Writing radio plays offers enormous freedom for your imagination says Mick Martin.
Dear Sir or Madam" the letter began. "I should be grateful if you'd consider the enclosed play for production on Radio 4. I originally wrote it as a stage play, but a number of people who have read it have suggested that it wouldn't really work in the theatre. So I thought it might do for the radio".
I never found out whether the letter was real or apocryphal. But a radio drama producer I knew was fond of quoting it as an illustration of one of the most prevalent reasons why scripts submitted for radio fail to "make it" - namely that they reflect fundamental misapprehensions about what radio drama is.
Not too many people, perhaps, view radio as some kind of "last refuge" which takes in pieces that have no other natural home, and somehow makes them work. But there are other more subtle variations on the theme - the assumption that radio is good for plays that depend primarily on debate and polemic, for example, or the notion that it's the place for drama in which not much happens, because the audience isn't watching anything. If a play is so wordy or so static that it would bore the pants off everybody in a theatre, it'll also bore the pants off them on radio. Drama works because it tells a story, because it allows the suspension of disbelief through the creation of rounded characters, careful plotting, fluent dialogue etc., and because it moves, absorbs, entertains and challenges its audience. This is as true of radio as of any other medium. And this is the bit you need to get right first.
Having said that, radio is a different and particular medium. Its essential difference is perhaps best understood by considering the position of the listener. The spectator in a theatre or watching television is presented with clearly defined and "finished" pictures that express the drama. On radio (which in its way is actually no less visual a medium), listeners are invited to supply their own pictures.
This has obvious implications for the writer. As well as telling the story and creating the drama, it's up to you to help the listener by furnishing the information that will enable him to create the pictures. Nothing is better guaranteed to make a listener switch off than leaving him desperately trying to figure out where we are, who's present and why, and what the hell's going on. Each scene needs to give a clear and immediate picture of the location, and of the characters present. If there are more than two, each character needs to speak or be referred to early in the scene. The sudden interjection five minutes into a scene by a character you didn't realise was there scores "nil points" in the suspension of disbelief stakes.
The listener also needs to know what the characters are doing. Of course there may be instances when there is a particular dramatic reason why they're simply talking. In the majority of cases, though, people talk to each other while they are doing something else. It needs to be clear what. In the absence of information to the contrary the listener will build a rather bizarre picture of your characters standing bolt upright and stock still, chatting in the middle of nowhere. This too will do little for his ability to believe in the scene.
Along with sound effects, your main weapon in conveying this extra information is the dialogue, which therefore, arguably, has to work harder on radio than elsewhere. This poses a further difficulty. "Hello Jenny, why's Tom sitting there in a deckchair eating a sandwich while you're watering the roses in your best blue frock and brown brogue shoes?" may convey a lot of information and paint a clear picture. But it's rotten dialogue. And if the listener can't believe in the dialogue he won't believe in the picture.
One of the trickiest problems facing the radio writer is that he not only needs to convey the extra information required by the medium, but needs to do so without undermining the basic plausibility of the story he is telling - in effect without anyone becoming aware that this is what he's doing. But it's not all bad news. If the radio writer has certain obligations, he also has enormous freedom.
On radio you can go anywhere, and do anything. The best radio plays are often those that make full use of that freedom, by translating the listener into unfamiliar situations, or by providing fresh, original perspectives on familiar ones. I can recall radio plays which, through the strength of the writing, have persuaded me to believe in gremlins, ghosts, gods, and even on one occasion a talking cow, in ways that could never have been achieved on television, never mind on stage.
And the fact that you can't see what's happening can have other benefits. A physical attack on a character on stage can have an immediate dramatic impact. But in the right circumstances the same scene on radio (confused kerfuffle, followed by the reactions of those present and the gradual revelation of what has happened) can be a whole lot more dramatic. Similarly radio offers the possibility of a sort of "reversed out" dramatic irony - where the characters know more than the listener - which can be used to heighten tension, suspense, irony, humour etc. What the writer must aim at then is the piece that exploits precisely what it is that radio has to offer and does best.
One further problem remains. Once you've created your product, you need to sell it. The BBC has long been the largest and most obvious market for radio plays (but there are others -RTE in Dublin, for instance, has a large drama output).
The final selection of single plays on BBC radio is made by the editor for single plays, Eoin O'Callaghan. (There's a parallel system and separate editor, Marilyn Imrie, for episodic drama series and serials). Selection is made in May and October and what O'Callaghan is selecting from is plays and proposals submitted by regional chief producers.
One way to proceed, then, is to send your play to the chief producer in your region. It is worth remembering, however, that chief producers select most of their projects from submissions made by individual producers. So you could interest a producer in your work. Find out their names from the Radio Times and listen to their output to ascertain their tastes. If the ploy is successful it has enormous advantages, because you now have an ally who knows the system better than you, who knows more about radio drama than you, and who will effectively fight your battles.
By now you may be thinking that getting yourself selected for England or winning Wimbledon might prove a better bet than trying to get a play on the radio. But take heart. Among the credits to The Archers is that of writer Chris Thompson. Ten years ago, Chris sold his first play to the BBC while he was deputy head of a comprehensive in Sutton-in-Ashfield, near Mansfield. He had two further plays broadcast while still at the school, then left teaching in 1989 to pursue writing full-time. Since then he has had six further plays on Radio 4, as well as work on Radio 5, and regular contributions to The Archers. Chris's experience makes two things clear. First, it underlines the importance of the writerproducer alliance, for all of his Radio 4 plays have been produced by the same producer, whom he met after submitting an entry in a Radio Times competition (which, incidentally, he didn't win). Second, it proves it can be done.
Mick Martin has written several stage plays as well as radio scripts, including many episodes of The Archers. His latest play, Truth Games, will be performed by Hampshire County Youth Theatre on September 21.
BBC Radio First Bite Young Writers' Festival goes on air in September with up to 20 plays and a selection of stories by writers aged 16 to 30. The entry categories are 60-minute play, 30-minute play, five linked four-minute dramas, stories of 11,000 words, divided into five parts of 2,200 words each, and short stories of 2,200 words. Send a SAE to Lizzie Davies, Room 620, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA. For details of other BBC writing competitions, send a SAE to David Lloyd, Room G5B, Henry Wood House, London, W1A 1AA.