Interview with Nigel Deacon, of Diversity
The complete history of audio drama has not yet been written, but when it is, there will be a chapter devoted to Diversity. It is the most comprehensive and informative source of information on radio drama that currently exists. It has been an intense labor of love over more than a decade. And although many people have contributed to it over the years, it is largely the work of Nigel Deacon.
People often discuss the internet in grandiose terms. Often, the impact of the internet is exaggerated or embellished – people want to believe they live in unprecedented times. But in the case of audio drama, it is a unique and dynamic crossroads for the medium. The internet has made new possibilities, fostering appreciation and study and enthusiasm for the art. I am very pleased that Nigel has taken the time from his busy schedule to be interviewed for this blog.
Modern Soundling: When did you first become interested in radio drama?
Nigel Deacon: Originally I listened to comedy; 'Round the Horne' was an early favourite, but I soon became interested in Noel Coward's plays, and thought Paul Scofield wonderful in "Private Lives" and "Present Laughter". This was around 1975. I soon started listening regularly to 90 minute plays on Saturday nights; I particularly liked 'The Bagman' by John Arden, and comedies by Geoffrey Parkinson, Don Haworth and Wally K Daly. Later came more serious work: Tom Stoppard, David Pownall, Nick Warburton and others.
Occasionally a radio play would be so weird that it would fascinate me - I remember 'Dwelling Unit, Sweet Dwelling Unit' by John Miles and Tony Allen; a guy is employed by the local Council to condemn unsuitable properties. When he gets to work he's told to visit a very run-down property - when he goes there he doesn't realise it's his wife who answers the door, and it's his own house. Kathleen Helme is superb as the exasperated wife.
'No Quarter' by Barry Bermange is similarly odd; a group of misfits is stuck in a hotel; the lights have failed, and it's gradually collapsing. Very Kafkaesque.
Andrew Sachs wrote a play for radio containing no words at all, "The Revenge".
James Saunders' post-nuclear play 'Barnstaple' has a group of people chatting away, oblivious to the fact that the house is falling down around them.
The main characters in Don Haworth's 'On a day in summer in a garden' are talking dock plants. This was wonderful!
But there were duds too; that was part of the fascination. Gradually I found that most of the best plays were associated with a relatively small number of writers; later on I realised that the producer too had an effect, and could sometimes wreck a good play by mis-casting or turn an average script into something memorable.
MS: Do you think the medium itself has changed over the years?
ND: Radio plays have changed enormously since the 1960s, though a good story remains good no matter when it is broadcast. Early plays can sound rather stilted and formal, whereas the dialogue in a modern play is much nearer to the way we talk in everyday life. Nevertheless if you switch on a radio and hear dialogue, it's usually obvious straight away that it's drama; actors 'act', and the tones are unmistakable.
There are exceptions; in 'A Fire in the West', by Michael Butt, a mother, father, sister and former boyfriend talk directly to mike as each tries to understand why Cirea burnt herself to death. The style is so intimate and the dialogue so ‘real’ that we wonder if we’re not listening to a documentary.
There are lots of plays showing the world as it actually is. Radio 3 has broadcast several in the past year about life in third world countries run by dictatorships, and the violence of these regimes is illustrated by sound effects which pull no punches.
Plays on the 'social realism' theme are common: memory loss, losing a partner to cancer, disappearance of a child, Alzheimer's, the trial of a child murderer, losing a parent; often well written and acted but showing how miserable and disappointing life can be. The best of these are written in such a way that they are ultimately uplifting but many listeners tend to avoid them.
The most obvious difference between now and thirty years ago is that there are no regular 90-minute plays on Radio 4. BBC managers have decided that concentration spans are not what they were, and the standard length of a play is now 45 minutes. There are longer plays each week on Radio 3, but they are not easy listening, and not intended to be, and the audiences for them are smaller.
Nevertheless there are some superb dramas broadcast each year. Anything by Nick Warburton, Mike Walker, Martyn Wade, John Fletcher, Michelene Wandor, Mike Bartlett, Lucy Gough, Hattie Naylor, Bryony Lavery, and a host of others ... you can probably supply the names.
MS: How did 'Diversity' begin, and what was your goal in creating it?
ND: The original template for the site was constructed by my wife Alison. It contained sections on different topics which are important to me, including Radio Drama, but also including English Apples, Early Keyboard Music, and Composition. My original intention was to raise the profile of radio drama.
Rodney Wingfield, Catherine Czerkawska, and Jo Hodder (of the Society of Authors) were especially helpful and encouraging in the early days, and supplied leads which helped me get in touch with others who were active in radio drama. Once I got going, it snowballed; at one time I was being contacted by several fresh radio writers a week.
The site has expanded way beyond my expectations, especially the radio section. We have been running for ten years, and we are visited by about 500 people per day in winter; 1,000 per day in late summer and autumn during the apple season; around 200,000 people per year.
