Wireless In Romania, By Robert Valentiune
I’ve just returned from a week in Bucharest with my Springheel Saga co-creator, Jack Bowman, where we attended the second annual Grand Prix Nova International Radio Drama Festival. Our entry in the competition — ‘The Terror of London’, the first episode of The Legend of Springheel’d Jack — was very well received, and although didn’t come away with one of their nifty Easter Egg-style gongs in our hand-luggage the experience was well worth the trip, not least because a flight to modern-day Romania was always going to come in handy for my contemporary-set adaptation of Dracula!
Based at the Grand Continental Hotel, the Grand Prix Nova was hosted by writer and director Idalberto Fei, and the panel of judges included critic and broadcaster Marina Bagdasaryan, theatre critic Cristina Modreanu, producer and editor Domnica Tundrea, and the BBC’s Head of Audio Drama, Alison Hindell. Spending a week listening to and discussing world-class radio drama was a rather splendid pastime, and the pieces we heard were incredibly varied and hugely fascinating. The purpose of the festival is to uncover the most innovative, novel and sophisticated new radio drama out there, and speaking as someone who agrees with Voltaire that originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism, there were plenty of great ideas worth stealing.
Amongst my favourites were Aurélie Lierman’s gripping, fear-laden ‘Anomsia’ about the Rwandan Genocide, Gerald Fiebig’s heroically uncompromising sonic piece ‘Cross Talk’, and Krok & Petschinka’s passionate ‘Circus Maximus’. It was also extremely heartening that children’s radio was represented by both Czech Radio’s charming ‘Babu and the Parrot’ and Radio Slovenia’s ‘The Piano Teacher’. BBC Radio’s ‘Darkside’, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, was another very worthy contender, and my copy of Tom Stoppard’s script is now a prized possession. There was a healthy mixture of big broadcasters and independents showcased, and although the future of audio will almost certainly be in downloads and streaming, it’s the big national broadcasters that dominate the present.
At the end of a very busy week in which we still managed to take in many of Bucharest’s beautiful sights (plus some very great beers and wines, and an especially fine pork-knuckle dish) the awards ceremony took place, and the first prize for short-form drama went to Radio Russian’s hugely entertaining non-verbal ‘Happy Birthday, Darling’. The first prize for long-form drama went to Radio Romania’s excellent ‘The Metamorphosis’, which was an extremely sophisticated retelling of Franz Kafka’s famous short story; it was brilliantly acted, impeccably written and utterly cinematic in its sound design.
At the post-awards dinner, I spoke to ‘The Metamorphosis’s director, Ion Andrei Puican, and to its sound engineer, Mihnea Cheleriu, about our similar approaches to radio drama, and it was hugely encouraging the extent to which we shared the same vision. If anything, the Grand Prix Nova Festival has left me with a feeling of vindication in my belief that the best days of audio drama lie ahead. Much has been, can be and will be continue to be done within the current standard level of radio production, but I welcome the time when it’s no longer a novelty to have sound design that rivals that which you can already find in cinema, television and the latest computer games. This level of design doesn’t necessarily depend on leaps forward in technology, however; it’s almost entirely a case of getting past the accepted and, to be honest, old-fashioned conventions of mainstream audio drama and attempting something more ambitious. Such ambition is expensive though, and until the time comes when audiences who expect that level of sound-design enter the lower end of BBC Radio 4’s target age-range, it’s probably not something we’re going to hear very often in the UK. That said, I’m confident that increasingly awesome radio production value can only be on the rise. As Al Jolson famously uttered, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet…”.
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