My Radio Drama Career
A couple of years ago, the novelist Jane Rogers wrote a Guardian article, arguing that serious writers shouldn’t look down their noses at the chance of writing radio drama. Quite right. If it was scorn that was holding them back they should recognise the potential and value of the form, although casual readers might be forgiven for thinking that radio producers are sitting idly waiting, hoping that some day someone might send them a script. Not so. There is a massive army of wannabe writers already slaving away, trying to get their own radio dramas on the air. I should know. For twelve years I was one of them.
You can see the attraction. Five slots a week, fifty slots in a year, how hard can it be? But it isn’t, of course, as simple as that. and if you’re serious about learning how radio drama works, there is a lot to learn. Websites, workshops, residential Arvon courses combine to instruct aspiring radio dramatists that they’d better listen a lot and read a lot if they want to break into the field.
I can remember watching Terry (no, that’s not his name, but all the radio names in this article are changed). He was a radio writer, in action on an Arvon course. His mantra was “get in late, get out early.” Don’t waste time setting the scene, or explaining what’s just happened. Focus on what you really need. He’d listen to a student’s scene, hear it just once, without having a copy in front of him, and then say “ Your scene should start with THIS line, and finish with THAT one. “ Very impressive, like watching a surgeon at work.
Maybe this is a disciplined profession, where novices work their way through a planned apprenticeship, before they are granted the privilege of getting a play on air. But that’s not how it feels. It feels like a postcode lottery. In London and Manchester there are creative producers, looking for new talent to encourage. In Birmingham, they do The Archers and not much else, and it takes them a year to answer any kind of communication, though you’re lucky to get an answer at all. In the absence of a clear, consistent structure, we wannabes cling together, attend workshops and courses, and share a jungle wisdom about how to reach the grail.
There is meant to be a channel for aspiring writers, and it’s called the writersroom. But the jungle wisdom is that the writersroom gets thousands of scripts a year, most of which drop down a bottomless hole. How many plays have been broadcast which were sent to the writersroom? How many practising playwrights were discovered that way? Katie Hims, who for me writes better radio drama than anyone, started radio life as a young writer recruited to a local development scheme, but she was lucky to be living in the right place.
Jungle wisdom says “find a producer.” How do you do that? You listen a lot, you find stuff that you like, or stuff that’s like what you write, and then you write to the producer saying “I really enjoyed your production X. Would you be interested in looking at my script Y ?” Or you can go on an Arvon course, where there’ll be two tutors, probably a writer and a producer. There’ll be a visiting speaker, who might be a writer or producer. And somewhere in there may be a person to whom you can later send a script.
In 2002 I was lucky. Having cleared in advance that I could send a script to the producer who was running our course, I got a reply from his PA, who I’ll call Jackie: “I always try to get to read things first because he does tend to lose scripts and sit on them for ages.” She liked the script I sent but thought it would probably be better as a series of half hour episodes. I revamped it, and responded to her request for a list of other possible projects. She picked one about a boy who was crazy about the Everly Brothers. I wrote her a full script, and enclosed a tape of the music. She took those to a 1:1 meeting with the overall controller of radio drama, who approved the idea in principle. Come the final hurdle of decision time, Jackie’s company submitted eighteen projects and got none accepted. She advised me I’d be better off with someone else, a BBC producer rather than an independent.
Despite jungle wisdom, I did try the writersroom. In 2004 I sent them Raising Standards, my satirical take on New Labour’s education stance, where a new education minister (Karen) wonders whether or not to back a wonder drug which will improve pupils’ attainment, despite the scepticism of her teacher husband Dave:
“Not enough is made of the Dave/Manjit strand in its juxtaposition with the main plot...In the end, I didn’t feel that the play quite got to the heart of Karen’s story and journey as a character.”
