Thursday, 29 December 2011

News for a New Year in which New Things May Happen

I've been rather quiet recently. Partly down to fluctuating health, partly due to a seasonal yearning to retreat from the world for a bit. Unsurprising, anyway, considering that I've spent about half this year online, attempting to persuade, enlighten, cajole, inform, to draw attention to the necessity and the beauty of the short story on radio, and to list all the reasons why the BBC's decision to cut their commissioning and broadcasting of said short stories was A Really Bad Idea.

On December 20th, there was a second meeting about the short story cuts on BBC Radio 4.  Those invited to meet BBC head of Audio & Music Tim Davie & Controller Radio 4 Gwyneth Williams were: General Secretary Nicola Solomon and Assistant General Secretary Jo McCrum, from the Society of Authors, Bernie Corbett from the Writers' Guild, Christine Payne and Sheila Mitchell from Equity, and author Margaret Drabble. 

The outcome - as given in brief on the Society's website - seems to have been more assurances from the BBC about how much they value and intend to showcase the short story, with promises of other openings for new writing, though the only figure offered is "60% of output across the year will be bespoke commissions with the remaining 40% largely new recordings of extant texts and some repeats."

Quite honestly, I do not know what to say about this - and that's probably what I'm intended to feel. Steamrollered, flattened, exhausted by the process of six months of campaigning, and in the end - shut down, empty, silenced.

I've not yet been able to talk to Nicola or Jo about the meeting, but gather that the almost 9,000 strong petition against these cuts was treated as insignificant by Ms Williams and Mr Davie.
"Polite, articulate listener protest provokes no reaction - shock!"
Perhaps we should have set up an Occupy camp on the pavement outside BBC HQ on Portland Place? Perhaps we should have arranged for a Controller-Scarecrow to do an Archers-style header off the roof? Shocking? Shocking enough?

Regarding the "we fear the BBC may be in breach of its charter" argument, apparently it was simply defused by Mr Davie & Ms Williams discussion of short stories as part of their overall 'Drama' output. This is fudge, of course, because the short story on Radio 4 does not actually come into the Drama output in any other way, and never has; it's not trailed in the Drama e-newsletter, it's usually not even produced by Drama producers.

The clue there is in Mr Davie's job title: he's head of 'Audio & Music' not of Drama.

Still, never mind, as far as BBC Radio 4 is concerned there wasn't much of a protest, was there?  Besides, it has the highest ever listener figures, so everything is going to be just fine...

This is my blog space, I can cry if I want to - but I don't think that would be useful. You, dear reader or dear tweeter, who've followed my part in this, can very well imagine what an effort it's been, and imagine, too, how I feel. 

Instead of cursing and wailing and kicking things, it might be more useful if I express some thanks.

I'm enormously grateful to Ian Skillicorn of National Short Story Week who first spotted the tiny small print about these cuts in a BBC press release, and tweeted it, and whose steady hand and sound thinking have been invaluable in this multi-faceted campaign.

I'm very grateful to the Society of Authors, to Equity and to the Writers' Guild for taking this argument to the BBC; hugely grateful to the Society in particular for their inspired Tweetathon, and to all who took part in it. (You can read more about that here)

I'm vastly grateful to all those who've signed the petition, who've urged others to do so, and who've supported this campaign - and me - on Twitter. You know who you are.

As for my own part... I have to accept (can't don't won't ...must) that I've done all I can. I hate to give up, but that corporate steamroller action is pretty difficult to counter. Is there anything I could have done differently - or better? Not sure, except, perhaps - and this does strike me as ironic - not be a short story writer nobody's ever heard of.
Had I been a novelist with the same number of books behind me, might I have had a little more clout in the 'meeja' world, and the literary world? Perhaps The Story About Story-Cuts could have got more attention faster, gained more support from other writers..? I don't know.
Anyway - as the writers among you will know, when you feel angry, powerless, despairing at how to make others understand something vital, when you feel you have no voice, no status, are being rendered invisible, the remedy is to go away and write, write, write. 

On Christmas Day morning I woke at 5.30 full of indignation and fury and with the nugget of a story idea. It's about - well, it's about power and the absence of power, perhaps... If it goes well, perhaps I'll send the finished story to the BBC-sponsored National Short Story Prize.

This year, it's going to be an Olympic-sized short story opportunity, as the competition is open "to writers writing in English anywhere in the world who have been published in the UK." Hm. No pressure then.

Still, it's the taking part that counts, isn't it? And, as my sister reminded me, in the immortal words of Lance Corporal Jones, "they don't like it up 'em, you know!"

Monday, 12 December 2011

Yes, but (on further examination) no...

The BBC have announced that, in keeping with the spirit of the London Olympic Games, their sponsored Short Story Award for 2012 will be an International one. 

Writers from anywhere across the globe whose work has been published in the UK will be eligible to enter a story to win the £15,000 prize.

There will be a shortlist of 10, rather than the usual 5, and they will be broadcast across 2 weeks leading to the announcement of the winner.

More stories, great. More stories on radio, excellent.

Apart from the fact that it's more competition for UK short story writers, that's all rather positive, isn't it?

Well yes - and no.

This year's winner David Wilson is quoted as saying "winning... couldn't have come at a better time in my career - it was the push I needed to get my work noticed.
 YES. It takes winning an award for publishers to pay any attention to the excellence of a short story writer's work and consider taking a risk on publishing his or her collection.

And that is EXACTLY why BBC RADIO 4 should remain an encouraging place for story writers to find audiences and new readers. 


[insert copious swearing here]

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

BBC cuts are at critical level now.. do we have to fight for everything?

Today, Equity have posted updated information about the BBC cuts - specifically about the 'core services' such as news and factual programming, and of course local radio.

These savage cuts are down to a deal BBC Director General Mark Thompson did with the previous government to freeze the licence fee for 5 years. You'll have read in the media pages of newspapers and online (and via me, probably) how that's now being put into effect, the loss of staff jobs, the shrinking of services.. here's Equity's position:

"Licence fee payers were not asked for their views when the deal was done. The BBC has even said it will press ahead with making the cuts before the BBC Trust’s current public consultation has closed."

It's a timely reminder about how much the BBC does for a really small licence fee. Apparently, if we all paid 7p more per week the cuts would be unecessary.

However, this is a rather different cause from the one I've been campaigning about - in the case of the short story, the cuts are - we've been told - NOT about saving money.  So it's idealogical, or it's a case of lack of comprehension of the purpose and/or the benefits of short stories. Equally stupid and equally painful to those concerned, not just writers but actors, and BBC staff who've nurtured and worked with them for years.

I do feel the time has come that the way the BBC works, and what it provides, has to be understood and responded to by viewers and listeners, not just by industry professionals or unions. 

Do we have to fight for everything now? On the basis of one year on twitter, one year of wider awareness of what's under threat, on differing scales, I'm beginning to think that yes, we do...

If you have a bit of general rage that requires a focus, the Equity page gives you the option to download a 'postcard' which you can print out and send to the Chair of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten.

(You could always write Happy Christmas at the end of it, or draw a robin..just to add seasonal cheer to the message. It could be a very chilly robin with only one leg, to emphasise the points. Artistic Ed.) 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stand up to be counted

Today on Twitter it's #WriterWednesday - it's also the day of major strike action by many union members across the UK. This made me think about Writer & Artist Solidarity. 

Is there such a thing? Do we care about each others' ability to thrive in their own field (or barn or attic)? Seems to me that, in times of economic woe, we need that fraternity all the more.