MS: How long has it taken you to compile such extensive information, and what were your sources?
ND: I recorded radio plays on cassette from 1975 - 2007; I always wrote a few notes on the inlay cards about each play after listening to it. That gave me a start. For twenty-five years I recorded most of the afternoon plays on a plug-in timer. I found a way of recording a 60-minute play reliably (whilst I was out) onto one side of a C-120. 45-minute plays were easy because I bought specially-wound C-98s direct from the factory and had 4 minutes to spare on each side. 90-minute plays needed two timers and two recorders. There are several thousand cassettes here, mostly drama, and they generally have a few notes about the play written on the inlay card. Some of them are digitised.
After cassettes more or less disappeared I transferred to digital recording, and started gathering information online, including comments from the BBC website, which I edit carefully (and re-write if necessary) for clarity and anonymity.
I have written radio reviews for VRPCC (Vintage Radio Programme Collectors' Circle) three times a year since 1997, and short reviews of other plays week by week. I have also been in touch with many of the writers featured on the site by email or telephone (and have met a few of them) and they have been generous in providing information about their work. They have also provided recordings; sometimes the only known copy.
Most of the lists of plays going back into obscurity have been compiled by Roger Bickerton, who has typed them out from old issues of Radio Times. He has listed Afternoon Theatre, Saturday Night Theatre, the Monday Play, the Saturday Play, the Afternoon Play, Just Before Midnight, Thirty Minute Theatre. It has taken him several years and hundreds of hours, and I am very grateful. Roger has also allowed me to use articles written for the VRPCC newsletter 'The Circular Note'.
Bob Thirsk, another friend in VRPCC, has compiled complete drama lists from information produced by the BBC. He, too, has spent long hours putting recent information in a form which I can use.
Jim, in Toronto, has supplied me with reviews and comments on radio plays for several years. He has extensive knowledge of most radio writers, and is meticulous at compiling programme notes, cast lists and related information.
I sometimes refer to articles written by journalists, and published reviews. Such material often has to be re-phrased because the style doesn't wear well on repeated scrutiny.
Many radio writers, producers and SMs have written articles or provided information for the site: Mike Harris, Steve Walker, Michelene Wandor, Richard Wortley, Graham Gauld, Jill Hyem, Carol McShane, Gerry Jones and Jean Barnes were some of the early contributors.
The majority of the author and producer pages on the site have been compiled with the help of the person featured, or by a relative, or occasionally by a friend or work colleague. In this latter case I have to be very careful about what appears on the page.
I receive a very large number of emails. Some people send corrections; sometimes they expand my information or send short articles of their own. One well known radio producer sent a 15,000 word essay written especially for the site (thanks Richard) about his radio career; a wonderful surprise. I get lots of messages from people who have lived in England at one time but are now abroad; this month I have received comments on radio plays from India, America, Australia and Canada. I was also sent an article by an auctioneer about the series 'Toytown'; one of the lots he was having to sell this month (Mar 2011) was a collection of the effects of S.G. Hulme Beaman, and my wife is currently putting into html format an interesting piece of research into 'Elidor', a work by Alan Garner, sent to me by a VRPCC member.
MS: How do you think it has impacted the medium?
ND: Most radio writers I've met have heard of 'Diversity'. We give regular updates to the Society of Authors, which they publish in their newsletter. I am often contacted by writers who update me with their latest work; usually two or three email me each week, and there seems to be a fairly efficient 'grapevine'; I often know which writers are in touch with each other. I'm also contacted by people who want me to archive their work; they donate recordings, often old cassettes, which I digitise and, when possible, improve, and then ensure that copies are in different locations.
I don't often go to London, but when my wife and I attended the Imison / Tinniswood Awards in 2006 and 2010, we were pleased to find that most of the writers we met, and their producers, were familiar with the site. One well-known dramatist told me that when he went with a radio submission to the BBC in 2006, the guy who interviewed him had his 'Diversity' page printed out and spread across the table.
I think we have made people more aware of the names of the authors of the best radio plays. They are no longer anonymous.
We (Diversity and VRPCC) have helped drum up support for certain writers to be celebrated for important anniversaries. VRPCC members helped instigate a 'William Trevor' celebration (on BBC7) when he was 80, and another for Rhys Adrian. There are others (we hope) in the pipeline.
We have also supplied recordings not in the BBC archive for broadcast. Occasionally items in the BBC archive cannot be found, and we have, on occasion, supplied replacements.
MS: What are the current challenges faced by radio drama?
ND: It was possible, years ago, for a writer to have an idea, write an entire play about it, and to submit it to the BBC with a reasonable chance of a broadcast if the writing was good and a sympathetic producer could be found.
Things have changed. Nowadays successful radio writers submit several ideas at a time; if there is any interest by the BBC (1 in 5 is a reasonable 'strike rate') , these are developed further, and a script eventually emerges.
