Radio Drama: A British Art

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Radio Drama: A British Art


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


THE imaginative bounds of radio are infinite space. David Mamet has challengingly declared that all radio drama needs is a microphone and the basic means of recording sound. Our age is given to, and driven by, the meretricious sophistication of technology. But radio is technically basic, and therefore potent in its demands on the resources of speaker and listener. Radio is not a medium for the passive and unimaginative. It may be potentially the most enriching, and the most democratic, of media. In a star-craving popular culture there is the discreet, literate and thoughtful voice accompanying the drive home or the domestic chores. Even in the cacophony, and among the deracinated and cynical, there exists a means of enchantment, for there is an aura of the fabulous, and an invitation to otherness, about radio. How we use these things is a matter to be discussed in the continual debate which is democracy within our lives as citizens. As citizens we need minds of our own. That we have minds is our guarantor that there is a place for anyone who cares to participate in the public space where the personal voice is paramount.

Not all broadcasting comes close to this ideal. Even programming of sincere, good intentions can be dull. But intelligent radio of the spoken word is inclined by nature toward the style and substance of literature. It cares about words, and about their meanings and effects. Intelligent speech-based radio has been called 'a writer's medium'. This may be true beyond the bounds of defined literary forms. There is a journalism that does not see news as a series of sensations, but which essays the deeper causes and implications of events. There is conversation of a kind that acknowledges the necessity of reason and fact in building a serious argument for a case. There is the use of wit, not for the sake of appearing clever, but to leaven the bread we are to share.

Radio as a writer's medium asks much of its contributors. The intensity and purity of form may be deemed poetic in contrast to the loose, discursive nature of the novel. A poem has to be excellent. So it is with radio drama. Radio is an unforgiving medium. Writers rarely sustain their careers exclusively in broadcasting. With few exceptions, successful radio writing comes from pens that have served an apprenticeship elsewhere. The career of Tom Stoppard illustrates this well. His 1972 Artist Descending a Staircase is a work perfectly attuned to its medium, a work of an articulate intellect at play with ideas and emotions. Beginning in experimental theatre. Tom Stoppard had gained (award-winning) experience as a theatre critic, television dramatist and novelist before he made tentative approaches to radio with two short pieces. They were perfect pieces, like lyric poems.

Intelligent radio also asks much of its audience for whom there is much to gain in enriching personal experience. In the thirties of the last century a back street child no more than ten years in age heard a radio adaptation of Les Miserables. He bought a copy from somewhere, with a French dictionary. Unimaginable deprivation had found the resource to develop. Alan Sillitoe's self-education began with this experience. It is likely that so determined a boy from the Nottingham working class would have found other means of self-education, for there were many, but the radio in the sitting-room made his pathway so much clearer. That is an extreme example, chosen because it shows in bold outline the experience of many lives which, denied education, found an enhanced life in higher culture through radio. Writers and thinkers became familiar even to those who did not read them, for they had heard them on the radio. In some cases it could lead casual listeners to the libraries, museums and theatres. Especially in wartime, culture can become a form of democratic resistance both to oppressive mechanisms of power and to the regressive undercurrents within society. Alan Sillitoe found culture to be liberating.

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