The task of a radio dramatist is … challenging. Aside from working within the limitations of the medium he also needs to compete with its much flashier, more attractive cousin – the television. But, says Nick Warburton, who has straddled both media, it’s all about storytelling and that is the role of his life.
Radio, they say, is a theatre of the mind, and television the theatre of the mindless.
Television supplies one with images to go with a story; radio allows an audience to create their own images from what they hear.
Writing for radio can be liberating: there are no fancy sets or dazzling costumes to worry about when scripting a period piece or science fiction saga.
The writer decrees the story is set in, for instance, the 11th century or the 23rd, and from then on, it’s the audience’s imagination which takes over.
The physicality of the actors also does not matter. They can be of any shape or size or height (or a lack of it), wearing designer clothes or a pair of faded jeans or a potato sack … All that matters is their voice.
If all this makes you think that writing for radio can be immensely satisfying and liberating, you may
not be far off the mark. But you must realise that it can also be considerably challenging.
Success is not easy in this field, thanks in no small measure to radio’s shrinking audiences and the overarching, Godzilla-like presence of television channels.
Nick Warburton is one of an endangered species: a highly successful radio dramatist. Warburton has written more than 50 scripts for radio, including Conversations from the Engine Room (joint-winner of the BBC/Radio Times Drama Award in 1985); adaptations of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, the children’s classic Moonfleet and Lark Rise by Flora Thompson.
A Grove of Straight Trees was short-listed for the BBC/Radio Times Drama Award in 1993, and A Soldier’s Debt was the BBC entry for the 1999 Prix Italia.
He is also a fairly successful television writer, having scripted immensely popular series such as Doctors, Holby City, EastEnders and Born and Bred.
He straddles the divide between radio, television, stage and novel writing with consummate ease. Seven novels for children and young adults have been published, as have short stories and stage plays.
Among his children’s books are The Thirteenth Owl, To Trust a Soldier, Ackford’s Monster and Lost in Africa. He has run courses on creative writing in the UK, in West Africa for the British Council and in Dubai.
Warburton was in the UAE to conduct creative writing classes for school teachers at The Magrudy’s Educational Resource Centre in Dubai. Here he was among his own: Warburton was a primary school teacher for 10 years, before he took the plunge into full-time writing.
Little wonder then that his advice for Dubai’s aspiring writers was born of his own experience: “It seems to me from the people I have been talking to, that there are a lot of people here who are keen on writing. I would say to them, have a go at it, keep trying. You will never know until you have tried.”
The education I got … was very formal. We were not encouraged to look at plays – and plays are mostly what I do now. Theatre was a peripheral interest really. We did not come from a privileged background, so I did not go to the theatre much, perhaps just the occasional visit to the pantomime.
As a child, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I would say a policeman or a farmer. Later on, when
I realised those were unreasonable vocations for me, I thought I would be a teacher, work in a library, close to books.
And, in fact, a teacher is what I became. But I always wanted to be a writer, and eventually, I decided I would have to try to be a writer.
I don’t think too much of the audience when I write. It’s not that I don’t care about them, I do.
But you get involved in the story… therefore what you don’t think about is, “What shall I do next to please them”. (This is odd because part of what you do is playing a game with the audience, an imaginary game.) I prefer to get completely absorbed in the story.
I don’t deny myself reading books. I buy more books than I am able to read, it’s an indulgence.
I am also passionate about … cricket. The BBC broadcasts ball-by-ball coverage of every Test match involving England. It’s called Test Match special.
Part of the tradition is they invite a guest on the Saturday of the match. So I got to be Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ guest in View from the Boundary on Test Match Special this July, England v. West Indies at Headingley – it was the highlight of my career.
I had written a cricket-based radio play, entitled Lawn Wars, about a man who tries to bowl the perfect off-break.
Me and school
I can hardly remember a time when I did not want to be a storyteller. When I first knew what stories were, at a very early age, I thought it would be a very wonderful thing to do. But there were very few people where I lived, who told stories for a living. Certainly no one in my family.
Storytelling was the sort of thing you kept as a secret, as a private wish.
I grew up in Woodford, an ordinary suburban area just outside London. I had a happy, ordinary childhood. I didn’t get along too well with my brother (we do now!) – we were too close in age and too different in temperament.
My sister is much younger. One of the things I remember particularly well is our holidays when we went to the Norfolk coast. We had seaside holidays, but also country holidays – where we could run free.
When reel-to-reel tape recorders came in, we managed to save enough to get one. My friend and I, a pair of
11-year-olds, would disappear into our shed, make up stories with sound effects (like a ruler twanging), and record these stories.
They were silly stories, but I suppose (the idea of) working in radio generated quite early in my life.
At school, I was a slow student, dreamy, not very capable, not very good at many things. I liked doing pictures and writing stories – and I thought I wasn’t going to get far with either of these.
Those days we had an exam at 11 – if you passed it, you went to grammar school. If you failed, which a majority did, you went to a secondary modern school. I failed.
But along the way you meet teachers who are keen on their subject, especially English teachers, who loved the language, the stories, the books, and that conveyed itself to me. Many of them took an interest in their pupils.
I had several teachers who were like mentors to me.
I never studied writing. After high school, I went to a training college, to train to be a teacher. I was always interested in writing.
But I had to get a proper, paying job, so I went into teaching – not from any desire to be a teacher. Though later on I did get interested in teaching, and liked it. I taught primary school for 10 years, teaching children everything: games, English, needlework even.
I tried to write at night after teaching in the daytime. But I was quite burnt out creatively and tired (because) teaching is quite a demanding job. It wasn’t until I stopped teaching that I had the chance to write properly.
Me and becoming a writer
My wife Jennifer – whom I met and married when I was teaching – and I discussed it. She knew what I wanted to do, I couldn’t have done it without her. It would have been impossible. She made it possible.
