How to get a BBC Radio 4 drama commission

Recently I went to a Q&A given by Jeremy Howe – commissioning editor for drama on Radio 4.

BBC Radio 4 logo

Radio 4 presents the best opportunity for first-time writers to get commissioned and their work on-air in the UK. The reason is, Howe commissions over 400 hours of original drama per year – 40 hours of which is earmarked for work by first-time writers.

Getting a play on Radio 4 is a major boon to a writers’ career. Radio 4’s plays get 1.5 million listeners. And it’s part of the BBC, which can only look good on your writer’s CV (here’s some advice on making your writer’s CV from script editor Lucy Hay aka @Bang2write).

The Plays
Howe said there are 401 drama slots per year on R4.
The Archers – this long-running soap opera totals 1 hour 15 minutes of air time per week, making for 65 hours a year
The Friday Drama – this is a 60 minute, post-watershed play. Right now it’s called The Friday Play, but is being rebranded.
The Saturday Play – a 60-90 minute play put on the afternoon
Woman’s Hour play – these are a series of five 15 minute ‘issues plays’ run over a week, during The Woman’s Hour magazine programme
Classic Serial – multi-part adaptations of contemporary and historical classics
The Afternoon Play – an original 44 minute 15 second play broadcast every weekday – about 140 hours a year

Out of those, Howe made it clear that The Afternoon Play is the only slot available to new writers.

The Archers – like every TV soap opera – has its own writing team, the Friday Drama and Saturday Play are reserved for the likes of Tom Stoppard and David Mitchell – when asked by an audience member how they get a Friday Drama play on R4, Howe replied “Are you Tom Stoppard? No? Then it won’t get made.” – and the Woman’s Hour play and Classic Serials are commissioned far in advance and are given to writers who’ve worked for BBC Radio before.

Howe’s advice on how to get commissioned by R4 was straight to the point:

Understand the Radio 4 audience
Howe: “They are ABC 1s, read the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, live in south-east England – mostly London, and are extremely well-informed.”

He went on to describe news as “the backbone of Radio 4” and the Radio 4 audience as being highly engaged and knowledgeable about current affairs.

This means that plays that link with current affairs – or future current affairs – stand a better chance of getting commissioned.

Howe also said Radio 4’s audience expects the channel’s to be “content-rich”. As a comparison he described his experience as a producer of a documentary on BBC Three, where he started a production meeting by saying, “We do not want any facts in this show.” He warned writers that if they make a single factual mistake in your play, your audience will complain. And complain a lot.

Howe went on to say that the Radio 4 audience also loves reading, but he is highly unlikely to commission adaptations for the Afternoon Play, as the Classic Serial is already commissioned far into 2012.

You must listen to Radio 4
Before writing for Radio 4 you have to listen to Radio 4’s plays.
This is an enlightening experience for people new to R4 dramas. Howe said that most writers expect Radio 4 plays to be “old-fashioned, creaky, tea cup-rattling scripts” and monologues – neither of which he is interested in making.
The BBC’s radio plays are available for 7 days after broadcast on the iPlayer. But they can only be streamed – they’re not available for downloading or as podcasts.

What makes a good Afternoon Play
BBC Radio 4 Extra logoThe most important thing to a successful radio drama is STORY STORY STORY STORY STORY STORY STORY

Howe described Radio 4 as being “radio for curious minds”.

Don’t adapt an existing book

They link into current affairs, or future current affairs (upcoming elections, Olympics, public service cutbacks etc)

History with a spin: R4 listeners love history, but not “typical” historical biographies – the plays must reflect how people live now and current society. A few years ago R4 put on a radio play about he relationship with King George VI and his speech therapist, months before anyone had heard of a film called The King’s Speech (and much to the annoyance of Harvey Weinstein).

Make it challenging

No monologues or soap operas

It must be a single play that stands on its own accord – it must not be part of a series.

Write in your voice – don’t try to emulate another writer. The best plays are ones that you, in Howe’s words, are “desperate to tell”

Take risks – the Afternoon Play has the freedom to tell powerful, challenging, irreverent and disturbing stories

Straight through-line narrative is the best. So avoid cross-cutting, multiple thread narratives (i.e. don’t try to do Paul Haggis’ Crash for the radio)

Dialogue is all-important – radio plays live and die on dialogue. If your dialogue is not superb, your play will not get on the air

Any genre is accepted, but your way of approaching the genre must be fresh

Each Afternoon Play is precisely 44 minutes 15 seconds long – no shorter, no longer.

Team up with a producer
Howe went to great lengths to explain that writers should not approach him directly with scripts.

Instead, you have to find a producer who will sell your script to Howe and guide it through the production process.

Finding a producer is a matter of listening to plays, and making a note of the producers that create work similar to your style (the play’s on-air credits and those in the Radio Times include the producer and production company). Then you have to contact the producer and see if they’re interested in taking your script.

Around 80% of R4’s plays are made by BBC producers, whose email addresses are firstname.lastname@bbc.co.uk. The remaining 20% are made by independent producers and production companies. Google searches should be able to provide contact details for these people.

Howe said that you need to find a producer who you can work with over the long term, because a “writer-producer relationship is like a marriage. Sometimes a dysfunctional one”.

The monthly meeting
Howe said that once a month the BBC Radio commissioners have a meeting where they discuss new writers, and decide which ones they want to back.

At this meeting the commissioners don’t just go by what scripts you’ve sent in to the BBC, but all of your writing.

So it can only help you to get known as a writer. So get your name known. This means networking and getting your work named. If this means having to produce your own films and theatre pieces, do it.

This will also help you get a producer.

The pitch
Once you have a producer on board and Howe has agreed to consider your play, you will have to provide a 300 word pitch for it.

Howe said that the pitch should not be a synopsis of your play, but must explain why you want to make this play.

After that you will be asked to provide a 3-page treatment for the play.

Formatting
BBC radio plays use a different page format to those of TV and film screenplays. The BBC has example scripts available on the Writersroom.

The money
The BBC’s standard pay rate for writing radio dramas is £65 per minute. So writing an Afternoon Play pays £2,876.25. Hardly big bucks, but since when do writers write for money?

That’s it. Get writing.

Embedded Link

BBC – Commissioning Who’s Who – Jeremy Howe
Jeremy Howe, Commissioning Editor, Drama, Radio 4

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About rcosgrove

UK-based journalist, screenwriter and director.

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