Drama, one of the more costly forms of radio broadcasting, is losing airtime as the BBC cuts back, despite being recognised as a vital seedbed for British talent. Great dramatists including Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter all gained experience on radio and many leading writers, including Samuel Beckett, John Mortimer and Alan Plater, regularly returned to the form, drawn by its intimate quality.
Following complaints from listeners and from the audio producers’ trade association Audio UK – which has written to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulating body – the BBC’s commitment to developing writers and putting out one-off radio plays is being questioned. Audio UK research shows that by April 2023 Radio 4’s drama output will have fallen by 50% during the period Ofcom has been directly overseeing the BBC. When it took over from the former BBC Trust in 2017 it removed quotas that protected key genres on the BBC’s radio services.
The last BBC Trust operating licence for Radio 4 required 600 hours of drama, but the latest yearly plan committed to just 300 for the next year. In contrast, back in 1930 the young BBC produced twice as many plays as London’s West End. It was a popular and central part of the new medium and, by the mid-1940s, 400 plays went out a year.
Among BBC radio dramas that went on to become classic British films are Robert Bolt’s 1954 play A Man For all Seasons and Bill Naughton’s Alfie Elkins and his Little Life in January 1962. Four years later Naughton turned it into the film script for Alfie, starring Michael Caine.
“Audio drama and comedy are hugely important for developing producing, writing, acting, presenting and directing talent,” said Audio UK’s managing director, Chloe Straw. “Drama is also a way to showcase and reach diverse audiences.”
One BBC radio producer put the loss of one of the weekly afternoon plays down to the expense. The 2.15pm Monday drama, now replaced with the arts interview show This Cultural Life, was often a repeat, dramas which the BBC believes could be accessed on BBC Sounds instead.
Dramatist Tamsin Oglesby, who has written work for the National Theatre and BBC radio, said there is increased pressure to keep casts small for radio productions. “Radio plays can be fantastic when writers use the restrictions of the medium. Less so when they ape television,” she said. “Both theatre and radio are suffering by mimicking television’s commissioning criteria, development process and formulaic tendencies.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We appreciate people love BBC audio drama that’s why our focus is on ensuring it thrives. Radio 4 is the biggest commissioner of drama, and we’re investing in it by paying more to suppliers after years of frozen costs, and innovating on-demand with ambitious podcasts to bring the delight of audio drama to wider audiences.”
Among the famous works created for radio are Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), Beckett’s All That Fall (1957) and Pinter’s A Slight Ache (1959). Beckett wrote other short radio plays in the 1950s and 1960s. His radio drama Embers, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in June 1959, won the Prix Italia award. Stoppard’s first professional production was for the BBC’s 15-minute Just Before Midnight programme, which showcased new dramatists.
Joe Orton’s 1963 debut as a playwright was The Ruffian on the Stair, broadcast on 31 August 1964.
BBC radio is also under fire for cuts to the World Service on the back of plans to make it “digital first”. Announcing about 382 job losses, the corporation said: “High inflation, soaring costs and a flat licence fee settlement have led to tough choices across the BBC, and the BBC’s international services need to make a saving of £28.5m, as part of the wider £500m of annual savings and reinvestment to make the BBC digital-led.”
The proposals will make seven more language services digital only, so almost half of all 41 language services will only be available online.
• This article was amended on 3 October 2022 to correctly refer to Audio UK as a trade association, rather than a “pressure group” as an earlier version said.