I wouldn’t recommend any writer tries to do that, because that’s the first one we’ve ever done like that. And that’ll be a digital first rather than on Radio 4. You know, we have places in between.
If you want to write for radio and you want to break into radio my advice is write the 45-minute play. You can hear one of those every afternoon at 2:15 to get a sense of what we do. But that is pretty well the place where we try out new writers and new writing.
A standout afternoon drama by a first time writer I would say is Comment is Free. It has a very tricky inception. It was originally going to be about what would happen if a MP was murdered. And I said to the writer and producer that is such a rare occurrence that you’re kind of on a hiding to nothing; I think you need to make it someone who’s less in the public eye. But basically, I mean it’s a very good idea. It was about what public reaction would be to such a heinous crime. And it was, it was a play about social media really. And we to-and-fro’d a lot, not about the writing of it, but actually what it was going to be about. I mean the most terrible thing happened. Jo Cox, I mean we’d already commissioned it by then and we changed the subject, but Jo Cox was murdered. I mean, and that must have, I mean that is appalling. And that was just one of the most appalling events ever, um, but it’s interesting.
I think, since the Second World War I think eight MPs have died in a similar way to Jo Cox. That is how exceptional it was. Anyway we’d shifted the subject. And by shifting the subject, um, I think they improved it no end. So it’s a play about the world’s most unpleasant shock jock kind of journalist: someone who mouths demagogic opinions, even if he doesn’t believe in them and he gets murdered. And the play is about his wife who really loves him and is a perfectly nice human being, how she comes, comes to terms with his death and his reputation while the, while the Twitter feeds and Facebooks etc. of this world are, are throwing a lot of unpleasant things at her. So, er, I was slightly concerned would you be able to write this as a writer. It was quite a big step for, for the first time writer James Fritz, um, to make. Um, it was the producer’s, only, only her second play ever. I would say it’s there in my top three listens of the year.
The relationship between me, the commissioning editor, the writer and the producer is collaborative, up to a point, Lord Copper. The most important relationship is between the producer and the writer. And it’s that relationship I think drives everything. If you, if you don’t have a good relationship with the producer, you’re not going to get your work on. Um, and, and that producer will drive your work, will transform, um, ideas into, into gold dust. That’s the key relationship, forget about me.
The best way that a writer can get noticed and therefore hopefully get commissioned on radio is to ignore the fantastic, fantastical complexity and mystery of the commissioning process, of which I am kind of the lord and master. The way to get noticed, the way to get your work made is to find a producer who is singing off the same song sheet as you. A producer whose work you rate. You need to listen to our output. You need to listen to who the producer was, and if you hear a play, you think I wished I’d written that. Well first of all it’s already been written so you can’t do it. But try and get into the, um, onto the radar of that producer – that is the golden rule. Um, the other golden rule is tell stories that matter to you. What’s the story that’s burning a hole in your pocket? Don’t try and second guess what you think Radio 4 will want; what we want is your voice. And you don’t hear that very much in the world in general.
Obviously once you get to the level of Allan, Allan Cubitt, who wrote The Fall, people are interested in what Allan Cubitt’s got to say. But believe me if you go into a show like Doctors or like EastEnders, and they’re all brilliant shows, and you say this is my voice, actually they’re not interested in your voice; they’re interested in how good a writer you are to work within the parameters of EastEnders and Doctors. What we’re interested in on Radio 4 particularly for the singles is your voice, your story. What’s the story that’s burning a hole in your pocket? The one piece of advice I would give to a new writer is, and I’m beginning to sound a bit like a cracked record, urgh, is find a producer, find your voice. Find a producer, find your voice. That’s what we’re interested in: what is unique about you?
Well the pitching process I’m afraid to say guys is part of the warp and weft of the industry you’re trying to get into. Whether it’s theatre, films, television, radio, whatever, pitching is a, is a fact of life. If you’re really useless at pitching, um, the smart ones amongst you will get your producers to do the pitching for you, one. Secondly is yes you do need to be able to write. Um, you need to be, you need to distil your story into a document. Um, but it doesn’t mean to say that you need to write that document. It’s a collaborative process and that’s what producers are there for.
