I nominated Polly Thomas for an Olwen Wymark Award. These awards were set up by the Writer's Guild of Great Britain to acknowledge people who have supported new writing and Polly has directed and produced almost all of my radio plays over the last sixteen years. She's an amazing force in my creative life and I'm delighted to say that the nomination was successful and today was the ceremony at the Royal Court Theatre to hand out the awards.
I was asked to say a few words and this is what I said.
All writers need a little luck and mine has been to work with Polly Thomas. When I was first trying to get into writing for radio, Sarah Frankcom, who had just directed a stage play of mine, told me that Polly had – just that month – taken up a new job as an in-house radio producer for BBC Manchester. I put a script and covering letter in the post (this was almost twenty years go) and got a call a week or so later saying she liked my ideas and would give it a go. And a month or two later I had my first radio commission.
If I’d known then that Polly Thomas would go on to become perhaps the finest, most creative, most demanding radio drama maker in this country, I don’t know if I’d have dared. But I’m glad a did because working with Polly since 1999 has been the key creative collaboration of my writing life. Polly and I started working in radio at the same time and it has I think been a shared journey of discovery, finding, in radio drama, that fusty and cosy corner of our narrative culture, a place for storytelling and experiment, for emotional intensity and panoramic reach. I sometimes feel like 16 years ago, I was brilliantly tricked into conducting an ongoing investigation into the limitlessness of sound and story.
What is so good about working with Polly is her openness: you can always take an idea for a walk in her wonderful company. She’ll support the journey, offering route adjustments, slowing and quickening the pace so we can admire the new surroundings; often we end up miles from where we expected to be, sometimes we turn back, but with Polly you never doubt the wisdom of setting out in the first place. I’ve brought many inchoate, formless and intuitive ideas to Polly – I sent her another one this week - and with her acute insights, sympathetic enthusiasms, testing questions, many of these have grown up to be proper ideas. Why don’t we adapt Gogol’s Dead Souls with Michael Palin as a really annoying narrator? Let’s do a fake-documentary about the four horseman of the apocalypse? Do you think I could write a play that is only people saying goodbye to each other?
I think of the conversation when, over-excited by some reading I’ve been doing, I made the crazed suggestion that we try to pitch twenty Émile Zola novels to the BBC. Another, saner producer would have laughed in my face but Polly listened and added and thought and made it better and three years later the first season of Zola: Blood, Sex & Money has just gone out.*
Polly supports her writers. She also protects her writers. The BBC is a great and glorious institution but it is also a snakepit of confusion, intrusion, rivalry, timidity and compromise. Or so am I told - by other writers who have the misfortune not to work with Polly Thomas. Polly shields her writers from pretty much all of that. Our collaboration is always about the work, the work, the work.
She has exquisite taste, offering clean, subtle, witty sound worlds, often in collaboration with brilliant sound designers like Steve Brooke and Eloise Whitmore. She favours and supports thoughtful and truthful actors; and she has other commitments too, for the last fifteen years every single radio project we’ve done has had a racially diverse cast because in radio, why the fuck wouldn’t you? Above all she has a liking for complex, challenging scripts. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I look around at the other writers with whom Polly has worked - Sarah Daniels, Terence Davies, Alex Bulmer, Jack Thorne, Mark Ravenhill, April de Angelis, Laura Lomas, Mark Hadden, the incomparable Shelagh Delaney and more - I see that all of these extraordinary writers have produced some of their most extraordinary work with and for her.
Radio drama feels sometimes like an open secret. Everyone knows it; no one talks about it. If radio were theatre, Polly would be talked about in the hushed tones usually reserved for Katie Mitchell. All radio writers and producers moan about this from time to time but the advantage is you can hunker down, get on quietly with the work, and test your wildest ideas out on millions and millions of people, without anyone noticing. If radio is an open secret, Polly is my secret, maybe in fact my secret weapon. It’s a pleasure to share my secret with you today.
* FULL DISCLOSURE: Turned out I wasn’t the only person who thought we should do this.