When Steven Spielberg was about to make the movie Empire of the Sun, he telephoned Tom Stoppard and asked him to write the screenplay. Stoppard initially declined, saying he was working on a play for the BBC. Spielberg couldn't believe his ears. "But that's just television," he exclaimed. "Actually," replied Stoppard, "I'm doing it for the radio."
There was a time when the greatest dramatists saw radio as a home for their work, and a medium to be considered alongside TV, the theatre and even Hollywood. And it seems we are witnessing a return to that. The BBC Radio 4 drama commissioner Jeremy Howe has claimed at a conference that screenwriters are turning their backs on television and coming to him with their scripts. He said that TV drama is "basically just Casualty, Holby City and EastEnders" and it was this lack of variety that had led to established writers looking to radio. He cited Francesca Joseph, whose credits include Mistresses, as one such writer who is now developing drama with Radio 4.
Well, good. Radio drama is a particular glory of British broadcasting. And it should be the place for the country's best dramatists as well as a home for new talent. But two things about Mr Howe's speech leave me bemused. There are many of us who would agree that BBC TV drama is "basically just Casualty, Holby City and EastEnders". I have banged on about this myself for some time, hoping against hope that BBC TV might be adventurous enough to mount productions of classic drama as well as new single plays by contemporary playwrights. In fact, of course, we barely get either. But it's odd that such a condemnation should come from a senior BBC drama commissioner. He may be in radio, but presumably at the BBC radio doth speak unto television occasionally. Are Mr Howe's views routinely listened to politely at drama meetings and then equally politely ignored?
Then there is the other cause for bemusement, namely that the BBC is axeing one of its key radio drama strands – the Friday Play on Radio 4. This was not done over Mr Howe's dead body, or with him being dragged kicking and screaming from Broadcasting House. It was done by the head of Radio 4 Mark Damazer with Mr Howe. It was a joint decision as Mr Howe admitted to the conference. These were "efficiency savings", he said, and as the Friday Play had the smallest audience of the Radio 4 drama strands, cutting it would have the least impact.
The BBC's definition of efficiency is as wayward as its definition of drama. With the lack of genuine drama on TV, and a chance for radio to woo back leading dramatists, how can it be right to cut one of the corporation's most celebrated drama strands? Tom Stoppard has been one of those protesting against the ending of the Friday Play. As he and others point out, that slot has been a conduit for new writers coming into radio. However much the return of established dramatists to radio is to be welcomed, it is the new writers who are often more in touch with the zeitgeist. To cut the strand that was bringing their take on the world to a radio audience is, to put it at its politest, inefficient.
Inconvenienced by a venue...again
I mentioned last week the continuing iniquity of booking fees for theatres, operas, rock concerts and the rest, and how they come under all sorts of fancy names, "handling charges" being my favourite. But reader David Hasell has alerted me to a new name, which must take top prize. He has booked tickets for Opera Holland Park. A handling charge has indeed been added, but on top of that he has been charged a "convenience fee". These two extra charges increase the cost of his tickets by 22.5 per cent.
Convenience fee! That takes the biscuit. Convenient for whom, exactly? Not for Mr Hasell, I suspect. I do wonder if those who run arts venues realise just how much they alienate audiences with these charges. There should be just one price on a ticket, and that should be the price to pay.
Bright star quietly burning
Much is rightly being made of the current golden age for the arts, not least to convince the Government to avoid cuts in the arts budget. The success of theatre, museums and galleries is cited along with the pop success of the likes of Lily Allen, Florence and the Machine et al.
The one genre that is, predictably, never cited by arts campaigners is the folk music revival. The often unfashionable area of music is enjoying considerable critical and public acclaim under the banner of nu-folk. Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons are among the best practitioners.
But for me, head and shoulders above them all is 20-year-old Laura Marling. The new album, I Speak Because I Can, by this young singer-songwriter shows a poetic lyricism allied to memorable melodies and has me returning to the record again and again.
Check out her song "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)" for a poignant evocation of place and feeling. Hers is certainly a talent to shout about.