Um, I, I mean as a producer I remember, I remember some of the best plays I’ve, I, I’ve ever directed, I wrote, I wrote the treatment, um, and then gave it to the writer to, to mark it basically. And then it came back, this is actually what I want to say, etc. etc. etc. Obviously I mean I commission stuff off a pitch by and large. If it’s a new writer I will tend to read, um, a sample of script of theirs, um, to make sure that they can write good dialogue etc. etc. and, and the pitch is obviously important. But I’m also wise enough to know that writing a good pitch doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to write a good play, and you’ve got to give the writer and of course the producer enough space to experiment within that to, to, because the creative process, the creative process is in the writing. It shouldn’t be in the writing of the pitch. But you do need to be able to articulate what you want to write about; otherwise, why would I, why I would commission, if I don’t know what it is why would I commission it? And if you think oh he’s lucky he just gets all the pitches. My job is I have to pitch everything I want us to commission to the controller. So I pitch morning, noon and night, frankly. Um, and it’s very interesting when I’m pitching, sometimes there’s this idea you’re really passionate about and as you’re articulating it to the controller, you realise mm-hmm, this isn’t working. Um, um, I think, I think pitching is a very good way of crash testing ideas. Um, and you’re going to have to do it whether you like it or not. Um, and it’s not a good enough excuse, I can’t write pitches; you can learn to write pitches.
If, if you were to pitch a play to me that you wanted to write a play about, um, er, an interview between Marion Nancarrow and Jeremy Howe about writing plays, and then delivered me a play which was about, um, dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, um, I might be a little bit narked. So you, you can’t, you can’t reinvent it, but the creative process is, um, and that’s where it should be, is when the writer sits down to write the play. I’m not a junkie on the creative process, goes in, goes into the pitch, but it is a very good way of articulating what you want to write about.
In order to sustain your career as a writer, um, I think the bad news is that you probably won’t be able to earn a living as a writer on radio. We don’t pay the same as, um, movies or television. Um, it depends what, what channel. I suppose the advantage that radio has over other media is that once we commission it we make it. I think I wrote off, of the 400-odd commissions I made last year, I think we wrote off one script or something. Um, the decision, the decision is made. Um, in terms of, um, sustaining your writing career on radio, um, I just think you’ve got to come up with good ideas. And a very good way of coming up with good ideas is coming, coming up with a good idea for a series.
Now, there aren’t that many series to be had, and the problem with series in terms of the commissioning opportunities is that in order to get a series off the ground, um, you’re going to have to persuade Radio 4 that we should decommission something which is doing very nicely thank you. But clearly you can, you can, you can, you can keep on writing by writing series. But the other thing is you just need to come up with, with good ideas. And I think that is an issue with radio, um, which is one of things to celebrate about it, but it’s also one of the problems, is radio is very, very hungry. It eats ideas morning, noon and night. Um, Radio 4 is in this extraordinary position that its peak hours run from, um, the start of Farming Today to the, um, repeat of the Book of the Week, um, in the small hours. So we have a huge amount of content and we, we have, we have a voracious appetite. So there is, there is a big appetite for, um, writers to write their third, fourth, fifth play. Um, I think the challenge is, um, once you’ve had the kind of the, a sense of I’m a new writer, that tarnish knocked off you, you’ve got to keep on coming up with good ideas.
Er, I would never knowingly commission a first time writer to write in any other slot than the 45. When I arrived there was quite a lot of commissioning on first-time writers in the 15-minute drama, and 15-minute drama is really hard to write. Um, you need to be, you, you, you need to be technically very skilful as a writer, and it’s no accident that most of the writers that we commission in that slot have got either a lot of hours of radio writing under their belt or have been working on television. I think if Aaron Sorkin, who’s never written to rad… for radio to my knowledge came to me with an idea for a long running serial, I would be a little bit foolish to turn it down, wouldn’t I, even though he hasn’t written for radio. But by and large series are for very experienced writers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be experienced in radio. I mean television’s a pretty good, pretty good stamping ground. Um, and, you know, in the last commissioning round we commissioned a TV writer who’s never written any radio to write some radio, and with a good producer of, of course it’ll be fine. But, um, there is a progression there, yeah. First-time writers, they don’t write series.