We talked about how I would feel if I got to be 60, and had not even tried to do what I really wanted to do. I thought I would be very disappointed, to put it mildly. So we decided that I would try and give writing two years, and see what I could do in two years. I had never attempted this, I had nothing published.
In 1979, I resigned from my teaching job and went to see my head teacher, a wonderful man called Harold Holt. I told him I wanted to resign, and not because I had another job, but because I wanted to be a writer.
He gave me my first commission – a play that the children could stage next year. It wasn’t much money, but it was a wonderfully supportive gesture.
I wanted to get a professional commission in those two years, and right at the end of it, I did. I got to write a radio play.
We had little savings, since we were not paid much in those days. Jennifer was still teaching, so we lived on her salary. I got a part-time job which enabled me to provide “bread and milk”.
I had self doubts, yes, wondered all the time. But I loved doing it. I did not know what to do: whether I wanted to write a play or a book. I went for short courses to learn writing.
Mostly I picked up enthusiasm from these classes. There’s not a great deal you can learn about how to do it. There are some things you can learn, but you have to be able to do it in the first place, I suspect. In that time, the more I wrote, the keener I was on writing.
Me and radio plays
After my radio play was accepted at the end of the two years, it was enough for me to carry on. The commission seemed like a lot at the time, it was about £300.
The play was called The Colonel’s Wife. It came to me in a dream. I changed a few things, wrote it out and sent it to the BBC who bought it. It wasn’t easy to break into radio then. There were no training courses.
Unlike now when there are university courses and guidance from the BBC. They were, however, open to people sending them scripts. That was a good thing.
After that I continued to write and have ideas for radio plays, as that was the first thing that was accepted. In 1985, I entered the BBC competition called the BBC/Radio Times Drama Award.
I was declared joint winner for my play, Conversations From the Engine Room. That play made a huge difference. There was a cash prize, and they also broadcast the play.
It gave me a lot of confidence. Someone at the BBC then recommended me to get an agent. I got an agent, and that helped me bag proper writing jobs.
There is a strong, faithful and limited audience for radio in the UK. There’s also the World Service. Under recent cuts, the World Service’s drama output is being cut back. It’s a regrettable, backward step.
The BBC is independent from the government, they have their own funding through the license fee and therefore they provide an independent voice.
They can do culturally refreshing, educative things which do not require, or are restricted, by advertising. It would be great to see public service broadcasting in other countries as well.
Me and scriptwriting for television
The transition to television came almost by accident. I was, and still am, very happy writing for radio. A producer I had worked with had moved on to television. She phoned me and told me of someone who was looking for a writer for a new TV show they were producing.
When you are a freelance writer, you say yes. You don’t turn things down, especially at the beginning. So I agreed. It was for a series called Doctors. I sent them some ideas, they liked one and asked me to turn it into a script. They liked it, and I ended up writing for TV.
Script editors move from show to show. My script editor moved to Holby City, so I did and ended up doing a stint there. That was followed by Eastenders, then Born and Bred. Now I am back to Holby City.
In television, the most frustrating part is that you have to realise you are part of a team. That can be a very big team. It can also be rewarding in itself.
But if you have got your own voice, things that you want to say, it’s harder to say those things on television. That’s why I prefer radio. You can say all sorts of things on radio, and there’s someone there prepared to listen to you, at least in the first instance.
The series, Jewel in the Crown, is an example of good television at its best. I don’t watch much television. I watch what I have to watch.
Me and the job of writing
The hardest part is that commissions can be few and far between. Now it’s just the opposite for me. I have got too much to do. It’s very difficult for me to balance the number of commissions.
I have a lot of plays I have to write for Christmas and beyond. Which is fantastic. I am always reminding myself of how lucky I am.
But that can also get relentless, you never get a break from it. But that’s the life of a writer.
I don’t know how I stay creative despite all the pressure. It’s partly because I waited so may years before I started writing, I still have a lot of energy.
Mostly because I still love doing it. It’s never a chore to go in and start writing. I love the opportunities it presents – especially with scripts – to work with other people – directors, actors, producers.
I am a member of the Writers Guild and Society of Authors. They are a kind of unions of writers, so the writer’s voice, though its quite a small voice, is heard.
Solidarity among writers is quite important. Although I am not a very active union person, I think belonging is important.
I have an office in the garden of my home and another in town (Cambridge, UK). I cycle to work, I get there before 9 am and I am usually there till 7 pm, seven days a week (unless I have to go for recordings).
I try and keep a disciplined working life. What I can’t do is sit around and wait for inspiration. I don’t think writers should do that either, or they would never get much done. Even on days when it is hard.
What is a writer’s role in society?
You can get a bit too grand about this. A writer, in the end, is a storyteller. I would go a bit further and say, people need stories and storytelling. Stories help people understand each other and themselves; at their best, stories help people to reconcile themselves to themselves.
You can very easily say to yourself there are many more important things to do in life, and there are. Jobs where you actually make a difference or where you save lives, or like Jennifer as a teacher who makes a huge contribution to young children in a positive way.
I don’t do that. But I would still argue that stories are important. You don’t come across a culture where there are no stories. Telling and re-telling stories is my role in my life.
Where would you draw the line?
I have never been asked that question, and it is a difficult one to answer. The story is important and I think you have to be true to it. And that means avoiding cheap effects.
It’s hard to say more than that really. I am interested in all sorts of stories from all over the place and all around me. I don’t know if there is an area I wouldn’t write about.
I wouldn’t write about issues I wouldn’t politically agree with – not necessarily as party politics, but cheap, exploitative stuff. I don’t think I have said the final word on any issue.
There isn’t anything that I have written out of my system.