Drama, one of the more expensive forms of radio broadcasting, is losing airtime as the BBC scales back despite being recognized as an important breeding ground for British talent. Great playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter all gained experience in radio, and many leading writers, including Samuel Beckett, John Mortimer and Alan Plater, returned regularly to the form, drawn by its intimate quality.
Following complaints from listeners and advocacy group Audio UK – which has written to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator – the BBC’s commitment to developing authors and publishing one-of-a-kind radio plays is being called into question. Research from Audio UK shows that Radio 4’s drama production will have fallen by 50% by April 2023, while Ofcom has been directly overseeing the BBC. When it took over the former BBC Trust in 2017, it removed quotas that protected key genres on the BBC’s radio services.
The last BBC Trust operating license for Radio 4 required 600 hours of drama, but the last annual plan called for only 300 for next year. By contrast, in 1930 the fledgling BBC was producing twice as many plays as London’s West End. It was a popular and central part of the new medium, and by the mid-1940s 400 plays were being published annually.
Among the BBC radio plays that later became classic British films is the 1954 play by Robert Bolt A man for all seasons and Bill Naughtons Alfie Elkins and his little life in January 1962. Four years later, Naughton turned it into the screenplay for alfiewith Michael Caine.
“Audio drama and comedy are hugely important for the development of producing, writing, acting, presenting and directing talent,” said Chloe Straw, Managing Director of Audio UK. “Drama is also a way of presenting and reaching a diverse audience.”
A BBC radio producer attributed the loss of one of the weekly afternoon games to costs. The Monday drama at 2:15 p.m., now replaced by the art interview show This cultural lifewas often a repeat, dramas which the BBC believes could be accessed on BBC Sounds instead.
Playwright Tamsin Oglesby, who has written work for the National Theater and BBC radio, said there was increased pressure to keep casts small for radio productions. “Radio plays can be fantastic when authors take advantage of the limitations of the medium. Less if they mimic television,” she said. “Both theater and radio suffer from the imitation of television’s commission criteria, development process and formulaic tendencies.”
A BBC spokesman said: “We appreciate that people love BBC radio drama, so our focus is on making sure it thrives. Radio 4 is Drama’s largest client and we are investing in it by paying more to suppliers after years of cost freeze and innovating on-demand podcasts with ambitious podcasts to bring the joy of radio drama to a wider audience.”
Famous radio works include those of Dylan Thomas Under Milkwood (1954), Becketts All this fall (1957) and Pinters A slight pain (1959). Beckett wrote other short radio plays in the 1950s and 1960s. His radio play embers, broadcast on the BBC Third Program in June 1959, won the Prix Italia Award. Stoppard’s first professional production was for the BBC’s 15 Minutes production Shortly before midnight Program that presented new playwrights.
Joe Orton’s debut as a playwright was in 1963 The ruffian on the stairsaired August 31, 1964.
BBC radio is also under fire for cuts to the World Service over plans to make it “digital first”. Announcing the loss of 382 jobs, the company said: “High inflation, rising costs and a flat-rate royalty scheme have resulted in difficult decisions across the BBC and the BBC’s international services are due for a further £500m in annual savings and Reinvest to make the BBC digital.”
The proposals will make seven more voice services digital-only, meaning almost half of all 41 voice services will be online-only.
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