I think what I’d say to first-time writers who want to write for radio is it’s an extraordinary world of opportunity. We will by and large let you write what you want to write. That it’s, as I said earlier I think radio is a fantastic medium for writing. And you can go anywhere you want. So you can have a scene which is two people sitting at a table, um, in one scene, and you can move seamlessly into five thousand years earlier, um, and it’s a very easy thing to do. So I think from an imaginative point of view, the imag… the imaginative opportunities that writing for radio gives you are fantastic. And, um, it may appear to be difficult to get into, to break into this, this mysterious hallowed world of radio commissioning, but honestly it is a land of opportunity. We commission roughly 30 plays by first or second-time writers to radio a year, and what I say to that is, Royal Court eat your heart out.
Toby Swift, Editor, BBC London Drama
Toby discusses how to get noticed as a writer, what works well on radio and his experiences of working in the industry.
My name is Toby Swift. I am the editor of the radio drama team in London. And an editor probably in an artistic context is better understood if I was called the artistic director. I manage the team of producers primarily from a creative and editorial point of view.
I began studying engineering at university. And we didn’t get on very well. So I started again and did what I wanted to do in the first place which is I trained as an actor. Um, but from a very early age, and I mean early, I was directing things and I would always act and then I would direct. That continued through my acting career because I directed as part of that. Set up a theatre company and then I spent over 10 years working as a theatre director. And then at that point I kind of hit a blip and was deciding what to do next and radio happened to come along and I’ve been here ever since, which is 18 years.
I was never a listener to radio. Um, certainly not radio drama and not a lot to radio. I went to the theatre very occasionally and I, um, watched television most. But, um, the thing that seemed to really work in terms of radio was, um, as a practitioner more than a listener, I think, as it seemed to offer me the opportunity to do all sorts of things that I couldn’t do in theatre. And a lot of, um, the stuff that I did in the theatre was trying to do things you’re not supposed to be able to do in theatre. And what I realised was a lot of the cheats and the conventions we had to create in order to be able to tell those stories in the theatre we didn’t need to do in radio because we could actually do it.
So what I liked in terms of the opportunity that radio gave me was the opportunity to work with great actors and great writers – that’s the luxury of being at the BBC – and that was definitely a big thing that I’ve really enjoyed and also the opportunity to work on new work because so much new work is done on radio and, um, that has been increasingly difficult at times to do in theatre.
Television has become quite narrow, I would suggest, in a lot of what it does, and we still thankfully have quite a broad canvas that we can work on in terms of the stories we can tell on radio. So that is fantastic. And the opportunity to do, I mean great things that you think, um, you would never get the chance to do. The sorts of things I’ve made as dramatisations or versions of screenplays, um, I did the Ipcress File on radio, how brilliant is that? And I’ve done Paths of Glory, which was, began as a Kubrick movie. I’ve done M and Metropolis. I can pretend to be Fritz Lang. All of these things are fantastic and a lot of original work with all kinds of fantastic ideas for writers.
It’s hard to say exactly where we’re at in terms of what people are wanting to write now, except for the fact that the way commissioning has developed is I think now we’re a bit more, um, aware of the direction of travel in terms of the sort of things. We do far more series, far more stuff about contemporary life, and particularly contemporary life in the context of genre work, so we’ll often find ways. For instance, we’re kind of picking up at the moment in a series that we do called Inspector Chen, which are, they are adapted from novels but they kind of fit with a lot of what we’re doing where, um, the writer Qiu Xiaolong wanted to write about China in the Nineties and thought how can I get people to read this stuff.
That was question one. Number two is what can I write about that will allow me to have the freedom to write about all of the things that I want to write about. And what he thought was the character of a police officer, if they were high enough, would give him freedom to range far and wide, and, secondly, people like crime fiction, so they’ll read it. But really that is just a Trojan horse to get us to engage in the culture and politics of China. So there’s quite a lot of that that we’re hearing, because in a very noisy world we have to find a way to pull people to us.
So there’s that kind of thing. But also possibly, because of a lot of what’s happening on television and in the movies we can also do the quiet stories, the very intimate stories that perhaps other people won’t do. That’s attractive too because those kind of miniatures, um, people really enjoy on the radio. And the intimacy and that relationship with the listener being what it is, they play particularly well.
