The British Broadcasting, bbc radio 4 – Afternoon Play

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3. Playwrights for the BBC

Throughout the history of the BBC drama there had been formed an endless list of playwrights. But since the occurrence of TV the radio dramatists started to see play writing as something what can be called a stepping stone to a different level, by which is meant that they headed onto a theatrical stage or to a TV production. This caused, no doubt, the shortage of playwrights. David Wide, the author of the British radio drama since 1960, explains in his book the reason for the radio decline.

We are a species in whom, unless we are born blind, the primacy of the visual mode is first established and then reinforced during every day of our lines after birth. Perceiving by hearing is harder, less ‘natural’, less rewarding, less informative work for the human organism than perceiving by sight. [Wad81]

But it is not only on behave of arrival of the TV. The amount of writes also depends on the height of expenditure that can be invested in playwrights.

The directives to new writers on unsolicited scripts in 1998 in a combined TV and Radio New Writing Initiative contained excluding parameters rather than inclusive 1999, funding for new writers is in terms of tens of thousands of pounds, in 1989 it was hundreds of thousands, and the overall budget probably exceeded Ł1m. The reduction in radio drama lengths at BBC R4 to an hour or less means that the opportunity to write feature film-length stories of 90 minutes or more has declined. There is also evidence of a growing lack of enthusiasm from first-time and established writers to consider writing for the medium. [npnd22]

So, it is more than obvious that the founding was on a decrease which had to have the impact on the amount of writers that would be willing to do dramatisations for the BBC Drama Department. In order not to exceed the budget the dramatists were asked to hand in less and less written lines.

In a limited survey I conducted, one well-established writer informed me : "3 years ago, they asked you to offer them a page of A4 pitching instead of the finished play. 2 years ago, they asked you to offer one paragraph of pitching, 1 year ago they asked you for one line. I no longer want to consider producing anything for an organisation that commissions the production of plays on the basis of one line" [npnd22]

There is also the high of commission fee that is more than likely to be taken into an account while making decision. The rates, stated bellow, give an example of the differences in payment per minute of an established writer and a beginner.
Beginners' rate: £60.23 / £36.14

Established writers' rate: £91.73 / £55.02

An established writer is one where the Writer has had 95 minutes of dramatic works broadcast provided that this has been achieved over more than at least two Plays, Dramatisations, Dramatised Features, Adaptations, Series or Long Running Series.

A writer who qualifies as 'established' for the purposes of the BBC’s Agreement with the WGGB and the PMA for Television Drama shall also be regarded as established for radio. [npnd23]

Nonetheless, there is something as a playwrights’ list, listing down the playwrights of the BBC drama production with many well-known names on it. The list proves to be considerably long since there are so many plays, up to six hundred, annually admitted and broadcasted. [Wad81] Out of this list I would like to name at least few that appeared frequently throughout my survey, names like Henry Reed, Giles Cooper, Howard Baker, James Saunders, Don Haworth, Dylan Thomas and many more.

Name which is never omitted by the BBC radio drama sympathizers is Samuel Beckett who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was especially for his new forms in drama. [npnd24] “Becket himself wrote radio plays at the height of his fame and, even more telling, refused to give remission for any of these plays to be performed on a stage” says E.S.Guralnick in her book Sight Unseen. [Ell96]. Samuel Beckett wrote five plays for the BBC; All That Fall (1957), Embers (1959), Words and Music (1962), Cascando (1964) and Rough for Radio (1976). [npnd25]

Only one of these radio plays has the duration of 45 minutes. Embers is the second of Beckett’s plays about which there has been written several works. It has also been converted into a theatrical play. The original broadcast was published on four CDs to celebrate Samuel Beckett’s centenary together with all his other radio work. Embers is one of the few lucky plays which had its script published.

Listening to the play is proved to be very demanding on concentration. All of the play takes place in the main character’s, Henry’s, mind. At the beginning of the play there is unrecognizable noise, which remains during the whole play, alongside with shoveling. Then six shouted words emerge and then for almost seventeen minutes there is just one voice. After this period another voice come through. This time it is a woman talking. Her voice is very calm, almost monotonous apart from two times when she laughs. But still it remains at the same level of loudness. The whole drama is very gloomy and depressive. Embers is, what I would call, a minimalistic play. There are not many sound effects and still the listener my feel confused by the one sound that is continuously there to distract the listener’s concentration and lead him or her away from the play. This seems to be there to place hearers into very uncomfortable and unfriendly environment. Even though the play has altogether four characters, which is not a lot, there is a confusion in to whom the voices belong to. The voices of music master and riding master appear only few times and they are not even simple sentences but just several interjections, and that does not prove to be enough for the listener to realize who it should be.

MUSIC MASTER (Italian accent). Santa Cecilia!


ADDIE Will I play my piece now please?

Pause. MUSIC MASTER beats two bars of waltz time with ruler on piano case. ADDIE plays opening bars of Chopin's 5th Waltz in A Flat Major, MUSIC MASTER beating time lightly with ruler as she plays. In first chord of bass, bar 5, she plays E instead of F. Resounding blow of ruler on piano case. ADDIE stops playing.

MUSIC MASTER (violently). Fa!

ADDIE (tearfully). What?

MUSIC MASTER (violently). Eff! Eff!

ADDIE (tearfully). Where?

MUSIC MASTER (violently). Qua! (He thumps note.) Fa!
Pause. ADDIE begins again, MUSIC MASTER beating time lightly with ruler. When she comes to bar 5 she makes same mistake. Tremendous blow of ruler on piano case. ADDIE stops playing, begins to wail.

