RADIO / The scripts of the trade: BBC Radio receives 15,000 unsolicited play scripts a year. Make that 15,008, to include this week's graduates from the Fen Farm writing centre

The first ever radio play was set down a coal-mine during a blackout. Alan Drury, literature manager of BBC Radio Drama, thinks writers have moved on since then. 'We've learned that radio drama is not a stage play with the lights off,' he tells a group of would-be radio dramatists at Fen Farm, the remote and beautiful Norfolk writers' centre. Writers as diverse as Tom Stoppard, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter and, of course, Dylan Thomas have extended the limits of the medium - if only to keep up with Light Entertainment. After all, if Light Entertainment has in the past successfully foisted on listeners the logical absurdity of radio ventriloquists, tap dancers and conjurors ('There's nothing up my sleeves - take my word for it'), anything is possible.

The eight students of drama (an accountant, a retired headmaster, a lecturer, an established playwright, a housewife with a novel and a radio play to her credit, a university student, a once-successful lyricist and a journalist) are attending one of a range of writing courses at Fen Farm. Throughout the year, wannabe, likely-to-be and not-a-chance-in-hell-they-will-be writers who can afford pounds 255 (local Arts Boards may provide bursaries) can be intensively tutored for a week by the likes of Ruth Rendell, Terry Pratchett, Jack Rosenthal, the songwriter Ray Davies or Reginald Perrin's creator, David Nobbs. For new writers, however, radio drama seems to offer the best opportunities. As Drury points out: 'There is a new play on radio every day, with almost 2,000 plays produced a year. BBC Radio is the biggest promulgator of plays in the world. Ever. And that includes the Indian film industry.'

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Script Unit which Drury has headed for four years receives 15,000 unsolicited scripts a year. Of these, only seven to 13 are produced each year. The terrible news, especially for the Fen Farm hopefuls who thought they could network with Drury, is that the Script Unit has just been disbanded and Drury made redundant. Unsolicited scripts will still be read, but the BBC's radio drama department will now take more active steps to find the majority of their new writers.

Drury is quite jolly in the circumstances. As a well-regarded radio, theatre and television dramatist and director, he doesn't really need the day job and there is relief on his face when he recalls years of reading all those scripts of which so very few were usable. 'When you sit in a room with a pile of plays, and you read 10 or more a day and most of them are absolutely dreadful, you start to get paranoid. You begin to think, 'They're doing this deliberately.' '

During the week of formal sessions, writing projects, listening to plays and one-to-one tutorials, Drury explains with wit and insight the nuts and bolts of radio drama, explaining how silence and sound, words and music fit together. Sessions continue until 10 at night, with breaks for informal discussion over lunch and dinner. Discussion is more vivid, though less coherent, over a couple of pints of Mad Cow, in the pub across the fen.

Drury's directness in individual tutorials leaves a couple of people temporarily dispirited, but at least he isn't as casually harsh as Johnny Speight, tutor on comedy writing the previous week. After sitting without a smile through his students' best shots at comic sketches, Speight paused, then remarked: 'You do want to be comedy writers, do you?'

One of the highlights of the week is the chance to listen to the underground classic This Gun You See in My Right Hand Is Loaded. This is the BBC Radio rep company's parody of every deadening cliche radio drama has ever used. Amusing, but when it comes to the inevitable discussion of sex and violence on radio, cliches are hard to avoid. Where sex is concerned, on radio less is more. There was a bizarre furore 20 years ago when radio listeners were shocked to hear their first nude scene. The sound of a naked woman being massaged was thought rather risque. It was also surreal. The play was the first attempt at a stereo broadcast, with the sound of the masseur's hands on the woman's body passing from one stereo speaker to the next. Depending on where your speakers were placed in your sitting room, the woman was anything up to 20ft long.

'Most people listen to radio plays alone or with one other person and they fill in a lot with their imaginations,' Drury says of sex on the airwaves. Hence the man who went to his local police station to complain that the BBC had just broadcast an act of buggery in a play about two gays - a conclusion he had drawn from deliberately ambiguous sounds. Violence needs to be deftly handled since on radio it can seem more real - and more disturbing - than in other media. 'The threat of violence followed by, say, the snap of a finger breaking is much more effective than a general melee,' Drury says, with worrying relish.

Radio plays go in waves. Child abuse has been and gone; plays about the Child Support Agency are just coming through. False Memory Syndrome is on its way. Drury advises avoiding certain overdone themes and plotlines: writer's block, perky pensioners beating the system, teachers clashing with school authorities over the school play or magazine.

Whatever themes are chosen, with a payment of pounds 40 a minute for new writers nobody is going to get rich. Indeed, probably only David Zane Marowitz makes a living from radio drama. He's trilingual - at least - and sells different language versions of the same play all over Europe. Nevertheless, for drama hopefuls it is somehow encouraging to hear that even Tom Stoppard, whose Artist Descending a Staircase made outstanding use of the medium, began his career writing episodes of The Archers. And it's comforting to hear how little has changed in the way that old cart-horse is produced. Take the scene changes, indicated by a fade out of voices. A technician turning down a volume knob? No: actors walking slowly away from the microphones.

Unsolicited scripts can be submitted to individual producers or to Michael Earley, chief producer, Radio Drama, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA, enclosing a large SAE. Fen Farm (0284 753110) runs various writing courses from March to November

(Photograph omitted)

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