Radio: Ear ache: Robert Hanks listens to old sounds for new drama

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If YOU tell people you are a radio critic - you could try this for experimental purposes, it doesn't have to be true - the three most common responses are: 1) That sounds like an easy job. 2) Do you know in advance what's going to happen on The Archers? 3) Why are radio plays so dreadful?

Passing on No 1, and noting that the answer to No 2 is 'No', we come to No 3 - which could have served as the subtitle for a discussion held last Monday at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. The actual title was 'New Sounds for Drama', and it was organised by Jeremy Mortimer, editor of Radio 3 plays.

Not everybody in the audience of producers, writers, technicians, composers, actors and critics shared this negative view of radio drama - in fact, almost the only opinion expressed that didn't arouse heated debate was that Derek Jarman's film Blue made a wonderful radio piece. Still, it was clear that many practitioners of radio drama are deeply dissatisfied with what they are doing.

The difficulties are partly to do with the BBC's bureaucratic changes and ever-shrinking budgets; above all, with the lack of time available. Marvin Black and Simon Fisher-Turner, respectively the sound designer and composer for Blue, who had been asked to talk about how they put the soundtrack together, thought three weeks of editing was cutting it fine; they gave little embarrassed chuckles when they were told the time allowed for the average studio drama at the BBC - where you're lucky if you get three days.

But the real problem, surely, is that radio drama is too hidebound. There is what Gordon House, head of drama at the World Service, called a 'radio play sound' - two people in a room, audibly acting at each other. The radio play sound isn't always a bad thing - there was nothing fabulously new about the way David Hunter directed The Mysterious Mansion (Radio 4, Thursday), a gently macabre version of a Balzac short story; but it moved along at a smart clip, and was thoroughly enjoyable.

Still, as often as not the habits become a trap. One participant in Monday's discussion wondered whether actors (and perhaps producers and writers too) should be banned from listening to radio plays, so that they don't unconsciously absorb the traditional tones and mannerisms.

How hard it is to escape those traditions was made clear by Ian Gardiner's Monument (Radio 3, Tuesday), first in a new series of 'radiogenic' pieces, Between the Ears. Although it was previewed at the Theatre Museum, this wasn't a drama but a montaged history of London, setting archive clips of radio broadcasts and vox pops against a variegated musical background performed by the ensemble George W Welch.

At times the match between speech and music was touching or witty; an account of a visit by Mass Observation to Lambeth Walk was backed by a melancholy, Ivesian transformation of the song.

But this was at bottom just an exercise in a traditional form - the archive auction, with tunes grafted on - that didn't exploit the possibilities of radio, just its habits. Monument was worth hearing (and has another outing in January if you want to check that); but the main lesson to be learnt from it, and from the 'New Sounds for Drama' evening, was that old habits will die hard.