The Stage

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28th January 2010

Whereas the BBC was once the stronghold of radio drama, other means of producing plays are cropping up today such as collaborations with newspaper websites and the creation of online theatre companies. Matthew Hemley investigates the new genre.

Think radio drama and you're likely to think BBC. That is because, for a long time, the Corporation's plethora of radio stations have catered well for fans of audio plays, with slots such as Radio 4's Afternoon Play and Classic Serial leading the way.  The picture, however, is changing.

Frustration at the ever decreasing budgets producers are expected to make a show for BBC Radio, combined with the fact that the amount of drama actually being broadcast by the Corporation is in decline, has forced producers to begin consdering their options.

And the nail in the coffin came last year, when the BBC announced changes to its commissioning process. This saw production companies, who were once able to submit ideas for the Radio 4's Afternoon Play slot, in commissioning rounds that took place twice yearly, having to bid for two-year batch commissions.

While this system may provide the security of two years guaranteed work for those whose bids are successful, it leaves those not so lucky having to wait a long time before they can bid again. With such issues in mind, producers of audio drama are starting to consder other platforms available to them. And just as television producers have realised that a small box in the corner of someone's living room is not the only platform they have to make their content available, so producers, writers and performers of radio drama are realising that the BBC does not have to be the only home for their work.

Last year, production company Made In Manchester launched a new initiative to make audio dramas available online via The Independent newspaper's website, and as part of this, has formed an alliance with leading writers and actors who are also keen to take part in the work the company produces.

Creative director Ashley Byrne explains that the idea behind the initiative is to get people excited about radio drama again and to provide opportunities for writers, directors and actors who want to work in the medium, but who feel frustrated by the limited opportunities at the BBC.

"It frustrates me that we have a really great genre here which is being under-utilised and under-promoted" says Byrne "Radio drama can be just as exciting and ground breaking as TV drama, or film, but we seem to have forgotten about its qualities.  Apart from a limited number of slots on the BBC, there's little opportunity for writers, actors or listeners to appreciate it anymore."

Made in Manchester, which still regularly creates programmes for the BBC, started the ball rolling last year with a play called Turning's Test, written by Phil Collinge and Andy Lord, starring Samuel Barnett. Available to hear directly on the Independent website or to download, Turning's Test was followed by a play about Oscar Wilde starring Simon Callow, called Death in Genoa.

The fact that someone as high-profile as Callow was keen to take part - especially give the fact that an online production does not necessarily guarantee the audience that might come with a BBC show - only demonstrates how appealing creating audio drama for the iPod generation can be to actors. For Callow, the appeal had a lot to do with the speed which Made in Manchester's productions can be created, because as most people who have worked for the BBC know, it can take a long time for commissioning decisions to get through the system.

"What is especially exciting abou Made in Manchester and The Independent;s outfit is the speed with which they can commission, produce plays and get them on air" says Callow.

Writers and directors agree too, with the likes of playwright Tim Fountain and director Joyce Brannagh joining Made In Manchester's line up of talent, that the company is planning to work with in the future to create audio dramas. Fountain says any drama that "bypasses the turgid commissioning process" and brings work directly to tge audience "has to be a good thing", while Branagh says Made In Manchester's new inititave will bring radio drama to new ears.

It's not just Made In Manchester, however, that is pulling star talent to create new and original audio dramas. The Wireless Theatre Company has been doing it since 2007 and describes itself as an "online audio theatre company". It produces radio plays that can be downloaded from the company website and listened to on an MP3 player.

The company has worked with the likes of Prunella Scales and Timothy West on new productions, and is about to launch a new website in the spring, which will be devoted to creating original audio productions for children.

The founder of The Wireless Theatre Company is Mariele Runacre Temple, who says she was inspired to set it up after doing some radio drama while training to be an actress.

"I really enjoyed the work I did for radio while training" she says "but I found it very difficult to find any work in the medium once I'd graduated. The only roles seemed to be at the BBC and I found it very difficult to get auditions for them"

She adds "The work they [The BBC] produce has always been inspring to us, but there are so many talented writers out there who, for whatever reason, haven't been able to get their foot in the door at the BBC and these writers are always delighted when we say we are going to produce one of their pieces"

Temple says the aim of her company is to produce "exciting edgy, unique and challenging productions" without the "limitations that the BBC and other larger companies have to abide"

All of the company's dramas are availble for free and money is made by the company by charging audiences to attend some of it's live recordings.

Like Made In Manchester, the Wireless Theatre Company does not struggle to attract big names to work on its productions.

"It's undoubtedly most actors' dream to work with the BBC, but we still offer them the chance to work on interesting new scripts, in a professional studio" Temple says. She adds that when the company first started she wrote to every actor in the UK asking for advice, donations or if they would like to be involved in some way. She reveals that top talent such as Alison Steadman and Richard Wilson responded, and adds that Prunella Scales and Nicholas Parsons were two people particularly keen on getting involved.

"They felt putting downloadable plays on the internet was a novel way of keeping such a great medium alive" she says.

The Wireless Theatre Company does not just focus on drama, with its offerings including sketch shows and comedies that can also be downloaded for free.

Meanwhile, other names in comedy have also realised how the internet can work for them in reaching audiences, with comedian and writer Richard Herring last year launching a new initiative called As It Occurs To Me, a sketch show that is recorded live before a paying audience which is then made availale as a podcast for free the following day.  Herring has had numerous shows on TV and radio, but like many others, he thinks people get frustrated by the fact that working for a broadcaster means you are answering to so many people.

He claims that producing something in the way that, Made in Manchester and The Wireless Theatre Company are, allows for greater creative control.

"I think there's a way for people who are frustrated at the difficulty of getting things on and the numver of good things that are pulled off TV after a series or two" he says "I've been lucky to get things on the radio and TV, but you're at the mercy of other people. As a creative person and, as I get older, I just want to get my stuff heard and out there"

Matthew Hemley

The Stage - 28th January 2010

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