So a lot of things haven’t changed but I think what is different to a degree is the way we do it. I think we’re a bit more modern about it. I think we’re more cut off from our roots which all go back to theatre. I think we’ve left theatre quite a long way behind. Not that we’re interested in theatre and we don’t pick up things from theatre but I think we’re much more confident in ourselves as our own medium. And so a lot of the writing that we see is from writers who are excited by the possibility of radio and write something that could only be on the radio. I think a lot of the themes are the same. I don’t think we’re writing about the world, we’re writing different things about the world than anyone else is, but we’re engaging it with that in a way that works particularly well in audio.
The whole range of stories we tell in single dramas and, um, because of the way things work with the series actually what’s happening is that more of the single dramas are written by the new writers than possibly they ever were. And they range from all sorts of things. What can be quite tricky for a new writer is trying to find something they want to write about that they have their own unique perspective on, because an awful lot of the ideas that people are excited about are new to them, but sadly because of the volume of stuff we do are not new to Radio 4 audience or to us.
So a lot of what I hear are stories that are unique and particular to that writer often from their own experience or their extended experience through their family or whatever. They’re almost all contemporary, although not exclusively. And there’s a kind of real eclectic mix. And the ones that cut through are the ones that are doing something different.
So quite a few of them are spinoffs from theatre plays whether they’re performed or not. Sometimes we see things that were written and developed for stage but didn’t get a production, we pick them up. So I’ve just listened to a play by Daniel Lawrence-Taylor which was developed for a stage play The Thickness, which is a fantastic play about, er, a black British family in London. That was terrific. Um, we’ve done, I might talk about this a bit more later but Cutting It by Charlene James.
Um, I can’t remember whether this is true or not but it’s very nearly true in that we talked to Jeremy Howe about what he wouldn’t commission a play about for the Drama in the Afternoon on Radio 4, and he said, er, female genital mutilation. Well two or three weeks after that we took him a play on that very subject which he commissioned having read it and which was enormously successful.
I listen to every drama that we make in this team, which is an awful lot of dramas, and 59 of them are 45-minute dramas. A mix of series and singles, and amongst those singles are a lot of plays from new writers, and so I hear an awful lot of new writing.
If you want to get noticed as a writer one of the ways to do that might be given what I’ve been talking about, might be to have a successful stage play on, or to have other people who are making a lot of noise about you because we wouldn’t want to miss out on that. We’re all influenced by that kind of chat. But there can be the fantastic script that just arrives. How do you get it read that’s another question? Somebody might tell you that you really ought to read it. That might be an agent or it might be somebody that you know and respect. It might come to the Writersroom and the Writersroom pick up on it and say you really should read this. Everything goes through a producer so it’s about getting somebody to read the play.
You need to be working really wherever you can which provide you with opportunities to be seen or heard or to get people talking about you. It can be very difficult if you’re the only one who knows about you: how do you get that out there? Well I think one good thing is I don’t think we’re completely driven by agents. My experience is that you will look at a script probably if an agent that you respect sends it to you, but an awful lot come from individual and personal approaches. The problem with that is we get a lot of them and we just can’t read them all so what makes you read this one rather than that one?
Sometimes it is simply that somebody is doing well in some other way or somebody gives you recommendation. It can be that they have heard other work that you’ve done and somehow managed to tell you that they think that you’d be perfect for their work. Now lots of people try that and we’re quite good at seeing whether they really mean it or not. So it’s just how you find a way of approaching an individual because the gateway to all of the radio commissioning is through a producer. So somehow you’ve got to get that producer to see your work and there’s any number of ways of doing that.
The producers that we have in our team are charged with two things. They’re charged with developing ideas and getting commissions, and then making them. And in any given year you’re doing both of those things because you’re making a year’s work, well, selling the following year’s work. And what forms that work is a mixture of things. Things that you proactively develop yourselves and things that come through conversation with writers, through connections with writers, through writers bringing you ideas. What the producer will do with the writer who is attached to the project is that they will go through all the various processes.
So what you will do is you will develop your idea with a writer. That might be a writer who brings you the idea or you ask a writer to come and work on your idea. You will then develop it, budget it at that stage. Before you’ve even got anywhere near production, you will budget it to make sure you can afford to do it. You will then attempt to sell it to the commissioner. If the commissioner buys it then you and the writer you’re working with effectively become a team of two who will go right through the production. Once the writer’s commissioned, you will agree on a timetable to take it all the way through the various drafts through and into studio. So once the producer and the writer have come up with their commissionable project you then begin the journey towards the final production.
