A play on the radio this afternoon uses an idea I had years ago. It’s a Valentine’s Day romance by Peter Souter which is going out live and will react to comments on social media.
Hashtag Love concerns a behind-the-scenes romance on The Archers. So far, so very BBC Radio Four, and not my idea at all. No, my now forgotten innovation lay in the interaction.
We were asked to come up with ideas for the internet and I suggested a soap opera. This was accepted and I started writing York Gate, a soapy drama set in York, or at least my cartoonish version of the city.
From the beginning, I wanted this little entertainment to be influenced by the readers. So, I created the scenario and then asked for plot suggestions. When these were supplied, I wrote them into the story.
I don’t watch soaps but I do listen to The Archers, so my soap was probably influenced by that habit.
Much of the action took place in the imaginary street of York Gate, which was a little like Goodramgate, if you know York. There were shops and a pub and – a sign of those times – the Dot Com Café, an internet café.
Everything about the internet was a little untested then; it had arrived, it was going to shape our lives somehow, but we didn’t really have a clue. Newspapers were still trying to decide whether the internet offered a bright new future or a hole in the head. They panicked between the two extremes, and they are still panicking now that we know far too much about the internet, and can’t stop running our fingers over that hole in the head.
I wrote two episodes a week and York Gate ran for two years, until the editor of the day pulled the plug, saying that the writing was keeping me away from my other work. This wasn’t true as I often wrote the episodes at home. Looking back, I suspect my soap didn’t fit the corporate template or some other dispiriting thing, but never mind.
It’s not often that I have been a man before my time, but I was then. