Thoughts on the Radio

If you were listening to BBC Radio 2 today in 1968, you might have been lucky enough to hear the broadcast premiere of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous radio productions.

Between 1965 and 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC, based in Leeds, and he produced more than 250 works for the radio during that period.

Possibly the best known are his collaborations with the writer Roy Clarke which includes the atmospheric thriller, The Events At Black Tor, which was first broadcast on 18 April 1968. and is still regularly repeated by the BBC.

To mark this, I’ve found an extract of Alan talking about his time at the BBC in Ian Watson’s seminal Ayckbourn work, Conversations with Ayckbourn; although long out of print, this is one of the definitive books on Alan Ayckbourn and his life from 1939 to 1989 and still found relatively easily through second-hand bookstores.

This extract from the book, sees Alan talking about his thoughts on both radio and working at the BBC and with the noted and influential producer Alfred Bradley, who was also a key figure in Alan’s life.

Conversations With Ayckbourn by Ian Watson

Ian Watson: Did radio never appeal to you as a medium?

Alan Ayckbourn (left) with Alfred Bradley (right) © Haydonning Ltd.

Alan Ayckbourn: No. Frankly, I didn’t know what the job was when I applied to join the BBC [in 1964]. I thought I was going to be sorting out Alfred Bradley’s filing. But it seemed quite a good way to pass a little bit of time while I thought about what to do after Mr Whatnot [the play flopped in London in 1964 and Alan considered giving up his playwriting career]. When I got there I found that, far from sorting out Alfred Bradley’s filing, I was going to be doing my own programmes and running with a great deal more responsibility than I’d had in the theatre. I think the single most important thing it gave me was the moment when, with a little bit of guidance from knowledgeable secretaries and other people, I was actually going to put a whole show together. I was to book the artists, book the studio, and do all that sort of business: it was almost like a finishing school.

Radio itself, I must say, I went into without enormous enthusiasm, although I’d been a great listener as a child. But once in, I found it was a magic place. At that particular point in the history of the BBC, it was such a backwater (television was the place) that you could work totally unobserved doing the most interesting things. It did two things: it gave me a great opportunity to do far more plays – I did more plays in a year than I’d done in ten years in the theatre – and it also foisted upon me the occasional plays that I didn’t want to do, which, of course, in the theatre you can generally avoid because you don’t accept them. And it’s quite good occasionally to do a play you don’t want to do. You actually have to learn a little bit of technique: you’ve got to keep the actors going, just for the length of the play. They know it’s bad, you know it’s bad, but if you ever admit it, it’s gone. And some of my best work was done on those things.

Watson: It wasn’t at that stage as technical a medium as it is now, in so far as it wasn’t stereo, was it? It was purely monaural. Did you feel that you explored the medium as a medium?

Ayckbourn: Oh, yes, very much, because I was fascinated by sound. I had, of course, with Mr Whatnot, been a tape-recorder freak. There was some wonderful equipment there and we had great fun with the gear.

Watson: Were you at all influenced by Alfred Bradley?

Ayckbourn: Not production-wise, though I was influenced by him in other ways. Alfred’s strongest point was obviously his relationship with his writers. And I suppose I learned from him a certain amount about how to treat writers, and how to draw them out, though I don’t think I’ve got the perseverance or the dedication to do what he does. There were the maxims he had: if you want a play, you’ve got to go and get it. The unsolicited scripts are never any good: nobody ever sends you Under Milk Wood. You’ve got to go out and sit in Dylan Thomas’s pub until he writes it. And all his plays came that way, of course, as a result of his doggedly driving around in his large Land Rover and parking on people’s doorsteps. I’d already been working with actors, of course, and I suppose I had learned the hard way about directing them. But now I learned something about writers.

Watson: But you never felt moved to write for radio yourself?

Ayckbourn: No. I think I was dealing so actively all day with writers that I felt it would almost be cheating to write my own plays for radio. And I also wasn’t actually very inspired to do so. I did try one script, which I sent to Colin Shaw (the Head of North Region) when I’d just joined, but he wasn’t very keen, and I wasn’t very keen on it either, so I gave it up.

Watson: Since leaving, the medium hasn’t attracted you at all?

Ayckbourn: No. It’s a narrative medium, it’s a different sort of medium, it’s not mine. I’m really too basically a visual writer for that.

You can find out more about Alan’s career as a Radio Drama Producer on the Ayckbourn YouTube Channel by clicking here as well as on Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Interview copyright of Ian Watson and reproduced from Conversations With Ayckbourn (Faber, 1989). All other material copyright of Haydonning Ltd.

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