There is nothing in the world quite like BBC radio drama. With more than 500 original plays a year -- an average of ten a week -- broadcast over its airwaves , BBC radio may be one of the biggest single patrons of writing and performance in the world.
Richard Imison, script editor of the drama department for 17 years, has an unabated zest for this particularly British art from. "I find my notion of its possibilities extended by every experience of it, rather than held back. Television seems to me to be a medium so often of compromise and cutting down that I find it repressive," he told me in a recent interview.
He feels that in its 50-year history, radio drama has extended the whole field of drama. It has fed back into stage theater by breaking away from the conventional set, from "theater realism" into more flexible use of light and spaces, and into free time-scales.
"It has attracted great names among contemporary dramatists such as James Saunders, Tom Stoppard, John Mortimer, Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee, and many more. Rattigan's last play, 'Cause Celebre' was a commissioned radio play. Benefits have been reciprocal -- writers have been extended by the medium and the medium has been extended by them.
"Harold Pinter, of course, did much to exploit the essence of ambiguity in radio drama. Take a play like 'A Slight Ache.' Harold, with wonderful percipience, saw that a great use of radio was to discuss a character so that you never quite know whether he is real or not. So the matchseller in 'A Slight Ache' has never been the same on television or the stage: Visual directors have to decide whether they are actually going to showm someone like this or not. That same wonderful quality of ambiguity in the flexibility of dialogue was done outstandingly by Giles Cooper.
"Radio, more easily than other media, makes possible such devices as the intercutting of interior monologue with exterior conversation; a leap from one period to another or one place to another: a blending of fantasy and reality; a totally free time-scale; a more imaginative use of the dialogue."
In radio drama, Mr. Imison maintains, "essentially you believe what you hear: it's only afterward you might query the logicality of it." I wondered if the illusionistic nature of radio restricted the use of dramatists who are out to shatter illusions.
A big question. . . . Before you talk about what radio does best one has to acknowledge that almost anything can be done, and a lot of it is. We've put on stage plays, adaptations of novels, screenplays, original radio writing of an experimental and conventional kind -- we do thrillers, comedies, poetic drama, socially realistic drama. We can do Shakespeare very well: He had to overcome some of the problems we do -- he didn't have all the scenery, costumes, and most of his actors had to play several parts, so they kept announcing themselves. We can do Chekhov with much greater difficulty because that is classic theatrical ensemble playing, in which frequently the effect is created by people who sit silent for long periods.
"Radio drama is fundamentally the most personal, allusive, and underfined of all dramatic media." Radio plays take place, he argues, not in the studio or even on the radio, but in the mind of the listener.
"It is not until the moment it is heardm that the pictures start to appear at all. You can't stop the pictures: They come quite spontaneously so, to that extent, radio will always be a medium of the imagination. Every member of the audience is going through a subtly different experience."
One of radio drama's great advantages is that it is cheap. It can afford to take chances. "We care about writers. But we can afford to care about writers. I can risk a writer who may or may not lay an egg. If a play doesn't work, no great loss. We can give more chances to more writers than any other medium."
As for actors, the BBC has a permanent repertory of changing actors, at any one time including a "mixture of experienced and relatively inexperienced actors. This repertory seldom exclusively casts a play. It forms its basis. Freelance actors play more than two-thirds of all parts."
Radio offers excellent opportunities for those Mr. Imison describes as "the very short and very fat, the very tall and very thin - actors who, for physical reasons, have never been able to achieve on the stage what they would like to achieve.
"In radio, voice is all. Disguise can be total. Sometimes dogs are played by actors, men by women, children by adults. A very complicated role for a child can demand the intelligence of an adult. Only in radio can you do this -- with one of those relatively rare actors who can play a convincing child."
I asked if there were actors who, conversely, have succeeded on stage but find radio impossible. "It does happen. some publicly declare that they can't cope with radio. Quite honestly, not very many. Although radio acting is not the best-paid job in the profession, nevertheless the BBC generally has no trouble getting the actors it wants."
Mr. Imison went into the economics of radio drama (the most expensive part of radio, which is the least expensive portion of the BBC's total operation) at some length. He feels that "the BBC stands at probably its most dramatic crossroads since the '29s. . . . The corporation's only source of income, the license fee, has now virtually ceased its longtime natural expansion, just at the moment of our greatest size and diversity of services. . . . For the first time in its history the BBC has been served notice."
For radio drama this means proposals to end its most popular daily serial and one or two other expensive exploits, including its successful "Studio Theatre" experimental slot: "Fifteen Minute Theatre."
These cutbacks occur at the time when some local commercial radio channels in Britain are showing signs of strong new growth. Capital Radio in London, for example, is already starting to move into radio drama.
"But,", says Mr. Imison, "BBC radio still has a formidable output of drama even after the cuts. . . . It shows that even at a time of immense economic stress this really very expensive part of its radio operation is still rated by the BBC as being of considerable importance."