Friday, November 05, 2010

World Service drama

A guest post by radio drama producer Gordon House.

Given that I spent much of my professional life working initially as producer and then as Head of the small BBC World Service Drama team, it is hardly surprising that I feel so dismayed by the announcement that from April next year World Service will no longer be broadcasting drama in their schedules. Well, that’s not strictly true; they will still transmit the winning plays in the biennial World Service play competition, but how can these prize winners feel valued in splendid isolation, with no regular output of drama against which to compare their work?

The World Service management has decided ‘with a heavy heart’ that finances are so precarious, drama must be sacrificed. I sympathise with the predicament faced by Craig Oliver, the English Controller of Global News. (Not a title, incidentally, to inspire those working under him in non-news areas!) For too long programme budgets have been salami-sliced to spread the misery evenly amongst different programme areas. While an entire year’s World Service drama budget would hardly keep the National Theatre open for a week, drama – because of its talent costs – is expensive in pure radio terms. How tempting it must be for a Controller reviewing a financial spread sheet to think of it as an expendable luxury in these cash-conscious times.

But does that justify killing off a whole genre?

Let me give you a brief history of drama on the World Service.

It appeared in the schedules from the outset of the BBC’s international broadcasting in 1932, on what was then called The Empire Service. If you were take any week at random – say the first week of June 1936 – you would find, sandwiched between a talk on Agriculture In The British Isles by Sir William Lobjoit and Idle Tears; An Interlude Of Victorian Sentimental Songs - a new play written for broadcasting by J.S.N Sewell, beguilingly entitled A Lady Loved A Swine.

Children were catered for too. The citizens of Toytown were already squabbling and making up in S.G. Hulme Beaman’s inspired children’s fantasy, which twenty years later, on the BBC Home Service, would be my first entree into the wonderful world of Radio Drama (I was a vegetarian for three years, fearful that I might otherwise be eating a close relation of Larry the Lamb). And if the whole family wanted a little gentle scaring, on Thursdays you could listen to extracts from old thrillers -The Plays Your Grandparents Loved” – performed with suitable gusto by Jenny Lyn and the wonderfully-named Tod Slaughter.

The Empire Service became the General Overseas Service; its listings magazine changed from The Empire Programme Pamphlet through World Radio to London Calling. And drama flourished. In the mid-1950’s Peter Forster would be writing a page preview of each week’s drama offerings – a rich mix indeed; not simply half hour plays and the early episodes of a new series – “a story of country folk” called The Archers, but major dramatisations of great works of literature and the stage (Donald Wolfit starring as Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit; John Gielgud and Rex Harrison in The Importance of Being Earnest ). And on 2nd December 1954, the General Overseas Service re-broadcast an original radio drama, the winner of the 1954 Prix Italia, starring Richard Burton, and arguably the greatest radio play ever written – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, who had died at a tragically early age the previous year.

But what the network lacked was a Radio Drama Unit of its own; the plays it broadcast – largely of British origin – were made for a strictly British audience. This was a problem both technical and editorial. Many of the dramas, drawing on shared cultural assumptions and knowledge, must have sounded ludicrously inapposite for listeners living in Delhi or Nairobi; and shortwave was a dispiritingly ineffective medium for the dissemination of the sort of subtly-realised sound backgrounds that accompanied plays on the BBC Home Service. And so the General Overseas Service created its own small team of drama producers, with the express purpose of making their plays more relevant – and audible – to its international listenership.

I joined the World Service drama team as an attachee producer in 1977; it was the start of 23 marvellous years, in which the Unit changed out of all recognition. But the professional seeds had been sown long before I joined; John Pitman and Jim Vowden were two much-respected producers who between them directed some of the world’s great classic dramas with major British actors. And two of the projects of which I am most proud, the establishment of our biennial International Play Competition and the launch of Westway, the World Service soap (under the inspirational editorship of another long standing World Service producer, David Hitchinson) had their genesis in prior initiatives by Dickon Reed and Derek Hoddinott.

My first production was an abridged version of Becket’s Waiting For Godot with George Cole, Norman Rodway and Charles Gray; the quality of the cast an indication of the acting talent that we’ve always been able to attract to Bush House. My colleague Hilary Norrish and I gave Ewan McGregor his first two professional acting roles; Walter Acosta – a much-loved Uruguayan drama producer (who for many years had Sir John Gielgud voicing his ansaphone) gave Trevor Howard his last role – as King Lear. Squeezing every penny out of budgets that are, and remained, extremely modest for the work produced, we initiated a project called Globe Theatre where major authors such as Wole Soyinka, Frederick Rapahel and Mario Vargas Llosa wrote us international radio plays.

We teamed up with Los Angeles Theatre Works to make radio plays in America (where I directed Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockhart in The Glass Menagerie). We produced Shakespeare seasons, and toured Africa promoting the Bard; we ran drama workshops in Zimbabwe and Cameroon; we formed the Worldplay Group and scheduled international seasons with Radio Drama producers from all around the world. We mounted co-production initiatives with CBC, with ABC and with the British Council, all designed to spread budgets and increase our effectiveness. And we started to win awards – David Suchet for his extraordinary rendering of The Kreutzer Sonata; Ian Holm for a magisterial performance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood; David Hitchinson for his superb production of The Heart of a Dog. In the last 20 years the Radio Drama Unit has won more than 30 national or international prizes.

