Ayckbourn’s Radio Waves

Alan Ayckbourn has recently recorded his play Haunting Julia as an audio play to be streamed this Christmas.

It will mark his second audio production this year after the world premiere of Anno Domino. Both productions hark back to Alan’s love of radio and his career as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC in Leeds from 1965 to 1970.

This article, written by the playwright during 1988 as a result of threats to the UK’s regional radio stations, explores his love of radio and the influence it has had on his life.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Airwaves by Alan Ayckbourn

I suppose my loyalty to radio really stems from the fact that, at least until the age of nine or ten, I never set eyes on a TV set. And when I did finally meet this latest threat to civilised living, I can’t say I was that impressed.

This grey and white flickering six foot cyclop with the four inch square eye seemed to possess none of the magic delivered by my beloved radio set. On a clear day, if the wind was right you could make out Muffin the Mule clomping about on top of a piano. Or a puppet with limited arm movement known as Mr Turnip who took an age to say anything.

None of the comparable thrill to that of Norman and Henry Bones, boy detectives (so what if one of them was played by Patricia Hayes?); no trace of the sheer impossibility of Dick Barton Special Agent; none of the eccentricities of Toytown; not a flicker of the classic lunacy of The Goons; the improbability of Educating Archie (this was an era, would you believe, when ventriloquists could have a hit show on radio – did you see his lips move, listeners?).

I was singularly unimpressed by this upstart newcomer. When was the last time you had to draw all the curtains to listen to the radio? When were you warned that too much radio could damage your eyes? And since when did a radio set pack in completely whenever a car passed by the house or a plane flew within twenty miles?

Alan Ayckbourn in 19865 when he joined the BBC (© To be confirmed. Held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives)

Then, nearly twenty years later, I was to find myself actually working for the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer in Leeds. It still managed to retain most of the magic. Besides which I was to realise many of my fantasies.

I was to work with the legendary Marjorie Westbury herself (amongst her hundreds of radio roles she was Steve, wife and accomplice to the great detective Paul Temple). To produce adventure serials starring Peter Coke (Paul Temple himself, no less) which shamelessly imitated those of my youth – (‘Look out, behind you, Geoff!’ ‘What the. . .’, ‘AArrggh’. F/X body hits floor. Cross fade to helicopter.)

Radio was and still remains the medium where the impossible can be made to happen once every second. The only limitation is the speed of the listener’s mind itself in its ability to grasp events. And the average radio listener is quick. I know.

In fact, he’s top of the league table. Followed closely (of course) by theatre audiences who are similar to radio listeners only slowed down because of having to think in packs rather than as individuals. Next the film goer. Pretty slow, this one, preferring big pictures, lots of action and very few words. And last of all, the TV viewer. Of course. Where it all has to be said q-u-i-t-e slowly. And then illustrated with pictures in case he didn’t understand the words. And then said all over again.
How good to know, then, that in the face of all the forebodings, radio not only survives but flourishes. Even if, like live theatre, some of its most important outposts (for Local Radio read Regional Playhouses) remain threatened by short-sighted financial cuts.

Be of good cheer, dear radio. Theatre has, remember, been ‘dying’ ever since the advent of the silent film and we’re still around. And even flourishing a little. If there’s a need, you somehow survive. And in your case, as in ours, the need is undoubtedly there.

Greetings from your far flung outpost in Scarborough. Long may you broadcast. Long may you survive. (Any chance of repeating Norman and Henry Bones, by the way?)

Alan Ayckbourn, 1988

You can find more information about Alan Ayckbourn’s career as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC as well as details of some of the productions he directed at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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