Making an impact: Writing for Radio 4


This post first appeared on Steven Fielding’s personal blog.

In 2010 I made Dramatising New Labour, a documentary for Radio Four’s Archive on 4 strand. It got some good reviews. Really, it did. The documentary was about how New Labour has been depicted on the screen and flowed from research contributing to this book and especially this article.

This was the first time I’d ever done such a thing and as I am about to start work on another radio documentary I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the experience and write progress reports on the new project. Increasingly academic are expected to make an ‘impact’ in what some call (dread phrase) the ‘real world’, as if universities are part of a surreal universe, which (for the most part) they are not. Academics are even being formally assessed on their ‘impact’ in the next Research Excellence Framework.

Even before the imperative of ‘impact’ however I never saw my work as something just for the ‘ivory tower’ (another dread phrase). I was frustrated that my academic work disappeared into a black hole, one too often consisting of a few nick-picking pedants – not that I am bitter. As a historian, primarily, I had been inspired to take up the subject by A.J.P. Taylor rather than his many snooty academic critics.

I nonetheless arrived at Nottingham in 2007 having done little media work (mostly consisting of interviews with a Polish journalist usually conducted on a variety of noisy trains). However one of my new colleagues, Phil Cowley, had worked with a Radio 4 producer who was looking for programme ideas. I keenly exploited Phil’s contact, one he was happy to share.

How did I get my idea on Radio 4? The procedure was and remains simple. I sent in a pitch – a couple of hundred words – to the producer who either suggested it didn’t work (fairly common, that) or (more rarely) that it needed a few tweaks but had possibilities. If the latter, he submitted a revised pitch to a mysterious committee, which I like to imagine consists of people called Pericles and Ambrosine. This body then says yes or no – usually for reasons shrouded in intrigue.

After a handfull of pitches I got lucky with Dramatising New Labour. That, it transpired, was the easy part. You might know how to make a radio programme but I certainly did not. Fortunately I was assigned Jane Ashley as producer who took me through the process and did 90% of the work turning my 200 words into 60 minutes of radio. Jane it was who let me into the secret that Radio 4 was ‘stand up radio’, so I had to imagine the audience doing something else (I dreaded to think what) while listening. She even arranged a session with a voice coach so as to make my speech more interesting.

Jane it was who also took the initial lead when we discussed what clips should be used, who we should interview and how to construct the script. She even held my hand when I interviewed the big names she managed to persuade to participate, an experience I found intimidating – what, me ask Alistair Campbell questions? Putting it all together was also an intensive experience through which she guided me, although Jane never quite overcame my inability to correctly pronounce ‘Armando Iannucci’.

If nerve-wracking, it was however a great experience: I cannot emphasise that enough. After all, I was working in a new environment with new disciplines, talking to new people and taking my work to a new audience. And I learnt a lot about how to present my work, something from which my lectures have hopefully benefitted.

Since 2010 I continued sending in pitches, until finally Ambrosine et al accepted another one. This time I will be talking about political dystopias and conspiracy thrillers. I had my first phone chat with Jane this week, and the emails have started to fly. More of that, in other posts.

Of course, I will be working on the documentary while teaching, finishing a book and doing all the other stuff academics are expected to do in the increasingly crazy world of UK higher education. Many academics rightly resent our increasing workload and the spiralling of expectations so doing the documentary on top of everything else is a commitment not everyone can take on.

Some might think, then, that I am a lackey of The Man, doing the documentary to generate some further ‘impact’ for the REF. In fact, I’d do it without the institutional ‘impact’ imperative – although it is nice that such work is now formally recognised, rather than in A.J.P. Taylor’s day denigrated. People like me should try to make a connection with as many as possible: surely it’s bizarre that academics spend so much time producing ‘knowledge’, which they then share only with a tiny number of fellow geeks – and students?

I would however be dishonest to claim that it is a sense of duty that ultimately motivates me. I do it because (whisper it) I enjoy it: it’s great fun and I am so glad to be able to do it again.


Hunting down Tony Blair

Here we go again. Yet another ‘satire’ about Tony Blair. This time from the Comic Strip, those 1980s Alternative Comedians who did so much to stamp out Thatcherism and now spend their time playing benign ogres in Harry Potter films or cheery vicars in winsome sitcoms, endorsing beer or opposing (how ironic) the Alternative Vote.

In The Hunt for Tony Blair  our former Prime Minister is portrayed as a smooth villain taken from a 1950s film noir, one  eager to cite the ‘tough choices’ which lead him to murder his innocent victims.

As Stephen Mangan who plays Blair in the film says, it’s meant to be an ‘out-and-out comedy’ but he hopes it will be controversial because: ‘If you’re being brave and accurate and manage to pinpoint things in a sufficiently sharp way, then, you know, you should upset people’. From the looks of it, however, The Hunt for Tony Blair promises to be irredeemably conformist.

The New Labour government is the most dramatised in history and Tony Blair the most dramatised Prime Minister – certainly no other party or leader has been subject to such extensive fictionalisation on the screen while still in office. To give you an idea, here’s just a few images of the fictionalised Tony Blair. Churchill had to wait until the 1970s.

And how have Blair and colleagues been fictionalised? In one way only: as spin-obsessed power-abusers; liars who are both financially and morally corrupt. Of course there are some who think this just reflects the reality. When I interviewed those writers and directors who have produced some of the best known dramatisations of Blair for a Radio Four documentary last year, they all had serious reasons for showing him up in negative terms – what they saw as his betrayal of the working class and role in taking Britain into Iraq being the most significant.

But there also lazy reasons, including pandering to easy stereotypes and popular prejudices. Many members of the public, certainly those on the left, somehow ‘know’ that Blair was obsessed by spin, was in love with the powerful and lied to us about Iraq. But how do we acquire such ‘knowledge’?  I’ve looked at all the instances in which New Labour and Blair have been depicted on the screen and what I can report is a diminishing of what I call our ‘imagined political capital’ – that is the repertoire of ideas we hold about politicians. In the era of mediated politics this increasingly influences how we see our politicians. For how many of us actually know an MP or meet a councillor and so have direct experience of them? Very few. For the most part we get our knowledge about politics through reading or watching the news (and fewer and fewer of us do that) or watching them depicted on the screen in comedies and dramas. This is ersatz knowledge.

That is not to say that the former Prime Minister was the saintly hero that some Blairite cultists seem to think. But we should be aware of the whys and wherefores of how our politicians are being depicted on the screen and how it is – compared to, say the 1970s – that you can’t find a good politician on the screen any more and why it should be that politics is constantly represented as a moral hazard.

In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what Greene disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies, that only reinforced popular opinion.

If the Comic Strip had wanted to be ‘brave’ and ‘controversial’ then it would have produced a version of Tony Blair who was not a murderous, lying swine.

Steven Fielding