RADIO DRAMA - THEORY & PRACTICE
The title is unspectacular; but Tim Crook has written a passionate, provocative work, in which he reviews the half-forgotten history of radio drama and redefines its direction in terms of our emergent digital culture. Writing as both practitioner and theorist, he re-affirms the unique power of radio drama as a theatre of the imagination while analysing the functions of sound design, direction and performance from a contemporary perspective.
Crook takes McLuhan's quote - " I live right inside radio when I listen" - as his theoretical starting-point, emphasizing the immersive quality of radio , and the relationship of audio drama to oral traditions of story. He takes issue with the notion that radio drama is disadvantaged by its invisibility and stresses the role of the listener in reconstructing the world of the play , not only from his/her private web of memory, dream and connotation , but from the music of speech rhythms and vocal inflections.
He also challenges assumptions about the history of audio drama, The standard version focuses exclusively on the landmarks of BBC radio productions - from primitive beginnings like Richard Hughes' Danger in 1923 (written in one night, using the studio doors to control levels from the extras down the corridor!), through the poetic drama of Louis McNeice or Dylan Thomas, to high-tech ultra-naturalistic productions like the recent Radio 4 Bleak House adaptation.
Crook, however, has dug up evidence of theatrical entertainment being disseminated via "electrophone" land line to wealthy Victorian drawing rooms. And although the electrophone seems like a fixture from a Michael Moorcock steam-punk novel, it seems likely that the first audio drama to be conceived in terms of the medium, with a regard to sound effects, placing of actors and expository dialogue was In the Trenches, a propaganda disc recording from 1917 directed by Major A.E.Rees, antedating the pioneering efforts of the BBC and American stations like WGY by several years.
Crook obviously enjoys the subversive potential of radio, the War of the Worlds effect. He presents some interesting background on Orson Welles' notorious production of the H.G.Wells novel - like a copycat production in Ecuador which provoked the citizens to burn down the offending radio station... He also looks approvingly at more recent "radio panics" and "guerilla dramas" disguised by news or talk radio formats, like Pierre Brossard impersonating Jean Chretien for the benefit of HM the Queen, or the surreal scams of the BBC's Chris Morris, who inveigled various UK politicians into pious condemnations of a non-existent rave cult drug - "cake".
He can deconstruct radio plays using the standard Roland Barthes kitbag , and in the process takes apart the BBC's most popular production in recent years, Lee Hall's Spoonface Steinberg.
This prize-winning play - an internal monologue by an autistic Jewish seven-year old girl suffering from terminal cancer, obsessed by the Holocaust, in a dysfunctional family, apparently caused truckers to pull over their rigs and weep at the roadside. For Crook, however, analysing it as a Jew, the sub-texts are suspect, almost exploitative, despite the skill of the writing and performance,
However, his main interest is to establish a solid body of theory that's grounded in the craft of constructing and recording audio narrative - a kind of audio Robert McKee, giving radio practitioners an expanded vocabulary and conceptual framework. It's these sections of the book - on structural gambits, dialogue, sound design, directing actors in the studio - that are immediately useful, especially for people who are new to the medium.
Indeed, at a time when public
service broadcasters like BBC and CBC are cutting corners in commissioning and
production, Crook argues for a new paradigm for audio drama, urging writers to
explore the possibilities of the Net. He cites a pioneering experiment by
Estonian Radio in 1997 in webcasting audio drama on demand. A children's radio
play Strawbully and Tarbubble was presented as a fifteen-minute audio
stream with options for reading the text, scrolled in Estonian, English or
Russian. The site also offered animated graphics relating to the play, and a
forum for listeners' comments. Similar pages are now available on Swedish Radio
Crook and his web design collaborator Marja Giejgo have developed the concept on their own Independent Radio Drama Productions site (http://www.irdp.co.uk/) which features plays commissioned by US National Public Radio and UK commercial radio,
Of course, Culture Court visitors who recall the whirling reels of Lawrence Russell's audio magazine DNA, way back in the analog years, will seize Crook's main point - audio drama can now be a bedsit operation with a global reach - everyone his own Orson Welles, a Martian invader from cyber-space...
Paul A. Green 12/99
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