Just finished co-teaching Radio Drama for the Arvon Foundation at their base in Totleigh Barton, North Dorset. It’s been a hard-working week with fifteen extremely enthusiastic would-be radio dramatists.

The group is mainly women, age ranging from early 20s to late 50s, from across the country. There’s a range of experience too; some have written novels, others poetry, some stage plays. I don’t think anyone has had anything published though one woman has had a play performed by an amateur company, and another has written lots of sketches for comedy theatre groups to perform, and there’s lots of writing going on. There is a terrific sense of earnest determination to write which is very rewarding and there are some real moments of thoughtful invention and passion.

In some ways, the most tiring thing is not the teaching and responding, the long days and the intense one-to-one discussions; it’s the nervous energy involved in the transaction of showing work and commenting on it. The students are unsure, full of hope and a bit of ambition, needing feedback and recognition but fearful of a damning judgment. As a tutor, you’re having to both be completely honest but also respect people’s hopes and the precariousness of their confidence in talent. So each person is slightly second-guessing the other and, while it works, it creates an exhausting set of emotional dynamics.

That said, there are some really interesting plays coming out of this. One in particular that caught my ear and imagination concerns a 16-year-old boy in the West Yorkshire of the 1920s who falls in love with a Jewish girl. Written with great heart, observation and lyricism, but hugely evocative of place. Another tells a great yarn about the first panel doctor in Wisbeech who is resisted by the town doctors, accused of libel, and commits suicide, leading to an eruption from the townsfolk against the vested interests of the private doctors. A third has a troubled woman, eight months pregnant, visited by an eighteen-century lighthouse keeper. Oh and there’s an interesting one that explores the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. And more... and more...

The Arvon centre at Totleigh Barton is an old set of farm buildings. The farmhouse is where some students live, where the food is cooked and eaten, and where some of the tutorials and a modest library are located. The barn is a good space for large-group meetings and classes. The other students live in a converted pigsty. The place is an hour from the nearest train station, has no wi-fi, no TV, and a couple of tiny pockets of precarious mobile phone signal. When else have I been an hour from a train station? True, I’m not particularly well-travelled, but still it felt like real isolation. A few of the students (and both the tutors) walked around on Monday night, eyes wide with perplexity, saying things like ‘are you getting a signal?’ ‘I don’t even have a bar’. It imposes a kind of intensity on things, a determination to write and to take the task seriously.

Arvon’s been going around 40 years. It’s a brilliant formula and a real honour to be part of it.