It’s a bit solemn, adapting the current film theory wisdom, that there must be a single protagonist and the play is about their “journey”, whereas I saw it as an entertaining exploration of how people in power can delude themselves. But it’s a detailed, considered comment, which has had thought and effort put into it. And then you wonder. Do these criteria apply to all the stuff that actually gets broadcast? Are all their characters clearly on a journey? No way. Listen to every radio play for a fortnight and you’ll find cardboard characters, clunky dialogue and stale ideas. All the best tutors on every radio course I’ve attended say “It’s a lottery. Afternoon drama is occasionally brilliant, but often dire. If you’re looking for a rational approach or a consistent standard, forget it.”
Are we downhearted? Of course not. Suddenly, Birmingham has Michelle, a specially appointed producer in charge of developing new writers, so she becomes the obvious target. I send her a play. She likes it, and wants me to make a few changes. No problem. I’ve written for publishers and drama groups, I’m very happy to cut things, change things, respond to demands. So I make the changes Michelle wants, send them off, and hear nothing. I ring Rachel, her PA, who promises Michelle will get back to me. The third time I ring Rachel, she says “Hasn’t she got back to you yet?” in a tone of some exasperation, and gives me Michelle’s direct number. I ring this three times, and each time leave a message. I never hear from her again.
I try the writersroom again. This time I send them a play called Flying to Beslan, based on the writings of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskya. It’s about the war in Chechnya, and they’re concerned that “the play does occasionally seem to reflect the views of an apologist for the Chechen cause.” Oh dear. Insufficiently neutral, but that’s Politkovskya’s fault. They’re also not happy with the climax, where Anna is flying to Beslan to cover the school hostage story, when she’s drugged on the plane.
“My main criticism is the almost too comfortable setting in the microcosm of the plane, which brings together these two very different women, but within which the threats to Anna that she narrates seem less than menacing. Also, the episode of her being drugged at the end feels a bit clumsy and not in keeping with the rest.”
But that’s the point. Anna’s story seems far-fetched, and it’s hard to believe people are trying to kill her, but they are. The drugging on the plane may seem unlikely or surprising, but that is how it happened. I would like to have been sure that the commentator knew that, but I never got the chance to find out.
Though I did get to meet Anna Politkovskaya. In May 2005 she was speaking at the Hay festival, and I went to hear her, with two of her books and my drama script in my hand. In the Hay session she spoke entirely in Russian, accompanied by an intepreter. When I went to get the books signed I wasn’t sure that giving her a copy of the script was such a good idea, but the interpreter was enthusiastic. “Great. I can read it to her in the train on the way home.” From then on I had this lovely mental picture of two women in a train, one of them reading instant Russian translations of the speeches of all five of my characters, while the other one listened in astonishment. And when Politkovskaya was killed, just over a year later, I hoped even more that that had happened.
But if you’re dealing with real live characters, you have to be careful. The following year I had a brain wave. Good radio plays need the right music, and I was convinced I’d found it. Gail Davies is a country and western singer/songwriter, with a terrific catalogue of songs which aren’t as widely known as they should be. She’s also an intelligent, rebellious character who didn’t accept the stereotypical view of what woman could and should do in the world of country music.
My play, A Difficult Woman, drew on biographical information I’d researched about her, interspersed with songs about her southern states upbringing, her family, and the way men ill-treat women. I showed it to a friend, who was also a Gail Davies fan, and took her advice to send the singer my script. The email that came back was copied to her lawyer:
“Dear Mr. Francis, I am not at all happy with the letter you recently sent to me and the play you have written using my name and puttings words into my mouth that I have never spoken...The book I am currently writing, my autobiography, is dedicated to difficult women so I’m also a bit put off by the idea that you are using that as the working title for your play.”
OK, she can put me right about her family history. But she doesn’t own the copyright to the phrase “difficult woman”, and neither of those needs the backing of a legal threat. Moral: don’t write about your heroes. Or if you do, don’t tell them about it.
But the next year there was more progress. Crystal Clear ran a competition for historical scripts, and I was one of three winners. No Side But My Own moved between three contemporary teenage girls and the Shrewsbury soldier John Benbow , who changed sides during the English Civil War. The prize was twofold: an intensive mentoring session with an experienced radio playwright, and then the experience of watching this play being recorded in a studio, by a good amateur cast and crew.
