Thursday, 25 August 2011

BBC Radio - the pictures are better

I love radio. Purely from an imaginative point of view, in the highly unlikely event of being forced to choose between keeping the TV or the radio, I’d have to pick the one that lets me form the image in my mind rather than the one that places someone’s else’s choice in front of my eyes. With radio it’s even better with your eyes closed.

This love affair started early – lying on the mat in front of the fire as a child listening to the air lock hissing open in Journey into Space; ready to laugh as the Clitheroe Kid bursts through the door with some cheeky comment about his sister Susan; relishing the rattle-tat puns and explosive effects of The Goons; mimicking the familiar ‘Ooh, Ron’/’Yes, Eth?’ of The Glums; trying to beat the Top of the Formers to the quiz answers; chirping along to Children’s Favourites; eating Sunday dinner in company with Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalfe on Two-Way Family Favourites; following live boxing in sound only with Eamonn Andrews, and tuning in to his Sports Report.

Here’s my rapid montage in sound and pictures of these and others from the 1950s.

Music radio was the soundtrack of my teenage years, first with the pirate stations, then with the coming of Radio One in the summer of 1967 - Tony Blackburn opening up with the Move singing ‘Flowers in the Rain’ and introducing lively jingles and excitement to the BBC airwaves for the first time.

Tony Blackburn at the opening of Radio One

I loved the zaniness and technical brilliance of Kenny Everett, the great radio voice of Johnny Walker, warm and rich despite the tinniness of those early transistor radios - yet at the same time I was discovering serious speech radio, not just plays and documentaries on Radio Four, but some quite esoteric stuff. Under my blankets I used to tune in to Radio Three (I believe it was well after midnight), to hear discussions with the likes of the critic FR Leavis and the historian AJP Taylor. I think these were the forerunners of what became the first Open University courses.

When I started teaching in the 1970s I used radio in a way that sparked my genesis as a professional writer. I began using BBC Schools Radio in English and Drama classes – programmes such as Listening & Writing, and Speak – and wondered if I could write something like these myself. I tried my hand at a short play for teens – First Date – and sent it off to a producer whose name kept coming up on the end of the programmes I used. To my amazement he replied within a fortnight to say that he would like to use the play, and could I write another one. That led to a freelance career writing radio plays and other programmes, mainly for BBC Schools but also for Radio Four, and as a result a good deal of work with various educational producers. (See the sidebar for a fullish list of broadcasts and books.)

My work in school also led me to create a fun quiz for the whole school at the end of term. It happened that one of my most enthusiastic pupils had a father who worked as a DJ for BBC Radio Newcastle, and the father, Frank Wappat, encouraged me to write a sixth form quiz, Sixth Sense, which I subsequently produced for several years for the station before I moved to Scotland. Frank must have inspired his son too, because Paul also became a well-known radio DJ in the region. My local radio quiz led me to work on other quizzes for BBC radio nationally, and from there to television quizzes and game shows.

It’s no coincidence that when I came to write my first novel 11:59 I made my central character Marc Niven a local radio host, and the story unfolds around Marc’s late night phone-in show in the North East of England.

I still listen to the radio in bed, and out walking, but these days most of my listening is from downloads onto my iPod. I subscribe to various podcasts, but I also make my own recordings using the Listen Again feature on the BBC website and  a great free recording program called Audacity. Here are a few of my favourite listens, with links to the programme web page:

Afternoon Reading (short stories – sadly, about to be reduced by the BBC)

It’s a good while since I’ve written for radio, but it’s something I would like to return to, and I’m currently in talks with an independent radio producer in the north about various promising projects. I’ll let you know if any of these get off the ground. Meanwhile I’ll keep listening to great radio, and would urge you to do the same, wherever you are.

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