Many creatives (shorthand for artists, writers, makars of all varieties) shudder at the idea of joining organisations, of cramming their exquisitely individual talents and concerns into any pigeon hole offered, but - are there areas where we should stand together, as workers in other aspects of life do? What do you stand up to be counted for? How, when? 

Between now and December 20th, when the Society of Authors meets the BBC again to discuss the cuts to the short story, can the No To Short Story Cuts petition end on a high note? Can it roll over the 9,000 mark, could it reach 10,000? 

That would require more actors and writers and listeners and arts professionals and generally concerned and culturally aware people to care sufficiently about the issue. That's difficult.. A number of people's response falls into the 'meh, short stories, radio, not bothered' category (if they respond at all). About which my feeling is: okay, but who'll care when your creative form and your livelihood is threatened?

If BBC Radio 4 were a TV station it would be BBC FOUR, and the volume of Sarah Lund fans alone would cause a wave of support to keep it safe.  Radio is a less salient medium - perhaps all the more reason for us to stand up for what it does best. To me, it makes no sense to fill Radio 4 with news & opinion at expense of original and thought-provoking writing and performance.

This ongoing 'short-story-story' is piffling beside greater woes of the world. I know that. But I am angry at how the foundations of the BBC get nibbled away by the same termites employed to build and protect it.

This quote read today via Twitter seems apposite: "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." - Thomas A. Edison

ps - just a thought... I've seen several letters to about BBC FOUR, but so far none about the whittled-down Radio 4 and the scar left in its schedules now that stories have been ripped out.

Monday, 28 November 2011

"What news on the Rialto?" (it's a pun on Radio & Culture, you see?)

Well, not a great deal. This, from the Society of Authors website, is the latest official info on the campaign: "In response to our second letter to Mark Thompson, a meeting has been arranged with Tim Davie, Director of Audio & Music and Gwyneth Williams on 20 December at Broadcasting House. We will update members on the outcome of this meeting."

Meanwhile, the BBC TRUST is running an online public consultation about their plans for Delivering Quality First - there are six sections, but you don't have to complete them all. If you've been longing to indicate your support for original writing & performance on the BBC, or to complain about the volume of news or 'reality' programmes, here's your chance to be heard.

The Save The Short Story petition is still live, and is crawling back up to the 9,000 figure previously mentioned (duplicate signatures have been and will continue to be deleted) so if you care about the future of literature on the BBC's flagship spoken word radio network, please sign & encourage others to do so.

Finally - historical-crime author Michael Jecks wrote a very good swashbuckling blog post about Radio 4's 'story slashing'

Thursday, 17 November 2011

four months (& counting...)

It's 4 months ago, today, from the time I first read about the BBC's intention to cut the Short Story on Radio 4 - the 17th of July, a Sunday.

Since then, and since the setting up of the petition (Monday 18th) I've been online every day (except for 7 days recently when I essayed a 'holiday'). Mainly I've been tweeting quotes from the people who signed the petition, including those by actors & authors who, with experience of radio and of many other entertainment media, have commented with great concern (or disbelief) at the threat of these cuts.

The cuts are no longer threats. The cuts have been enacted. If you look at the radio pages in the Radio Times, now, stories have stopped being central to the afternoon schedule.

A friend recently sent me the response she'd had to an email to the Controller of R4 about the loss of the short story. The response continued to assert that the cuts  were "from 144 to 104" and therefore were really very small.

Really? From approx 260 short story slots per year on Radio 4, as recently as 2008, to 104, is actually a major cut.

We are now promised an 'average' of 2 a week from April 2012. Until last week there were 3 on weekdays, plus a Sunday repeat slot (3+1=4). Until 2009 there were 5 on weekdays, plus a repeat slot (5+1=6). That's a cut of slots for new writing from five, to three, to two, and a cut to the overall number of listener slots on R4 from six, to four to two.

I think that's right, but it's confusing, because the BBC keeps chucking in somewhat vague details about 'new' stories - employing the word 'new' in strange ways; eg, in 'new strand', on 4Extra, where it doesn't actually seem to mean 'new stories.'

The Controller mentions Afternoon Plays as part of the station's commitment to 'new writing' - which is wonderful, of course, for committed playwrights. But it serves to confuse the issue yet again, as if all forms were the same form.
I'm tired of this number-wrangling, obfuscating, call-a-spade-a-pretty-new-trowel stuff. 
I could go on (and on and on) blogging & tweeting about this issue, attempting to explain it succinctly, persuasively, to use better and stronger analogies and metaphors (see earlier posts) - I could... but.

It's taken 4 months to get it into my head, properly, that my opinion - as a listener, as a writer, as an actor, as a licence-payer - must be quite irrelevant to the BBC.  As are those of the 9,000 people who've shared theirs via the petition over the last 4 months. So I'd only be talking to myself, or the person who stumbles across this blog...(hello, thanks for visiting).

My over-riding sense about all this, 4 months on, is: what a shame - what a shame that the BBC doesn't use this challenge as an opportunity to engage with and learn about its audience, and feed that back into the way it decides to use our money.

And what a shame that the important idea of consent - implicit in the contract between broadcaster & listener - seems to be disregarded.

The Society of Authors, Equity & The Writers' Guild will - soon, I hope - have further discussion with the BBC about the impact of these cuts and the meaning of the BBC's charter, which speaks of its duty to "to foster creativity and nurture and support UK talent across a wide range of genres." Of course, if I were the BBC's Director General, I too would probably attempt to delay further meetings in order to say 'Too late, fait accompli, I'm afraid.'

On a personal note, I'm aware that the intensive months of campaigning (at a pitch some have described as obsessional, lunatic, detrimental to my wellbeing, etc) have - yes, certainly - taken their toll. I haven't had time to think about my own work. Haven't had time (or peace of mind) to write any fiction. [Insert sound of Vincent Price-like hollow laughter here. Ed.

So - I'm not for a minute giving up on the possibility that logic and reason might prevail - but I'm no longer waiting with my ear to the wind for the screeching sound of the BBC doing a sudden u-turn as they understand the error of their ways.

If I'm a little less visible for a while, it will be in order to encourage the muse. This is not adieu, it's 'a tout a l'heure'.

Just as I finish typing this, through the letterbox comes a review copy of the paperback edition of an award-winning first novel, plastered with quotes and garlands of praise. The author is someone I follow on Twitter. But not, so far, someone who's demonstrated generous fraternity by signing to support the petition. I feel the inclination to ask, remind, nudge, suggest, sink my terrier teeth gently into that author's sleeve and shake a little. It's surprisingly hard to stop thinking as a campaigner, once you've begun.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Letters, pray (Sorry. I don't usually do puns)

This afternoon the three General Secretaries of the Society of Authors, Equity UK & The Writers' Guild sent a  second joint letter *to Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC & cc'd it to Lord Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust.

We await their considered response.

Meanwhile, here's the traditional TV 'waiting for something to happen' filler, the Potter's Wheel

{light musical interlude}

(*it's a PDF, click to download)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Making a fuss

The latest BBC Radio 4 press release spells out the meaning of the story-cuts I've been tweeting and blogging about since July. There's a big bold picture of a very happy Martha Kearney, (happy at the extension to The World At One by 15 minutes) but scan down the page to the Friday offerings and you see this: "3.45pm Short story (the other short story slot is now Sunday at 7.45pm)"

Now picture my face... not so happy.  (Author pic not supplied. Ed.)

Two whole stories a week. TWO. For this bounty we must thank Radio 4's Controller. It could, after all, have been ONE, as in their original press release. 

It's possible to imagine a scenario in the not too distant future when, stories having become so random as to be unfindable in the schedule, the next logical action will be to see them as unwanted, unremarkable items, and to axe them completely, except as archive material on 4Extra or for 'special ocassions', such as the headline grabbing National Short Story Awards, sponsored - naturally, with great pride - by BBC Radio 4. 

You can offer your own comment on that new schedule, if you want to, on the website. You can write to R4's Feedback programme. About a hundred did that already, though their names were never read out during the (rather tame) interview with the Controller. (Well, she IS the Controller, I can see how that happened). You might sign the petition against the story cuts, as nearly 9,000 have already done. You might even write directly to Controller Gwyneth Williams - gwyneth.williams(at) -  if you feel strongly enough about it. Write to the Director General Mark Thompson, too, though he's a little busy right now, hasn't yet even replied to the joint letter sent to him in August on this topic; or you could write to Lord Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust - who replied saying he'd forwarded that same joint letter to Mark Thompson, and awaited with interest the response he would give.
Response? What response? Will you - or we - get one, other than 'thank you for writing/caring, but we're running this and we think you're wrong'? 
Will any of this letter and email writing and petition signing make any difference? Hm. 

It seems to me that the BBC, like many large organisations, particularly in the media industries, is adept at simply ignoring complaints or uncomfortable questions, no matter how articulate or informed the complainant, and no matter how many of them stir themselves from the spectacle of light (or indeed highbrow) entertainment to make their voices heard. And in this instance, to make not only their voices heard, but those of the people whose stories they value, the actors and writers who create the entertainment, and the host of characters they bring to life, bring into the living rooms or cars of listeners.

I've been writing and blogging and campaigning about this since July. Before that I wrote three commissioned stories for Radio 4, which were broadcast in August this year. That collision of events explains in part my passion for this cause, but the other aspect, the one that I think many of us share, is the feeling of 'THIS IS NOT RIGHT.'  I'm very heartened and grateful for the evidence, via email, twitter, petitioners, private conversations with writer friends and public comments by famous names, and with the support of three major unions/guilds, that I am not alone in this feeling, or in this protest.

I'm not a great fan of Winston Churchill, (though I share his difficulty with black dogs) but here's a quote which feels apposite: "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

Despite the huge commitment of time and mental energy it's taken, I'm glad I made a fuss. A fuss had to be made. I'm still making it. You can join in, if you like.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Guest post from ex-BBC Radio Producer David Jackson Young

You know the kind of programme.  It turns up one day, unheralded and unassuming, on your radio.  It hooks your attention.  It tickles your imagination.  Then it keeps you sitting in your car long after you’ve reached your destination, or lying in your bath when the water’s turned tepid.  You feel, somehow, that it was made just for you; that the whole thing is a kind of private, personal discovery.

As often as not, it’s a short story.

So how do they come into being, these seemingly-simple quarter-hours of narrative which can (at best) scoop up the unwary listener and temporarily transport him or her to another world?

It all starts, of course, with the writer.  Writers can speak for themselves about what they write and how they write, and where their inspiration comes from.  As a producer, you have to find – or commission – stories which you think will work for the listeners: that is, stories which entertain, enthral, move, make laugh, engage.

What kind of material works best?  It’s dangerous to generalise but, perhaps for obvious reasons, stories told in the first person tend to make the biggest impression – on me when I’m sifting through piles of scripts, and later when the voice comes out of the radio to grab the listener by the lapels: “This is what happened, and it happened to me.”  
A man describes how he’s accosted in a Glasgow bar by someone claiming to be an extraterrestrial alien.  A recently bereaved widower reveals bitter feelings about his marriage and his family in a speech at the post-funeral reception.  A star-struck schoolgirl recounts how she tracks down an international movie actor to his dressing room and there shares tea, shortbread and meaningful conversation. 
Three enticing synopses.  Not surprising, then, that each of these unsolicited stories stood out in the slush pile, and that each went on, when broadcast, to prompt a huge response from listeners.  And although very different in tone – two comic and one very dark – all of these randomly-remembered scripts were, effectively, first-person monologues. 

So: who to cast?  Obviously, an actor who can – in the fullest sense – read; who can get to grips with the meaning of the text, bring it to life, and whose voice and accent are right for the material. 

Not every good actor is a good reader, and only a handful are true masters and mistresses of the craft.  The late Anna Massey, for example, who would turn up for a recording with her script marked up like a musical score, each syllable highlighted for a particular stress or emphasis.  Or Crawford Logan (the current incarnation of radio sleuth Paul Temple), whose preparation includes slipping every page of his script into its own plastic pocket to eliminate the risk of noisy “page turns”.  With readers like these, the producer’s job in the studio is – almost, but not quite – reduced to pressing the “start” button and standing back. 

As budgets shrink and studio time is reduced, the temptation to use only very experienced readers is strong.  When I first started producing short stories in the analogue 1980s, a fifteen-minute story would typically be allocated three hours of studio time, of which at least the first hour would be devoted to the reading itself: rehearsing it, discussing it with the actor, recording the whole thing once, then perhaps recording it all again (but without losing the freshness!), then re-taking specific sentences and passages because they were too fast or too slow, or a crucial word was indistinct, or the sense wasn’t brought out quite as well as it might have been, or maybe because there was the hint of a frog in the actor’s throat.  And so on. 
It’s an intense process – even more so if time is tight.  I once produced a reading by an accomplished and well-known television actor who also had a lot of advertising voice-overs on his CV.  He hadn’t, though – and I only found this out when we got into the studio – ever done a sustained, full-length radio reading.  By the time we’d finished the man was exhausted; red-eyed, shiny-faced, his metaphorical tie metaphorically askew.  “Blimey,” he said. “That’s harder than saying ‘Fly British Airways’.”  But the end product was a delight: fluent, mellifluous, engaging.
A note here on the physicality of reading for radio: even if you’re sitting at a lectern you need to perform with your whole body, not just your voice, and the best readers really do work up quite a sweat.  I recorded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime with David Rintoul, and remember watching as he read a speech in which the distraught hero tries to send his wretched monster packing once and for all: “Begone!” bellowed David, thrusting out his arm and jabbing a trembling finger at the door of the studio.  The listeners didn’t see that gesture; but they certainly heard it.

Getting a decent reading out of an actor is partly down to the producer’s directions: a helpful note here, a small suggestion there. But shaping the end product is also a question of editing, after the actor’s gone home – cutting out the fluffs and throat-clearings, of course, and sticking in the retakes; but also working on the all-important rhythm of the thing.  Trimming pauses that are just a little too … long.  Or inserting pauses where there are none – to mark a distinct change of scene, for example: the equivalent of a white space, with a discreetly centred asterisk, on the printed page.

Again, this kind of fine-tuning takes time.  Would the audience notice if we didn’t do it?  I think so.  A typical listener may not be able to pinpoint what it is about a particular reading that holds the attention, that simply makes it listenable, but I suspect they can sense if the work hasn’t been done.  Too many commercial audiobooks are hard to listen to because all that’s mattered is that the words are all there and in the right order.  Never mind that the actor sounds tired and hoarse, or that for much of the time he’s on automatic pilot, clearly not thinking about the meaning of what he’s saying, and just anxious to get to the end before the session runs out.

