|Ken O'Hara WAS Rab in The Price of a Fish Supper|
I've been thinking about The Archers on Radio 4 recently, because after a small hiatus when they repeated some of the older episodes - but not, alas, the divine Nelson Gabriel - they have resumed in monologue form, taking account of the need for social distancing. Challenging for all concerned. Except that it's not really monologue form at all. And therein, I think, lies the problem.
I know a lot about radio writing. It's where I started out, and I have more than 100 hours of produced radio drama to my name, both adaptations, original plays and series. You can read a bit about all that here.
I've written a couple of stage plays that are monologues. But it's not a format for beginners - even though beginners tend to think that it'll be easy. The most successful was probably the Price of a Fish Supper which started out as a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, was produced on BBC R4, and then directed very successfully by Isi Nimmo, with Ken O'Hara in the role of Rab - a production that toured to full houses throughout Ayrshire. It's a 50 minute monologue and what's known as a 'big learn' and a demanding one, for any actor. Ken was outstanding.
I've refrained from commenting on the long threads of discussions about the Archers on Facebook for a couple of reasons. One is that the community is fairly evenly divided between those who dislike the new format intensely, and those who love it and I'm not about to wade in. I've given it a good go, and I have to say that, personally, I'm not a fan. But at the same time, I know that those people who are asking 'how hard can it be to record some kind of dialogue online' are blissfully unaware of all the technical difficulties and complexities. So my sympathies tend to be with the makers: the writers, actors and producers who are struggling to please everyone in uniquely difficult circumstances.
All the same, I think I know why these episodes aren't working as well as they might for many people.
Monologues only really work properly when the audience becomes so involved that they forget they are listening to one person. They are there, within the drama, the other side of a conversation if you like. It's a hugely demanding form for writer and actor alike. But the new format Archers, in an effort to satisfy everyone, intercuts one very short monologue with another. And sometimes - disastrously, I think - they even have terrible one sided conversations online or on the phone, with people the audience doesn't hear.
Given the demands of the time and the relatively short length of each slot - why not be brave? Why not give each main actor a shot at a genuine monologue - something for actor, writer and audience to get our collective 'teeth' into?
The monologue form par excellence was, of course, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Everything else seems like a pale imitation. But the Archers' writers are by no means beginners. So it might have been good to seize the day and give them free rein to have a go.