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Radio is an unglamorous, un-lucrative medium, very much the ‘poor relation’ to TV and film. Radio drama, as a niche genre, comes in for a particularly hard time. As someone who has in the past left TV and film jobs, to return to the world of radio, I often try to explain why this is. However, after passionate explanations about a particular radio project, people usually reply, “so where can I watch it?”
What is it people don’t ‘get’ about radio? The pictures are better. It’s intimate, imaginative and limitless. As a writer, you can have more locations, more action and more originality. With radio drama, you can change the weather at no extra cost, hear from a Martian with a migraine or demand a thousand camels to gallop along the Great Wall of China. Roughly speaking, it costs about 50 times more to make an hour of television drama than the equivalent on radio.
In the beginning it was so real it was scary. In the 1920s, an early French radio play was banned until 1937 because the Government feared the SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals. The simulated news bulletins in Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of the War of The Worlds caused panic in America when people actually believed they’d been invaded by aliens from Mars. More recently, listeners to the radio soap opera, New Home, New Life, sent condolence cards to the Kabul office for a character that had died. The relationship is so intimate that characters become real.
Tonight we celebrated the winners of the BBC World Service International Radio Playwriting Competition, now in its 24th year. The competition welcomes scripts from anyone living outside the UK, whether established or new, and encourages writers to use the immense power and accessibility of the medium. This year the competition had entries from writers in 86 countries – a record. It also has a new award, The Georgi Markov Prize, for the script with the most potential. And it has more partners than before: The British Council, The Open University and Commonwealth Writers.
The prize for the best radio play by a writer with English as their first language, was won by Alana Valentine from Australia, for The Ravens. Virginia Jekanyika from Zimbabwe won the award for the best play in English as a second language with The Cactus Flowers. Ana Gonzalez Bello from Mexico won the Georgi Markov Prize for her play, Diablo and Romina. The overall winners will each receive £2,000 sterling.
They’re all in London this week to see the two winning plays being recorded for broadcast on BBC World Service early next year and to take part in a workshop organised by Commonwealth Writers. With the exception of this competition, the World Service only produces the occasional original drama for radio – in 2010, due to budget cuts, it ended its regular output after more than 75 years. BBC domestic radio is a global rarity in that it still produces hundreds of hours of original drama each year, but in many countries radio drama is either non-existent or used as an internationally funded vehicle to deliver development issues. This can provide a useful training ground for dramatists, but what happens to them when the funding stops?
Fortunately, the digital world encourages different recording styles and plays to the strength of pure audio – with podcasts, online stations and mobile phones. We’ll be promoting the three winning writers and their work and urging them to use every opportunity to celebrate a writer’s medium which is distinct, demanding and different. For those who claim that it just isn’t ‘sexy’ enough, I leave the last word to Marilyn Monroe. “It’s not true I had nothing on; I had the radio on.”
Lucy Hannah, Commonwealth Writers
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