Alan Ayckbourn: Radio Drama Producer at the BBC

This page includes various quotes by Alan Ayckbourn regarding his time and experiences as a Radio Drama Producer at the BBC between 1965 and 1970; with particular emphasis on his work with the influential producer Alfred. The quotes have been sourced from published material as well as private correspondence held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York.

“I was at the BBC for five years. It was BBC North then, it became Radio Leeds whilst I was there. We were producing drama for the network and for the north region. It was a hotbed of productivity."

“I was influenced by him [Alfred Bradley]. Alfred’s strongest point was obviously his relationship with his writers. And I suppose I learned from him a certain amount about how to treat writers, and how to draw them out.”

“I joined the BBC with no thoughts of writing again - certainly not for London or the stage.” (which although a famous quote was not entirely true as by the time he began working for the BBC, Stephen Joseph had already commissioned a play for 1965 at the Library Theatre from Alan!)

“I didn’t know what the job was when I applied to join the BBC. I thought I was going to be sorting our Alfred Bradley’s filing.... When I got there I found that, far from sorting out Alfred’s filing, I was going to be doing my own programmes and running with a great deal more responsibility than I’d had in the theatre.”

“It gave me a great opportunity to do far more plays - I did more plays in a year than I’d done in ten years in the theatre.”

“Radio was and still remains the medium where the impossible can be made to happen once every second. The only limitation is the speed of the listener's mind itself in its ability to grasp events. And the average radio listener is quick. I know.”

“As a director who was previously from theatre, I learnt the virtues of speed and economy. With two or three days to produce a finished product for broadcast, you can't afford to hang about!”

“I’d already been working with actors, of course, and I suppose I had learned the hard way about directing them. But now I learned something about writers.”

“The job did come my way with an astronomic salary. It was £38 a week: it was unbelievable.”

“Radio itself, I must say, I went into without great enthusiasm, although I’d been a great listener as a child. But once in, I found it was a magic place.”

“I think I was dealing so actively all day with writers that felt first it would almost be cheating to write my own plays for radio. And I wasn’t actually very inspired to do so.”

"It [working for the BBC] has been helpful - one gets experience of new writing and productions and it also makes one examine one's own writing criteria."

"I was a young actor / stage manager working at Scarborough. Word went round the dressing room that The Man from BBC Radio Drama was in. That night we all overplayed like mad, hoping to impress. Later in the pub I caught my first glimpse of the man himself. 'That's Alf Bradley,' said a colleague, casually implying acquaintanceship he didn't have. (He would never have referred to him as 'Alf' if he had).
"Later, much later, we [Alfred Bradley and Alan] became friends. In 1965, licking my wounds from my first West End disaster, it was Alfred who suggested I apply for the job alongside him, the newly created Assistant Radio Drama Producer's post at Leeds. I found myself in the office next door climbing a mountain of new scripts, inspired by the man who, virtually single-handedly, had launched the Northern writing explosion. From him I learnt a little of how to encourage talent when it was apparent and how to say no as kindly as possible when it clearly wasn't; how to enjoy and celebrate, just occasionally, the achievement and success of others.
"If you're lucky in life, you get to meet the right people at the right time who put you right about the world - and about yourself. Alfred was one. I shall always be grateful to him."

Conversations With Ayckbourn

In Ian Watson's book Conversations With Ayckbourn (Faber & Faber, 1981), Alan Ayckbourn talks about his work at the BBC and with Alfred Bradley. The section is reprinted below, expanding on several of the quotes reproduced above.

Ian Watson: Did radio never appeal to you as a medium?
Alan Ayckbourn: No. Frankly, I didn't know what the job was when I applied to join the BBC [in 1964]. I thought I was going to be sorting out Alfred Bradley's filing. But it seemed quite a good way to pass a little bit of time while I thought about what to do after Mr Whatnot [the play flopped in London in 1964 and Alan considered giving up his playwriting career]. When I got there I found that, far from sorting out Alfred's filing, I was going to be doing my own programmes and running with a great deal more responsibility than I'd had in the theatre. I think the single most important thing it gave me was the moment when, with a little bit of guidance from knowledgeable secretaries and other people, I was actually going to put a whole show together. I was to book the artists, book the studio, and do all that sort of business: it was almost like a finishing school.
Radio itself, I must say, I went into without enormous enthusiasm, although I'd been a great listener as a child. But once in, I found it was a magic place. At that particular point in the history of the BBC, it was such a backwater (television was the place) that you could work totally unobserved doing the most interesting things. It did two things: it gave me a great opportunity to do far more plays - I did more plays in a year than I'd done in ten years in the theatre - and it also foisted upon me the occasional plays that I didn't want to do, which, of course, in the theatre you can generally avoid because you don't accept them. And it's quite good occasionally to do a play you don't want to do. You actually have to learn a little bit of technique: you've got to keep the actors going, just for the length of the play. They know it's bad, you know it's bad, but if you ever admit it, it's gone. And some of my best work was done on those things.

Watson: It wasn't at that stage as technical a medium as it is now, in so far as it wasn't stereo, was it? It was purely monaural. Did you feel that you explored the medium as a medium?
Ayckbourn: Oh, yes, very much, because I was fascinated by sound. I had, of course, with Mr Whatnot, been a tape-recorder freak. There was some wonderful equipment there and we had great fun with the gear.

Watson: Were you at all influenced by Alfred?
Ayckbourn: Not production-wise, though I was influenced by him in other ways. Alfred's strongest point was obviously his relationship with his writers. And I suppose I learned from him a certain amount about how to treat writers, and how to draw them out, though I don't think I've got the perseverance or the dedication to do what he does. There were the maxims he had: if you want a play, you've got to go and get it. The unsolicited scripts are never any good: nobody ever sends you Under Milk Wood. You've got to go out and sit in Dylan Thomas's pub until he writes it. And all his plays came that way, of course, as a result of his doggedly driving around in his large Land Rover and parking on people's doorsteps. I'd already been working with actors, of course, and I suppose I had learned the hard way about directing them. But now I learned something about writers.

Watson: But you never felt moved to write for radio yourself?
Ayckbourn: No. I think I was dealing so actively all day with writers that I felt first it would almost be cheating to write my own plays for radio. And I also wasn't actually very inspired to do so. I did try one script, which I sent to Colin Shaw (the Head of North Region) when I'd just joined, but he wasn't very keen, and I wasn't very keen on it either, so I gave it up.

Watson: Since leaving, the medium hasn't attracted you at all?
Ayckbourn: No. It's a narrative medium, it's a different sort of medium, it's not mine. I'm really too basically a visual writer for that.

All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd