Hi There,

This week, a guest article by writer \ director JOHN DRYDEN. JOHN is a talented screenwriter but is most known for his pioneering work in radio drama, where he has forged a great reputation on the back of several very exciting and innovative radio drama projects.

I asked John to write about RADIO DRAMA because I believe radio drama is too often over-looked as a really rich area of dramatic writing and – importantly – an area where a lot of new, original work gets commissioned every year. It has close connections to screenwriting; and if it’s a medium in which you’re interested, working in radio can work very well in combination with screenwriting work.

Here’s some biographical information about John that will make you understand that, when it comes to radio drama, he speaks from a position of authority! –

John has pioneered his own distinctive style of directing radio.

PANDEMIC, a three-part drama set around a devastating worldwide viral outbreak, written and directed by John, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 26-28th March 2012. It was made in Thailand and the UK and features Emily Beecham, Ben Daniels, Alison Steadman, Michael Maloney, Paul Fox and Lars Arentz-Hansen.

RIO STORY, a hard-hitting ensemble drama made in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 16th March 2012. Using professional and non-professional actors, and recorded on location, it was written by Chris Thorpe and directed by John.

SEVERED THREADS, a three-part thriller directed and written by John, was short-listed for a Writers Guild of Great Britain Best Radio Drama Award.

THE MUMBAI CHUZZLEWITS, directed by John and written by Ayeesha Menon, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2012. It was recorded in India and starred Roshan Seth. “A dazzling transposition of Dickens across centuries and continents…”  The Telegraph

FIVE DAYS IN MAY, a dramatised reconstruction of the tense negotiation that followed the 2010 general election, directed by John, was short-listed for the BBC Audio Drama Awards. 

THE BID, a dramatised account of England’s failed bid to host the FIFA World Cu,p was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service in December 2011.

John’s BBC drama/documentary, How to Make Your First Billion, set and filmed in Silicon Valley, California, is in post production.

He is also working with director Michael Radford (IL POSTINO) on a feature script, A SUITABLE BOY, adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. It is being produced by Oscar nominated producer Jane Scott (SHINE).

Having directed the quirky black comedy, THE BONE TRADE, for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, he was selected as one of six directors to participate in the Rutger Hauer Film Factory in Rotterdam in 2008, in which he directed the short horror/fantasy, ROAST CHICKEN, and which was screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Other productions include: FATHERLAND – a feature-length thriller adapted from the best-selling Robert Harris novel; BLEAK HOUSE – described in The Times as a “..brilliant rethinking of the whole business of the classic serial…”;  ”Q&A” (aka SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) which he made in India; and THE CAIRO TRILOGY, starring Omar Sharif.

Between them, these dramas have won three Sony Radio Awards, a Prix Europa commendation and six “TALKIES” (the publishing industry’s talking book awards).

His drama charting the collapse of Lehman Brothers, THE DAY THAT LEHMAN DIED, was nominated for a Sony Radio Award and received the 2010 PEABODY AWARDS in the USA and a WINCOTT AWARD.’

Writing for Radio – JOHN DRYDEN

‘Radio drama is extraordinary. There is at least one original drama on every day of the year (that’s not including The Archers the longest running drama serial in the world) on BBC Radio 4. The audience for the 45-minute weekday Afternoon Drama slot is just shy of a million listeners. That’s more people than go to see most films. It’s even more for the morning 15 minute slot. It’s a fantastic medium for a writer – your work is respected and most importantly, it gets made. Once you have an idea commissioned the drama will most likely be on air within six months. I started writing for radio because, as an aspiring writer/director, I saw a fantastic opportunity to make what I wanted without interference.

There’s a myth about radio drama; that it’s limiting because everything has to be explained in words.  There are some hilarious spoofs of radio drama with lines like, “ This gun in my right hand is loaded” and “ Is that the evening newspaper you’ve got under your arm, darling?”. But, as in visual mediums, there are many inventive ways to convey information to the audience – that’s just basic skill. A bad writer’s work will seem clunky and obvious, a good writer’s work will hide the craft and seem effortlessly convincing.

Radio drama is often described as the theatre of the mind. For me this suggests that it’s an intellectual thing. But I don’t think it is. Paradoxically, radio drama is the most visual of mediums. What I mean is this: think of the difference between film/TV and theatre. In film/TV what the audience sees on the screen, how the characters look, what kind of car they drive, the clothes they wear etc are all right in front of you to see. There’s no scope for you to imagine anything else. In theatre you know what the characters look like but, because of the constraints of the stage, there are only visual clues to suggest everything else. The more effective these visual clues are, the more the audience’s imagination is engaged. Radio drama works a bit like that – the whole world is created in the audience’s heads by suggestion. The better the writing, the less the audience realizes that they are being “fooled” into imagining an entire universe. When it really works the listener is completely pulled in. It seems effortless.

Creating images in the listeners’ heads is what radio drama is all about.  The most engaging radio dramas, in my opinion, do this not just with words but by realizing the world of the story through suggestion in words, sound and actions. We all know that actions speak a thousand words – yet so often action is missing in many of the radio scripts I read. I believe that’s why radio drama can sometimes feel static. In real life people hardly ever just talk – they are usually doing something else at the same time. Dramatic irony is also one of the most useful tools for a radio drama writer to hook an audience in. What I mean by this is characters not saying what they are thinking. So often in radio drama, what a character says is what they mean – whereas, of course, in the real world this is almost never the case. I think dramatic irony is underused in radio drama.

People sometimes talk about the intimate quality of radio, as opposed to cinema or theatre, which on some level is a shared experience. Does this impact the way radio drama is written? It can do. But as much as I would like to think I am writing for one listener sitting beside a radio listening intently, the reality is, for many listeners, the radio is often a background thing – it’s on and they are doing something else. Here lies the real challenge for anyone writing a radio drama. Unlike in film or theatre, the audience of radio drama does not have your undivided attention from the start. You have to get it. This is a huge challenge for a writer and something they should be striving to achieve with every scene.

For a writer, radio offers opportunities to get projects made. The turnover is much faster than television, there is a lot more commissioned, there is much more freedom to experiment and there’s very little interference from the broadcaster or executive producers. There is of course a lot of competition to get projects commissioned but in my experience, good ideas and good scripts always eventually find their way to the top.

Like all great drama, the best radio drama isn’t so much about words as ideas. For it to engage the audience it needs a great premise, interesting, well-defined characters with clear needs and wants, reversals and conflict at the heart of every scene. The radio dramas that really work, the ones that you think about afterwards, the memorable ones, have this in common: they have come from great scripts.

As with television there are two ways to go – through an in-house department or through an independent production company. But it’s a much smaller world than television drama – there’s really just the BBC and a handful of independent production companies who produce it. My advice to anyone interested in writing a radio drama is not to just send a spec script to a lot of different producers. It will end up on a large pile and may never be read. My advice is to try to find something that has been broadcast that you find some merit in. Your aim should be to find a producer or director who has an identifiable style or tone that you get and admire – then approach her/him directly. I’m yet to meet a director/producer who doesn’t like hearing from writers who have actually listened to and have something interesting to say about their previous work. It’s all about developing a relationship with someone who can champion your work. And it’s important to see eye to eye about what you hope to make and who you feel comfortable working with. This is really important ground-work, because when your idea eventually gets commissioned and goes into production you want to have a producer/director on board who’s not going to mess it up.’

John Dryden

Thank you very much indeed John – this is a fascinating insight into the craft of radio drama – and interestingly highlights that most of the facets of good radio drama are the same as good screen drama.

Until next week,

All the best



Twitter: @philipshelley1

Feb 7th 2014