How the BBC treated me:

Ben Thompson

I was one of the winners of the Alfred Bradley bursary in 1996. I wrote a verse drama called "The Millennium Bible". Actually is was the first act that won the bursary award, but the other two acts were already written before I went to collect the award. It was in rhyming verse, with, as I noted in the prefaces to the various acts, echoes of Coleridge, Milton, Tank Girl, Mad Magazine and a nod in the direction of Lindsay Kemp's Adam & Eve and the Serpent. I thought it was brilliant and so did most of the people I showed it to, including several radio producers, the reader at the National (though it was never a possible for stage production), even Ted Hughes read it in the last year of his life and sent me an appreciative postcard.

According to the blurb of the Bradley bursary the winners would "work closely with radio producers to prepare a work for broadcast". I received no cooperation from the BBC whatsoever. They sat on the script for a year, apparently trying it with various radio 4 regions all to no avail.

I spent quite a bit of my savings on writing further scripts which apparently all went into the slush pile along with things sent in their thousands from all corners of the UK, which is fair and democratic on one view, but on another view it rather defeats the object of assembling a panel of luminaries to judge the competition in the first place. I then complained to my local trading standards officer who advised me that the BBC's behaviour was actually, as I thought, completely illegal.

I wrote to the BBC to this effect and got a call from a senior radio producer who said the play wasn't dead but they were putting it up for Radio 3. After about another year, and having got as far as presenting a synopsis to the Radio 3 programmers, I discovered that the play had been turned down for production. No reason was given, in fact I never even received a call or a letter from the BBC to that effect, I had to ring them up to discover it.

I don't know if other writers have received similar treatment from the BBC, but if they have it is small wonder that the BBC finds it hard to get interesting plays. But I think that probably the reason why much radio drama is so boring these days lies elsewhere, and it's just this. When I went to collect the bursary, my producer and the other producers there seemed to be in a state of crisis. We were told that the rug had been swept out from under their feet, in that final responsibility for selecting dramas for production had been taken away from the directors and given to another management layer (who I suppose were sales people, broadly speaking).

At various times over the two years they were sitting on my play I heard references to power struggles at the BBC between producers and these higher mandarins. My producer told me at one point that she had finally got the programmers to admit that under their current guidelines they would not have broadcast "Spoonface Steinberg", for example.

I did, later, find a producer who was willing to look at some plays and put one of them forward for a broadcast. She said they looked at the synopsis and said "Not original enough" and turned it down. Nobody actually read the play.

As she said at the time, it has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And I think that is the problem. There are all kinds of guidelines saying the material has to be relevant, punchy, modern and blah de blah, but there's no guideline that says it has to be well written, as long as the author can be assumed to have the basic literary qualifications to write a play.

It's inevitable, therefore, that the airwaves will be filled with plays with punchy blurbs, decapitations, people murdering their parents or having their balls blown off. Some of them may be good plays ( how would I know unless I read them or hear them? - which is exactly the point; they don't). The BBC used to have a literature department; now it just has a sales department.

Ben Thompson

article sent by Ben Thompson; reproduced by permission - many thanks. Ben is now an actor and is living in China, where television drama is thriving.

The above article is Ben Thompson, 2006.
Nigel Deacon, Diversity website.

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