The Facts of Life

When does a drama become a lecture?

I imagine it’s when facts overwhelm the story of the characters, and characters give informative speeches rather than engaging in natural conversation. Natural conversation can, of course, convey facts in technical language if appropriate and true to the character’s role in the drama, and readily comprehendible by the audience .

How much slipping-in-information-by-subtle-means can a drama hold?

Subtle is probably the clue, subtle and natural rather than making it obvious through a clumsy device. Subtle enough to neither break the tension (unless that’s needed), nor disrupt the flow of the drama snd the arc of the story.



Todays task: PRUNING

  • list the facts that are important to me – research to ensure accuracy, and reference for essay
  • prune from that list the facts the story and the listeners do not need

The other thing about facts…


Jeremy Howe, Head of Radio 4 Drama Commissioning at the BBC, said in his talk that he judges the quality of a drama writer by the size of the mailbag he receives after the broadcast. Not letters/emails of praise, but hose from the knowledgeable audience correcting the writer’s factual inaccuracy.

The second task: RESEARCH

  • ensure accuracy
  • reference for the essay

Who is she?

My mentor made a particularly helpful point about characters yesterday. When creating characters for radio, the writer’s first priority is to establish characters who engage the listener and build up the character listener relationship. The content of the dialogue is secondary to but supportive of that.

simonWe want to know the people for who they are as well as for what they say. Our understanding of, for example, the protagonist is developed through the other characters who populate the story. The listener weighs up the evidence from them all and  forms an opinion. The characters encountered by the protagonist proffer different insights into the him or her, they bring out characteristics that might only emerge within a particular relationship, and stir up emotions in the protagonist which illustrate their personality and generate those conflicts we listen on for. Action, setting and sound effects illustrate the characters as much as they enrich the story.

The mind wanders during listening. We don’t take in every word, we lose the thread. The characters and the story must grip us and cause us to tune back in. When they do, the sound needs to enable us to identify and locate the characters readily.

It seems so obvious. Cathy has articulated something instinctive and true for character writing in general. If we have an emotional response to the character, from empathy to anger with interest, we are more likely to listen attentively to what they are saying. We are, after all, basically nosey!

(Image from an interesting  webpage about Lord of the Flies)

Thoughts of an Accidental Radio Listener

Richard on the radio, speaking out for gay clergy, 2005

Richard on the radio, speaking out for gay clergy, 2005

I’m delighted to introduce you to another guest blogger and friend, The Rev’d Richard Haggis. He is author of   Winsome, Lose Some, and writes here about  the late John Ebdon, writer, broadcaster and director of the London Planatarium.

I must have been a teenager when I discovered the listings in the newspaper and found that radio, as well as television, had a schedule, that things happened when it said they would.  So I explored.  I mainly wanted comedy, I still do, but I discovered much else by mistake.

One of these discoveries was the late John Ebdon* (1923–2005). He broadcastjohn ebdon programmes on Radio 4 under the title “A Sideways Look …” and it would make my case better if I could say I can remember some of them.  But I can’t.  What I remember is that I listened.  Listened to the subject matter and his lovely voice, and that voice was the key.  He spoke as if he knew something you wanted to find out, as if he had seen something you wish you had.  From the comfort of your armchair, he transported you to a world of discomforts and questions and inconclusions, which left you thinking;  that was his purpose – to leave us thinking.

When he signed off from his broadcasts, Mr Ebdon used to say, “Well, if you have been, thanks for listening”.  That was utterly winning. “Of course we’ve been listening, otherwise we’d not have heard you!”  But then, had we really listened, or did we just let the radio burble in the background while we got on with something else?  With his gift and his charm, we had indeed been listening to John Ebdon. He had found us something interesting to think about, to imagine. He had thought some of our thoughts, and imagined himself, and ourselves, into the stories he was telling.

Writers must capture us with the cold written word, warm it up, and bring it to life. The television confronts us with sweating reality. Radio provides a space between the two: if you have the sort of voice which can imply the question behind “if you have been, thanks for listening”, and know that the answer is, “yes”.

Richard Haggis, December 2013, Oxford.

* John Ebdon, author, broadcaster, Greacophile and director of the London Planetarium. He presented Archive Feature, A World of Sound, Nonsense at Noon, April Foolery and more. Glyn Worsnip said of him:

His facetious patrician tones every third Monday morning, his sense of the absurd, his ear for a word mistakenly taken out of context, his famous cat Perseus, delighted much of middle England as much as it infuriated a small minority.

