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The State of the Afternoon Play

Simon Pitt | Radio | Sunday 6th December 2009

The Afternoon Play is the bread and butter of BBC Radio Drama. It goes out every weekday, immediately after The Archers at 2:15 and lasts for 45 minutes. There are 190 new Afternoon Plays commissioned and made every year. The remainder of the slots are filled by repeats from previous years (roughly another 70). When the BBC commissions a writer, they buy two broadcasts, so you can expect to hear an afternoon play in a few years time.

The plays are made by three different groups: According to the BBC, the Afternoon Play consists of "Radio dramas which delight and surprise". As I noted before, this meaningless phrases tells you nothing about the strand at all. They might as well say "radio dramas which feature words" (but even that excludes The Revenge).

Of the 190 new afternoon plays each year, around 40 of those are part of a series (usually of four, five or six episodes) and the remaining 150 are single one-off dramas. BBC TV drama, in comparison, commissions less than 30 singles a year across all four channels. The commissioning brief boasts about this, although we will see whether this is something to be proud of or not.

Flicking through that commissioning brief provides a bit more information about the Afternoon Play. This slot, says Jeremy Howe, commissioning editor, drama, "is about storytelling [...] Grab the audience at the beginning and keep them guessing and intrigued until the end". Sounds simple enough, but does this actually mean anything? It's like teaching the piano by saying, "just play it really, really well."

Having said that, a few paragraphs later, Howe writes:
Radio, unlike film, doesn't do plot particularly well. It is about interesting characters in interesting situations behaving in a way that surprises us.
As an aside, when it comes to Saturday Plays, Howe writes:
we want the Radio 4 equivalents of State of Play, In the Loop, Slum Dog [sic] Millionaire, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Mamma Mia, The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Ultimatum, Casino Royale, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle...
If radio can't do plot very well ("unlike film"), one has to wonder why he wants a load of "equivalents" to films. Come to that, I'm not sure if I can imagine The Bourne Ultimatum or Mamma Mia as radio dramas. Slumdog Millionaire is an interesting choice as well, since it was on BBC7 under Vikrah Seth's original title Q and A.

To return to the Afternoon Play; as a slot, it doesn't really have any particular thematic or structural restrictions: "Anything and everything goes here", says Howe and his list of suggested topics just about covers everything:
Contemporary and period drama; comedy; biography; issue-driven plays; drama-documentary; family plays; crime and thrillers; poetry; romance; fantasy; etc. It can be a play; or a dramatisation (of short stories, letters, memoirs or non-fiction [...]) or a dramatised feature; or a narrative poem; or a sequence of interlinked short plays. Or a play half in French.
Go on; find something that couldn't be an Afternoon Play. The only thing is, having given us all that to expect, a few paragraphs later, he say:
What we are centrally looking for are stories about life as experienced by our audience now or which give a window onto their lives. We will favour contemporary stories over period.
So perhaps it isn't such a broad church after all. I don't know about you, but if I were an independent production company whose existence depended on the BBC buying my programmes, I'd probably mainly make "contemporary stories".

It's worth remembering that each episode of the Afternoon Play goes out to nearly a million people, or, "slightly fewer than the entire annual audience for all three theatres at the National". More than that, as Howe says, this is an incredibly well educated audience: "If you do a play about the credit crunch probably a large number of the audience will have a degree in economics [...] By and large our audience know what they are talking about and won't be amused if we appear not to know what we are talking about."

So, that's what we should be getting from the afternoon play. But what are we actually getting? What is the current "state" of the afternoon play? To answer this question, I thought I would listen to a run of afternoon plays, one every day and see whether they matched up to the guidelines set.

The State of the Afternoon Play

Monday 7th December 2009:Zero Degrees of Separation
Tuesday 8th December 2009: Winter Storm
Wednesday 9th December 2009: One in A Million
Thursday 10th December 2009: Getting to Four Degrees
Friday 10th December 2009: Number 10 5/5 Immortality at Last



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