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How I became a radio dramatist

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When I was a kid I loved science fiction: books, films, TV series, you name it. My parents were market traders, so I’d spend every Saturday keeping warm in Tamworth library, working my way methodically through the shelves. I also wrote books, with the aid of a petite typewriter and a William Caxton Printing Press. I was always going to be a writer. I was going to write novels. Science fiction novels. And so it came to pass. But more recently I’ve shifted my aims to radio. This was also inevitable; I just didn’t see it for a very long time.

As we worked the markets the radio was on all day, every day, whether we were behind the stall, travelling, or working at home. A highlight of my week was the Sunday evening Top 40 chart rundown: I’d listen while my parents washed up after tea, delivering the news of the week’s number one to the kitchen with great fanfare. Elsewhere, my grandparents had a Bush radio with a walnut fascia and huge tuning dial. Most of the time this was set to Radio 3, but I’d always push the shortwave button and surf the airwaves, turning the dial like a master safe-cracker, immersed in snatches of foreign languages amid the swirling chirrups and warbles.

My interest in radio drama, and the possibility that I could write this sort of thing myself, was first piqued in 2009, when I heard a play called Deja Vu, by Alexis Zegerman. Deja Vu’s intriguing use of sound and what was to me at the time an unusual narrative thread really set my imaginative cogs turning. My taste is broad, but I do have a preference for something edgy, or which possesses a fantastical or challenging element. The work of writers such as Sebastian Baczkiewicz (Pilgrim, Ghosts of Heathrow), Katie Hims (Listening to the Dead, Betsy Coleman, Home Front), Ayeesha Menon (Undercover Mumbai), and Tony Pitts (Pact) would be perfect examples. I also enjoy productions with a period setting, such as Sarah Wooley’s recent play Victim, about the making of the 1961 film of the same name starring Dirk Bogarde.

It would be fair to say that I’ve become something of an audio-drama evangelist, expounding its virtues to anyone who’ll listen: fellow dog walkers, the postman, Gary the barber. The most recent beneficiary of my enthusiasm was Hello, Caller by Jonathan Holloway, a play in which ‘decommissioned phone boxes reveal secrets, confessions, fears and declarations of love from voices now lost in a series of trapped phone calls’. Strangers talking to each other across time? Yes please!

My own first attempts to write radio drama included adaptations of my prose fiction. I discovered that when I’d removed all the fluff and descriptive text, there really wasn’t a lot left. As I began to get the hang of things, I dramatized a short story I’d written in collaboration with Ian R. MacLeod. ‘The Howl’, published in Solaris Rising 3, is a dual-timeline story of survivor guilt, dementia and Schrödinger’s Cat, set in the present-day UK, with flashbacks to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This story was great fun to research and write, and proved popular. With scenes in two time periods, set at airports, in a Vulcan bomber, with the 1962 crash and the present day recovery of the aircraft, along with the use of original audio of JFK’s speeches, etc., it seemed a great candidate for radio. With Ian’s blessing, I duly proceeded to adapt the story into a script. This was not as straightforward as I’d imagined, however.

Ian and I have very different writing styles: my prose is quite cinematic and economical; by contrast, while not exactly purple, Ian’s writing is definitely more ornate. One important scene is set in 1962: with JFK giving his key address, one of the Vulcan bomber crew members central to the story – Grin, the Air Electronics Officer – has a wobble about potentially being responsible for the end of the world. This was one of Ian’s scenes, and proved the most difficult of all to adapt. I spent four days’ writing time just looking at his text, scratching my head and trying to work out how to change it from prose to script format without losing any of the content and the feel of his writing. I eventually succeeded, and learned a lot in the process. While this was an eye-opening endeavour overall, I remain proud of both the short story and the script that evolved from it.

I did have a couple of meetings at Broadcasting House about one of my scripts. At the time of the first meeting, Love on the Planet Zanussi had been read by several people, and was adorned with scribbled comments such as ‘very promising’. We then worked on rewrites for a year, only for the script to fall at the final hurdle of being presented to the then Commissioning Editor for Drama and Fiction at BBC Radio 4, Jeremy Howe. This was frustrating at the time, and I’ve since submitted more scripts that have fallen at earlier hurdles, tripped or even failed to get off the starting blocks completely. As a result, I’d have to confess to having developed something of a crisis of confidence.

As part of my continued determination to break into radio, in October 2018 I attended a week-long residential course at Moniack Mhor near Inverness. Formerly an Arvon location, Moniack Mhor is now independent, running various writing workshops throughout the year. The tutors were Katie Hims and BBC Radio 4 producer Jessica Dromgoole, with Sebastian Baczkiewicz as guest speaker. I’ve loved the writing of both Hims and Baczkiewicz for many years, and Dromgoole has produced and directed both of them, as well as many plays I’ve admired, including World War One drama Home Front.

The week far exceeded my hopes, as I got to know three of the people I most admire in audio drama, received feedback on my scripts, and even had the opportunity to cook for them (my night was Friday — haggis, with drams and a wee piper laddie). We went through workshops and one-to-ones, and by Wednesday were casting each other to perform the material we’d written as homework. On the Thursday night guitars appeared, and we all had a little sing-song. It was one of the best weeks of my writing life so far. I learned much, particularly that if I need to do so I can write fast, and that acting can be quite fun, even if all the characters I play tend to speak in a very similar, slightly posh accent.

From a professional perspective radio has additional appeal in that writers don’t necessarily need an agent, with the writer/producer relationship being the most important. My experience with agents from my time writing novels is mixed, yet probably typical of many writers: they were initially enthusiastic, but easily distracted by someone shiny, new and more interesting. I parted company with my last agent a few years ago, and felt quite liberated as a result: no more waiting for that email reply that was never going to come; no more six-month wait for feedback on my work. The ability to approach and work with a producer directly is very attractive, giving me a sense of control. The fact that BBC radio drama script fees are fixed also removes such negotiations from the equation.

Overall, I’ve found radio scriptwriting to be a far more pure and unforgiving form than prose: there’s nowhere to hide, little opportunity for self-indulgence, and dialogue has to work hard to convey character and drive story. I’m currently writing a commissioned short story, and finding the return to prose after several years concentrating on scriptwriting something of a challenge: my characters are speaking in incomplete sentences, non-dialogue text is minimal, and I’m automatically thinking of each scene in terms of soundscape. At the moment I certainly don’t envisage writing another novel: given the investment of time required to produce a manuscript and the fickle nature of the business, my enthusiasm for the discipline has waned considerably. By contrast, my love of audio drama and its challenges continues, and I can’t wait to get back to it.

As well as fiction and scriptwriting Martin has over twenty-five years’ experience working on business text destined for blue chip multinationals, and bodies such as the British Council and World Bank. He is currently working on a radio script, a short story, and various other projects.

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