100 Years of Audio Drama
17 Sep 2023

Harry Turnbull

Professor Tim Crook, of Goldsmiths University of London and author of Writing Audio Drama, Routledge 2023, has produced a timeline of the pivotal points in BBC radio broadcasting history for the 100th anniversary celebration of audio drama at the corporation.

Although there may be debate over the exact anniversary, the BBC has chosen September 2023 as the focal point for marking this landmark.

There are numerous highlights in the timeline as one can imagine but I couldn’t help noticing the omission, that for me, has been the greatest drama production of them all: 1981’s epic Lord of the Rings adaptation by Brian Sibley.

I can’t remember when it last featured over the airwaves - it has probably been absent due to copyright reasons - but I retain the original cassette tapes (and you can find a version on the Internet Archive).

The performances are masterly, the casting inspired and the soundscape absolutely beguiling.

On the anniversary itself, Alison Hindell, Radio 4 Commissioning Editor for Drama and Fiction, said: "The past 100 years have seen huge changes in the world of audio drama, but the BBC’s commitment to this very special form remains the same.

“I’m looking forward to sharing these new dramas with Radio 4 listeners throughout September, which draw on the legacy of pioneering audio dramas from the past century, as well as showcasing some of the best work happening in the field today."

Highlights include the first ever radio dramatisation of Italo Calvino’s playfully experimental novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which will pastiche different styles of audio drama throughout the past century. It features Toby Jones and Tim Crouch bringing to life a multitude of characters, recorded in front of a live audience at the Contains Strong Language festival in Leeds.

The Poet Laureate Simon Armitage pays tribute to the BBC Radio Ballads – ground-breaking documentaries recorded in the 1950s, which weaved the voices of rarely-heard communities with songs written about their experiences, providing a unique record of life in post-war Britain – in his new drama The Ballad of Eldon Street.

Kaleidoscope 3 will tell the story of early radio pioneer and First World War pilot Lance Sieveking, played by David Haig, through the perspective of a sound designer who, 100 years later, finds herself following Sieveking’s path in the air, and on the air waves.

You Must Listen is a new adaptation of a lost radio drama by science-fiction legend Nigel Kneale, starring Reece Shearsmith, in which a solicitor's office has a new phone line connected, but the staff keep hearing a woman's voice on the phone. When an engineer is called to fix the problem, the disturbing truth starts to emerge.

The dramas will also look towards the future of audio drama with two plays from innovative contemporary writers. Slow Air, Dan Rebellato’s play about love, memory and intergenerational secrets, explores a curious geological formation in Sicily through which sound takes 32 years to pass.

Radio Waves follows a spaceship tasked with tracking extra-terrestrial audio activity, which ends up finding stories closer to home, written by new talents Magdalene Bird, Jack Fairey and Mohsen Shah.

Nick Ahad will also present Stories in the Air live from the Contains Strong Language festival in Leeds, which will be a discussion of the elements that make a great radio drama.

Further centenary dramas will be broadcast in December, with details to be announced later this year.

[Note from Ed: Harry has compiled his personal list of highlights from Prof. Tim Crook's timeline; this is shown below. We are grateful to Tim for permission to publish the extracts here **.]


The complete timeline covering every decade 1923-2023, with archive pictures, can be seen at BBC Radio Drama Timeline



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