Poet, novelist, and radio scriptwriter Roger Harvey recalls his involvement with the brief but glamorous flowering of Independent Radio Drama in the 1980s.
In 1978 I joined the staff of Metro Radio, the Independent Local Radio Station serving Tyneside, Northumberland, and Durham, as an advertising copywriter and quickly became Commercial Producer with Helen Brennan (now the well-known radio and TV voice-over artiste Helen Vesey) as my Head of Department. Already established as a writer in various media, and having had The Little Mermaid--my contemporary re-working of the folk tale--broadcast on BBC local radio (starring Peggie Gosschalk, produced by Sylvia Horne, 1977)--I offered to write and produce drama for Metro. When Metro had first gone on-air in 1974 it had carried some drama in the form of two locally-produced serials in ‘radio soap’ format; these had been dropped by the time I joined, although speech-based programming still formed a substantial part of the output (it later became entirely music-based). My offer was timely, since the complex funding arrangements of the ILR stations had just altered to release so-called ‘secondary rental’ monies for experimental programming, and I was commissioned to produce a pilot play and proposals for two or three years of occasional drama output.
The pilot was my own recently-completed 30-minute play The Reunion. It was an expensive and painstaking production through the Autumn of 1979, starring Ian Bannen as the doomed racing driver who--as a ghost--recounts his story in voice-over, illustrated by fully-dramatised scenes with other characters. The soon-to-be-famous Kevin Whatley had a small part as a mechanic. I directed the play in the Metro Radio Commercial Production studio; it was edited with great expertise by Brian Lister (I edited all later productions). I was delighted with the result, but angry and disappointed when the Programme Controller refused to broadcast it on the grounds that Bannen’s performance was too ‘low-key’ and the sound-quality was ‘unacceptable’. We did not agree with this, and suspected there were more sinister ‘programming’ reasons for shelving the play, but if I wanted to keep my job and make something of the opportunity I realised I would have to swallow my grief and present my next proposals with a smile. It must have worked: they were accepted, a large budget was assigned to them, and I was appointed Head of Drama.
The next two productions were my 13-part serializations of two books with Tyneside settings: James Kirkup’s The Only Child and Kiddar’s Luck by Jack Common, both starring the Geordie actor Edward Wilson. These were broadcast in 1980. They were well received; I was shown a number of letters from listeners who had written to thank Metro Radio for entertaining them with such good stories so well-acted.
In the same year I produced my adaptation of the W. Somerset-Maugham story Mister Know-All, the part of Max Kelada being taken by Tony Cook, and also offered my own play Prisoners. This ‘two-hander’ set in a prison cell was broadcast in 1981 with Peter Wheeler and Geoffrey Freshwater of the RSC.
By this time the Metro Radio productions for which I was single-handedly responsible were being offered on a programme-sharing scheme to other stations on the ILR network. Very few of these produced their own drama. Several stations took the programmes, although I have no record of which, or when the plays were broadcast. They were regarded as very expensive and high-quality productions of a standard comparable to anything being carried by the BBC.
The next two productions illustrated this perfectly. For my adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Speckled Band, I brought Nigel Stock (who had famously played Dr. Watson for BBC television) to Newcastle to narrate the exciting Sherlock Holmes adventure, broadcast in 1981. My 1982 production of The Machine Stops (dramatised from a short story by E. M. Forster, starring Peggie Gosschalk and Cliff Burnett) won critical praise in the national press, although I was again disappointed by the Metro Radio management, who would not enter the play for a radio award it might well have won.
Most lavish of all was my two-part production of James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan, broadcast in 1983. This delightful play – a humorous ‘Arabian Nights’ spoof, tragic love story, dark study of corruption, and lyrical celebration of the poetic spirit all rolled into two 30-minute parts--featured Denise Welch as Yasmin, her (then) husband David Easter as Selim and Vincenzo Nicoli as Rafi, King of the Beggars. The superb cast was led by Clive Champney as Hassan, old confectioner of Baghdad, in a memorable performance I am happy to acknowledge as one of the finest I have been privileged to produce in my career.
In 1985, 30-minute productions of Alex by James Kelly and Poles Apart by Keith Brumpton were followed by the 13-part serialization of my novel The Silver Spitfire starring Gordon Griffin.
Shortly after this was completed, the Metro Radio Drama Department was dissolved and all
speech-based programmes except news and sport were dropped in a re-branding based on pop music.
The Silver Spitfire was my last production for Independent Radio Drama, although the novel was subsequently published as an audio-book, again read by Gordon Griffin, and later appeared in a hardback print edition.
© Roger Harvey
Roger Harvey was born in 1953 and grew up in the North of England. He has adapted and directed many works for radio while his novels ‘Percy the Pigeon’ , ‘The Silver Spitfire’ , and ‘A Woman who Lives by the Sea’ have been published in Britain as well as the award-winning poetry cassette-book ‘Northman’s Prayer’, and his most recent poetry collection ‘Divided Attention’. He wrote and directed the film ‘Guinevere-Jennifer’ and his black farce ‘Money! Money! Money!’ toured recently. His latest book ‘Poet on the Road’--the intimate travelogue of his U.S. tour--is out now; details from the publisher at www.bluechrome.co.uk.
Nigel Deacon / Diversity website
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