The ABC announced this week that it would be axing its long tradition of radio plays that had been a staple on ABC Radio (and particularly Radio National) for most of the last 80 years. Apparently it will save them one million dollars. It seemed strange timing, considering that just last week the Prime Minister was waxing lyrical about the author of one of the most famous ‘plays for voices’ of all time.
I have one thing in common with Julia Gillard - we both are rather partial to Dylan Thomas.
I discovered the lyrical Welsh poet when undertaking the mandatory teenage indoctrination of the classic (and not so classic) high school texts. ‘Under Milkwood’ was almost as entrancing and lyrical when read aloud by a bunch of sixteen year olds as it was when read by the mesmerising tones of Richard Burton, in his lovely Welsh accent on the 1950s recording that we all listened at school. We were far from Wales but I could see myself tripping down the cobblestoned street of a Welsh village hillside, behind Dai Bread and his two wives. Whenever I read the play again, I can’t help but try to read it in a Welsh accent (which I can’t manage to muster at any other time).
As a kid I remember sitting next the radio, listening to ‘Accidental death of an Anarchist’ on the ABC, and almost splitting my sides with laughter. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. Even the ‘12th man’ series, while not always in the best taste, was a fantastic example of a humorous almost play (of a style) – I washed a whole room full of walls down one summer while listening to it on tape and almost few off the ladder several times.
Radio plays (or even regular plays read on radio) have a similar capacity as a child being read a story to inspire creativity. They are better for us than television, because they only engage our sense of hearing, and leave the other senses free to roam and use our imaginations. I still have a very defined image of the Welsh seaside village of Under Milkwood, so much so that I can smell the scent of the bakers bread wafting out onto the village street.
Why do we not listen to them anymore? I think some of it has something to do with a decrease in our attention spans. Many of us can’t even get through a TV program without texting or checking the internet. Radio plays require focus to enjoy them.
Perhaps, it is because no-one is home during the day to enjoy them anymore. Perhaps the new ones are dull? However, they and the money the ABC has previously funnelled into them has been a nursery for emerging playwrights and authors. So little funding has been available for the development of Australian drama on the national broadcaster (particularly television drama) over the last fifteen years, radio plays were one of the few areas where you could just submit a script to the ABC and see how it went. The BBC has a well-publicised and well- funded writers-room which can be easily approached by anyone (living in Britain – sorry no Aussie residents eligible) with a decent idea and a script. There isn’t anything like that on Aunty.
At the risk of sounding like Sir Humphrey who I think stated that while nobody ever listened to Radio 4, you couldn’t get rid of it, because it was ‘cultural’ (sorry the exact quote eludes me), I really think that this is a bad step for the ABC to take. I know probably very few people actually hang out for the radio plays that are now on air, but I’m sure there are more than a few old ladies somewhere, who will miss them. In the meantime, I’ll just have to search for a BBC Radio 4 App for my ipod so I can download their plays, and listen to even more British drama than I already do. It was much easier just turning the radio on.