Not his fault, of course, or the producer’s (if there is one); but the inevitable result of commercial pressures on time and resources – the kind of pressures which, at least until recently, have weighed less heavily in the world of readings at the BBC.
Until 2009 there were five new short stories a week on Radio 4.  In recent years the short story strand has been themed – five stories by one particular writer, for example, or five stories about love/death/sex/daily life in Cumbernauld (or whatever).  Go back a little further, though, and the five daily stories were a marvellously eclectic selection, picked by different producers all over the UK, and mixing the work of established (sometimes “classic”) authors with the unsolicited material from new or up-and-coming writers that constituted the bulk of the output.  So you might get a Stevenson story one day, something commissioned from Fay Weldon the next, and a new submission by an unknown Alexander McCall Smith the day after that.
I don’t know what happened to Alexander McCall Smith, but many of these modest offerings gave rise to greater things: a 2,000-word story I commissioned from the writer Paul Magrs, for example, became a few years later the basis for a whole series of cult novels centered on the original “bride of Frankenstein”, now intriguingly resurrected as the landlady of a B&B in Whitby.  Later still, one of those books was dramatised – and produced by me – for radio.  A virtuous creative circle, or what?  And all this from one unassuming fifteen-minute afternoon reading.   
Now that there are plans for fewer new stories on Radio 4, will there be scope for this kind of slow, quiet development?  Or will there be pressure to focus every time on big name readers and big name writers, so that each – increasingly rare – new story can be packaged and promoted to make a splash; perhaps to justify the genre’s relative expense, or perhaps just to stop it withering away as people forget which day of the week to tune in?
And what about the archive?  Right now there’s a big enough back catalogue of well-crafted story readings to keep Radio 4 Extra in business for at least another thirty years.  But what about stocking up now for the thirty years after that?

Finally – and maybe I’m being a hopeless old romantic – if new short stories become a rarity, each one a high-profile ‘highlight’, there’s a risk of losing that unique relationship with the audience.  Not every short story on radio is memorable or special, or has the potential to generate five spin-off novels.  But there needs to be enough of them (is “critical mass” the term I want?) to make them an integral part of the radio landscape, and to ensure that the real gems continue to be created and serendipitously stumbled upon by individual listeners – as delightful private discoveries rather than as self-consciously over-hyped ‘events’.

Bio: David Jackson Young started his professional life in comedy – performing with Radio Active, writing for Not the Nine O’Clock News, as near as dammit winning the Perrier Award in 1982.  After a quarter-century detour as a very serious BBC radio producer – making features, dramas and readings, mainly for Radio 4 – he recently resumed his precarious career as an ill-defined writer/performer, with some occasional freelance radio production on the side, just to keep his hand in.

Monday, 3 October 2011

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

Bonk. Bonk-bonk. Noise of me hitting my head against that metaphorical brick wall, again. I'm trying to explain to myself, the better to explain to others - and isn't this kind of exploration or investigation what all creative writing is about, at some level? - what happens when the country's leading commissioner of short stories decides to cut back, to treat them as unimportant in the grander scheme of things. Since BBC R4's Controller doesn't see it, how can one make it apparent to her - and to others? Others who should be taking notice, making noise, caring and fighting to hang on to all kinds of opportunities to nurture the arts, not only their own particular brand..?

What came to mind today was the old proverb: "All for the want of a horseshoe nail." You will probably remember the basic premise. My own - rather clunky - version goes like this:

for want of a good story, the skilled actor is lost
for want of an actor, the brilliant new play is lost
for want of the play, the outstanding novel is lost
for want of the novel, the award-winning film is lost
for want of a film, the acclaimed national culture is lost
and all for the want of a good story.

That sounds grandiose, of course, but consider the examples in almost every interview you read with a novelist, a playwright, an actor about their journey to success. How did they start writing? What text did they use for their first theatre audition? Where did they learn the skills they brought to their now much admired performance? If you look through the petition, you'll find again and again the comment from actors & writers (many of whose names are now 'household' ones) how they began in the small spaces offered by BBC radio drama, and not least by writing or reading the R4 short story.

here are a few quotes which underline this point:

Iain Pattison  "This [cut] denies countless talented writers a prestigious national platform for their work. The BBC is supposed to be a champion of new talent. Please abandon this shortsighted and mean spirited cut." 

 Ian Hogg "As an actor who has read a good number of short stories and novels for Radio Four I'd like to say how depressing such news is. The number of listeners who have stopped me to talk of their pleasure in listening to radio drama and story readings should be a matter of pride to the BBC ; it certainly is to me. The single reader telling a story can hold an audience of a hundred or so people rapt and spell bound. I know this from personal experience of reading aloud to varied audiences. The radio story is a deep and moving experience which people young and old value. It would be churlish, arrogant and insensitive of the BBC executive to mutilate this powerful and beautiful creature - it makes me think of Aztec priests tearing the hearts out of helpless victims. And they must have thought this was right and honourable behaviour! Melodramatic imagery I agree but insanity is nearly always melodramatic. So shame on you Radio Four." 

Daragh Carville "The first piece I ever had broadcast was a BBC Radio 4 short story, back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I was in my early twenties. Hearing my work on the radio was a key moment for me, spurring me on to make a career as a writer. And I'm not the only one. The short story slot on Radio 4 has been a lifeline for writers, actors and listeners and has helped refresh and reinvigorate the short story form. I urge you to think again about reducing the short story output on the channel." 

Juliet Stevenson "Has there been any consultation with Radio 4 audiences before making this proposed cut? I receive more positive and enthusiastic feedback from reading short stories and books on radio than I do for work in any other medium, by a long margin. The short story is a form dearly loved by listeners, and cherished by writers both established and emerging."  

David Benedictus "I have had a dozen or so short stories broadcast on radio 4 and they were a huge help to me. But more important is that when I am teaching I tell my students that this is one of the best possibole slots for their short stories - but then of course where else are they to go? Both for writers and, even more important for listeners, Radio 4 has an obligation not to reduce further these precious quarter hours. They are not expensive, and if public service means anything it means nurturing the short story. They must be retained at present levels or even returned to one a weekday; and they should be promoted as they deserve to be."

David Rudkin "My career began with a short story I had written at the age of 12, and which I read myself on BBC Midlands Region as it then was. Mine has since been a lifetime's work as an award-winning dramatist (theatre and radio), screenwriter, translator and librettist. In my old age I am now returning to the private form, short story, with which I began. The notion of 'one short story a week' is a culturally impoverished notion, and will in turn impoverish your audience. Do please reflect, and re-think." 

Julia Blackburn "During the last few years I have written almost 20 short stories for radio 4 . The process has taught me a great deal ,maybe because a good radio story needs to have a quality of immediacy and intimacy to it and that has helped to clarify my own writing style. i have always read my own stories, which is a bonus of communication for such an otherwise silent profession. I receive letters from people about my books, but the response to broadcasts has been much more immediate - someone having listened while stuck in a traffic jam, a man who said my story made it possible for him to think about things he had never before been able to look at. i am sure this comes from the fact of the directness of a spoken voice... I was shocked when I learnt that the story slot had been cut to three a week, a further cut and such a major one, would be a disaster."

Monday, 26 September 2011

Stories on the Air - part 1

The first rule of short story campaigning is: never read the comments after a Guardian blog about short stories. The second rule of short story campaigning is: never read...etc. I made that mistake recently, and found someone was dishing out both compliments & slaps to the Radio 4 short story on slightly spurious grounds of their being generally 'middle class.'

That set me to thinking about class and wondering how my own preoccupations might appear, what my own radio stories have been about. ("What do you write about?" is one of the questions non-writers ask for which I rarely have a sufficiently concise or polite answer; my default response now is: "Life".)

I decided as an experiment to list all the stories I've had broadcast, with a brief precis of each one's plot/theme. I've removed the titles, to maintain a little mystery... Many do have a female perspective, as you'd expect, but the voices are actually quite a mix of age, class, nationality, and gender (even species!). Much of the impulse to write stories came from my background in improvised comedy performance, and I've always liked to inhabit character voices of all sorts; when I hear a voice and tune in to it well enough, the accent, their obsessions and failings, all take me on a journey.  It took a while to understand how to shape and edit that sort of material, but the basic premise of finding a portal into another person's life was always where I began.

