Bringing a radio drama script to life ~
by Bert Coules

Working as a radio writer ~
by Michelene Wandor



N.D. writes....I had never thought seriously about how a radio play was produced from the written page until given some BBC scripts recently. The plays were mainly from the 80s; the front sheet gave details of the recording / rehearsal times, the cast list, the venue, the announcer, when/where the tape would be edited, and the names of the technical staff. A one-hour play took two days to record, for example, and two days to edit.

Each play used three studio managers - SMs- indicated by the words "Panel", "Grams" and "Spot". I supposed that "spot" probably meant "spot effects", but couldn't work out anything about the other two, or why the job couldn't be done by one person. Bert Coules (i/c BBC Sherlock Holmes Project) was one of the SMs in these early plays, so I sent him an email to see if I could find out a bit more. Here is his reply:

---There are, as you say, three studio managers on a typical BBC radio drama:

The panel operator is the senior member of the team and is in overall control of the technical presentation. He or she works the mixing desk (or "panel" in BBC-speak) in the control cubicle, and is responsible for co-ordinating the contributions of the other two SMs.

The grams operator is in charge of two areas: actually recording the show (assuming it's not being broadcast live) and also supplying and playing any sound effects which are pre-recorded. These might come from the BBC's own effects library, from commercial effects discs, or from the individual SM's own personal collection, built up over the years. The grams SM also works in the control cubicle, where she or he has charge of a bank of various machines: tape decks, CD players, synthesisers, and - increasingly - various computerised sound gear such as hard-disk recorders and editors.

The spot SM also has two functions. One is, as you say, providing any sound effects which are made "on the spot" - that's to say, alongside the actors, actually in the studio. The other is to act as a floor manager, running the studio space, organising the actors and generally being the technical representative in amongst the cast.

It's the usual BBC practise to record as many of the final elements of a scene as possible at the time of recording it; very little is added later, in post-production (mainly due to the lack of time, money and resources.) So, for example, a scene might consist of the following elements:

Actors - who move round a studio space designed and laid out by the panel operator and speak into microphones placed by him or her. (The layout of the studio floor is completely variable and is usually changed from production to production.)

Recorded sound effects - background noises, music (both incidental and as part of the scene) specific sound effects which can't be produced as "spot", and so on. These are often built up by the grams operator from a variety of different sources: for example, the sound of a Swiss waterfall in one of my Sherlock Holmes episodes had, from memory, some six or seven elements ranging from rainfall to an active volcano rumbling.

Spot effects - noises which the characters themselves generate, but which the actors cannot make because their hands are occupied with their scripts (or - sometimes - because the actors can't be trusted to do them properly.) To watch a good spot SM at work is akin to watching a ballet: he or she has to weave in and out of the cast, being absolutely silent (except when required, obviously) while always managing to be in the right place at the right time and with the right equipment, be it cups and saucers, swords, clothes or whatever. A good spot SM is every bit as much a member of the cast as any of the actors and can contribute as much to the overall tone and quality of the show. In the same way that a line can be delivered in a huge variety of different ways, so can a sound effect.

In the eighties, when the scripts you mention were produced, SMs were extremely busy; they were working on - either actively recording or preparing - several shows simultaneously: one in the studio, one about to go into studio, one or two or more in the following week.

Bert Coules

Many thanks to Bert for taking the trouble to explain all this.

Nigel Deacon /Diversity website

I was aware that with the advent of more computer technology, a lot more is possible, post-production, than a few years ago. Is it still the norm for a radio play to employ three SMs? I contacted Bert Coules again (Jun 07), who gave the following reply:

Though it's true that there's a tendency to do more post-production work these days, my experience suggests that for drama, three studio managers is still the norm rather than the exception.  It still appears to be standard practice to incorporate as many different sound elements as possible into the studio takes - atmospheric background effects, specific pre-recorded sounds, spot effects - and that is extremely hard to do with just one technician, advanced computer technology or no.

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Working as a Radio Writer: Michelene Wandor

I began writing for radio at the end of the 1970s. I had been writing stage plays for nearly a decade, at a time which coincided with the end of theatre censorship (abolished in 1968), with a very exciting counter-cultural time, and with the beginnings of feminism. In London all sorts of cultural things were taking off, and new theatres seemed to be opening every day, in basements, in rooms above pubs, in tacky rooms hastily converted to minimal theatre. So it wasn't hard for me to find directors to put my plays on, and to find performers hungry for contemporary work.

Fast forward, and my last new play on in the theatre was a dramatisation I did of Eugene Sue's 'The Wandering Jew', which was put on in the Lyttelton Theatre in 1987. For the record, I was the first British woman playwright to have a piece of work staged in one of the major auditoria of the National Theatre, something which gave me immense pleasure, since one of my continuing preoccupations has been the issue of the relationship between gender and theatre – not just the representation of women, but also the ways in which the representation of male- and femaleness affects both the power structures and the aesthetics of theatre.

Polemic over. Since the end of the 1970s, I have written continuously for radio – plays, dramatisations, features and compilations, as well as presenting and reviewing. Although I had to learn that bit of my trade on the job, as it were, I must have been helped by the fact that I grew up on radio; I didn't watch television regularly until I had children in my early twenties, and used to settle down with them, before getting hooked on the evenings' offerings.

I have also taught creative writing for over two decades, and when I am asked (as I often am) what is the difference between writing for radio and writing for the other performance media, I have a two-tier answer: at one level, there is no difference. By this I mean that in order to write drama for ANY medium, you have to be able to create an imaginative landscape very, very largely through dialogue, through interaction, through relationships. This is imaginatively very different from the primary approaches to writing prose fiction and poetry (both of which I also write and teach). I very rarely reach the second tier of my answer, which is to do with the technical differences between the media, because most people become very engaged with what makes dramatic writing distinctive as an imaginative medium. Often people think it is easy simply to dive into 'screenwriting', whether for film or TV, because they have watched so much, but it is one thing to watch and enjoy, and quite another to create. Oh, dear. More polemic. But that's only because I can't go on too long here.

I would say, though, that one of the great things about radio for me is the fact that it is pure sound; unlike some people, I don't 'see pictures', though I am very fond of the dictum that radio is just like television, only with better pictures. Like music (I also perform and listen to early music), it is an aural experience, which reaches the deepest parts, and it is particularly thrilling precisely because it can evoke any part of the universe, casts of thousands, simply with the power o sound, and with the power of the voice. I get enormous pleasure from the best performers, who can nuance major changes of emotion in the twist of a voice within a single syllable – in a way which is quite difference from any other medium.

So from polemic, I have gone to passionate engagement. My final message, which also has something of a polemical cast, is concern about some of the things which have happened to radio drama over the past years. The ninety-minute play slot has been reduced to sixty-minutes, a great loss to the full-length theatre play equivalent on radio. Every so often I hear whispers and rumours that radio may be becoming less interested in writers over forty – something which appalls me, not only as a freelance writer, but because in the arts especially, professionals whose working life is extensive, have acquired wonderful skills and expertises, and it is virtually criminal to throw those out. We never retire – partly because we never had 'proper jobs' in the first place, but also because our imaginations are constantly on the move, with new ideas and perceptions. Keep listening!

Michelene Wandor

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