So the producer and the writer will go right through that process together. You will develop that script. There is no script editor. That’s the thing about our producers. Our producers are script editors, casting agents, directors and producers in the narrow sense of the word, so you get everything in one. So as long you’ve got a good relationship with your producer as a writer you’re laughing because you have access to all the decision-making processes along the way.
So you will develop the play. In a dramaturgical sense, you will then have it ready for production. You will cast it as a producer. You will take it in to studio. You will direct it in studio. You will do all the post production in conjunction with the studio manager. You will then manage it to air. By which I mean you’ll do the work that feeds into publicity, press, all of that. You’ll also make sure that it is what we call editorially compliant, which means that it confirms to all the standards that the BBC is expected to work by. The advantage of that is that you are not a censor as you fine tune that material to make sure it’s suitable for air. You’re involved in the creative process with the writer so you can work on that in a sensitive and creative way. So it really is a one-stop shop with producers doing pretty much everything which is one reason why people love the job.
I was approached by a studio manager who’d been in Edinburgh who in turn had been approached by the director of a project that was being performed on the Fringe in Edinburgh and had said we think this is a really good play for radio. And studio manager came to me and said what do I do with this? I have no idea what we should be doing. So, and I said what’s that about? And she told me. And I thought ooh I would really like to read that. So I read it and I wanted to do it. And I wanted to do it not least because I couldn’t think of anybody who would be better qualified to make it, because it happened to be something I had a personal connection with.
It was to do with the Bradford City fire. The stadium fire in which 56 people sadly lost their lives. And I was given this script which was a theatre piece put together from testimony and interview given by survivors and witnesses. And I just thought it was fantastic in terms of the authenticity, but what the writing element of that was to compile hundred hours of interview and then edit it down into something that was about 75 or 80 minutes. And it was interesting as a verbatim piece because it didn’t simply take disparate people’s words and intercut them so you had many many voices. What it did was it took many, many voices but it distilled them down into three voices. And through those three different composite experiences it told the story of the day of the fire, the fire and the aftermath, and it was just incredibly compelling and brilliantly put together.
So, although it’s not a form of original writing, I just thought it was a fantastic script that I really wanted to do. And the challenge for us was how to get it down from 75 or 80 minutes down into 44, minus the archive material that we mixed in, the actuality, so probably talking about less than 40 minutes to tell all of that. But it was a fantastic script and my instinct was it would be really good on radio and it was.
The thing that I thought would particularly work well on radio with the project which was called The 56 was the fact that it was testimony. The material was gathered through one to one interviews. So already it was an inner, an intimate form. And so we were able to get that quality on the radio, that sense of being spoken to by one person who was sharing their inner thoughts, and being completely candid about what they felt about this and what their experience was. Also, we had some archive commentary from the day from local radio, which is phenomenally powerful and we’re able to use that. The other thing we’re able to do was intercut the voices. So it became something that lived through those voices. It just felt intimate. And somehow the lack of the visuals meant that you became really focused on the individual. The footage of the actual event, because there were television cameras there on the day, is horrendous, but what you get is you get a sense of the crowd and the larger experience. What you don’t get is those individual personal stories which radio does so brilliantly.
If I were to give one piece of advice to a writer, it would be this. Try to become familiar with what is on the radio at the moment. Not because that will necessarily teach you how to do it or give you some tips on how to approach it which it might, but because there is so much material you’ve got to think how can I offer something different? How can I offer something new? How can I offer something that hasn’t been done before? What story can I tell that is unique to me and I will be the best person to tell this story?
We come across a lot of ideas from people. They’re important to them and to them they are original but somehow when you put it into the context, all the plays that have been done on radio in recent times, all the plays and ideas we’re being pitched, you’ve got to find something that’s different. That deserves its place in this mix. And that’s what I’m after, somebody who’s got something unique. And that doesn’t have to be the story in itself; it might be the way you tell the story. But somehow offer me something that we haven’t heard before and that you can really bring to life and that you’re the one person who can tell that story well.
I think what I would say to a writer who has managed to get a foothold in radio and you’re thinking about how to sustain your career, then I think I would say this, what you need is the same as everybody needs, whether you’re new or experienced or whatever is you need really good ideas. So I wouldn’t get hung up on where you are in your career. I think the currency is the same whoever you are. If you’ve got good ideas and good ways to tell stories, you’ll get commissions. And if you don’t, you won’t.