University Radio Nottingham

Urn_logoThe University of Nottingham has an award winning radio station. So award winning that it has won Best Student Radio Station at the Student Radio Awards 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013!

Its output, on campus and online, is very varied. Music, news – local and national, sport, drama, culture, review and debate. The Big Picture hosts discussions  on a range of topics, for example, the Politics of the NiqabGrammar School Elitism, EU Budget, Lily Allen vs. Sexism. Podcasts available.

One of my hopes for the project is to record (or more accurately, have recorded due to a complete absence of technical knowledge on my part) some or all of the radio drama. Me and URN, we’re having encouraging discussions about it. Thanks, Anna.

Oh Happy Day!

You know the radio drama that’s been knocking on the doors of my brain for ages saying, ‘Let me in! Let me out!’? The Afternoon Drama I’d written a few lines for in a Word document, others in a notebook and fragments on scraps of paper?

Well. Out of the blue this week the writing has flowed and flowed. 8300 words (and three hours of carol singing plus one Christmas dinner) later, I am the proud owner of a complete first draft. Whoop, whoop!

Oh Ether, you had better have delivered the script to inbox of my mentor safely.

However, good Reader, completeness is merely a fact and no indication of quality. Now for the nervous wait until Friday to hear Cathy’s response to my baby.

For your enjoyment and in memory of Nelson Mandela, who led people around the world, including me, to believe it is possible to walk to freedom, even if it takes many hard and trying years, here’s the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Fear of typing

When Jon McGregor* gave his first Short Talk About Lunch,
he insisted usb-typewriter-1all the students typed their names on his attendance list using the typewriter he’d brought on a trolley. (Along with doughnuts and Satsumas – there’s nothing like free food to motivate students.) Some of the students, being of a more conventional student age than myself, had never touched a typewriter in their lives.

There were questions such as: So how do you insert a space? How do you go down to the next line?’ What do you do to make letters into capitals?  I confess, I was amused by their lack of awareness that the invention of the computer keyboard was not original in concept, merely a development.

Though I’ve thought a lot about my radio drama script, written the synopsis of it, character studies, research information etc, etc, I hadn’t written much of it at all and was beginning to panic. Then it occurred to me, ‘Helena, you don’t need to have read every book about writing for radio that you can get your hands on BEFORE you write.’ Ah ha! That was it.

This week I’ve pretty much completed the first draft, it’s flowed and flowed from the heart. I gave myself permission to proceed in this order:

  • Write
  • Make minor changes to ensure continuity and consistency
  • Check factual accuracy
  • Read about radio and radio writing to inform the penultimate edit of the script
  • Penultimate edit
  • Gather feedback from mentor, Writing Group, any other willing reader, and the actors at a read through
  • Final edit
  • Done

A liberating process that’s revived my enthusiasm and flagging confidence. I’m hopeful that this approach has led to a script in which the emotions of the characters, and their voices, are raw and natural. Now I just have to guard against editing the life out them. That’s a post for another day.

* Jon McGregor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which I highly recommend. (Not that I’m a creep, you understand.) He is also editor in chief of The Letters Page, a literary journal in, as you might have guessed, letters. You might like to subscribe, and it is open for submissions.

Radio Investment

I’m shadowing the course tutor of an over 55s writing group. The group is part of the Theatre Royal’s education and outreach programme. This term’s writing has been inspired by E R Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love. We have read the book, seen the play and watched the film.

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at adaptation using some extracts I selected from the book and the play. The writers scripted a scene that wasn’t in the play but was in the book. Gillian and Rik at the Poison d’Orr. Most scripts produced were for the stage. One trio had a go at writing for radio. In the light of that, the tutor asked me to talk to them about my experience of sitting in on the recording of a Radio 4 Afternoon Drama and to say a little about writing for radio.

I am yet to become an expert in this field!

So, I told them about my fantastic afternoon at the beeb, and shared a little of what I’ve learned and thought.

A key issue is investment. We’re not talking money here, at least not directly, rather time and interest. Slow burners are no good for radio. The listener has control of the off button, they have not invested money in a ticket, not made a journey on a bus or parked their car. They are not up for wondering whether the second half might be better. Consequently, the radio play needs a dramatic or intriguing moment at the beginning to ensure the listener’s attention is grabbed. The rest of the writing needs to keep that interest going and going and going.

My project mentor has been listening to Afternoon Dramas and timing how long it is before she becomes bored. This is becoming her yardstick of quality – quality of writing, which means quality of story, character and sound. I sent her the first draft of the opening 10 mins of mine today. Watch this space….

Have you noticed what’s changed about this site (other than the design)?