I am sometimes sent scripts of plays by unknown writers and asked if I can forward them to the BBC.
These unsolicited plays almost invariably have no chance of being broadcast. They have usually been written without any reference to what the BBC wants.
The requirements for plays for the different slots are well publicised on the Writers' Room page of the BBC website.
The BBC needs afternoon plays (45m), Saturday plays (55m), occasional morning or late night plays (28m), dramas split into multiples of 5 x 12m (Woman's Hour serials), and a few longer and more unusual items for radio 3. Deviate from this and you're probably writing just for yourself.
I have been involved in education for many years. Most students I encounter look slightly bemused when I ask them if they listen to radio plays. They don't know it exists. That is not a good sign.
There is also the problem of attention span ... a really good radio play will entertain, but it's not an entirely passive medium; it needs input from the listener. A regular television watcher will probably not get much out of a radio play no matter how good it is. Radio understates; it relies on suggestion and imagination.
MS: Are you optimistic about the medium's future?
ND: The audience for radio plays is enormous; more than all of the theatre audiences in the country added together. Although it is not a high profile medium, millions of people, most of them in their mid twenties or older, listen to radio drama during the course of a week. A lot of listening is done in cars, by people who travel for a living. A lot more is done by retired people and others who are at home in the afternoons. Most of what they hear is not 'high art' but it tells a story. Occasionally a gem is broadcast. We all need stories from time to time.
The internet has been instrumental in bringing people with similar interests together, without any geographical constraints. The 'Diversity' pages attract about 200,000 visitors per year, and about half of them look at the radio pages. I get about fifteen emails a day which need replies, the majority of which are about radio drama.
It is unfortunate that the Radio 4 messageboard, a forum where radio listeners can speak to each other, is closing down. I hope that there is enough enthusiasm and organisation among the contributors to set up a well-publicised forum elsewhere on the web.
There is lots of interest in radio drama worldwide, and the internet has made listeners more aware that they are not alone. That must be a good thing. Without the internet, much of the information on 'Diversity' would never have been compiled, and most of the rest would have remained unknown in some folders in my back room.
MS: What are the future or long term goals of 'Diversity'?
ND: For as long as I enjoy radio drama (and the other topics covered by 'Diversity') I will be interested to exchange ideas with those who share my enthusiasms. I have been involved for many years with the archiving of radio plays, so that they will be available in the future for people to enjoy. Writers, producers and collectors often offer me recordings, and if they are not already in the archive, they will be gratefully accepted.
'Diversity' has enabled me to meet interesting people from all over the world. Some of them I have been privileged to know for a short time. I have met radio play enthusiasts, technicians, radio writers, producers, and SMs. Occasionally people send me badly degraded audio recordings to clean up, which can be fun.
As for the non-radio part of the site, I've become involved in many projects, including heritage apples, apple breeding, locating and preserving redfleshed apples, and grafting of fruit trees. I've done fruit analyses for the National Fruit Collection, become involved on the fringes of Kennedy Bosire's amazing Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project; advertised a new go-kart track.....most recently I've helped to promote a new girl band....
But radio is at the core of what we do.
MS: 'Diversity' covers a tremendous amount of information across many aspects of the medium. is there any aspect which you would like to cover in greater detail?
ND: It would be good to give more writers and producers their own individual pages, and to keep them completely up-to-date. However, the more pages there are, the less time can be spent on each.
I could have based the site on a 'database' format, which is less labour intensive, but I've never liked the way the information is displayed in spreadsheets and databases; it's OK for reference but not very attractive if you just want to browse.
Articles for publication are always welcome if they are interesting and there are no legal or copyright problems......... anything to do with radio plays, their production, experiences of actors, etc, etc.... Once I was sent a humorous article containing anecdotes about two writers and some scrapes they got into when making a programme; some months later I received an email from the solicitor of one of them (and a letter from the other) telling me I'd have to remove it or there would be legal trouble. That gave me a shock, and the guy who'd sent it was slightly worried, too. Phew...
I'm hoping to write about more radio newcomers as the years progress; we've all heard of Don Haworth, and Don Taylor, and Louis MacNeice, but there's a lot of really good writing by younger writers who are not yet covered adequately. That's probably an ongoing job for the future.
I'm pleased to see Justin Rivers working so hard on his Audio Drama Wiki. An interactive source, run along the lines of 'Wikipedia' where all can contribute, could become a valuable resource in the future, and I wish him luck in promoting it. There will be some areas of overlap between 'Diversity' and the Wiki, but that will benefit both of us.
Modern Soundling: Thanks again to Nigel for this fascinating interview. For further reading, visit Diversity. You can find a list of Nigel's favorite radio plays here.
Stay tuned next week for an interview with VRPCC's Roger Bickerton.