The Ghastly Impermanence: Learning a Hard Lesson–The BBC Audio Drama Awards

Photo: Matt Kieffer.

Back in 1978 the BBC decided they wished to call more attention to their outstanding radio drama productions. To that aim, they teamed up with Methuen Publishing and created the Giles Cooper Awards. The five or six best radio scripts of the year received an award and publication in Methuen’s series “The Best Radio Plays of The Year.” The idea was brilliant. Yet the Giles Cooper Awards ceased to exist in 1992 after thirteen books of the series had been published–cancelled, according to the BBC, due to low sales.

A sizable part of this failure, I believe, was down to the fact that, while the BBC valued radio as theater on the page, they did not similarly value it as audio. At a time when stage plays and radio shows were regularly being released on vinyl, the BBC never bothered to re-release audio recordings of the plays. Instead, the BBC held the audio broadcasts in such low esteem that at least a dozen of them have been lost to time, and unknown in private collections and even those of the Vintage Radio Programme Collectors’ Circle. The books became the only possible means of discovering the plays. But without accompanying audio, these books remained the bailiwick of the literati, and a rather narrow niche of literati at that. After twenty years I still maintain that audio recordings released with the books and the awards would have raised awareness and desirability of the Giles Cooper Awards.

Now the BBC has, after those twenty years, finally begun another award ceremony, the BBC Audio Drama Awards. Similar problems with the ceremony remain but at least the Beeb seem to have learned a little from the past.

Immediately after the BBC’s award ceremony in which the winners were announced, the BBC re-broadcast all three episodes of Katie Hims’ brilliant trilogy Lost Property, two of which won awards: The Year My Mother Went Missing for Best Audio Drama and A Telegram from the Queen for Best Actress (Rosie Cavaliero). It took them a full three months before they re-broadcast Best Actor Award winner David Tennant’s performance in Murray Gold’s Kafka the Musical, but a week after the Lost Property broadcasts they did add broadcasts of the winners of Best Supporting Actor (Andrew Scott in Nick Perry’s play Referee), Best Scripted Comedy (Hugh Hughes’ Floating) and Best Original Drama Script (Stephen Wyatt’s Gerontius).

The BBC have also decided that they might capitalize on their success in the Audio Drama Awards by releasing Lost Property: The Complete Trilogy and The History of Titus Groan on audio CD. Stephen Wyatt, too, has released his award-winning script for Gerontius for purchase via Lulu.

At first glance it would appear the BBC have made progress after the failure of the Giles Cooper Awards. Award-winning material, especially of such high caliber, should be made available to the public so that they can revisit it. The Beeb have at least re-broadcast most of the plays, and they have made a couple available for purchase. However, the issue of access to all the plays remains inelegantly unresolved.

Re-broadcasting the plays is an excellent and necessary part of the process. Many people, however, who did not catch the plays on broadcast would prefer to catch up by podcast. This is where the BBC still fails. Not a single one of the award-winning plays remains available for download via podcast, and only a couple were ever available–and then, because of BBC’s bizarre approach to podcasting, they were available for a total of seven days. If you missed it, this implies, tough for you.

Seven days in an Internet-wired world is the equivalent of an eyeblink. It is not enough time to stumble magically across a play. It is barely enough time to do it by endeavor. How much wiser it would be, if the BBC would simply make all of their award-winning programmes available for download permanently. Doubtless there are issues of rights, releases and red tape but those are problems that an organization the size of the BBC is more than well-equipped to solve–if, of course, they actually want to solve them. I am not sure they do.

They really ought. A love of reading usually stems from having a library of books to choose from. A love of contemporary radio drama, surely, would grow similarly. But a public library of radio drama does not exist in any meaningful sense. Current technology would make it easy to create just such an archive. The BBC’s unwillingness to use, or perhaps their lack of understanding of the new technology frustrates many listeners. A company that produces ten hours of radio drama a week for public broadcast in digital format yet which cannot be bothered to release digital copies of work to a listening public is a very bizarre company indeed.

I would love to tell people they should go and listen to BBC Audio Drama Award Winners like Gerontius or Floating, and un-awarded but superior nominees like Julie Mayhew’s lovely and sensitive play, A Shoebox of Snow, or Jonathan Cash’s extraordinary The First Domino. But of course that would require them to have some place they could actually find copies of them. Sure, I could recommend that the couple thousand people reading this could go find them on torrents or even worse on DVDs of public broadcasts recorded for free and then sold back to the public at a price. But I have neither the inclination nor the flexible morality to support such enterprises publicly–especially when the BBC could do it so much better themselves.

Until the BBC finally come into the 21st Century and commit fully to creating an easily accessible public archive of their broadcasts, however, these are the only options. In this instance, everyone loses. The public loses because the BBC have added at least two extra layers of frustration to their quest to become faithful listeners of their audio drama. The BBC loses because their listener numbers continue to play out as a zero-sum game. The older audiences are dying off, and new audiences are coming along that would be interested but they will not tolerate the Beeb’s arcane policies regarding digital distribution. The Giles Cooper Awards taught the BBC the hard lesson that no one is interested in radio drama that exists only on the page, but it took them twenty years to figure it out. The BBC will probably have to learn the lesson about digital distribution in the 21st Century, too, the hard way.

Categories 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

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