ALCS NEWS MEETS: CHRISTOPHER DOUGLAS

19 April 2021

The winner of the 2021 ALCS-sponsored Tinniswood Award for Radio Drama tells us how persistence, tenacity and a slice of luck have helped him sustain a four-decade career writing comedy drama for radio.

Scooping the coveted Tinniswood Award for radio drama is particularly pleasing for Christopher Douglas, given that his winning play, Tristram Shandy: In Development, was rejected several times before finally being produced during the pandemic last year. “I’m so chuffed to win because to get the play on in the first place was difficult enough! I kept going thanks to my producer Gary Brown who encouraged me to persist with it”, he tells me when we speak via Zoom. Tristram Shandy: In Development is a hilarious spoof of an earnest drama workshop, in which a small band of actors attempt to wrestle a production of Laurence Sterne’s famously picaresque and bawdy novel into something that will work on radio (spoiler: they struggle).

As the actor and co-writer (with Andrew Nickolds) behind long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy drama Ed Reardon’s Week, Christopher is no stranger to winning awards. This classic radio sitcom, which features the cantankerous Reardon, “author, pipe smoker, consummate fare-dodger and master of the abusive e-mail” scooped the Broadcasting Press Guild’s ‘Radio Programme of the Year’ award in 2005 and 2010, and was also included in a Radio Times list of The 30 Greatest Radio Shows of All Time. In another popular radio sitcom, Christopher also plays the role of fictional cricketer, Dave Podmore, a character he co-created with Nickolds and Nick Newman. And he is also co-writer with Nigel Planer of actor Nicholas Craig, a hugely successful spoof creation who has given rise to books, as well as stage and TV adaptions.

My play about Tristram Shandy is fairly rude about radio and how radio plays are done, but no-one seems to mind! I can’t imagine that would be allowed anywhere else.

I ask Christopher why he found his natural writing territory in comedy, and in satire and parody in particular. “Well I was raised in the church of light entertainment, so I think I’ve spent quite a bit of time railing against that! My mother was an actress and stage manager who worked in TV, and both my father, and my stepfather who brought me up were producers in commercial television. Then when I left school at 15, I immediately started working as an actor so I’d always been immersed in that world, and noticed things about the way it worked. So when I started writing it just seemed an obvious thing to write about. The irony is I’ve actually spent my career poking fun at three things I’m very fond of: literature, theatre and cricket.”

While Christopher has also written for TV and theatre, and is the author of a number of books too, radio has long been his creative heartland, and he has now notched up more than 150 episodes across his various series, as well as standalone comedy dramas like his Tinniswood-winning Tristram Shandy: In Development. “I suppose as an actor you’re always looking for different ways to keep working. I did a lot of acting when I was in my teens, but once I got into my 20s, people coming out of drama school and leaving university decided to become actors too and the competition became stiffer. So I thought I’d try writing and wrote my first play when I was 24. The first radio play I had broadcast was in 1980 as part of the Saturday Night Theatre strand. I then wrote a couple of other plays which got rejected and I thought: maybe I’m not cut out for radio. Then I was lucky enough to get some books published and some plays produced, and one of them became the TV series, I, An Actor. But I never stopped trying to get radio plays on.”

Radio work is not terribly well-paid; when you factor in all the time spent researching and writing proposals it works out around £8 or £9 an hour for me…So even with a year’s work scheduled it’s not enough to sustain a living; you do need another source of income.

Does the fact that he is an actor as well give him an advantage? “I think it does, provided you’ve got some writing ability. And generally you’re still given much more leeway on radio than if you’re writing a TV show. My play about Tristram Shandy is fairly rude about radio and how radio plays are done, but no-one seems to mind! I can’t imagine that would be allowed anywhere else.”

Tristram Shandy: In Development was recorded remotely during the early months of the pandemic. I ask Christopher to what extent he managed to keep working during what has been an extremely challenging time for so many writers. “I was very lucky because I had enough work on the slate to keep me going. As well as Tristram Shandy: In Development, I had seven half-hour episodes of Ed Reardon and one of Dave Podmore to do. To begin with though, I was a bit nervous about the co-writing and whether we could make it work remotely: for example, I’ve been writing with Andrew Nickolds for about 20 years, and in normal times, we meet up every day. But doing these things over Zoom does concentrate the mind rather and there’s a slight formality about it that makes you get on with the work, and perhaps not spend so much time bitching and gossiping!”

That’s one of the things which is so great about winning the Tinniswood, that it might encourage other comic writers to keep going. Because it’s certainly encouraged me enormously.

While Christopher counts himself fortunate to have had steady work in radio over the past year, it’s sobering to realise how poorly remunerated it is, even for a multi-award-winning writer. “Radio work is not terribly well-paid; when you factor in all the time spent researching and writing proposals it works out around £8 or £9 an hour for me, though no doubt others can work faster. So even with a year’s work scheduled it’s not enough to sustain a living; you do need another source of income.” He tells me how grateful he is for the “twice yearly domestic lifeline” of his ALCS distribution payments. “When the email appears in the inbox it’s like stepping into a game show. Will it be the Meal for Two or could it be the washing machine?! Cue cheers ringing round the house.”

Christopher knows more than most writers perhaps about historic financial challenges of being a writer, having adapted New Grub Street, George Gissing’s book about low-paid writing in the late Victorian period for radio (not coincidentally featuring the main character of novelist, Edwin Reardon). “After I’d adapted it, I did some research for a literary magazine about the condition of writers then and now. George Gissing was paid a £150 for New Grub Street, a particularly stingy flat fee for those days of £150, with no royalties. Gissing could still have built himself a house for £150 or it would have paid his rent for three years. You wouldn’t be paid nearly enough to do that now. You’d also probably have to wait a year for your money.”

For Christopher, a slice of career luck has made all the difference. “The only reason I’m able to work as I do is all down to June Whitfield. Back in the late 90s I ghosted her autobiography and the advance at that time was enough to put down a deposit on a one bedroom flat which I’ve rented out ever since. That provides me with half my income.”

With all the difficulties of getting commissions, and making a living in mind, does Christopher have any advice for aspiring radio writers? “It sounds obvious but if you want to write plays, go to the theatre. If you want to write radio plays, listen to them. Immerse yourself in that world. That’s one of the things which is so great about winning the Tinniswood, that it might encourage other comic writers to keep going. Because it’s certainly encouraged me enormously.”


Interview by Caroline Sanderson