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A space between your ears: on radio drama.

WITH all broadcasting there are always the questions of form. Is radio a mechanism for transmitting work which could exist independently? Is it a matter of art or of engineering? And in a culture so given over to the visual what place is there for sound alone?

When television came it was thought that radio would have no more future than the silent cinema. The automobile has guaranteed radio's survival, of course. 'Drive time' may account for music, the thread of talk, and the news reports, but not for the kind of programming which may be heard on public service networks in various countries.

If radio is no more than a technique there would be no regret were it to disappear should its social function have no future. But if it is a cultural form its loss or neglect would diminish the common wealth of society.

These are far from being abstractions. They affect the working lives of programme-makers, for the discipline of questioning is part of the cut and thrust of broadcasting's challenge. Radio as a technique requires the artisan to fulfill his task as a functionary within a corporate enterprise. He is the hired hand, surrendering freedom in exchange for security. As an artist, however, he remains at liberty to make the time-honoured demands of the artist in pursuit of his vision. The question is who makes the accommodation, producer or maker?

The anecdotal evidence readily concludes that we are considering an art. This may be found in the secret history of high emotions and desperate acts which haunt every corridor of broadcasting in free societies.

Of more substance is the continuing attraction of writers to radio, not only for the talk-shows, but as serious programme-makers also. Some years ago the respected British producer Lawrence Gilliam sympathetically wrote of the radio writer: 'He is impatient of the disciplines, conflicts and delays inherent in collaboration. He hears his programme as he writes it, often with specific voices and effects in mind. Radio can afford the writer-producer. More often than not he comes to radio as a writer and gradually acquires the craft of production'.

The experience of which Gilliam spoke is universal. There is the remarkable case of Sandra Michael in New York who had the determination to transform the popular serial (in the Thirties) by thinking in terms of the 'radio novel'. Her idea eventually won through with sponsorship by Procter and Gamble. Initially ridiculed with the coining of the slang expression 'soap opera', Sandra Michael's work was seen in time as a cultural advance. She gained prestigious awards and high ratings.

The more recent extraordinary success of Garrison Keillor recalls the intentions which drove Sandra Michael. 'The Prairie Home Companion' show spoke of and to Middle America, combining a folksy, settled nostalgia with an undertone of ironic comment attuned to contemporary feeling.

An English counterpart of Keillor is Stephen Fry, a humorist and comic actor who first attracted attention with his monologues of Dr. Trefusis, affectionate lampoons of English academic life. There is also Peter Tinniswood who writes surreal monologues in which life is a bizarre reflection of cricket.

Developing such ideas depends on the right of access to the medium. To make the most of a good idea the writer must have control of his material. He needs sympathy and space. For his part, he should be available to contribute to the technical shape of the production. Radio is invariably regarded as a writer's medium. In consequence it makes its own demands which require a commitment to the aesthetic of sound.

We must not think of radio drama as theatre deprived of spectacle. It has vision from its peculiar spirit. What is not radiogenic is not radio, and would be served better elsewhere.

Some theatre perhaps can be successful in its own terms, although it limits the capacity for aural experiment. Towards the end of his long career Val Gielgud, responsible for many distinguished productions from London, generously conceded the point. It was an admission which indicates the stature of one whose liberality might continue to serve as an example.

Karl Miller, sometime editor of The Listener, has warned of the possible authorlessness of broadcasting in the future. He is thinking -- in television as well as radio -- not only of the threat to literary broadcasting, but also to the decline of the directorial signature. For some time now there has been a movement urging radio to assess and assert its identity. When the first international conference on radio drama was called in the late 1970s, its title referred to 'radio literature', indicating the direction informed comment had gone. In the light of this the influential critic Peter Lewis devised the term 'radio fiction', with echoes of Sandra Michael's pioneering sensibility. The practice and comment of decades was reaching a natural conclusion, predicted by Louis MacNeice and underlined by Jonathan Raban, John Updike, and many others. It no longer carried conviction to wrestle with inappropriate language.

Arguably, to speak of radio literature is itself misleading, although closer to the truth. We are always at the mercy of language with its nuances and ambiguities, when we seek clarity and precision. Sound has no equivalent term to scenario except script -- but a scriptwriter is a journeyman whose craft is for hire. Yet script is a better term than play unless the programme is taken from the theatre. We should not lose sight of the possibility that radio drama is closer to other types of programming than it is to theatre or print fiction.

At this point we must consider the experience of listening. Martin Esslin, now a professor at Stanford, has likened the act of radio listening to dreaming. This is potentially the most radical observation made on the subject since radio began. Consider how in dreams we are both passive onlookers and active participants as we watch and create in the same moment. In radio the creative force is not of the listener's own making, but the same curious duality exists. When radio works on our imagination we take part. People frequently say how much they identified with something they heard. Radio touches the lives we actually lead, restoring the balance of reason upset by those revenge and/or sexual psychodramas available so insistently elsewhere. Radio literature is an art seeking to encounter our inadequacies rather than engender them.