I don’t think that I’m the typical listener for radio, partly because I never was one before I started doing the job, and in my job I listen to vast amounts of it whether I like it or not. So I might not be the best person to say this but I think the thing that makes me listen is when something is different. When something shakes me out of my regular routine, who does something that surprises me or gives me a different perspective on something, and that can be, um, at the obvious end of things like the so-called radical or innovative, which is always interesting, but it actually it can be with something that is the most traditional or familiar material that is suddenly spun in a different way and it really makes you perk up. So it’s partly quality and partly surprise.
Marion Nancarrow, Executive Producer, BBC London Radio Drama & Executive Producer of the International Playwriting Competition
Marion advises on script writing, the process of making radio drama and music and sound effects.
Hello. I’m Marion Nancarrow and I’m a producer in the London Radio Drama team. I also ran drama on the World Service for a number of years and I still oversea the International playwriting competitions. So some of the things that I’m just going to share with you now are to do with having read many hundreds of scripts over a long long period of time and I hope they’ll be really helpful.
One of the things that make my heart sink is, and it quite often happens to me after I’ve been to the theatre, people come rushing up to me and say oh Marion, I want to send you a script because I did a rehearse reading of it and everybody said to me it would make a really good radio play. And I have to say almost 99 times out of a 100, what that means is that it’s very wordy and very verbose and often it’s the antithesis of a good radio play.
Radio of course is about words but it’s about the use of words sparingly. People will talk to you about how akin radio is to film and that’s true, although what’s not very interesting radio is the long panning shot where a character gets out of a car, walks down a street, up a flight of steps, puts the key in the lock, comes through the door and sits down. We don’t need those things in radio. It’s fantastic at pulling focus and focusing very tightly. It’s a very intimate medium and I think remembering that you’re writing for that kind of intimacy, is fantastic and that every word needs to count. Every line needs to count and everything should be doing much more than one thing.
The producer Patrick Rainer always used to say that radio is not about sound, it’s about significant sound. And I think that’s really important that you have the four building blocks: word of course, music, sound effects and silence. And I’m really interested in what isn’t said. I love reading subtext in radio. I can read it in the script and I can hear it much more on air. And it’s the hardest thing to write I know but it’s also what you will be aiming for. What people don’t say is as interesting as what they do.
The other heart sinking thing for me is when characters all speak with the same voice, by which one normally means the writer’s voice. And I think saying your dialogue out loud even though it sounds a bit corny can be really useful because people have different speech patterns. I remember one time working with a writer on a play in which everybody was about the same age and came from the same place. And I suggested a verbal tick for one of the characters and it worked really well. It’s just something. I always think of Noah in the Grapes of Wrath. It’s just something that they do that instantly allows you to recognise who that character is.
The other thing that’s quite useful to think about when you’re writing radio and of course you don’t have to do all this from the outset. I think often we get a bit overwhelmed by thinking about everything. All the advice you’ve been given and trying to do it all before you even begin. Many, many writers I work with say if you want to be a writer then write. And that would be my first tip. And write anything. Write rubbish. Sometimes you have to write to get to what you want to say and I think the crucial part of the process is the writing and of course what everybody tells you and what probably makes your heart sink, rewriting. But the joy of having written something is you’ve then got something to go back to and you can use that other part of your brain, the editorial part which you don’t want when you’re writing when you’re dreaming, as Katie Hims describes it, which I think is a wonderful thing if only we could all dream more.
When the play is written you can go back and you can edit and then you can get into the dream state again and rewrite. And if you have any friends who are any good at acting ask them to read it for you and don’t look at the script. And don’t look at the actors either. What I had to learn as a drama producer was to do those two things: not look at the script, not look at the actors. And I close my eyes. I look as if I’m in pain often I know. But that’s about really trying to hear what an audience will hear on air.
And I love what Angela Carter said about radio. She loved radio drama and she said what she liked was that the listener gets to write notes in the margin. And what you as a writer are doing are encompassing that space between you and the listener, and it’s a really precious connection and a wonderful thing. I think it’s a wonderful medium to write for and to work in. I hope it’s one of the most writer friendly mediums there is.
