Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Communal Listening

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Communal Listening

Article excerpt

To Herne Bay in Kent for the UK International Radio Drama Festival: 50 plays from 17 countries in 15 languages broadcast over five days to the festival audience. It's an opportunity to find out what radio plays sound like in other countries, but also to experience a different kind of listening. About 25 of us were invited into a suite of rooms furnished with flock wallpaper, floral sofas and armchairs to take us back to the great age of radio listening in the 1950s. A kettle boils in the background; buttered scones on a tiered rack are sitting ready for us to pounce on at the next pause between plays.

Melanie Nock and Jonathan Banatvala launched the festival four years ago, surprised by the fact that the UK, the biggest consumer (and producer) of radio plays in the world, didn't already have its own celebration of this very particular, and very of-the-moment art form. (Elsewhere in Europe there's the Prix Marulic held on a sun-baked island off the coast of Croatia, the Grand Prix Nova in Romania, and the prestigious Prix Europa.) It's not just that with radio drama you can listen for free without leaving home, so it's very accessible and democratic; it can also be far more adventurous than theatre or film. There's no need to obey the unities of time and space; we can go anywhere, any time in our imaginations without leaving the room. All that the writers and producers must do is ensure they take us with them, giving us freedom to roam but never letting us lose the thread.

Nock, from a theatre background, believes the community aspect of listening should be revived. And it does change the experience. It was weird to hear people around me laughing at the jokes in RTE's Surviving Ireland drama-documentary as if there was a studio audience, only to realise the laughs were coming from inside the room not out of the radio set on the sideboard. It probably also makes you more open to the unusual, more willing to keep listening, to be taken out of your comfort zone. But the festival is also intended as an opportunity to bring to the UK plays from across the world. There are prizes for the best short-form and best long-form productions, given by a jury made up of listeners at the festival and chaired this year by Tomas Soldan from Czech Radio, plus an audience prize. On Wednesday we heard plays from Iran, Romania, Denmark and Germany, as well as from the BBC.

There's a real difference in approach, with the plays from central Europe and beyond often more experimental, less intent on narrative, than we are used to. …

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