MUSIC MASTER (frenziedly). Eff! Eff! (He hammers note.) Eff! (He hammers note.) Eff! [Samnd]

Voices of Henry and Ada are recognizable. Overall, knowing that there are not many characters, and that is a good precondition for easily understand peace of listening, the play is very hard to follow. I believe that the play needs to be listened to several times over to get, at least, some understanding of the play. The radio drama review stated that “Beckett refuses to give us any information either to confirm or deny this. By the end of the play we are in much the same position as Henry himself, together with those critics trying to explain the 'meaning' of Beckett's work; they cannot explain the unexplainable.” [np101]

Another of those frequently used names is, without a doubt, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard does not play an significant part only to the BBC radio, because of the role he plays in British play writing. His radio drama, Artist Descending a Staircase (1972), where the main character is a blind girl whose interpretations easily mislead listeners. Undoubtedly this was the most ingenious use of sound, say Wade. [Wad81]

Now you see it, now you don’t. Such is the burden of this horseplay of Stoppard’s, which is premised on the notion that radio images are at bottom pure paradox. Being only imagined, they are all false. Being faithful to our fancies, they are all of them true. And being subject to revision as our reason demands, they are powerfully expressive of our need to make our senses. [Ell96]

In fact, Stoppard is important especially to Czech listeners because of his place of birth. He was born in the Czech Republic, in Zlín. In 1939 he emigrated at the age of two he fled with his family abroad and finally ended up in Britain. Stoppard is also the holder of numerous awards and honours out of which I would like to mention Giles Cooper Award for The Dog It Was That Died (1982) and In the Native State (1991). [npnd26]

Over the period of five months I had been looking at all the Afternoon drama broadcasted. This gave me a very good look at the number of writers that participated in April, May, June, July and August 2013. Even though there were almost 110 plays I had looked at there were not many names that repeatedly occurred. Many of the playwrights, like Macy Kahan, that had only one play on air during this period, have written series radio plays. Another name worth mentioning is Roy Smiles who wrote several plays for the Afternoon Drama program. He is also a song writer and he has written twenty four stage plays. [npnd27] Most of the playwrights, whose name had turned up during the five month period, do not only write radio plays but they also write theatrical plays or they already work for some of the BBC radio stations. Also the fact that many of them have written at least one book in their career, speaks about the nature of playwriting. There are many authors of radio plays who are very active, creative and energetic and it is not unusual for them to do playwriting alongside with another profession. Between the authors who would fit this description can be placed names like Kate Clanchy (A Nursery Tale), Sebastian Baczkiewicz (Pilgrim), Christopher William Hill (Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares!), Nick Warburton (Irongate), Patricia Davis (Birthday shoes) and many others. Unfortunately, to explore all of them is impossible therefore the two names bellow will serve as an example.

Sebastian Baczkiewicz wrote more than 40 plays for the BBC. He writes for radio, theatre and television. He is the first writer in residence. [npnd28] The work that he created for the BBC Afternoon Drama and that had been broadcasted in the crucial five months is Pilgrim. Pilgrim series 1 has been broadcasted, either on BBC radio 4 or on BBC radio 4 extra, five times. Although the last three broadcast took place in the 24 hour period that was explained in the previous chapter. The series has four episodes; He Who Would Valiant Be, Then Fancies Flee Away, No Foes Shall Stay His Might, ‘Gainst All disaster.

The Pilgrim is a man who always seems to turn up when a disaster is about to strike. The disaster is always something unnatural or even supernatural that is frightening the human kind. The Pilgrim acts as a saver of the mankind.

Pilgrim is summoned to help retrieve an egg stolen from the Lady Ursula - a huge, powerful dragon. The egg has been stolen by the outlaw Faerie, Puck, who has holed up in a house in a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. Puck has recruited a bunch of feral 'estate lads' to his army. Indeed, he has bewitched the whole town. Pilgrim must retrieve the egg before Ursula can exact a terrible retribution. [npnd29]

To listen to the Pilgrim series is pleasant and there is no difficulty to follow the plot of the story. Also voices of the characters are recognizable. In my view, it is mainly the sound effects that give it a mysterious feel.

Patricia Davis is another writer who is a playwright as well as poetry writer. She has also had several articles and books published and she has written a stage play. I would classify her afternoon play, Birthday Shoes, as a modern drama concerning a mother and daughter relationship that many listeners can relate to.

Pat Davis has written another beautiful play in BIRTHDAY SHOES. This story is told with poignancy, humour and shows how complex relationships can be healed through forgiveness. Pat has had seven plays broadcast on Radio Four, five on RTE and her play SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE was awarded a Sony Silver in 2002. She has also had two stage plays performed at the King's Head. [npnd30]

The play starts with Maisie dying and her daughter Kate is at her side. Kate is the main character and she is going back in time through her relationship with her mother. Kate is not happy with her life and blames mainly her mother even though she is always there for her. Kate’s mother is selfish and bitter about something in her past but we never get to know what it is. She chooses to be horrible to her older daughter Kate rather than to deal with it. The other half of the play deals with the relationship between Kate and her younger sister Sarah who was the favourite daughter. Throughout the play there is the strong sense of Kate being an outsider in her own family but she is constantly changing and towards the end Kate starts to be satisfied with herself.

The play is not overwhelmed with sound effects and they very nicely fulfil their purpose which is to place the listener to a set scene. In the background there is music to support the atmosphere, door shutting and opening, car engine and car door, a child playing, falling boxes, hospital machines and storm outside. Although there are only four characters there is a slight confusion about when Kate talks and when she thinks.

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