Catherine Czerkawska on Broadcasting in Scotland
Can I add to the Scottish broadcasting debate? I wrote radio drama for over 20 years, more than 200 hours, some of it award winning and much of it produced here in Scotland. In the dear, dead days before they brought in 'producer choice' – an innovation which gave producers no choice whatsoever – it was possible to place Scottish drama on Radio 4, with the support of an enthusiastic producer. You could also learn your craft on the job, as we all did, without up-front commissions, but in the knowledge that if you worked hard there would almost certainly be a production at the end of it. And production values were high, the expertise within the BBC unparalleled.
I began with a half hour play which was broadcast on Radio Scotland alone. It was a steep learning curve. There followed more original plays for 'Afternoon Theatre', and then dramatisations of classics such as 'The Bride of Lammermoor', and 'Kidnapped' and 'Catriona' in 10 episodes, no less. As I honed my skills, I also managed to secure commissions for many of my own original series, including a trilogy called 'The Peggers and The Creelers' set in South Ayrshire,' The Curiosity Cabinet', set in the Western Isles and 'Running Before the Wind', a quartet of plays about yachtbuilders in North Ayrshire, heavily based on the family responsible for those magnificent Fife yachts. They were a pleasure to write, they attracted fine casts, and the feedback was excellent. Would they ever be commissioned now? Not a hope in hell.
I'm not entirely sure, but somewhere along the way, Scottish-based drama – unless it was crime drama – went out of fashion. Not with the listeners – I still get emails about past productions – but with the powers-that-be in London. And make no mistake, everything has to go via London. Moreover, as far as plays for Radio 4 are concerned, most commissions for drama are within the remit of a single powerful editor.
Some years ago, my wonderful, prize-winning producer, Hamish Wilson, was made redundant. And after that, I couldn't get a commission for love nor money. I had young producers queuing up, wanting to work with me, but – as I eventually warned them – my name was the kiss of death on any proposal. When the BBC decides that your face doesn't fit, you can go from flavour of the month to pariah, virtually overnight.
Actually, I have managed to get one or two bits and pieces 'under the wire' – most recently an extremely Scottish play called 'Price of a Fish Supper', which had received such glowing reviews as a stage play that I think they couldn't really find a good enough reason to turn it down. But it would be true to say that when somebody recently showed me the pages and pages of commissioning guidelines for Radio 4 and the countless weary hoops that even experienced writers have to go through to win the smallest commission, I felt that I simply couldn't be bothered to do it any more.
Do I even listen to radio drama these days? Not much. There are a few glowing exceptions and sometimes a wholly unexpected pleasure turns up. Is there anything to get your metaphorical teeth into? Hardly ever. Does radio make the most of all the wonderful new possibilities for creating dramatic pictures in sound? Not often. And it isn't that oldies like me are complaining about the young taking over. I work with young people in theatre all the time. But sadly, the young find it equally hard to get into broadcasting.
There seems to be a terror of experimentation, of flying by the seat of your pants, of trying things out in a medium which needn't cost the earth and being allowed the occasional failure. Anything that manages to get through the countless carefully erected barriers and onto Radio 4 is so emasculated, so reduced, that it hardly seems worthwhile either making it or listening to it afterwards. It spawns, as one of my old producers termed it, outbreaks of the 'shit click effect'. You listen for five minutes, say 'shit' and switch off. This is true right across the UK, so what hope is there for Scotland and Scottish drama? None of the creative decisions are ever made up here, from a position of genuine knowledge, interest and excitement. The decisions are all made by London-based executives and that is firmly where their interests lie. About Scotland, they neither know, nor care.
Catherine Czerkawska is a playwright, novelist and poet
Reproduced by permission of Kenneth Roy and Catherine Czerkawska. This article originally appeared in the 'Scottish Review' during 2010.
Many thanks - N.D.
Scottish Review article
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