Michael Chaplin on writing for radio

Posted by Michael Chaplin

Way back in the late 80s, I got my first break in radio – strangely, happily – via a stage play, Hair In The Gate, my second commission for Live Theatre. The late Dave Sheasby, a BBC drama producer in Manchester, came to see it (I hope this might still happen today) and asked me to adapt it for Radio 4. Thus a ripe apple fell into my lap and I became a radio writer. Not that it was a breeze. I had to grapple with the ticklish technical challenge facing all writers for the medium: as listeners obviously wouldn’t, like a theatre audience, see the action of my play, I couldn’t show, I could only tell.

With much trial and error and advice from Dave, I slowly got to grips with this new craft and began to appreciate the wisdom of the old conundrum that ‘radio is just like television, only the pictures are better’. What this means I guess is that listeners tend to work harder than viewers and create in their imagination the parts of the story the writer can’t illuminate, including the physical world of the characters. While in TV drama viewers may often feel beaten over the head with the obvious, in radio there’s more space for subtext – and therefore less is truly more. I began to understand this in the writing of my first play and saw it most clearly in the studio, where brilliant actors had the time and space, without the paraphernalia of cameras, costumes and design, to concentrate on the text, and of course vastly enrich it.

Not for nothing is radio often described as ‘the writer’s medium’, for better and sometimes worse. The finest performances and deftest of direction cannot compensate for a script that doesn’t work. For a writer, this is scary – but exhilarating.

Dave Sheasby soon commissioned another play, set in Blyth with a title filched from the film On The Waterfront. Despite the fact I loved writing One Way Ticket To Palookaville and it went down well, there then followed a long period of radio silence from me, as I spent the best part of 15 years solely writing for television, with the occasional bit of theatre.

What brought me back to radio 10 years ago were three things: a desire to broaden again the range of my work; the interest shown in me by an outstanding radio director, Marilyn Imrie (with whom I went on to create around 50 plays); and my frustration at not having what I thought was a great idea commissioned for television. This instead became the radio series Two Pipe Problems – a comedy drama with an investigative trope, set in a retirement home for actors starring Richard Briers and Stanley Baxter, and an example of how the ecology of radio drama has changed. Back in the day, radio drama consisted overwhelmingly of single plays of varying lengths, but nowadays there are growing numbers of serials and series, sometimes stripped across the week.

This is good for writers because series offer greater security (more work). It’s hard to build a career out of single plays, not to mention the difficulty of continually coming up with compelling one-offs. Since 2007 I’ve worked on various radio series besides TPP: Tommies, the ground-breaking drama about life and death at the Front during the First World War; a series of single plays called The Stanley Baxter Playhouse; The Ferryhill Philosophers, which described the collision between moral philosophy and life in the small Durham town; and For The Love Of Leo, a series of comical-tragical stories starring Mark Bonnar about an Edinburgh artist trying to come to terms with the death of his wife. Lately I’ve collaborated with Sting on two single plays with songs set in Newcastle, South On The Great North Road and I Must Have Loved You.

I guess until recently I wrote about six or seven plays a year, far more than the commissioner of Radio 4 drama (formerly Jeremy Howe and now Alison Hindell), would ever commission in singles. Since I also work on projects in other media, I had to write these plays pretty quickly. This is easier with series: the format and style have been established, you know the characters inside out, and the biggest challenge is coming up with a striking story of the week (which shouldn’t be hard if the format and characters work). In the last two years I’ve written rather less for radio, partly because I’ve been writing a book (Newcastle United Stole My Heart: 60 Years In Black And White) and partly because of the tragic death of my producer friend Marilyn Imrie. I sincerely hope my output will pick up again for the simple reason that I love working in radio, though

it should be said that an hourly rate of about £6-7000 an hour, one is unlikely to get filthy rich from it. The rewards are much greater in television, but then so are the frustrations and occasional heartbreaks. Producers in radio tend (big generalisation) to be gentler and nicer, perhaps because they’re under less pressure from above. Even more remarkably, they actually seem to like writers – and good writing. Hardly surprising then that I consider some of my best work has been written for the wireless. And long may it continue…

My top tips for writing for radio

1. Before you attempt to start writing drama for radio, listen to it first. A lot. Become familiar with the stories that work (and just as important, the ones that don’t), as well as the kind of plays that are being commissioned. Know your ground. Put in the homework.

2. By hook or by crook find someone who likes your work and is prepared to champion it. I’ve been lucky in that in my time I’ve been approached by three excellent producers, but it can work the other way. If you hear a play you love, which might also be ‘your’ kind of play, make a note of the producer’s name and write to her or him with your own take on the work, and an introduction to your own. This isn’t sucking up; more an attempt to find a kindred spirit. And don’t forget, good producers are always looking for new talent. Honest.

3. You need to write a ‘calling-card’ script. Look for an idea that will work on radio. An epic tale with a cast of thousands probably won’t. In this intimate medium, where the duration probably won’t exceed 45 minutes, look for an idea which tells a contemporary and emotionally powerful story with a small number of characters.

4. Be aware of the technical issues involved in writing for radio, but don’t agonise too much about them. The necessary skills will just come with practice. The key thing, as in any other form, is to put yourself in the mind of a single listener, and examine each scene from her or his POV, firstly to establish whether they will understand what you’re trying to convey. Empathy should run through good writing, like a name in a stick of seaside rock, but it should encompass not just one’s characters, but also the audience.

5. Enjoy it. It’s a wonderful medium. Television was supposed to kill it, but this pure form of communication is alive and well…

Michael Chaplin, born and brought up in the North-East, has had a long and varied career in the media as a newspaper journalist, maker of factual programmes in television and TV executive before becoming a full-time writer in the 90’s. He has worked extensively in writing for television, radio and the theatre (with Live Theatre in Newcastle), as well as writing various non-fiction books, most recently the much-praised memoir with a difference, Newcastle United Stole My Heart: 60 Years In Black And White, published by Hurst Books. His recent radio work, the series For The Love Of Leo, and the single-play collaborations with Sting, Going South On The Great North Road and I Must Have Loved You are available to listen on BBC Sounds.