Let Us Now Praise Unfamous Men
The Genius of Piers Plowright
Nobody becomes a radio drama producer because they want to be famous. Many use it as a springboard to theatre or television, but the ones who stay appreciate a medium that is so cheap and quick that there’s always been freedom to take risks, to try out crazy ideas, to fail and recover all in a week. I never knew anyone to use that freedom with more genius and bravura than Piers Plowright.
I first met him when I got my third dreary job at the BBC. This time I was a copyright clerk, hired (in the wake of an intellectual property mess) to clear material before it was broadcast. Once I got the hang of it, the work took about a day a week. Sharing an office with Piers and his assistant Angela Lance, it was obvious that dozens of programmes had been commissioned which nobody had time to make. So Piers gave me one of them: the story of an obscure working class poet named Alfred Williams who’d worked in the Swindon railway factory. The idea had come from the comedian John Wells who had no idea how to bring it to life; Williams was dead, almost nobody had ever heard of him or interviewed him. So what? It was a good story. There had to be a way and John and I were given the freedom and a lot of time to figure it out. When we did, the finished programme (broadcast on Radio 3 as Hammer Man) was so amazing that prize-giving judges enquired whether it was true.
That was Piers all over: instinct, curiosity, trust, freedom. What he taught me was that if you know exactly what will be in a programme before you start, it isn’t really worth making. The discoveries and surprises are what matter, they’re where the life of the show comes from. That this, more frequently than seemed plausible, won him the Prix Italia was great but just as important was the fact that it often resulted in abject failures. I’d sometimes hear something Piers had made and wonder what on earth had gone wrong. But what impressed me was that, however many prizewinners Piers made, he wouldn’t ever repeat himself. Why bother? Try something new, you learn something new. Then you figure out where and how to use it. The successes and failures were inseparable.
The other lesson he taught me was never to finish a programme until it was broadcast. Of course this frequently drove some people mad. But he believed passionately that if, a day before transmission, you suddenly understood how to improve a show, you had to try it. Some of this was a relentless desire to pursue an idea as far as it would go. But the habit also articulated respect: if you’re being paid by the public to make radio, then you owe them the very best radio you can produce. Why settle for anything less?
He was a fabulous boss. The more freedom he gave me, the more I took and the more he supported and encouraged me. I see now he was a mentor but he always felt like a colleague. Stuck, I could ask him anything; he always seemed to find my questions curious, worth attention. And he never suggested I just do what everyone else did. When he was Editor of Radio 3 Features, and I was Editor of Radio 4 Features, we commissioned programmes for and by each other. Not a hint of competition, only a shared momentum to see how far radio could go.
Piers was not a saint, of course. He often disappointed writers who had become dependent on him. He cared about them, but within limits. He encouraged more artists than he could support — and kept looking for more. Angela frequently fumed when he let people down or failed to take seriously the problem of his pen leaking all over antique upholstery. But Piers exuded the very finest qualities of ambition: unquenchable appetite for a different sound, idea, angle, aspect, that glint in the dark suggesting something beyond.
What he wasn’t ambitious for was power or fame or money. He wasn’t in radio on the way to somewhere else. He was there as an artist: by deliberate, fanatical choice, plumbing its inexhaustible possibilities and using the freedom he had to get better at what he already did brilliantly. Go deeper, think more broadly, ask better questions, try more, don’t quit. Why accept average when you might be brilliant? And, if it didn’t work out, try something else. If you get tired, don’t quit. Just rest and start again.
It’s impossible for me to imagine a more inspiring first boss. I’d had managers before (and have had many since) but not one came close to being a real boss: source of inspiration, holder of standards, an open mind and a phenomenal listener. A lot of mumbo-jumbo has been written about managers and leaders (I’m responsible for some of it) but nobody has ever embodied the best with the verve and energy of Piers Plowright. That most people had never heard of him? Well, who cares? What they heard from him made its own claim to fame.