Magazine article The Spectator

Noises Off

Magazine article The Spectator

Noises Off

Article excerpt

'Words are all we have, ' said one of the characters, a writer, on the Saturday-afternoon play on Radio Four.

Not on radio, they're not. That's the great thing about radio drama. The voices, the spot effects, the way it sounds, are just as crucial in conjuring up a sense of place, an atmosphere. A train hoots, piercing and peremptory, before letting off steam and rumbling away across the rails into the distance. A voice breaks through, speaking in French, and suddenly you're in Europe at the end of the second world war with the United Nations volunteers who are trying to help the former inmates of Buchenwald find their way back home. A little later another train hoots, but in a different key, eerie but not menacingly so, a dog barks, playfully, and you're transported to the American West, swinging on the porch, under a huge dome-like sky, black as night, watching the stars come out.

At least that's how it should work, but rarely does these days. Too often there's not enough difference between the timbre, the modulation of the actors' voices so that it's almost impossible to tell the characters apart. Or else everyone overacts drastically in a panicky attempt to be convincing. The dramatists, and their producers, seem to have forgotten when writing plays for radio that their listeners need extra help at the beginning to establish character and to memorise which voice belongs to whom, and so a little bit of repetition, inexcusable in the theatre or on the page, is essential.

Discontent among writers for radio has been rumbling ever since the Birtian reformation, which dismantled the existing departments for commissioning and revising play scripts for broadcast and instead introduced the 'internal market', buying in work from independent companies.

Producers no longer had the expertise or the budget to work with writers on developing scripts. Which explains why there are so many dud plays, badly conceived, badly written, badly acted.

Sunday-night's drama on Radio Three, Regime Change, was a classic example. I was anticipating a clever skit on current events (it was billed as being inspired by Shakespeare's Julius Caesar); a dramatic exposé of East versus West relations;

something along the lines of Rory Bremner crossed with David Hare. We were in Istanbul, although apart from the music (which was rather good and cleverly used, just short spurts of Turkish-sounding strings and pipes between scenes) we had nothing to go on -- no street noise, no carhorns, no blasts from the muezzin, no crows squawling, none of that Eastern bedlam. …

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