This, surely, would be a useful calling card. I wote to Birmingham BBC to say I’d won this competition, and to ask if they would be interested in considering the play for broadcasting. By now Michelle had moved on, but as it happened her former PA, Rachel, had moved into her place. She would surely appreciate the problems and pressures involved. I wrote, saying that I knew Birmingham were busy, but would be grateful if they could let me know whether it was worth trying them, or should I apply elsewhere? I got no reply.
By July 2011 I was beginning to feel that I was wasting my time. My final throw of the dice was to go on another Arvon radio course. I took with me my current project, Suzy’s Story, loosely based on the experience of Vanessa Peroncell, Wayne’ Bridge’s partner, who had been accused of having an affair with John Terry. One of the scenes features a row between Suzy and her friend Jan. They’ve shared a secret on the phone, which has then appeared in a tabloid. Suzy is sure that her friend has tipped the paper off. Could the phone possibly have been hacked?
Arvon courses are meant to be insulated from the outside world. No newspapers, no TV, nothing to disturb the creative process. But the Murdoch scandal was beginning to break, and some of the students just couldn’t help following it on their phones. They were amazed by my prescience at having already used this in a script. The tutor was less impressed. “You realise that this is dead in the water?” Of course, he was right. The play depended on phone-hacking being a remote possibility, but now it was everyone’s immediate assumption. Even if a script is finally approved, it then takes anything from six months to several years for it to actually get broadcast. But what annoyed me was that it had already sat for six months without a response, three of them with a producer who said he welcomed unsolicited scripts but then changed his mind, and three of them with the writersroom.
You know what’s coming. It’s tough, this trail, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. “In the pub I met this radio producer, who’d just happened to move into my area...” That can happen, but not to me. The ending of my story is a bit different. After the Arvon course I gave myself another year of trying to break into radio drama. If it didn’t happen within twelve months, then maybe it wouldn’t happen at all.
The most recent advice I’d had from a radio drama workshop was to explore key opportunities in time and place. Local theme for local studios, and if there was a topical dimension, some kind of anniversary for instance, so much the better. I was laughing. I live in Much Wenlock, home of Dr. William Brookes, who founded the Olympian Games in 1850. These are one of the key precursors for the modern Olympic Games, and Brookes had a close friendship with Baron Pierrre de Coubertin. This history is not widely known, so if I could write a radio drama using my local knowledge of that story, Olympic year would be the ideal time to get it broadcast. Even better, I had two possible outlets. Birmingham was the closest radio studio, but a writer friend who’d encouraged me to develop this play said he’d give me the name of a radio producer in Bristol who might be interested.
I wrote a first draft of the play, and sent it to this producer at the end of July 2011. Having heard nothing, I sent it to Birmingham in April 2012. Now, in December 2012, I’ve still not heard from either of them. The Olympics have come and gone, and so has my chance of broadcasting The Olympian Doctor Brookes.
When I was teaching, I used to do an assembly for older teenagers called Coping with Rejection. The theme had elastic relevance, unemployment to being unromantically dumped, but the illustrative material came from my attempts to get a novel published. Slowly I dealt out the rejection letters from various publishers, reading out the funniest bits, until I got to no. 12. “Dear Mr. Francis, We are unable to locate your manuscript...” I know that wannabe writing is meant to be hard. I won a poetry competition once, and then entered a further thirteen in which I gained absolutely no success of any kind. Being turned down is a necessary part of the game, but for refusal to offer even a response radio drama is the worst genre of all.
In ten years I’ve written sixteen 45-minute plays, and contacted nineteen radio producers, some of whom have replied. I have a small collection of positive comments from people I respect. But I’m no closer to having anything broadcast than I was twelve years ago, and after considerable reflection I’ve decided to call it a day. I shall keep listening, admiring Katie Hims and cursing at all sorts of other garbage that gets broadcast, but that’s it. My New Year resolution is to stop beating my head against the wall.