I know when I’m working with a writer I always see my role as facilitating the writer’s vision. It doesn’t mean I won’t be tough with you on your script but that’s always to a purpose and my interest is always in the script being the best that it can be and resonating the most that it can with the listener.
I thought it might be useful just to talk about the process of making radio drama because as a new writer the slot that you will be pitching towards with Jeremy Howe, our commissioning editor, is the 45-minute afternoon drama. That’s where the most new writing is commissioned. I’m not going to for a moment pretend that 45 minutes is an easy slot to write for. It’s slightly more than the half hour slot and it’s slightly less than an hour slot which sounds a very obvious thing to say but you do need two stories. And you haven’t got a lot of time to allow them to unfurl.
And for a 45-minute play, indeed for every 60 minutes of drama on air we get two days to rehearse, record and two days to edit. So things are made at speed. And the time between the commission and the studio is the time with which producers work phenomenally hard and we hope phenomenally well with writers to get the script into shape. And there are no hard and fast rules. I think the most drafts I’ve ever had in a 45-minute drama was 16 and the least probably three. And I really like with the writer to read and time the final script because even at that point you will often hear things and at the read through you will often hear things.
In the two days we start usually with a read through of the play and that’s for a number of reasons. It’s incredibly useful. The first is because it’s the one time you, the producer and the actors hear the whole play in order. We usually record out of order with all sorts of reasons. Some of which is recording things in the same acoustics sequentially, some of which is to do with actor availability. And it also gives you a sense of the timing. A 45-minute play, you are probably talking about 43 minutes of play, depending how effects-heavy it is. And then immediately after the read through we begin the rehearse, record process. So there isn’t a lot of time and there isn’t a lot of time in the edit.
I would say don’t get too hung up in your script about whether you write SFX sound effects or not. Some writers love that part of the process, they really want to think about the bicycle going passed and the baby crying and the dog barking. Or about treating voices or having weird effects. All of that is fine. Other writers are really stuck on the dialogue and really want to get stuck in to the dialogue and are not so bothered about what’s going on behind. Either is perfectly acceptable. The producer, again, will work with you on those things.
One of the things you will be thinking about within the script is radio is very easy to turn off or to click away from so the grab is really important. An opening scene that means the listener can’t stop listening. My favourite moment is when people write in and say they had to pull over in a layby to hear the end of a play, then you know it’s really working. So you’re trying to grab at the beginning. Katie I know talks about only having two characters in her first scene which I think is really interesting. Also varying the length of scenes so that if you have a very long scene that’s indoors with two people, you might follow it with quite a short scene that’s out of doors with a lot of people – not every scene has to be like that but do think about your scene junctions and about variety of sound in order to keep your listener engaged as well as the story of course. The writer Mike Walker always says that writing a play is a bit like a bicycle. If it ain’t going nowhere you fall off.
Generally as a rule of thumb about a page of script, A4 script is roughly equivalent to a minute of radio drama but it’s a very imprecise art and the read through is crucial for us to get a sense of how long it plays without movement without being blocked and without having effects. That will almost always be added to within the studio and you may find yourself cutting within the edit or even cutting as you go. Very occasionally you may find yourself writing a new scene because it’s all running a lot quicker than anybody expected.
So, across the two days, we rehearse, record. We do wild tracks with the cast which are those things which are in your script that we don’t have a background ourselves for and we need to make one, generally with the actors or sometimes with what’s known as the Spot SM who is the studio manager in the studio making sound effects or Foley.
If you’re really lucky you may have up to three studio managers on your production, if it’s in a studio. The panel SM will be on the panel balancing all the inputs from the studio and from grams and from anywhere else. And talking to and working with the actors and letting them know where they are and what they’re doing alongside the director. The Grams SM will be finding the effects. All the studio managers work on your scripts prior to studio to gather the effects that they think they need and to sample sounds and work out what’s needed. Some extra effects are generally added within the edit but as much as possible we try to put things on within the studio but then we get a sense of how it might be sounding.
If you have tracks of music that you’re particularly keen on having and sometimes they are key to the play that’s really useful to know because we have to clear, obviously, copyright. And some music we can’t clear so that is quite handy to have those conversations before the studio. Very occasionally but because of budgets not very often now, there will be original music composed which is always very exciting and fantastic. Often the producer will find the music for you if it’s not something that you’re particularly interested in. It is a really collaborative process and I always try to find out how writers like to work before we begin so that we can work enjoyably and collaboratively together.
