Writing Drama with Oliver Emanuel

Photograph by Paul Harkin.
There are many pluses to being a member of the Strictly Writing blog team. Of course, there's the endless supply of luxury chocolates. And who could forget the Christmas gathering in Avignon? Or my endless capacity to make things up and commit them to the screen.

For me, though, one of the biggest bonuses is having a mandate to get out there and talk to writers. I was recently listening to a five-part Radio 4 production of The Other One, and was so impressed that I immediately tracked down the dramatist, Oliver Emanuel. As writing drama isn't something I've ever tried, I wanted to find out what I've been missing.

Oliver, as well as The Other One, you recently had a play, Ancient Greek, broadcast on Radio 4. Can you talk us through the commissioning process please?

Ooh. It’s a mystery.

I’m kidding. But in all seriousness I find it very hard to describe. Here’s what I can say…

It starts with an idea. In the first instance, I try out the idea on my director (most frequently Kirsty Williams at BBC Radio Drama Scotland) and see what she says. We chat a bit and then I put the idea on paper. No more than a page. There might be a few drafts of the idea. Then it disappears into the BBC machine for a couple of months and I forget about it.

If I’m very very lucky I get a call from Kirsty to tell me we’re on.

We will often have notes from Jeremy Howe (commissioning editor Radio Drama) at this point. Although you are only one of hundreds of commissioned writers, the BBC are incredibly invested in each and every play.

I have written about ten plays and stories for the BBC radio but I still have more of my ideas rejected rather than accepted.

I don’t mind.

It should be difficult to get a commission.

When it happens, it means that the idea has real potential.

Was radio drama your first port of call as a writer, or did you start out somewhere else? 

I am a theatre person.

My mum was a drama teacher and my dad is an excellent amateur actor. I was in loads of plays when I was a kid so that’s my natural habitat.

Saying that, the radio was always on in our house.

I love radio drama.

When I saw an opportunity to submit ideas to the BBC Writersroom for a short commission, I jumped at the chance.

As it happened, it was at roughly the same time as my first big theatre commission.

So I’m lucky in that I have parallel careers. I have always written both.

Has the increase in digital and Internet radio stations opened up opportunities for dramatists?

Hmm. I would so yes and no.

In the first instance there is potential for downloads and the iPlayer has revolutionised how most of us listen to the radio.

You can listen to my play live, in the car or the week after broadcast. Radio is a popular medium so the more people it can reach, the better. It’s brilliant that you can experience a play at any time in any place.

But there’s really only one place that makes radio drama and that’s the BBC.

There aren’t any other channels that do it.

I would love it if there was the equivalent of a Channel 4 or an HBO but there aren’t. Not yet at least.

In your own writing process, do you generally start with a voice, a character or a plot?

Sometimes I read a news article that interests me. (This is true of my recent play The Other One which was based on a news article from Russia). Sometimes a picture appears in my mind. Other times I just sit down and see who’s talking.

I never know the ending to what I’m writing. I just launch myself into it and see what happens. I know a lot of writers who plan meticulously but I’m not one of them. I wish I could but I can’t.

My work is often about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I like to have a sense that this person could be me or you but then I like to jam them up and make trouble. So I’ll have a character and then I’ll give them something impossible to get out of and see what comes out of my head.

With The Other One, there is a twelve-year old girl called Laura who comes home from school only to be told that the people who she thought were her parents are not her parents. I didn’t know what she was going to do next but I wanted to find out. And the tougher I make the situation, the more charged the drama will be.

Which writers (dramatists, novelists, short stories writers and others) inspire you and why?

I get inspired by lots of people. Not just writers but musicians, artists and people I meet in the course of my research.

I’ve done a couple of writing projects with vulnerable young people. Two projects in a Young Offenders Institute and one with runaways. The children I met had lived incredible lives and they were generous enough to share their stories with me. Their openness has inspired a whole raft of work about young people in contemporary Britain.

But you asked about writers.

I live in Scotland and we have some amazing playwrights up here. David Greig, David Harrower, Linda McLean, Rob Evans, Lewis Hetherington, Davey Anderson, David Ireland and Robert Forrest.

I read a lot and almost every book I read inspires me. Too many to mention here.

My big three are Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill and Anton Chekov.

But Elvis Presley is the king of most things to my mind.

I was once advised, if I was serious about writing comedy, that I ought to move to London, Glasgow or Manchester.* Do you think the location of a writer is a factor in getting work commissioned?

Good question. If I were you I’d move to Manchester or Glasgow. London has too many of everything. I think it won’t be too long until it explodes!

I think you can write anywhere but it is difficult to be a writer without a base.

Glasgow is the place I became a grown-up writer.

I don’t honestly know how it is in other places. I know that as a playwright I have a lot of meetings, rehearsals and events that are part and parcel of being a writer. Could I live somewhere else? Probably. Do I want to? No.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently writing a play called Dragon for a theatre company called Vox Motus in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s about a twelve-year old boy whose mum dies and then he discovers a dragon in his bedroom. It opens in October 2013.

What other writing have you had published / performed / broadcast?

I’ve had about ten plays and short stories on BBC Radio 4.

I write quickly. I have to. I’m rubbish with money.

What advice would you give to anyone contemplating writing for radio?


Just listen to what is out there and decide what you like and what you don’t like. Get an opinion. Develop a taste for it.

And find a story that you need to tell or you will explode.

And then start writing words.

How many dramatists does it take to change a lightbulb?

That’s not a lightbulb, that’s magic.

* Leave Cornwall? You must be joking. 


Anonymous said...

Really interesting post, thanks, Oliver!

Caroline Green said...

This was such an interesting insight into a writing world that I knew nothing about previously. Thank you, Oliver. I wonder how you cope with the process of waiting for verdicts on commissions? Do you go quietly mad, like the rest of us who are waiting to hear from agents/editors..?

Debs Riccio said...

Fantastic interview, well done Derek and thanks Oliver for giving us an insight into writing drama...am full of admiration and thanks for keeping this fabulous genre alive!

Unknown said...

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