The Week In Radio: The play's the thing, but not on Radio 4

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Who could this be describing? They're dated and out of touch. A group of obnoxious, self-regarding navel-gazers who appear utterly irrelevant to the modern age. A bunch of whingers who should be roasted slowly over hot embers on a spit. No, not the BBC's senior management It's just some of the feelings vented by listeners of radio drama towards the characters in Frederic Raphael's Final Demands, a play not very much in demand judging by some audience feedback.

The series is the third part of Raphael's Glittering Prizes trilogy. It is now the 1990s and characters who first appeared at Cambridge in the 1950s have ascended to increasingly powerful positions in the media and politics. The hero, Adam Morris, who divides his time between Chelsea and his French farmhouse, is launching his latest novel on an ungrateful world.

When I first tuned in to this series, I listened not so much attentively as transfixed with fascinated revulsion. Yes it's true, the characters are almost universally loathsome, their particular patch of literary London alive with vicious feuding and riven with anti-Semitism. The dramatis personae fight like male hamsters in a cage.

But unsympathetic characters alone do not preclude inspiring drama. Frederic Raphael has as much chance of crafting a masterpiece about Britain's chatterati as Richard Adams had about rabbits or Tolkien about elves. Hateful characters on their own aren't enough to make the hackles rise, so why should this series feel so alienating?

One answer is that the actors, led by languid Tom Conti, who plays Adam, don't so much speak as exchange a series of studied, esprit de l'escalier quips. Take, for example, the moment that Adam bumps into his old friend Anna Cunningham, and asks what she is doing. "Passing through, prior to passing on," she says. "The blight that man was born for," Adam replies. "A tag for all seasons," adds his companion. Do people ever really speak like this, even people with firsts from Cambridge?

Far more heartfelt are Morris's feelings on the unfairness of the publishing industry. Increasingly conservative and money-driven, it is a place where agents tell writers that "the novel isn't an art form any more, it's a product", and established writers like Morris have to accept their golden times are over. There is an uncompromising seriousness in Raphael's vision, even if those who express it are so often hard to take.

By coincidence, another drama about unappealing Oxbridge graduates bemoaning Britain's decline popped up on Radio 4 this week. Playing with Trains was an adaptation of Stephen Poliakoff's 1989 work about Bill Galpin, an inventor feuding with his son and daughter about the downfall of the country's manufacturing industry. It's a strange piece, its dialogue also studded with archly clever quips, and though the second part may improve, it felt about as modern and relevant as a Sinclair C5.

On any other week, to find two plays that disgruntle would be the price you pay for a magnificently varied drama schedule. You could set them against Hattie Naylor's sparkling adaptation of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, or to a lesser degree John Taylor's interesting drama documentary Rage on the Road, which re-told step by step the investigation into the murder of Lee Harvey by his fiancée, Tracie Andrews, in 1996.

But this is not any other time. Last week, it emerged that the Friday Play, which has been running since 1998, is to be cut and replaced with repeats. According to Radio 4's controller, Mark Damazer, the Friday Play has the smallest drama audience on the network and axing an entire strand saves cuts in the budgets of slots like The Saturday Play or Afternoon Play. He claims that the type of play that would have been broadcast on Friday can now be placed on a Saturday or a weekday. The plan now is for Radio 4 to do "fewer, bigger, better".

The chorus of protest at this diminishment of radio drama, ranging from the Writers' Guild to Tom Stoppard, centred on the fact that the Friday Play slot has been a major conduit for new writers to radio. If you reduce slots for debut writers and concentrate on big names, then the chances of people breaking into the medium and bringing with them contemporary, ambitious new plays will become increasingly slim.

There is an irony here. While Raphael despairs of the publishing world, enslaved to novelty and unable to honour its veterans, both Raphael and the well-established Poliakoff are still up there with multi-part series on radio. If you chip away at the chances of those who have not yet received radio's glittering prizes, what you have left is older, more established voices, even if they are lamenting the passing of a golden era.