Upstaged: Radio

Upstaged: Radio

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 08/11/11

The stage is all very well, argues our theatre editor Nell Frizzell, but the pictures are far better on radio. So, if you’re trying to make your mark at a dramatist, here are some top tips for writing radio plays…

I have a face for radio, legs for cabaret, eyebrows for mime and a mouth for emptying drains.

So, it is no surprise that my lifelong ambition is to take to the airwaves, like a charming hybrid of a World War Two zeppelin and Kathleen Turner. Or Terry Wogan, as I believe it’s known.

For any writer, actor, journalist or dramatist, the radio is the perfect medium: cheap to produce, almost universally accessible and able to conjure the greatest images known to the human mind. Nowhere else are you able to bring character, narrative, tone, language or place directly to the audience’s mind – radio doesn’t need a stage, it doesn’t need costume, it transcends the fourth wall, delivering the listener into a theatre of their own imagination.

Of course, the greatest “play for voices” is Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood – a playful piece of poetry so perfect that I shall be taking seven different pressings to my desert island, just as soon as Kirsty Young starts returning my calls. The world of LLareggub Hill, Donkey Downs and Cockle Row is eternal, immovable and enduring precisely because it has no physical form – it is conjured merely by language and our own interpretation.

Which leads us to the somewhat sticky wicket of how to translate a radio play for stage. While Willy Russell’s hairdresser heroine in Educating Rita quite rightly suggests that the best way to resolve the staging difficulties inherent in Ibsen's Peer Gynt would be to “do it on the radio”, how to match the innate ambition of something like H G Wells’ War of the Worlds on stage demands a rather more creative bit of direction. For instance, the National Theatre’s production of Under Milk Wood used the character of Blind Captain Cat to act as a cipher for some of the play’s supernatural sequences, returning the play to speech rather than action.

Perhaps, however, for young companies, you’re better off keeping things audible. So, where are the best places for new radio drama?

Well, for a kick off there are a number of competitions, such as the BBCs International Radio Playwriting Competition, Radio 4’s Opening Lines (for short stories) and the Alfred Bradley Bursary, which accept radio plays, sketches and scripts. But my personal advice would be to embrace the power of podcasts. 

Established podcasts like This American Life, Tin Can Podcast, Transom and RadioLab will take submissions. If you’ve got a good enough idea that means your work could be downloaded across the globe, to keep listeners like me entertained as they jog, shop and journey through their lives. 

Alternatively, you could take Olivia Humphreys’ advice and start your own. If Ricky Gervais can do it, I’m sure it’s not beyond your capabilities.

In the words of Peggy Noonan (a woman who's name sounds strikingly like primary school's slang for a front wedgie), "TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains".


Do you have a great radio script on the theme of protest? Would you like to earn £250 and become and IdeasTap alumnus? Then enter this month's Editor's Brief.

Illustration by Narcsville.

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