Radio is humane. At its heart is the human voice. For this reason the motor of radio literature is narrative. This may be formally true with the presence of a guiding voice. The other element of narrative is the listener's endowment of character and situation with a personal imagination. Sound is abstract. It takes on life through communication.

Good talk is a form of literature. The liveliest of the North American rock show hosts continue a popular oral tradition with its origins in the medicine show and the mountebanks of medieval Europe. Another literature is to be found in the radio of Studs Terkel whose Jacksonian democracy enables his discovery of a latent poetry in the testaments of ordinary lives.

Perhaps the master of the English spoken word is Robert Robinson, a London wit whose tongue has drunk at the same fountain as Johnson and Wilde, combining a dandy elegance with the commonality of city life. As a novelist he is a stylish pasticheur. He is also an essayist, honing his broadcast talk into accomplished prose.

The elements of radio literature may include reportage and music as well as narrative and theatre. Generally, the most successful programmes combine two or more of these. Some will resemble documentary, others fiction or the stageplay. All must work as sound.

Esslin, who has a lifetime's experience and is also an influential theorist of drama, compares the structure of the feature programme to folk-song and ballad. There are the repetition of lines, the use of refrain and of an explanatory narrative. The term 'radio ballad' was used by programme-makers in the 1950s, notably Ewan MacColl, a politically-engaged Scots folk-singer and playwright who followed in the tradition of Alan Lomax.

The feature enables the writer to explore an imaginative landscape for its own sake. It may be documentary, though it will be more creative than a journalistic record will allow. If it is a play it will have a poetry of its own. Developed by Columbia Workshop in the 1930s, the feature later took root in the European broadcasting systems, leading to 'Under Milk Wood' and beyond.

The feature is alert, cryptic and complex, often with a sequence of scenes at counterpoint to one another. It is an art which responds to the technology which made it possible, its progenitors including the typographic experiments of Dada poetry and the richly allusive modernism of early Eliot. It has a visual counterpart in the cinema suggested by Mercury Productions in the 1940s, developed by the Nouvelle Vague circa 1960. The feature is also intuitive, extravagant, with a quasi-erotic impulse. The theatrical tradition it follows is the Commedia dell' Arte.

We might take note of the influence radio has had on the stage itself. The experiments in narrative drama conducted by Charles Laughton and Peter Brook are outstanding examples. Contemporary theatre is distinguished by a narrative element. Consider Stoppard's 'New Found Land', Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' -- both masterpieces. Narrative in theatre is to be found in more discreet ways, in shows which dispense with the conventional dialogue framework altogether, using dance, mime, music and the explanatory voice.

Radio should inter-act with theatre as it does with other forms -- in a spirit of imaginative tolerance. Any suggestion of an artificial opposition between stage and sound should be resisted. There will be those who find the purely dramatic element of radio the most attractive. They must not feel threatened by an enveloping consensus. Radio is a continent, not an island.

Because the radio programme is a hybrid of other forms, it requires of its makers a range of cultural resources. Almost anything is useful, especially that which breaks through the restrictive customs of generation and place. This will help the development of an ironic comment, and will guard against the insular and the obvious.

Whether a writer can attain full stature in a hybrid form is open to question. The usual pattern is for radio to offer access and to nurture confidence before the writer moves into the essential forms, returning to radio with a maturity gained elsewhere. Writing, like living, is a matter of constant revision.

All creative programming needs its guarantors of quality if it is to speak successfully to a living community of free citizens. In art the only social agenda worth considering is the hope that someone will listen. The artist spends a lifetime searching for his Harlequinade, the bohemian carnival of which he catches only a shadow. He knows that he must seek to astonish, not for the sake of being different, but to breathe spirit into the community again.

Addressing an English-speaking audience, I have referred to experience within that culture. It happens that much of the vital work has been in English. Yet much of the argument would be unnecessary in French or German whose radio cultures have been more assured in their artistic integrity. The power of American television and of English theatre have been formidable challenges which have both stimulated and enervated Anglo-American broadcasting.

Perhaps a more radical problem is the decay of the oral tradition. This is especially true of England, a nation once noted for its conversationalists at all levels of society. Verbal wit is now dismissed as cleverness. Cultural reference is seen as pretension. These are difficulties not of broadcasting's choosing and which broadcasting alone cannot remedy.

It is too early to say what effect the significant Asian minorities will have. But England is part of a confederation which includes Celtic nations with bardic and ballad traditions still. It borders upon a nation with a living tradition derived from the trouveres and troubadours. It borders on another, Celtic nation whose radio can encompass experiments like the reading of 'Ulysses' in its entirety in one continuous thread.

The society of conversation, the reasoned energies of literature, the sensuous essays of music: these elements of oral/aural culture have been with us from time without memory. The problems of administration and accountancy are dull, petty obstacles in the advance of civilization. When the stenographer is more important than the writer we shall have failed.
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Author:Heptonstall, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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