The Ghastly Impermanence: Lessons from Auntie 2017 Edition

The 2017 edition of the BBC Audio Drama Awards took place on the 29th of January with the ever-popular Sir Lenny Henry returning as MC. The awards covered plays that were first broadcast in English in the UK between 1 October 2015 and 31 October 2016 – or were first uploaded/published for free listening online in the UK during the same period. So who won?

  • Best Audio Drama (Original Single): The Sky Is Wider by Linda Marshall Griffiths, producer Nadia Molinari
  • Best Audio Drama (Series or Serial): Life Lines by Al Smith, producer Sally Avens
  • Best Audio Drama (Adaptation): Emile Zola: Blood, Sex And Money, adapted by Oliver Emanuel, Martin Jameson, Lavinia Murray and Dan Rebellato, producers Gary Brown, Pauline Harris, Nadia Molinari, Polly Thomas, Kirsty Williams
  • Best Actor in an Audio Drama: Danny Sapani (A Raisin In The Sun)
  • Best Actress in an Audio Drama: Christine Bottomley (The Sky Is Wider)
  • Best Supporting Actor/Actress in an Audio Drama: Valene Kane (The Stroma Sessions)
  • Best Debut Performance in an Audio Drama: Lee Rufford (The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner)
  • Best Use of Sound in an Audio Drama: Tracks, sound by Nigel Lewis, producers James Robinson, Helen Perry and Abigail le Fleming
  • Best Scripted Comedy: Secret Kebabs by Christine Entwisle, producer Kirsty Williams
  • Best Comedy with an Audience: Robert Newman’s Entirely Accurate Encyclopedia Of Evolution by Rob Newman, producer Jonathan Harvey
  • Best Online-Only Audio Drama: Doctor Who: Absent Friends, Big Finish Productions
  • Imison Award for Best Radio Drama Script by a New Writer: Comment Is Free by James Fritz
  • Tinniswood Radio Drama Award for Best Radio Drama Script: Comment Is Free by James Fritz
  • Special Award for Services to Radio Drama: Bill Nighy
  • Outstanding Contribution Award: The Archers

I’ve listened to all the winners, and all but two of the nominees (which I will finish by the time this goes to press). It’s speculative at best to draw too many conclusions, but I’m feeling speculative.

What strikes me immediately about the winners is that they are very Beeb. Tracks, The Sky is Wider, Comment is Free, and Life Lines all focus on female protagonists dealing with some sort of contemporary topic that fits nicely under the soft rubric of “concerned” playwrighting. The scripted comedy winner Secret Kebabs is about a marriage therapist who displaces her lost faith in love into a relationship with food. Emile Zola: Blood Sex and Money and The Stroma Sessions also star female protagonists though they are less topical and somewhat more experimental in their approach.

It wouldn’t take too much of a cynic to note that the BBC radio drama audience is largely 50+ and female and draw the obvious inferences. As I am neither a woman, nor over 50, nor a cynic, it would be a bit glib so I’ll simply let it be. At any rate, awards are not about the obvious targeted marketing of BBC bean counters, but rather the quality of material itself. Or so I have read.

I sound down on the BBC selections. I’m not. Though it takes awhile to get going, Tracks is a fine serial. I enjoyed Life Lines, which struck me as a kind of variation on Tom Reynolds’ book, Blood Sweat & Tea. Danny Sapani is in fact excellent in A Raisin in the Sun, which is an excellent production. Blood Sex and Money is ambitious and thorough in a way that the BBC’s massive soap operas Tommies and The Home Front would be if only they weren’t so obsessed with reducing sociopolitical conflict to parlor drama. Doctor Who: Absent Friends is a gorgeous, personal piece, almost out of place within the rest of the more operatic Doom Coalition series. James Fritz is clearly one of the most promising radio dramatists in recent memory and deserves both writing awards from his peers. And Bill Nighy = LEGEND.

Too, there is far more formal experiment in this batch of audio dramas than in the past five years. The Sky is Wider showcases an interesting way of telling a story about consciousness by splitting the inner and outer worlds into two different sonic realms that feed back and forth. Comment is Free is a “lite” version of this, alternating between public and private realms rather than inner and outer consciousness, but still far from straightforward. A different experiment plays out in The Stroma Sessions, in which the ghost story genre gets a welcome churn by swapping narrative tropes: instead of a straight story, the piece plays out as an even straighter documentary feature so common in British radio back in the day and creates its effect by jarring the listener with two conflicting contexts.

For all of the external experiment, however, and for all of the craftsmanship, they are extremely narrow in subject matter. Posh, even. All of the plays scream middle class. While I have no particular problem with the middle class, they are shrinking. The world of drama should be expanding both in size and scope.

For a quick reality check one need only look into the list of nominees — especially the adaptation category. Compare the roughness and very non-bourgeois qualities of True West or A Raisin in the Sun or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to the middle class psychology of Secret Kebabs. And if you think that’s an unfair comparison because Secret Kebabs is allegedly a comedy, compare a non-adaptation, The Rage, in which the main characters are anything but bourgeois, to Life Lines, where the big drama revolves around whether or not a dispatch operator is only a thrill-seeker who cannot commit to a real relationship.

In a talk he gave once at Philoctetes, Stanley Kauffmann said:

If you look at an anthology of great plays from the Greeks to today, you think, “My god, what a panorama of achievement.” Then you look at the dates and you see that hundreds of years elapsed between one play and the next. Sometimes we have the bad luck to be caught between.

True of theater and, though the wavelength between the crests is narrower by far, equally true of radio. Looking at my bookshelf, I see the books on radio drama. Lots from the 1930s. A few from the 40s. None from the 50s. A few from the 60s. Lots from 1977-1985. A cluster from 1999-2004. Two from 2011. None since. The library seems to suggest that we do indeed have the bad luck to be caught between.

Listening to the BBC winners confirms it for me. It isn’t that non-naturalistic, non-bourgeois plays do not exist. They do. It is that they do not win awards. Why? Because they are uncomfortable? Because they do not easily match up to data analyses? Or because the southern counties are terrified of the proletarian and the intellectual both?

Not being British, I am unable to answer those questions. I cannot engage in arguments about how my licensing fee is being spent because 1) I’m not paying it and 2) I honestly don’t care. I can only look at the artistic output, and note what they think deserves praise. Fortunately, awards are a short game. Criticism, with its allegiance to history, is a long one. I have no doubt that a new wave of outstanding dramas is on its way. Will they find their way onto Radio 4, or even Radio 3? Critics like me will just have to wait and see.


Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net