My first radio story aired in 1993. It was only the second story I'd ever properly written, finished and sent out; the first had been runner up in a competition, which totally surprised me. This first radio one languished in the Edinburgh BBC Radio Drama 'submissions pile' for about five months before I got any feedback; the response was 'er, we quite liked this, but it's too short - do try again'. I interpreted that 'try again' as mere politeness at first, went away and growled and fretted and brooded and tinkered, but finally added another 300 words - a stretch, and still too short really - and with a tiny spurt of courage sent it back. The producer replied within a couple of weeks, saying he'd like to record it and asked if I'd like to narrate it myself? Yes, I would - and yes, Reader, I did. I can still remember the oddness of being alone in a studio for the first time, watching for the green light. I can remember the uncomfortable shoes I wore, and the rather clingy black leggings. Above all, I remember my dry mouth (the jug of water I got through in the 2 hours session) and then the excitement of listening to my own voice, own words, being edited. That first lucky break is why I went on to write for radio again and again, and it's why I still see radio as the perfect medium for story telling.

Anyway - here's the list: all of these were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 unless otherwise specified (or if I can't find the details). Tx is short for Transmission date.

1 Tx 27th April 1993 (Radio Scotland) First-person female narrator has an elderly female neighbour, whose invitations to 'come in for a wee drink' she tries to avoid. After finding the neighbour's door open one day, the narrator goes in to investigate, and.. by the end of the story the listener realises the younger woman has learned and demonstrated compassion.

2 - Tx 10th August 1993 - First person female narrator, who we discover via flashbacks has been caught shoplifting; she details her surroundings, imagines the lives of her custodians, thinks about her morality. A double-twist ending reveals more about her state of mind.

3 -  Tx 27th Nov 1994 - In which a gallous young Glaswegian meets her idol, by sneaking in to a BBC dressing room - what does she really want to say to him and how will it change her life?

4 -  Tx 24th Jan 1995 Same gallous Glaswegian writes to a TV personality and sends him a gift, but he doesn't take it in the spirit of her giving.

5 -  Tx 1996  Gallous lassie goes 'Astral Travelling' and on a visit to a museum in the company of a potential boyfriend, who turns out to be not entirely her cup of tea.

6 - Tx 24th August 1996  Same gallous lassie - but it's so long since I wrote/read this I cannot now remember the plot! It had something to do with Dorothy Parker, and bra-sizes..

7 - (part 4 of a chain story) - Tx 22nd October 1998  Simon Brett, Ali Smith, James Robertson & I wrote this four-parter, which began with a burglar and ended with a tormented or perhaps haunted woman at a psychologist's clinic.

Stories 2 - 7 above were all written specifically with radio in mind; of these next ones, most were informed by my experience of radio, but some of them were in print first.

8 Tx - 28th Nov 2000 A first person male narrator, in the act of cooking, waiting for the doorbell to ring, musing over an encounter with a boisterous group of women in a pub, how he'd challenged them on sexism.

9 & 10 - recorded twice in 2000 (Tx once as live broadcast, once not) A middle-aged woman gets stuck in a lift with a younger man..if this were a film, how would it play out?  Can she be Holly Hunter to his Keanu Reeves? We glimpse her inner fantasy versus the realities of attraction and role-playing.

11 & 12  - recorded twice -Tx 1997 & 2000 (once as a stand-alone story, once as part of a group from a story collection) A first person female narrator; she receives a phone call to say that her father is seriously ill; she visits the hospital and the listener/reader slowly starts to understand the history between them.

13 – Tx 2000  A comic tale about an accountant who's also a stand up comedian; he's asked by a mystery correspondent to investigate shady dealings of an entertainment/celebrity agent, in the London Comedy scene.

142000 Tx Two sisters visit Tangier, over Christmas and New Year, but their health soon matches the tricky state of their relationship.

152000 Tx  A divorced woman recounts how her flat is burgled and how, after she takes matters into her own hands, things turn out rather better than anyone might have expected.

16 - Tx 4th Dec 2001 Narrated by the small black cat in the painting "Olympia" by Edouard Manet; a cat's eye view of the encounters between artist and model and his own contribution to the resulting canvas.

17 - Tx 2003 A young woman, flying back from a family funeral in France, remembers and analyses what occurred and how the feeling of being dressed in mourning will never allow her to see black clothing in quite the same way again. 

18 - Tx 2003 A woman uses considerable glamour to charm old school friends into believing her life story, but is the resulting renewal of friendship what they were expecting?

19 2005 Tx  A young man finds himself caught in a dilemma when a mouse invades his kitchen and he simultaneously wants to let it go and keep it safe - what psychology is at work here? 

20 - Tx 2006 A woman on holiday in a Tunisian resort hotel, awaiting the delayed arrival of her partner, finds she is unaccountably and terribly deprived of her drug of choice - good literary fiction - so she sets about trying to find something to read.

212007 Tx A retired divorced woman, living alone in France, is joined for a few weeks by a former friend from the UK, a women with money and a very conventional marriage; their road-trip goes from uphill to downhill and back again as they learn a few new truths about themselves and each other

22 2007 Tx  A retiring, snobbish, rather caustic woman borrows a friend's weekend cottage for a retreat but finds she cannot escape the tedious attentions of an insensitive neighbour and her curious dog.

After this were 2 recent sets of story-trilogies, about which I might as well leave in the titles and other details: 

23/24/25 I GOT THE DOG3 stories - Tx August 2010 - a trilogy on the theme of property and divorce – producer Sara Davies/Sarah Langan, Bristol - first person stories about a love triangle.
1. Andria's story, read by Rebecca Front. Andria loves Boris and they adopt a lost dog, Mimi, but when Boris' composing takes over their lives, Andria shows him the door - will he take Mimi with him? 
2. Boris's Story, read by John McGlynn. Boris loves performance-artist Chiara, but when she seduces Mimi away from him, he discovers she had ulterior motives - will he regain Mimi or be alone forever with only his art? 
3. Chiara's Story, read by Vicki Pepperdine. Chiara is house-sitting for a choreographer, in his house-boat; she runs through ideas for her new solo-show and relates how Mimi betrayed her - but the return of the choreographer may hold promise of a new duet, if she plays it right.

26/27/28 PORTRAIT: A Triptych - 3 stories looking at the significance of a portrait, Aug 9-11, 2011 - produced by Sarah Langan in Bristol.
1-The Painter's Story, read by Burn Gorman - Tom meets Nic at an arthouse cinema. She's out of his league, but he throws her a line about wanting to paint her, and one days she turns up at his studio and agrees to sit for him. By the time the canvas is finished, Tom realises she means more to him than just a female form he can observe.
2-The Model's Story, read by Federay Holmes - Nic wakes up in a hospital; she's battered and bruised, and as memory begins to return, her husband turns up. But is he there to console her, and will she go home with him? And what happened about the portrait of her painted by Tom?
3-The Voyeur's Story, read by Bill Paterson - screenwriter Andrew meets painter Tom on the set of a detective series, for which Tom has supplied the original artwork in a story about revenge. What's the real story behind the canvases, in particular the beautiful nude?

Monday, 19 September 2011

the metaphorical brick wall

Yesterday, I tweeted about why short stories are important - again.

No doubt this short story cuts campaign (or my part in it) has already bored the socks off many people - even fellow writers, especially those who've never written a short story in their lives. I think for those who don't write them, or read them, or hear them, it's difficult to make a connection with the form.

Hmm.. how can I structure my ideas about this in a way that makes others see it as clearly as I would like?  Metaphor.

