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A play by any other name

This week, BBC Radio 4 will broadcast the last five Afternoon Plays. Ever.

Don’t panic — the station will continue to be the UK’s primary source of audio drama. But as of February 18, pretty much all of the station’s regular (non-Archers) slots are getting new names:

  • Afternoon Play becomes Afternoon Drama
  • Friday Play (when it’s on) becomes Friday Drama
  • Saturday Play becomes Saturday Drama
  • Woman’s Hour Drama becomes 15 Minute Drama

The last in the list is a bit of an oddity, but is presumably being renamed to account for the slot’s regular evening repeat and that its content matter isn’t always as female-centric as its current name would otherwise suggest. It does rather highlight that Woman’s Hour itself could be better named Forty Five Minutes of Covering Stuff That Ought Not to be Marginalised Elsewhere in the Schedules but Sadly Is. But I digress.

The reason for the name change is, according to a blog post by drama commissioning editor Jeremy Howe:

The drama on Radio 4 is part of the BBC’s drama push whose tag line is Original British Drama - you will see it on your screens shortly - and we decided that this was an opportunity to bring the drama output on Radio 4 into line with the rest of the BBC.

Which is fine as far as it goes. For the most part, it makes no difference whether the 2.15-3pm slot Monday-Friday is called the Afternoon Play or the Afternoon Drama. Indeed, given the number of short series that run in the slot (like Pilgrim or Number 10) the name “Drama” is perhaps more all-encompassing than “Play”, which implies each programme in the slot is a one-off.

But back when Howe wrote his blog post, what struck in my craw a bit was the rather sniffy tone in which he sought to separate his slots’ content from other areas where the term “play” might also, validly, be used.

I always refer to myself as the commissioning editor of drama, the people within the BBC who make our programmes refer to themselves as drama producers, I think we all generally refer to what we see on television and listen to on the radio as drama, not as plays. Or to put it another way we don’t really make plays, we make drama.

Two pictures convinced me that we were on the right path - a picture of Kenneth Branagh scowling as Victor Schtrum and his family in last year’s Life and Fate more completely sums up what we do than a picture of a bunch of thesps on a stage a long long way away.

As you’ll see on the Radio 4 blog post, the image referred to is a black-and-white image of an old — very old — theatre production (check out the advertising on the safety curtain — now there’s an idea worth reviving).

I can’t help but find this attitude more than a little patronising. Howe says that “I used be a theatre director - but that’s not what we do, and I am not sure that is how you see what we do.” (My emphasis)

Oh really? I’d suggest that others in the BBC recognise that the term “play” is a valid description. Take Friday’s last ever “Afternoon Play”, for example. It’s a bit “meta”, in that it’s actually a dramatisation of three radio producers’ attempts to record a play about the Occupy movement’s London protests. Yes, I said “play”. And so does the BBC’s own official blurb:

…The play is made in collaboration with artist and activist John Jordan; as well containing sound from within the Fortnum and Mason sit-in it also documents the actual moments when a crowd of activists decide to make camp outside St Paul’s cathedral.

What emerges is not only a play about three people trying to make a play - it’s about how and why people protest in the UK.

Not only that, but in the audio trailer that aired on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the characters within the play refer in dialogue to the fact they’re trying to make a play.

By all means rename your drama slots, BBC: it may make sense from a marketing perspective, and even from a content perspective. But in doing so, don’t try and deny that you’re broadcasting plays. To quote someone who knew quite a lot about entertaining the masses, “the play’s the thing”.

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