EXCLUSIVE: Actors’ union Equity has condemned BBC plans to scrap Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama slot, an audio institution that has featured stories starring the likes of Helen McCrory, Bill Nighy, and Sian Clifford.
In an open letter to BBC director general Tim Davie, Equity representatives said the plans are part of a pattern of cuts that are “piercing the heart of a vital art form” and undermine the UK’s “booming audio industry.”
“The very direct impact of this loss of work on Equity members will hinder the ability of some to remain in the creative industries,” the letter said. “After a year where work in entertainment and the arts has proved vital to the world’s wellbeing, a workforce which is looking to the BBC to provide quality engagements has found itself abandoned whilst theatre fights to reopen sustainably.”
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Signed by Equity general secretary Paul W. Fleming and members of the union’s audio committee, the letter added: “We urge you in the strongest possible terms to show your commitment, and use this critical year for BBC resourcing to announce improved sustainable funding for an ambitious radio drama strategy.”
The BBC is scrapping the 15 Minute Drama slot as part of plans to extend Woman’s Hour from 45 minutes to an hour. A spokeswoman said: “We appreciate that people love BBC audio drama — that’s why we are making the changes needed to ensure that it thrives. We’re paying more for all our drama commissions after years of frozen costs and investing all the 15 minute slot budget in other drama. Our aim is to reach more listeners on air as well as the next generation online, including through our new ambitious half hour Friday dramas.
“In a challenging financial climate, this does mean there will be fewer originations, though we continue to broadcast classics and contemporary drama every day on Radio 4. Beyond that, we have exciting plans to develop more new writing and production talent. We are determined to bring the delight of audio drama to wider audiences.”
The drama slot has been playing host to audio stories since 1998, according to Radio Today, and attracts illustrious names. The late McCrory starred in Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater in 2015, while BAFTA-winning Fleabag star Clifford featured in 2017’s Life In The Freezer. Maxine Peake, Rebecca Front, and Tamsin Greig have also starred in 15 Minute Dramas over the years.
In a statement, Equity’s audio councillor David John said: “This cut to radio drama is hugely disappointing and comes at a time when audio drama and spoken word content is actually growing in popularity. It’s a form of broadcasting that was pioneered by the BBC and something that we in this country are brilliant at, which makes it all the more difficult to understand.
“Equity members who work in this area are seriously concerned that this represents the thin end of the wedge, at a time when the BBC should be investing in a renaissance in radio drama rather than cutting it.”
Below is the letter in full:
Dear Mr Davie,
We are writing on behalf of Equity to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the axing of the 15-minute drama on Radio 4. This is the latest in a series of decisions which are piercing the heart of a vital art form, but also undermining the long-term foundation of the UK’s booming audio industry.
Spoken word content is a proud part of the cultural tradition of the UK, and a vital part of its workforce ecosystem. For audio artists, writers, and others it provides not only a valued platform to explore dramatic ideas and skills, but regular employment. It is well valued by audiences of every age, providing a powerful way to challenge our deepest perceptions and entertain the imagination in a way the visual form cannot.
The very direct impact of this loss of work on Equity members will hinder the ability of some to remain in the creative industries. After a year where work in entertainment and the arts has proved vital to the world’s wellbeing, a workforce which is looking to the BBC to provide quality engagements has found itself abandoned whilst theatre fights to reopen sustainably.
Beyond the direct impact of loss of work, the decision to slash radio drama and other spoken word content neglects the BBC’s role as the backbone and benchmark of our global pre-eminence in audio work. It is through training for, and working on, radio drama – unique in its scale in the UK – that we attract growing dubbing and video game work, and have the breadth of talent to feed the booming audio book market.
Spoken word needs more of a platform, and more resource – not less. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to show your commitment, and use this critical year for BBC resourcing to announce improved sustainable funding for an ambitious radio drama strategy.
A workforce, and a whole industry, are watching.
Paul. W Fleming – General Secretary
Maureen Beattie – President
David John – Audio Councillor
Sheila Mitchell – Chair of Audio Committee
David Thorpe – Vice Chair of Audio Committee
Annette Rizzo – Member of Audio Committee
Ashabi Ajikawo – Member of Audio Committee
Dan Richards – Member of Audio Committee
Kerry Gooderson – Member of Audio Committee
Liza Ross – Member of Audio Committee
Louise Barrett – Member of Audio Committee
Marcus Hutton – Member of Audio Committee
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