At the start of the summer, radio dramas were an unknown phenomenon to me, as they most likely still are to you. The radio iPlayer website came to me while I was aimlessly trawling through BBC news stories. I thought I might as well as accompany the hours of Latin translations I was going to ‘attempt’ over the holidays with an alternative to another Spotify playlist, the monotonous sounds of passing traffic, the ticking wall clock and the theme tune of my mum’s perennial favourite show Homes Under the Hammer. I’d wanted to carve out some time to read for pleasure over the vacation, but felt, with my mammoth reading list, that I couldn’t bear to face another book, even if it was one thankfully not written in some obscure medieval French dialect. Radio dramas presented a lazy solution of sorts to this. Listening to Radio 4 rather than its younger, trendier sibling Radio 1 might sound a bit middle-aged, but at the ripe old age of 19, I have unashamedly become a fan of them.
In a similar way to audio books, radio dramas enable you to give your eyes a break and let your ears do the work instead. They present an incredibly easy way to follow the basic narrative of a story without needing to commit to a full-length novel, poem or play. Often accompanied by music to mark the divide between chapters, radio dramas can vary from 15 minute slots to hour-long escapades. Given the tendency of radio dramas for abridgement, though, they may well leave you with a few gaping holes in your understanding of the plot…so, regretfully, they’re not quite a fool-proof way of finishing in a day that 400-page bane of a book on your reading list, but worth a try nonetheless.
Adaptations of famous titles for radio don’t bring in anywhere near the same level of expectation from fans and critics as film, TV and theatre adaptations do, though some familiar names have been involved with radio dramas, including Anna Maxwell Martin and Benedict Cumberbatch. This difference in expectation makes the debate over reading the book before experiencing the adaptation less heated for radio dramas than, say, the next Harry Potter blockbuster. As a result, radio dramas are probably best experienced when you’re new to the text and can feel genuine tension when listening to ‘what happens next’. The lack of visuals also gives the director more freedom to interpret the author’s descriptions of characters, avoiding for instance, situations such as when many fans complained that Annabeth’s brown hair was meant to be blonde in the film Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.
The bulk of radio dramas are not, as you might think, endless adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children was dramatised in August to tie in with the 70th anniversary of India’s partition and Pakistan’s creation. Listeners can also come across a range of less well-known, but by no means less engaging, works, such as ‘Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight’ written by Naoki Higashida about his experiences as a young adult living with autism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, radio dramas are most enjoyable during undemanding points in the day, such as when cooking (which, admittedly, is very demanding moment in my case), sunbathing or just before bed. When reading for an essay though, they can be more of a hindrance than a help, since you end up trying to simultaneously follow two separate – and often hilariously incongruent – stories.
A whole range of emotions can be conveyed just through the voices of radio actors and actresses and select sound effects, from the genuine warmth in Parvati’s voice when reunited with Saleem in Midnight’s Children to the painful contrast between the words Gregor wants to say and the disturbing growls they come out as when he is turned into an insect in a recent adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The relative simplicity of this makes a refreshing change from the emphasis so often placed on the appearance of actors and actresses.
Radio dramas in general show the power of the spoken word, which brings vast swathes of a text to life in a way that reading silently doesn’t, whilst also allowing that element of the imagination to remain at the heart of the listener’s experience.