Playwright David Pownall has been writing plays for radio since the 1970s, so few people are better placed to comment on what makes for good radio drama. However, those hoping for a definitive guide to writing for radio, or a history of the genre, should look elsewhere – Pownall’s Sound Theatre is more an impressionistic amble through the author’s thoughts on the subject, and as such this slight book is occasionally as frustrating as it is entertaining.
Pownall is clearly an erudite and opinionated commentator, but while he makes some interesting and thought-provoking points, he is also prone to statements that are either questionably sweeping (“No one writes the history of what they love – if they do it’s proof they don’t love it anymore”) or oddly specific (“If more than twelve facts are put in a stage play the audience start to suffer” – how did he come up with that number? Has there been research done on the tipping point of facts to audience reaction?). This means that although his is an often fascinating insight into how radio drama works, and how we react to it, his opinion feels like one that the reader should be taking with a pinch of salt.
He is also clearly a bit of a snob, making some fairly grandiose claims for the genre (I’m sure many writers would disagree with his pronouncement that “No other form of artistic expression has such a close bond” between listener and playwright than radio drama), and I found his slightly sniffy dismissal of ‘popular culture’ – and his assumption that ‘the arts’ are incompatible with it – a little wearing.
It’s also odd that a playwright – for whom structure is presumably a fundamental discipline – has created such a free flowing book. I felt the arrangement of loosely – sometimes very loosely – connected memories, anecdotes and opinions made the book feel a tad unfocused. While the material is interesting and entertaining in itself, a strong willed editor could have improved it no end by imposing a little more coherence.
Still, there can be few playwrights working today with as much experience of writing for radio as Pownall, and he is a passionate advocate for the genre (and the unique, public-funded mandate the BBC has to support it). Such informed enthusiasm alone makes the book a recommended read for anyone interested in radio drama.