The first metaphor that comes to mind is that of Literature as a house. If BBC Radio 4 in their wisdom decide that the short story doesn't warrant as much time on the air as other forms - as serialised novels, as plays, as comedy series - then one could say BBCR4 is like the proprietor of a new house, taking pride in the glories of the decoration and smart furnishings, without having asked how the boiler works.

Or perhaps, in the metaphorical House of Literary Output, if the grand rooms are novels, if the windows are poetry...short stories are the foundations. And if the foundations of your house aren't sound, fancy wallpaper, plump sofas and pretty curtains won't make it somewhere you can live happily ever after.

To me (and I'm not a theorist or an academic) Story means 'essence'. For writers, 'story' is about identifying the important elements, presenting them in the right order, and writing them imaginatively enough to reach the reader or listener. Every individual author's 'voice' is built on those basic but vital abilities. 

To paraphrase Jean Cocteau - without 'story', the great body of fiction is just a dictionary out of order.

Metaphors are not just useful, they're essential. A friend told me last week about a book called Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in which Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, make the case that without metaphor we would not have a language to discuss ideas; they contend that language is structured like this:

 "The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a bearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers." 

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as one of the strengths of good short fiction - for the writer, it's a particularly elegant delivery system for ideas, feelings, images, truths, which are unpacked and reassembled by the receiver/listener.

Radio is a well-designed utility vehicle. The reader & producer are there to ensure the contents are sent at the right speed, over the best roads, that the ideas reach you on time and - one hopes - with nothing broken.

The sturdy lorries that carry novels, the bicycles and kites that carry poems, are also wonderful 'conduits' for ideas, sent in the way that their writer has chosen to meet the needs of their particular customer, standing on their doorstep, waiting, with their scissors and an allen key, ready to unwrap, assemble and appreciate the contents.

There is more to say about why the short story is important, why it needs to be appreciated by the BBC as essential to the upkeep of the nation's literary mansion (I know it's on ITV, not BBC, but I'm picturing Downton Abbey there, aren't you?); no doubt I'll keep saying it, again and again, even though it sometimes feels like banging my real head against a metaphorical brick wall.

Meanwhile, I must go - there's a slightly worrying ticking sound coming from my boiler...

(NB - no metaphors were harmed in the assembly of this blog post, though some have been mildly bent out of shape. Ed.)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What's the story with the Radio 4 Short Story? (update)

I've just written a piece for the Society of Authors' blog on the story so far regarding the BBC Radio 4 story cuts campaign. It's a whittling down, a summary, and also a pulling-together of facts and links, a short-hand description of two months of intensive work. Work not just by me, I must add, nor by the intrepid Ian Skillicorn, but by the Society of Authors staff, who've taken up this cause with admirable speed, considerable skill and above all with tenacity.

There wasn't room for everything in the blog, so here's one of the links I left out - an essay by Kate Taylor in the Toronto Globe & Mail (a paper for which, I'm honoured to say, I have in the past written book reviews) on the fascinating work of psychologist Keith Oatley (Professor Emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto) on why fiction is good for you - yes, we knew that, but now we can PROVE it.

Finally: the feedback I've had from friends, listeners, strangers, writers, non-writers, twitter-chatterers etc to my recent BBC Radio 4 story trilogy - Portrait -A Triptych - has been really quite moving, and encouraging, at a time when encouragement was much needed. If you listened and liked them, and even more so if you told me about it, thank you. I'm hoping to use all three of the narrators again, probably in a longer format...aka a novel.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Culture - not a mythical standard

I was very pleased today to be alerted, by Gabrielle Kimm, to a blog post by Dr Paul March-Russell re the BBC Radio 4 story cuts, analysing the wider questions.

He quotes Raymond Williams [Culture and Society (1958)] as saying "culture is not a mythical standard but a way of living under social and economic conditions not of the individual’s making."

You can read the entire piece here

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

In the absence of Summer, here's a Summary

What's happening with the No To Short Story Cuts On Radio 4 campaign, you ask?

Well, the Executive Layer of the BBC's Corporate Cake appears to be on holiday during August.

There's been no response - yet - from BBC Director General Mark Thompson nor BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten to the letter (Aug 3rd) from the Society of Authors, Equity & The Writer's Guild. 

Meanwhile, as can be seen from recent press coverage (eg this piece on 31st July, by Paul Donovan, unfortunately behind The Times' paywall) BBC Radio 4 have changed their position somewhat.

That shift of position - let's not call it a partial u-turn, horrible expression - would not have happened without the pressure of voices via the petition which allowed radio listeners to join actors and writers in expressing their dismay at what they perceive as "cultural vandalism".

The original Radio 4 press release, in early July, stated: “From next spring, the number of short stories will be reduced from three to one a week on Radio 4.”

Two weeks later, when Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley's support meant the protest had reached storm proportions on Twitter, a new press release was issued, with “information we weren't in a position to announce when the first announcement was made”.  This one said there would be two stories a week; one on a Friday afternoon, and another on Sunday evenings.

This change allows R4 to increase the number of new stories, softening the argument against their overall cuts; but that Sunday evening story slot was formerly used for repeats... so, as I understand it, there will now be no space for any story repeats on R4.

Still, increasing the number of commissions seems like a good thing, doesn't it? They listened, didn't they? Shouldn't we sigh with relief and pat ourselves on the back?

Well, no. It's still a cut. Instead of an Orion's Belt of original short writing across the week, short stories will now appear as isolated singles.  As the joint letter writers put it: 
"This will mean that Radio 4 is cutting slots for new writing from three to two and, even more seriously is cutting the number of listener slots (of which there were six as recently as 2009) from four to two."
 I think anyone, even the arithmetically challenged (that's me), can see the difference there in terms of impact, focus, and respect for the form.

Respect for the form sounds ridiculously grandiose, but I would argue that the short story at its best - especially as a first person narrative - is the basis on which all the other forms of literature are built. For actor and writer alike, the short story on radio offers a particularly wonderful demonstration of their combined skills, creating a very pleasurable one-to-one experience for the listener. I'd add, in echo of wiser minds, that learning happens first through listening, and that learning to listen is fundamental to our development as individuals.

How can BBC's committment to new, original writing be considered solid, when the short story is treated as peripheral in its arts programming? 

Hmm. For many writers, a story is their way into writing. It comes before the confidence to attempt plays, sit-coms, novels. For some, it's their preferred method of telling a story of whatever scale. The choice to reduce story slots seems to have been taken without consideration for its significance re the health of the wider dramatic and literary output.

I've heard from many listeners that they prefer stories to plays, dramatisations, or serialised novels, partly because of the time commitment, partly because they are 'not drawn in' by them, as they are with a story.

What do the cuts mean for listeners, who've been able to enjoy the short story as a regular weekday treat for nearly 40 years? Will those same listeners be able to listen to the story in these new slots? How will R4 "showcase" the short story at those differing times? 

I've not yet seen or been given a reply to those questions.

So, is there any good news?

BBC Radio 4 has stated its plans to have a "new story strand on R4Extra, with 25 new stories."

Ah, no, wait, hang on, sorry - that's not new writing for radio; those 25 stories will be derived from other sources. Difficult, that word 'new', it can mean one thing to one person and something else to another.

What kind of stories, and how often during the year will they be broadcast - as singles, in tandems, in larger batches...? 

Who knows?

Presumably the plan is to draw more listeners to the digital channel.

However, as only one in 4 radios sold is a DAB radio (so I'm told) the "new story strand of 25 on R4Extra" will not reach as many listeners as Radio 4 does. Perhaps a quarter?

