Sunday, February 25, 2007

Radio schlock

On Friday in the Guardian Zoe Williams wrote this:
It's all very well calling Radio 4 drama inexplicably bad, but someone must be able to explain it. So I am going to make a stab at this. And then later, I am going to stab the person who commissions these plays.

It's the same everywhere I go. Yesterday I went to a party and as usual I was asked about my writing, and whenever I happened to mention that I hadn't written radio for a while, people relaxed and said: 'Oh yes, cos it's all crap nowadays, isn't it?'

Honestly, it's enough to make me think of taking radio off my CV...

Zoe Williams thinks the problem is that the themes chosen are too ambitious - (pandemics, Shoah, etc) - too ambitious anyway for Radio 4 which she associates unquestioningly with 'schlocky dialogue'. (Cringe.)

Well, I think it's the commissioning process, which took over at the end of the nineties. As I've said before, when I first started writing radio plays you wrote what you wanted, sent it in, and if they liked it they produced it. And there were real respect and encouragement in radio for good writing, which was rewarded each year with the now defunct Giles Cooper Award. But things changed, the BBC restructured and the dreaded Commissioning Rounds came in, and the 'Market' became quite frankly more important than the writer or the writing. Commissioning Editors decided on trends of the moment (in themes and style), and writers and directors had to pitch ideas within those parameters, following instructions as far as possible but much of the time second-guessing. (It was round about then that I heard from someone in the know, I can't remember who, that Tom Stoppard's agent contacted BBC Radio to say that Stoppard would like to write them a play and was told to tell him to send in a proposal, and they'd decide if it was suitable.)

If you did get commissioned, there were plenty of other obstacles to overcome. When I wrote my comedy series The Circle, each episode as I wrote it had to be read by not just my director, but a script editor, an executive producer and the head of drama, all answering to the Commissioning Editor and all coming back with separate comments according to criteria I hadn't guessed at and which now hit me like a bombshell. 'We want heart-warming drama,' they told me. 'Get rid of the irony, please.'

Get rid of the irony? But I had won prizes for my irony! My writing is irony!

Well, I was lucky with my producers: we talked and they understood and all was right in the end. Radio commissioning changes all the time, and I don't know the current situation, but you do sense that those big themes are being thought up in boardrooms. And I do know that writers write best when they're writing from the heart and not by numbers imposed from above.

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