A Very Grimm Christmas: the future of radio drama

Like a lot of people passionate about both radio and theatre, I have a love-hate relationship with radio drama. Fairly or unfairly, my mixed feelings toward the medium stem from two memorable experiences of it. The first was a production of Day of the Triffids, which I remember listening to on British Forces Broadcasting in the a living room of a house on an army estate somewhere in Germany, as a small child. The stern narrator, the shuffling Triffids, the screams – despite only half understanding what I was listening to, I was transfixed.

The experience had two lasting effects on me. The first was a strong compulsion to avoid rose bushes, which led to a rare and arguably misguided act of bravery in which I took a stick to my grandparents prized garden in order to halt any potential triffidic invasion. The second was a new found fascination with radio drama.

This was soon to be undermined by the second experience, which I can relive by visiting my parents’ kitchen on any given weekday at 7pm, as my Mum catches up with The Archers. For fifteen minutes, as we hear from the Grumbles, Fuzzlies or whatever faux-rustic epithet is in vogue in Ambridge, I fantasise about taking a cricket bat to every radio in the house. It’s no trouble, my brother has one under the stairs. I can get it now, and finish before the turgid, trumping theme tune does…

I know, I know – soap opera to drama is an unfair comparison, but radio drama is a small medium and I’m not sure the distinction means much to the casual listener. The technical excellence and rigorous production of the The Archers has its place, but I can’t help feeling that it makes the audio experience feel rather sterile. In the writing, melodrama and exhausted history take the place of emotion and human connection.

Of course, The Archers commands the largest audience of any radio drama, but I often wonder if its listeners’ devotion stems largely from their being deprived of an alternative experience, and therefore suffering from the entertainment equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. The show’s over-dependence on age-old storylines and 20-year character arcs is also hardly likely to appeal to anyone new to radio drama.

So what, you might ask. Now that I’ve taken a hatchet to the established customs of radio drama, what do I propose as an alternative?

Well, I’m working on it. As station manager at the Roundhouse’s youth-led station Roundhouse Radio, for the last few months I’ve been working with the Wireless Theatre Company on A Very Grimm Christmas – a series of radio-recordings-cum-live-shows performed in the tunnels beneath the Roundhouse. From the outset, the aim has been to deliver a wholly theatrical live experience powered by the talents of a team of innovative young playwrights, directors and actors, many of whom have never worked on a radio drama before. And so much the better, because they bring with them the playful, experimental attitude endemic in the theatre. Too often, this is found wanting in radio, where producers seem to see production quality and creativity as mutually exclusive.

But radio drama can only gain from rediscovering its kinship with theatre. For its part, the theatrical world is already seeking to replicate the best aspects of radio. The verbatim scripts of Alecky Blythe deliver entertaining, engaging narratives with journalistic precision, and Filter’s work constantly tests (and gleefully destroys) the dividing line between theatre and audio production.

To match and exceed this success, radio needs to think the unthinkable and begin to look to at the recording itself as a visual experience, treating it as an event and working to create a genuine sense of occasion around it that will, in turn, translate into the broadcast experience.

Many smaller, nimbler producers are already doing this. Paradoxically, those most willing to experiment are often those who – financially, at least –  can least afford to fail. Yet they instinctively understand that the rewards outweigh the risks.

For the medium to survive and grow, we must find ways to encourage experimentation; to platform the work of young people and resist the temptation to over-produce it. Let’s keep the mistakes, the flaws, the misjudgments. It’s only by doing so that we’ll create the space for the moments of rule-breaking genius, humour and fear that make for truly great radio drama.

Written by Alexander Mee, the Station manager of Roundhouse Radio, and Producer of A Very Grimm Christmas, a series of live radio dramas produce by Roundhouse radio in Collaboration with The Wirless Theatre Company. It runs at the Roundhouse, 3-5 Dec.