IMPRESSIONS FROM THE FIFTH UK INTERNATIONAL RADIO DRAMA FESTIVAL, CANTERBURY
I was pleased to attend the festival for the whole week, 18-22 Mar 2019, after sampling a day of the 2018 festival and deciding that it looked interesting. We drove down on the Sunday night and were up bright and early for the 10am start on the Monday morning.
The festival consisted of five days of live listening to radio/audio plays from 18 different countries in 15
different languages. This year’s theme was 'your best ever work', and it did not disappoint. It attracted over 60 entries ranging in length from a couple of minutes to a full hour, and these were whittled down to 48 plays over the five days. Entries came from national broadcasters and independents from all over Europe and elsewhere, and one of the first things I noticed was the wide range of genres; there were a few plays similar in style to those of the BBC, but most were of a type that our national broadcaster never uses. We had audio 'collage', pieces involving spectacular soundscapes and virtuostic monologues; beautiful vivid 'shorts' lasting only a minute or two; a poetic interpretation of a text by Russian poet Khlebnikov, musicals, part of an Icelandic saga, an illustrated Bolivian folktale, the experiences of a cart wrangler (the guy in charge of the shopping trolleys in the car park), a couple of dramas about WW1 from Romania and England; a docu-drama about a little-known episode involving HMS Beagle, another about the Paris attacks; the variety was astonishing.
The listening sessions took place at the Caffe Nero on the High Street; constant coffee and cakes were on hand, and the experience of listening in the company of others was a definite plus. The audience included radio producers, radio writers, miscellaneous enthusiasts, and people who had just wandered in off the street, curious to see what was going on.
One of the things about radio drama is that you don't need to stop doing everything to take part; listening is what you do, usually, whilst doing something else. The experience is also less passive than watching a movie; you might expect that hearing a play in a foreign language presents a problem... however it doesn't, because English scripts on electronic readers are provided. Once you get synchronised there isn't a language barrier. At the end of Tuesday afternoon it was wonderful to hear everyone laughing at David Mairowitz's comic play 'Mono', in spite of it being in German!
Jonathan Banatvala, the Artistic Director, said: “This is a very special festival. It constantly surprises and delights me - whether that is a perfect two minute gem or a totally immersive hour-long soundscape. But it is the opportunity for everyone – professional or audience member alike - to talk to each other about the work they have made or heard over a cup of tea which makes it so unusual.” And each evening, after the listening sessions, there was an opportunity to talk about the plays. The jury was selected from those able to attend all five days, and each day the group, plus anyone else interested, would meet in a local pub and talk about what they'd heard, under the chairmanship of Jonathan Keeble, a familiar name to those who listen to the BBC's afternoon plays.
On the Wednesday evening we had the opportunity to hear Gillian Reynolds in conversation with Kate Chisholm at Waterstone's. It's clear that the radio drama genre is strong; there's an enormous audience for it, but the way it's distributed is changing. Nor should we forget that some sitcom series (e.g. Cabin Pressure, which is quite superb) is drama. Nevertheless there's no BBC children's drama to speak of. We are getting more repeats and more podcasts; there's less innovative drama and radio 3 struggles to keep drama going. Long epics and some drama series occupy a lot of slots and may decrease the opportunity for new writers. Nevertheless there are still about half a million people every day who tune in: people doing the ironing; lorry drivers, sales reps on long trips. The BBC is still strong on storytelling: readings, dramatised narrations, and drama, but unlike drama from Europe and elsewhere, most of it no longer seems to explore the boundaries of what radio can do.
Those who are familiar with BBC radio drama may be interested in a few of my personal highlights.
MONO, by David Mairowitz, was a very humorous play (in German and English). The alternative title is:- How My Brother Lost His Hearing in One Ear During a Concert of "The WHO". Furthermore, it's true. It happened during the song"Baba O’Reilly". David Mairowitz: "My brother still goes to rock concerts, although he’s over 75, a septuagenarian teenager. During the day, he sells spare parts for lifts." Mono's employer tries to give him the push because he's now deaf in one ear. He turns to his writer brother for help.
THE DEAD OF TIERRA DEL FUEGO, by Ulrike Haage and Andreas Ammer, was a meticulously-researched piece about a little-known piece of history; how the sailors in HMS Beagle brought back a 'savage', as they called him, to England for three years from 'Fire Island', and took him back three years later. It is really a drama-documentary; it uses word-for-word text from Darwin's notebook and from the Captain's journal, and there are wax-cylinder recordings, 100 years old, of the natives speaking their now-vanished language. The indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego are no more so this gives a glimpse into a vanished civilization. This piece is in German and English.