So it seems to me that BBC Radio 4 is effectively demoting the short story. In fact, they've been demoting it slowly, over 3 years, and it's only now become apparent to those not directly concerned with their production.  

Here's another oddity. Radio 4 has an e-newletter, which you can sign up to for details of forthcoming radio drama. Which is great. But for some reason they don't include details of the Afternoon Readings. That strikes me as a waste of opportunity to raise awareness of their output, to boast about their own excellent work. Is there internecine rivalry between producers of Big Sexy Drama & Small, Short Stories? Who cares? Why not let them all be publicised, let them all find their audience? Why not help them to do so with all the media tools to hand?

What would I like to happen?

I'd like there to be 5 stories a week, of course. The Morning Story, the Afternoon Story, but in any case, a regular slot with the word STORY in it, which allows for creative planning and commissioning of writers, employment of actors and choice for listeners.

I'd like there to be space for repeats; when something really good has provoked listener response, there should be a way to broadcast it again.

I'd like the BBC to develop ways to make their drama & story archives more available, as downloads, to find a model which gives the licence payer better value for their investment. There are listeners all over the world who appreciate the BBC's broadcasting of stories, and who listen free.

I'd like people not to confuse the word SHORT with UNIMPORTANT.  Not to underestimate the power of FICTION amidst the continual clamour of FACTUAL programming.

To quote a former news-journalist friend, we should not diminish opportunities to hear "the small direct intimate voices which speak to the hearts, minds and souls of millions of Britons."
Most of all, I'd like the Controller of BBC Radio 4 to really hear what those petitioners are saying, about the value of a 15 minute oasis in the day when, by choice or by accident, listeners are afforded surprise, refreshment, entertainment.

At the moment, there's nothing more I can do about this, apart from remind people of the issues, point them towards the petition, and wait for the BBC to respond to the charge that they may be in danger of breaching their Charter.

Waiting is something I do very badly. Enforced passivity is, I feel, damaging to the creative energies.

So, I'm diving back into the novel I had been re-writing/re-dreaming, before my own recent BBC Radio 4 story-trilogy commission green-light in June and broadcast in early August.

At the moment it feels like wading through mud... but that's long stories for you.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Letter from the Society of Authors, Equity UK & The Writer's Guild

To The Right Honourable the Lord Patten of Barnes, Chairman, BBC Trust
& to Mark Thompson, Director General of BBC

 3rd August

Radio 4 Short Stories

We are writing to you because we fear that proposed short story cuts are in breach of the BBC Charter.

In a press release issued on the 6 July, the BBC announced that from Spring 2012 the number of short stories it broadcasts on Radio 4 will be reduced from three to one a week in order to make way for an extension of the World at One from 30 to 45 minutes. We sought clarification and a reversal of the decision from Radio 4 controller, Gwyneth Williams. In a meeting with the Society of Authors on 28 July Ms Williams explained that Radio 4 will be cutting the three short story slots currently at 3:30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (up until 2009 these were every weekday) and instead creating a new slot at 3:45pm on Friday, and using the current slot at 7:45pm on Sunday, which is now used for repeats, for new short stories. This will mean that Radio 4 is cutting slots for new writing from three to two and, even more seriously is cutting the number of listener slots (of which there were six as recently as 2009) from four to two.

We are deeply concerned at these proposed cuts and believe that they will lead to the BBC breaching its Charter and particularly its duty to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence. The BBC has a duty to offer the best examples of creative work that engage and delight audiences, break new ground and encourage interest in cultural, creative and sporting activities. Short stories, with the use of the single voice, provide an opportunity to create great moments of drama and intimacy for the listener. It is a versatile and flexible medium which can surprise and delight and encourage audiences into unfamiliar territory.

Generally, the short story is experiencing a revival in popularity, having proved a perfect medium for the internet age; it is excellent for podcast and download. We are surprised that the BBC has not seen the commercial possibilities of this format and note that it is one of the most economical forms of programming - the only costs being those of paying the writer, the reader and studio production.

We are concerned not only at the loss of half the short story slots but also at the proposed new timing: up to two years ago and for almost the last 40 years there were opportunities to hear the short story every weekday on Radio Four. Under the new plans the only weekday offering would be at 3:45pm on a Friday. We believe that it will be difficult to give sufficient impact to the short story when the scheduling is so piecemeal. Listener comments on our petition (see below) repeat again and again how important it is to have the short story as a moment of space in a busy working day. The regular slot of 3 per week (previously 5 per week) short stories at the same time each day allowed for linked themes and creative programming. We fear that this will not work with weekend scheduling.

The BBC encourages active participation in short story writing by supporting the BBC National Short Story Award but new writers will not be encouraged into this medium if they are denied the opportunity to engage with it by hearing a wide range of stories and appreciating the possibilities of the medium.

The BBC has a duty to foster creativity and nurture and support UK talent across a wide range of genres. Radio Four has historically been a major showcase of the short story, and provided opportunities to new and established writers and actors. Equity's Audio Committee, made up of members who work regularly in radio and other audio areas, is currently collating data on the reduction of budgets at the BBC Radio as part of an investigation in the threat to radio drama, which includes readings and short stories. We believe that these cuts are symptomatic of a wider threat to radio drama by the lack of resources allocated to it by the BBC resulting in the number of productions being reduced. We fear that, if the number of productions continues to drop, radio drama could sink below the critical mass that will keep it viable. This appears to be what occurred at the BBC World Service. This will be exacerbated by the loss of a slot for repeats. Ms Williams has emphasised that she will be running short stories (although not newly commissioned work) on Radio Four Extra. It would be difficult to move any of this to Radio Four, even if successful, when there are no slots for repeats.

Finally we are concerned at the way in which this decision has been made. The BBC has a duty to monitor the BBC’s delivery of the Public Purposes, but this decision appears to have been made without any consideration of the impact of these cuts. Despite requests we have not been given any listener figures for the short story and it seems that there was no consultation, whether of listeners, writers and performers or opinion leaders in the wider creative community and amongst the creative community within the BBC itself before making the cuts.

National Short Story Week has hosted a petition to save the short story ( currently has around 6000 signatures. The signatures and comments on the petition (extracts are attached) are testament to the great love people have for the short story, which gives unique value to the listener, to the writer and performer in becoming established and being heard and to the wider creative community, providing inspiration and delight.

We believe that the decision breaches the BBC Charter for the reasons set out above and urge you to press Radio 4 not to cut the mid-week slots, which are of such importance to writers and listeners. 2013 will be the 40th Anniversary of the short story on Radio 4; the anniversary should be marked by an expansion of the short story not by cutting all weekday story slots. We know that budgets are tight but ask that funds be ring-fenced to ensure continuing funding and promotion of Radio Drama. We would very much welcome a meeting with you to discuss these issues further.

