Is radio drama being dumbed down?
This question surfaces regularly on the BBC messageboard, and is a hot issue with
many drama listeners..
I have taken a few comments and summarised them here for clarity since the board is
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I notice that the new classic serial is Wilkie Collin's No Name, which I first heard broadcast in August 89, in 6 parts. Yet here we are having the thing done in 2. The previous classic serial was a remake of Tom Jones done in three parts, as opposed to the orginal 5 or 6 of the 1981 version. Have the BBC run out of ideas? Are they on a new drive to dumb down radio like, TV has been dumbed down? Your learned views please! Have the Six part dramas come to an end, in the same way that we now hardly get anything that lasts an hour and half, and has some new half- baked survey been done to justify this?
I do not equate the length of a drama adaptation with 'dumbing down', but I take your point - time durations for dramas of all kinds have decreased over the years, and it's rare to see any new non-adaptation drama on R4 to be over 1 hour. Concerning classic serials, which is the scope of your point, I would like to see more longer serials, but it does beg the question as to whether the content justifies the length. I don't think it's a case of the BBC 'running out of ideas', but I guess the BBC hedges its bets more these days, prefering more shorties and fewer longies, on the basis that they feel they can keep or attract more listeners for the former.
The 1974 version of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy was recently repeated on BBC7, and that version was 11 hours in total. But it was a magnificent 11 hours. I can't imagine the BBC commissioning anything of that length now. The last new 6-parter I can recall was Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows.
The expression "Dumbed Down" is itself dumb. It's such a vague catch-all term. I don't agree that shorter means dumber. In the case of the Classic Serial, it seems more interesting to take a novel and make it work as a drama, rather than a sort of illustrated reading - which is what some of the longer serialisations of the past did. Many of them I found quite turgid and over reverential to the source material – although there were some notable exceptions. But the Classic Serial should be more than an attempt to reproduce a novel dramatically. That approach never works – it’s dull and uninspired. I find this newer, interpretive approach to the Classic Serial more interesting than what we were presented with before.
As well as the lessening of episodes of classic serials, there has also been the exercise of fitting a previous serial into a one-hour Saturday Play. Recently, Jekyll and Hyde came under that hammer; there have been other examples too, and it all seemed a bit rushed. Potted stories for folk that live busy lives, or just an economic way of preserving the remit?
Personally, I don't see a great decline. The BBC probably create shorter plays because they're easier to produce; nothing sinister in that. It's easier to write and produce a 45 minute play than one lasting 90 minutes.
I think we should give the BBC some credit. The plays aren't all
brilliant, but the challenges they face are enormous.
Take Eastenders, for example. Only on 3 days a week for 30 minute at a time, and yet it eats up material like a starving shark - to the extent that it is hardly watchable now; it seems tired. Radio 4 produces at least 3 times that amount of "original" material per week. In the circumstances I think they do very well indeed.
compiled by Nigel Deacon / Diversity website
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