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Radio: Saturday Play \ Call for the Dead \ Radio 4

May 25, 2009

There’s a secret to brilliant radio. I don’t think many radio producers know what that secret is. Those who do probably feel a little bit smug they do and would probably tut incessantly if the secret was handed out willy-nilly. As an avid listener, I reckon I know that secret and I have absolutely no shame in sharing it. 

It goes like this. Step up to the challenge presented by laying on 90 minutes of radio drama to what might be regarded as a largely uninterested audience. What’s the most important thing? The first five minutes are the most important thing, that’s what. It’s the first five minutes of any kind of drama which hooks people in. If you’ve not got them then you’re unlikely to grab them and keep them later. That’s just how it is. 

Of course, the other secret the producer of the first of Radio 4’s series of John Le Carre / George Smiley dramatisations probably knows about already is that it helps if your audience is adequately prepared. There are certain things which the listener can do to maximise attention, thus making the first five minutes of any listening experience rich and engaging. 

Around about 1458 on Saturday afternoon I trotted into the bath, shed the dressing gown I’d been wearing since 1000 that morning, switched on Radio 4 and gingerly stepped into a piping hot bath. Yes. I know. Three o’clock in the afternoon was a strange time to be having a bath but that’s what I do when I’m relaxed. I potter around. I pootle. I reject the everyday constraints of getting dressed in the morning, preferring to get dressed when I absolutely need to or when the clock has turned 4pm which ever is later. 

So it was I found myself in the bath, listening to the first arresting five minutes of Call for the Dead. There was something immediately thought provoking about the sound of the voices, their proximity to the microphone and the way in which the background to the story was being laid out for me using a string of different voices. It felt like a narrative stitched together using a variety of different voices without the usual motion sickness I experience when I watch back some of my own shamefully lazy video jumpcuts. In the first five minutes of a dramatisation I would normally consider listening to, I found myself sucked in. 

I remained in the bath for a good twenty minutes, had a bit of a scrub around and then got out, grabbing my dressing gown and the portable radio and making for the living room. It was there I realised something quite important. This was something I wanted to continue listening to but also wanted to share it with my significant other (at that point watching a documentary on Discovery channel). Would I try to coeerce him into listening part way through? Would I listen to it on my own or would I in fact do the most difficult thing of all. Would I stop listening now and schedule in another repeat listen the following evening after a trip to Suffolk when he and I could sit and listen to it together. 

Both of us decided on the latter, setting aside 90 minutes to sit and listen to the drama in its’ entirety. We weren’t disappointed. Eleanor Bron was tantalising in her portrayal of Elsa Fennan whilst Simon Russell Beale depicted tenacious and vulnerable Smiley with an integrity I have no shame in rather aspiring to myself. Without giving too much away, there was one moment emphasising radio’s ease in realising what any author strives to do in his writing: showing not telling, the best example of which was in the theatre auditorium. That’s all I’ll say. 

It was only after listening to it I learnt to what extent this play and the remaining dramatisations (some 90 minute Saturday Plays others Classic Serials on Radio 4) have had. There’s even been a posting by the producer on the Radio 4 Blog. It should come as no surprise these have been promoted as much as they have. They deserve the attention they have got. They are a big deal. What’s bizarre however is the very real confession that had I in any way been aware of just how much this was being promoted I almost certainly wouldn’t have made a point of tuning in to listen to it. And if I had, I doubt I would have enjoyed it. 

That’s the secret of a radio success you see. Catch someone by surprise with something well-produced and that listener will wax on about it.

Be sure to listen to Call For The Dead by John le Carr via the BBC iPlayer. It’s available until Saturday 30 May 2009.

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