Yours Faithfully

Nicola Solomon, General Secretary, The Society of Authors,
Bernie Corbett, General Secretary, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain,
Christine Payne, General Secretary, Equity

Stephen Fry    "Please reconsider. I know budgets are tight, but there are few VERY few things the BBC does better. Commissioning and helping the world hear of new writing. Giving actors confidence and experience - but most of all being the best, the only place for listeners to enjoy the uniquely satisfying immersion and pleasure that a well told story can deliver."
Ali Smith    "This seems to me a terrible failure of imagination on the part of the BBC, since the short story, in terms of both form and voice, is so suited to the particular powers of radio, so at home in the open place where radio and the imagination meet. It's a loss to the writers, yes, but it's a huge loss to the listening public, a cancelling of a rich source of thought, voice, art, imagination."
Ian Rankin  "I got my real start with short stories on BBC Radio 4; I would hate for future generations of writers not to have the same chance." 
Listener: Claire Rush    "As a blind person I rely on radio 4 for up-to-date short stories which are not often available on audio. It means so much being able to switch on the radio and just listen like anyone else with no barriers. If you cut these stories out it will be another of my lifelines gone. These short stories are a great platform for new writers and I love the variety. I feel that radio 4 would be selling its soul for a bit of silver if this decision was made. Audiobooks cost around £30 each for unabridged versions, so having a tremendous source of literature at the press of a button is fantastic. If short stories are thrown in the path of radio 4's bulldozer, a chunk of your audience will automatically get buried in the rubble never to be seen again." 
Joanna Lumley    "Radio seems to be made for the short story. News, yes and information and discussion, of course: but the strength of the unseen face and the one-to-one voice reading fiction aloud is a perfect escape from the woes of the world. There should be as many stories read aloud on Radio 4 as there are fish in the sea. Don't cut them down or send them to a backwater; they belong in the heart of the listener's menu. Without this little time to dream and escape we become dull and predictable: without our own minds painting the landscapes and characters we diminish ourselves as people."
Simon McBurney    “Being read to is one of all our earliest experiences. It is how we learn to listen. The short story is the most succinct, complete and intimate form of this. Its function remains essential in our society. To make sure we keep listening. To reduce our access to the short story in this increasingly deaf, and hurrying society would be to remove another civilising aspect of our culture. The short story can make us stop for a moment. And listen. To listen is to hear others, and to awaken our ability to feel.”

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Feel The Love...

The new Controller of BBC Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, recently took the decision to reduce the station’s slots for original short stories. 

You can read her most recent comments here. The Society of Authors (of which I am a member) was invited to meet Ms Williams and you can read about who attended, what was discussed, and the subsequent exchange of letters on the issues here including exactly how many/few new/archive stories are likely to be broadcast over not just R4 but 4Extra.

Lest anyone mistake my own recent noises of protest against this decision for purely egotistical self-promoting and tiresome ingratitude, let me be clear about my reasoning.

I love BBC Radio 4. I love the BBC (almost) in its entirety. The BBC has been mother & father to me, literally.

My mother, Frances Campbell, was a producer of Children's Radio in the mid 1950s in Edinburgh. She only left her job when she was seven months pregnant with me (and would happily have returned, but in that era she wasn't given the option.)

My father Leonard Maguire was an actor & writer of over 100 radio scripts for BBC Radio Scotland in the 50s & 60s (and up to the 1980s, when his award winning theatre plays were first broadcast on R3).

The BBC, and in particular in the drama studios of BBC Radio in Edinburgh, is where my parents met. My mother employed my father not just for his wonderful voice, but because his fee was 2 guineas less than Ian Cuthbertson's.

So I grew up aware of the power of the spoken word, the significance of 'story' as a vehicle for understanding the world, and oneself. It's in the blood.

I have seen and felt that power myself, can remember the visceral response I've had to a great radio story read by a great actor. It's also what formed me as a writer; hearing the inner voice.

The inner voice is the one you hear privately as you brush your teeth at the mirror, as you wash the dishes, as your car trundles down the motorway. It's the one we listen to, or - at our peril - ignore. At its best, the short story reflects that experience supremely. I often write radio stories as first person narratives - monologues - because they can deliver in the most intimate way. The narrator makes us his/her confidant, and the listener reciprocates with their attention - the kind of stuff many of us yearn for in our real life connections, to be heard, to be understood, to share how we feel.

I never write a story without, at some level, pinning down what I, as a listener & reader, want to 'hear' expressed, on paper and/or on air.  I never write a story without thinking of the tempo, the syntax, the requirement for an actor's mouth to wrap round the words, weigh them. Almost every story starts with character, with a voice that is not my own, and with tuning in to how that person expresses him or her self; hesitantly, confidently, mendaciously, idiotically, humorously. Idiolectically.

When you already write stories for radio, you may soon want to be more ambitious - without losing what makes a story short. You may want to write several. You might want, as I did in 2002, to write five on one theme (Little Black Dress) - although I got talked out of writing three of them (Rosemary Goring, Hannah McGill and Sian Preece filled that week out splendidly, and the idea grew into a successful all women anthology). You might, as I did in 2010, want to write a trilogy (‘I Got The Dog’: read by Rebecca FrontVicki Pepperdine & John McGlynn). You might then pitch another idea and be commissioned to write it too.

'Portrait: A Triptych’ aired on the 9th 10th & 11th August 2011 on BBC Radio 4, in the about-to-vanish Afternoon Reading slot of 3.30pm. The stories were read by Burn Gorman (currently in new flagship BBC Television drama The Hour, about to star in the new Batman film) Federay Holmes (whose voice I heard in a Noel Coward play on Radio 4 some months ago and remembered for its clarity & nuance), and Bill Paterson (one of the UK's best loved actors).

Writing story-trilogies was a challenge I was ready for, working out how to make them stand alone, how to make them join up subtly across the week for listeners who might be hungry for all facets of the central idea: how a portrait is made, for whom, and how it is perceived and experienced by the painter, the model and the voyeur. You can judge for yourself how they've worked, if you tuned in.

If BBC Radio 4 carries through this decision other short story writers won't get that kind of opportunity to use the medium. Boo-hoo for writers, (and actors) you might say, but it's the hundreds of thousands of devoted listeners who are being short changed.

Yes, BBC Radio 4 will still 'support' the short story, and yes, they will commission new writing, but we all know how quickly a thing gets lost when it's moved round the schedules; the demotion, the lack of commitment to sticking with this good thing, is what distresses me.

Until not so long ago, there were 260 short stories broadcast every year on Radio 4. These cuts indicate a steep decline in importance, in respect, over a short period, for a form which is at the root of all 'drama' output.

Also of concern is the fact that more women than men get into writing via the short story, so their voices will be by implication less often 'heard' on 'our' BBC.

Cutting the number & changing the 'showcase' time-slot seems like a culturally dangerous thing to do. At the same time to be very publicly supporting the excellence of short fiction by sponsoring the National Short Story Award looks, at best, like serious confusion of purpose.

On the petition set up by National Short Story Week to register opinion on this change to the Radio 4 schedules, there is a comment from Bill Paterson. The first sentence (a flash story in itself!)is:

"Stories on the air."

Stories. On the Air.  What do you see? I see words flexing in the up-draught from a radiator, floating out of a window across a city. I think of Orpheus playing on his lyre. I think of alchemy. (In case you didn’t know it, the BBC's own in-house magazine is called Ariel, after the 'spirit of the air'.)

I understand that the argument for cutting short stories on BBC Radio 4 is not about money. It’s about shifting a particularly effective type of fiction off air to make space for other things - prioritising factual coverage over original writing.

News? More current affairs? More interactive talk radio? Really? That kind of programming is everywhere, across many media. News presses in upon our lives so much that we suffer from information overload, that we become depressed at being unable to solve any of the problems it chucks at us, news… gets old.  It is urgent, and then..whoosh - it's past. A new event demands our attention.  And another. And another. News programmes become a list of things to frustrate, infuriate, provoke, baffle and - in some ways - disempower us.

Fiction, especially in the format of a 15 minute story, and when made with the collaborative talents of an experienced actor, writer and producer, does the opposite.

Stories engage, they give pleasure, induce reflection, lateral thinking, understanding of how others live and feel about life, and - most importantly - because of its nature, its shape, a short story offers us the possibility of resolution.

As a natural anti-depressant & non-harmful stimulant, good fiction is as powerful as a drug, and in a 15 minute capsule it gets to work fast.

Stories, on the air.
They give us breathing space.
They are an appointment with our selves.