Most of my good tips on writing for radio I shamelessly confess have come from writers I’ve worked with. Ones I particularly like are Nick Warburton talks about how when he’s written dialogue he likes to mess up its hair. And I think that’s a lovely way of describing it and it partly goes back to what I was talking about in terms of not having all your characters speak with the same voice which can quite often be your voice – so a bit of messing up its hair. Shaun Prendergast always says you’re told to write about what you know about. He says bring what you know to what you write about which I think is a brilliant tip. And Ola Animashawun at the Royal Court always says that writers often write about what they fight about best of all.
It was also Ola who gives tips to writers about being able to say what your play is about. I know pitching is a completely different skill to writing a play but as Jeremy and Toby have said you do need to pitch for radio. And actually saying out loud what your story is but only to yourself, probably not to too many people because you don’t want to get bored with your own story. But Ola suggests you light a match and tell the story of your play before the match has burned down to your finger. It’s a good tip though make sure you have health and safety about.
I love working in radio drama. I never intended to stay when I first was lucky enough to be given a job. But I became absolutely seduced by the medium and by the people I get to work with both actors and writers. It’s a wonderful medium to write for. It commissions huge numbers of original work. We work to try to serve the writer’s voice. And I would really support what other people have said in terms of listen, listen, listen. It’s really useful hating stuff that you hear because then you will know what you don’t want to write. Also originality is key and the one way to find out whether you’re being original or not is to hear what else is out there. There are many slots. Everything’s available online for up to a month. Many things get repeated particularly on 4Extra so there’s no excuse really not to have heard dramas and to know what you like, what you don’t like and to think about what you want to write and why it’s original.
It’s very true what everyone has said about the key relationship being between a writer and a producer. The thing I would add to that is there are many, many more people writing now which is fantastic. Producers go to see things all the time. We go to the theatre all the time, we watch television, we listen to radio plays, so there is a lot of competition and generally I probably offer four to six new plays a year. So when you contact a producer don’t do it until you really feel you’re ready and you have the perfect idea. Please don’t send a bottom drawer play. We can see the dust a mile off.
Invite people to come and see things that you’re really proud of. That’s a very good way of making that contact. We don’t have script editors within the radio drama department anymore. The producer is the script editor so whoever your producer is, make sure you like their work because you’re going to be working with them for quite a long time. I would say Jeremy’s completely right. Things can be turned around very quickly but when you write your play you can have anything up to a year probably to do it in. the shortest time might be if it were a quick turnaround play it might be a month. And probably the longest time will be about a year but when you’re commissioned you’ll be given first delivery and final delivery deadlines and, as Abigail suggests, it’s a really good idea to stick to those. To get a reputation for being on time.
A piece of new writing that really grabbed me was a play that had been written about three real people. Biographical plays are very tricky to do but this was a play by an American writer about Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh and Antoine Saint-Exupéry. And what I loved about the play was the mix of inner voice, scenes, a sort of choric approach where we heard the inner thoughts of two of the three protagonists. And the play had been assembled from extant writing but absolutely beautifully shaped and done and underwritten. And the minute I read it I knew this was a play that I wanted to direct.
I’ve been asked to give you one tip for writing for radio. I’m going to give you two. My first tip would be the thing I’ve already said which is that if you’re a writer write. I know of course you’re writing because you’re on an MA course and I also know that the process of getting to be able to write can involve all sorts of things from hoovering to taking long walks and allowing things to mull. But there has to be something written in the end and even if you write something that’s not that good it at least is a starting point. You’ve got something to go back to.
My other tip would be to take advantage of the BBC Writersroom. It is a fantastic resource. There’s so much on it in terms of help for writers. One of our international playwriting competition winners this year although he had written many scripts for film wrote his play for radio entirely using tips from the Writersroom website. And take advantage of the open window for submission. It’s a really good time and a good way to offer your play and to have it read quickly. And more than anything I know this is going to sound corny and annoying, enjoy it. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to write. I wish I could. I love working with writers. You’re bearing witness to the world and it’s such an important thing for us all. I wish you huge good luck.