Words: Oliver Wake
The BBC’s announcement late last month that it was dropping the word ‘play’ from the title of its main radio drama slots Afternoon Play and Saturday Play (plus the now sadly rare Friday Play), in favour of using ‘drama’ in it its place, completes a process begun thirty years ago.
The use of ‘play’ in relation to broadcast drama dates back to the earliest days of radio and was once equally commonplace on television, where drama strands from the 1950s onwards wore their theatrical credentials on their sleeves with titles like Sunday-Night Theatre, First Night, Playhouse and Play of the Month, to name but a few. These titles did not mean they relied on stage adaptations or production styles; some certainly did, particularly in the earlier years of television, but others, like The Wednesday Play, were specifically designed to showcase new dramatic writing for television.
With production processes moving away from studio-based multi-camera drama in the 1980s and ‘90s, drama anthologies instead emphasised their cinematic aspirations with titles like Screen One and Film on Four. ITV had started the ball rolling many years earlier, launching Armchair Cinema as it was bringing the long-running Armchair Theatre to a close in 1974. Although the ‘play’ label didn’t die out overnight – and even had a brief, low budget resurgence with BBC1’s Afternoon Play last decade – it fell largely out of visible use on television with the demise of Play for Today, its last high-profile flag-bearer. Now we have occasional ‘single dramas’ on television, not ‘plays’. Radio is just catching up.
I don’t mean to suggest that the retirement of the term ‘play’ was a reason for the near-retirement of the format itself on television. Balance sheets, ratings graphs, and risk-aversion did for the television play as a mainstay of the schedule. The unpredictable and expensive (particularly once the make-them-as-films impulse set in) TV play was out, the series was in. That Play for Today ended in 1984 and EastEnders began in 1985 is a neat illustration. However, the loss of the term ‘play’ – or more accurately, its use to denote regular strands of plays – helped eroded the expectation that television should set aside regular time for the single drama and label it so the audience could find it and return to it.
In his blog entry about the change, Jeremy Howe, Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama, explains that the renaming brings radio into line with the rest of the BBC. It also ties up with Corporation’s drama publicity drive, built around the tagline of ‘Original British Drama’. In these terms, the move is eminently sensible, and if some of the larger audience television drama attracts can be tempted to give radio drama a listen as a result of integrated marketing for both mediums, so much the better.
However, more interestingly, Howe also states that the label ‘drama’ better represents what they make. He’s right. A one-off drama is effectively a play, whatever terminology you choose to use. But ‘drama’ encompasses serials and series too, which is a pertinent point in view of the current Radio 4 schedule.
The station’s play slots, particularly the Afternoon Play, have increasingly become home to serialised plays or series episodes over recent years, such as Sebastian Baczkiewicz’s Pilgrim and the just-concluded run of outings for advocate Norman Birkett. The trend looks set to continue. Of this week’s five Afternoon Play slots, three are used for the new crime series The Interrogation and another for the conclusion of Pilgrim, leaving only one non-series play. Even the usually stand-alone Saturday Play is affected, becoming a two-part adaptation (starting a Play, ending a Drama) in the style of the Classic Serial. Next week’s schedule – from which the renaming takes effect – is similarly series-heavy, with the first four Afternoon Dramas being instalments of the Number 10 series.
The rebranding seems to recognise this more flexible approach to drama programming within the existing play slots. Howe reports that the new label will make no difference to what we’re hearing. I don’t doubt the integrity of his assertion, but the new titles give rise to the possibility of ‘mission creep’. When it’s no longer called Afternoon Play, why should it be a play at all? In radio as in television, the one-off drama, whatever we’re calling it, is the most expensive drama format. Series and serials have the dual benefits of economies of scale, making them cheaper minute for minute than one-offs, and a regular, returning audience who tune in for their latest fix. There’s nothing wrong with series and serials, but plays give us variety, unpredictability (in a good way) and are the main conduit for the emergence of new drama talents. These are reasons to keep a space for plays.
With BBC funding being squeezed, can we expect the more expensive and unpredictable play format to hold its own without even a label to reserve its spot? It seems unlikely. Should we expect series and serials to squeeze out the genuine plays over time? Will we be left with occasional ‘one-off dramas’ on radio where once we had a string of plays, as with television before it?
When is a play not a play? Perhaps when it’s a ‘drama’.