When Marion Nancarrow succeeded me as Head of World Service Drama in 2000, she made the laudable decision to broaden further the international remit of the Unit, actively seeking voices from outside the UK to complement the diet of British and World classic dramas that continued to be broadcast. Runt, a one-man show about being Jamaican-American, won a Sony Gold for best Drama. Twelve young writers from 10 different countries wrote different segments of a play online on the theme of water. (We Are Water). Together with the Slade School of Fine Art, Marion commissioned videos from artists in Israel, Uganda, China and Australia, inspiring dramatists from these same countries to write the play The View From Here. After running a writing workshop in Qatar, Marion commissioned seven writers to devise a drama about life in the Middle East: Al Amwaj (The Waves.)

In October this year World Service listeners heard Stages Of Independence, a collaboration with British African Theatre company, Tiata Fahodzi, where in front of a packed house at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in London an ensemble cast performed excerpts from plays written in those African countries which gained independence 50 years ago. And the British writer Katie Hims is currently working with Theatre for a Change to bring World Service the stories of sex workers and teachers in Malawi, two of the highest risk groups for HIV/AIDS, which will be broadcast for International Women’s Day.

I repeat: do financial pressures justify killing off a whole genre and ending this rich cultural heritage? Drama forms part of the heritage, incidentally, that our new Foreign Secretary, in his speech earlier this year, ‘Britain's Foreign Policy in a Networked World’ was at such pains to single out. He spoke of ‘the essential importance of the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service, which give Britain an unrivalled platform for the projection of the appeal of our culture and the sharing of our values.’

The primary function of World Service must always be the dissemination of reliable news and information , but for me drama and storytelling are a vital complement to international news. A good play can shed light on issues and events that a straightforward news story simply can’t reach. A drama like this year’s Tinniswood Award winner, Ivan And The Dogs by Hattie Naylor, tells you more about immediate post-perestroika Moscow than any number of short news items, because drama gives you an emotional involvement and investment in its protagonists.

Besides which, radio dramas also provided a wonderful showcase (and creative outlet) for the rich seam of writing and acting talent to be found in the UK. By scheduling drama, World Service was providing programming with which no other international broadcaster could compete or remotely challenge. My former boss at BBC World Service, Anthony Rendell, used to talk about news and current affairs as being important but ephemeral, while drama, documentaries and other arts programmes as having more real and lasting value. Indeed for over half a century it was the belief of BBC overseas broadcasters and their government sponsors that a mixed network, was essential to reflect the full strength and variety of British life. Cutting drama, alongside recent cuts to many other non-news programmes, appears to mark a complete philosophical shift away from this view,

Drama, of course, will never provide the sheer audience numbers who tune in to hear the World Service news. Listening to a play demands an investment of time that many people simply don’t feel they have; it is their loss. I remember Graham Mytton, an ex-head of World Service Audience Research, patiently explaining to a group of sceptical suits from the Foreign Office that listeners would always respond to the question ‘What do you listen to on World Service?’ with the answer, ‘The news.’ But if the question was altered to ‘Which programme have you most valued, enjoyed or been moved by in the past year?’, the answer was invariably a documentary or a drama.

I am, of course, a very biased observer, but I can't help thinking that one day the penny might drop that, whatever the economic pressures, in terminating a whole strand of output, World Service managers have, like Othello's base Indian, ‘thrown a pearl away richer than all his tribe.’ Is it too late to reverse this decision? Surely the recent announcement that World Service will be funded by the licence fee could be the catalyst for Radio 4 to combine forces with World Service to devise dramas that could be enjoyed by both domestic and international listeners? I sincerely hope this might be the case.

Even those who find radio plays deadly dull might welcome the continuation of the genre. My very favourite letter of hundreds I received while Head of the World Service Drama Unit was from a listener in Uganda who wrote: “Thank you, thank you Mr House for your long and challenging dramas. I have great difficulty sleeping – until, that is, I start listening to one of your plays. Keep up the good work!”

Alas, from next April there will be no more good work, unless the World Service reverses its decision.

Gordon House worked in the World Service Drama Unit from 1977-2000, when he became Head of Radio Drama. He retired from the BBC in 2005, but continues to direct occasional radio plays as a freelance producer.


  1. As a dedicated radio drama listener I must thank you for this eloquent defense of the form. Linking Radio 4 to World Service to distribute plays makes a lot of sense. BBC is still the best radio drama producer and distributor in the world. Don't let this distinguished position slip away.
    Ms Pat Flannagan
    Orlando, Florida USA

  2. As a dedicated radio drama listener I must thank you for this eloquent defense of the form. Linking Radio 4 to World Service to distribute plays makes a lot of sense. BBC is still the best radio drama producer and distributor in the world. Don't let this distinguished position slip away.
    Ms Pat Flannagan
    Orlando, Florida USA


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