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.