ONE OF OUR EXERCISE BOOKS IS MISSING was a brilliant 6-minute piece of drama by students from the
Darrick Wood School, England. young Danny's bag is packed, ready for school. But one of his exercise books isn't there. He'll be in big trouble when he's asked to hand it in. Can the contents of Danny's school bag help him realise what he's forgotten? This one gave voices to the inanimate objects in the bag - excellent use of radio, and witty.
LETTERS AND PHOTOS FROM THE GREAT WAR, produced by Oana Cristea Grigorescu of Radio Romania, creates imaginative fiction around a series of actual photographs from WW1. The descriptions are so good, they conjure up the photographs although we cannot see them.
WHAT KIND OF COFFEE DO YOU LIKE? was a 3m short, consisting of a waitress serving a man with coffee and bombarding him with a stream of suggestive comments. There's a good twist at the end.
UM, or "MIND", by Charo Calvo, Belgium, was a poetic realization of a theory by the Russian poet V.Khlebnikov. He lived during WW1, the Russian Revolution and the Civil War following. He was a pacifist and suffered watching much destruction and death. Using mathematical formulas he found a kind of algorithm which could predict the dates of future wars. Here, the two performers are placed in a large studio with binaural microphones. They tease each other and give voice to the poet's words. (In German and Russian).
[To hear this - a piece of experimental sound art - click on UM . Most of you will need the English translation of the script. Look carefully at how it is set out before you listen. The recording is hosted here with the author's permission and is copyright © Charo Calvo.]
THE VICTIMS OF RADIO BOOM BOOM, was an original adaptation of the cult drama from 1975 by Dusan Jovanovic entitled The Victims of Fashion Boom Boom. It was put together by fourth year drama students coordinated by Masa Pelko, Academy of theatre, Radio, Film and TV, University of Ljubiana, Slovenia, and the scenes use famous historical radio moments: Martin Luther King, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill, and a chilling prediction of the Rwandan genocide. This was mainly in Slovenian.
HIN UND ZURUCK (Round Trip) by Stefano Giannotti is an unmade screenplay, adapted for radio, in German. It starts off in a city lively and rich in culture; the train carries a bunch of people to a former mining city in total ruin. They leave their beautiful city to reach a sort of ghost town, destroy it, return home in the evening and realise they have destroyed their home city. There are three narrators: a keeper who has always lived there who knows everyone, a female voice who interprets the thoughts of the characters, and a ticket inspector with a quirky sing-song voice who ferries them from one city to the other. This piece has a brilliant soundtrack; I've listened to it three times.
There were other noteworthy pieces including the first Lithuanian soap for radio and a stunning Sicilian voice piece. There were 48 in total; you can read about them on the UK IRDF Canterbury link on the main Radio Plays page. Look also on the official IRDF website and the IRDF Facebook page.
ND / 26 Mar 2019
Extract from an article in "The Spectator", 30 Mar 2019:
........a very different kind of listening experience was on offer last week in an upstairs room above a café in Canterbury. The UK International Radio Drama Festival is in its fifth year, gathering dramas from across Europe and beyond for a week of intense and unusual audio, transmitted in 18 different languages. Thirty or so of us sat around as the plays were broadcast through a number of old-fashioned radio sets, listening to monologues, musicals, character studies, experimental sound art in Czech, German, Farsi, Spanish, Slovene, Serbian, Romanian, Russian and more.
How on earth can you follow what’s going on when you can’t possibly know what anyone is saying? Remarkably well: each play has an English translation which you can read word-for-word as the drama unfolds. It’s the rhythm of the words that draws you in and keeps your interest, the pacing, the tone, the cadences, and whether there’s enough variety of voices between all the actors (crucial to the success of any play). It’s also down to the sound world created by the technicians in the studio: is it hollow or warm, aurally offputting or compelling?
To find yourself in a roomful of strangers listening to a play in a language so foreign you can’t even recognise the individual words is a weirdly engaging experience. If the play’s any good — the script, the acting and the recording — it will reach out and draw you in, holding your attention. Some were interminable, like an evening of Chinese opera for the uninitiated. But for the most part being at the festival is like travelling elsewhere without having to undergo the hassle of airport security .....continued
(Kate Chisholm, in The Spectator, 30 Mar 2019)