The problem with radio drama? “It’s about the words”

Sony Award-winning writer and director John Dryden talks about improving the reputation of radio drama and recording in Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring


John Dryden is a man on a mission. The guiding light behind a raft of critically acclaimed productions, including thriller The Reluctant Spy (2-4 January, 2:15pm, Radio 4), he has a clear view on how radio drama can sometimes get a bad name for itself and how that can be overcome. The problem, to his mind, is intrinsic to the way that drama is produced.


“I think often if you’re working in a studio you go for much longer scenes. That’s why often it tends to be about the words and a lot of radio drama is about the words.”

But surely with an aural medium such as radio it has to be about the words? Not so, says Dryden. In fact he would repudiate such a claim. He thinks there is so much more that can be offered to delight the listener.

“The scene is much more exciting if the audience feels there’s a subtext, there’s something going on that isn’t being openly stated. But so often what’s going on is what’s being said, and I think sometimes that’s why radio drama has the reputation it has; that it’s all just on the nose.”

If that sounds like he is laying down the gauntlet to producers to liven up their plays, then you have to ask what it is that sets his productions apart from the rest. And the answer is that he nearly always records on location.

“We tend to try and do it where it’s set. I guess in some ways, it’s been kind of our experiment, or mission, to try and do more radio drama like that.”

Doesn’t it still come back to the script, no matter the verisimilitude of where it is recorded? Dryden thinks that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so, and that the way he works opens up new possibilities as to what can be done.

“When you’re recording on location, often it’s about the silences between the words and a lot of the story unfolds as subtext. What the characters say isn’t really what they’re thinking, so that’s something we’re keen to push more. It’s more dramatic in a way, because you’re learning more about the characters through their lives and what they’re not saying.”

It all sounds very exciting and a whole lot more interesting than listening to actors having to read through a lot of exposition to explain what’s going on, but can’t subtext quite easily be accommodated in a studio recording?  Dryden feels there is one crucial advantage to location recording.

“A lot of other elements are telling the story other than words. Movement, particularly, which isn’t really considered something that translates in radio drama, but it is in reality if you do it well.”

Dryden’s enthusiasm for location recording is certainly borne out in his work. The first drama he made (after working as a documentary maker for a number of years) was recorded in Hong Kong during the handover, and since then he has criss-crossed the globe, working in Japan, India, Thailand and Egypt.

Travelling around the globe making radio drama must be a costly business, but Dryden is adamant that he doesn’t receive any larger budget because of that, just that he spends the money in a different way – largely through saving on studio and production costs. 

“If you find a good theatre company in a different city in the world, and they’re excited by the idea, they can pull together a lot of resources in a cost-effective way. We go in below the radar really. It’s not like making a film, there are not that many people involved; there’s one person with a tape recorder and a couple of actors and that’s it.”

But even if you can find a decent local production company, that doesn’t mean your problems are at an end, particularly if you are recording in a country in turmoil, such as Egypt was in June and September last year when Dryden was there working on The Reluctant Spy. In fact he found that the push for democracy and change affected the way he normally works.

“The difficulty is, with everything that’s going on in Egypt at the moment, it makes it quite tricky; everyone’s very, very focused on that more than anything else, and quite sensitive. In the end we did quite a lot in the UK, which we wouldn’t normally do.”

Despite these obstacles there were still enough opportunities to get out and record.

“In many respects everything is functioning as normal in a lot of Cairo, though you’d hear a lot of demonstrations going on. For a lot of people, life goes on as normal.”

Although the final programme features scenes of characters in the middle of demonstrations, Dryden was not foolhardy enough to stick his actors in the middle of a protest and try to record their dialogue and the surrounding uproar.

“We wouldn’t be able to record on the street in Egypt without attracting a lot of attention. We didn’t have the actors in Tahrir Square or anything like that. If they got out of a car and walked across the street, that’s generally how we’d record it. But it would be a quieter place than it would sound in the final mix.”

The actors may have been kept safely out of harm’s way, but Dryden still needed that footage of the demonstrations to add into the final mix.

“All the riots and stuff like that were real recordings that I made. I went on a recce and recorded stuff at Tahrir Square and a lot of street sounds.”

That’s probably what sets Dryden’s productions apart from the rest, the amount of work he puts into the final mix. For the Reluctant Spy, post-production took about six to seven weeks, a length of time unthinkable for most radio dramas. Dryden claims that if a drama is recorded in the studio quite often the producer will walk out with something that is very close to what is going to be broadcast.

“I think that’s a shame, because there’s a huge amount you can do in post-production. It’s where the whole programme is made, I think.”

Especially when you hear how Dryden structures his scripts for a location recording. He tends to write very short scenes as it cuts down the amount of uncontrollable elements that could crop up each time they’re recorded. In The Reluctant Spy, on average there were about 50 scenes in each episode and each episode is only 43 minutes long. So he records lots of short chunks for scenes that may only last 30 seconds which are then stitched together with environmental atmosphere in post-production.

Not that this extra effort means Dryden is not prolific – indeed 2013 looks to be quite hectic. “We’re going all over the place really.”

In the coming year he will be working on a two-parter set in Mexico City about two British girls who get on the wrong side of the law. He also has another series – an undercover police investigation thriller – based in Mumbai.

Finally there’s a three-part series in the Philippines, about two teachers who decide to kidnap one of their students. It’s written by Andrew Mulligan, the author of Trash, which is currently being adapted for the big screen by Richard Curtis with Billy Elliott director Stephen Daldry slated to helm.

The Philippines drama is apparently based on Mulligan’s personal experience of teaching there for a long time, though Dryden is keen to stress “I don’t think he tried to kidnap a child.”


The Reluctant Spy begun yesterday on Radio 4. Listen to part one on BBC iPlayer before part two today at 2:15pm on BBC Radio 4