COMMISSIONED TO INVENT

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 by Elizabeth Baines
 








I’m currently working with a producer to develop ideas for radio drama, and it’s got me thinking about the business of commissioning and its implications for literary production and our culture.


Once upon a time, when I first started writing for Radio 4, the word ‘commission’ meant something different from what it means now. In one of the more glorious moments, one of my early drama producers, Susan Hogg, told me: ‘Write anything, and I’ll produce it.’ I had carte blanche, and because individual producers had more power in those days, the point at which a play was ‘commissioned’ by the BBC was the point at which the producer got the finished script officially stamped by the commissioning editor, after which we quickly went ahead and produced it. Nowadays, with the BBC far more concerned with ‘the market’, what’s written in the first place is directed far more from above. Now commissioning editors issue guidelines as to the sort of thing they’re looking for for different radio drama slots, and then together a producer and writer pitch ideas that they think will fit those requirements. If they hit the spot and the commissioning editor likes an idea, then the play will be commissioned - before it’s even written. This process entails a fair bit of discussion between writer and producer to ‘develop’ an idea to ensure it takes a suitable form/tone etc, and what I’m finding is that while conceiving a play was once as private an affair as conceiving a short story or a novel, it’s now a pretty collaborative business right from the start.

How do I feel about this? Actually, surprisingly happy, as it happens – although a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m working with a producer with whom I worked for years and have a superb creative understanding. The guidelines do make creative restrictions but under the circumstances I’m finding that a stimulating challenge, and it’s nurturing and confidence-boosting to have someone you trust confirm you’re on the right track and guide you away from the wrong one. None of that months- or years-long solitary slog on novels that might come to nothing, for it’s not as if the book industry hasn’t been in thrall to ‘the market’ in recent years.

Of course, the right track for the market is not always the right track artistically, and I think we’re all aware now of what can happen to brilliant but maverick books and plays that authors might conceive and even go so far as to write, but which don’t fit into preconceived editorial commissioning plans. I don’t think I’m losing sight of that, and I don’t think we should give up the fight – being fought by a growing number of independent presses – to tell our stories in the unexpected ways they sometimes need to be told. But after all, writers should by nature be inventive, and it’s an interesting challenge to try, as far as possible, to do that within prescribed parameters.

Photo credit: Launceston-lad

3 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

like Oulipo meets Madison Avenue...

We're very used to our artistic freedoms these days, and having chosen not to look for a publisher so as to keep all of mine, I'm more guilty than most. But there is a lot to be said for working within restrictions, and a very compelling case that can be made for saying that it requires and brings out more creativity than having absolute freedom, whatever that might mean.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's a two-edged thing. Someone recently commented to me on the creatively useful restrictions of poetic forms, though I did point out that they were artistic rather than commercial restrictions....

Dan Holloway said...

a third form, that has produced some incredibly inventive means of expression, is political/religious restriction - the ways artists have found of saying what they really mean in a way their audience understand whilst being hemmed in by restrictions which, if broken, could have far worse consequences than either artistic or commercial ones, is remarkable testimony to ingenuity. Which isn't to say the restrictions should be there (which is where you're right - political and commercial restraints are different from artistic ones)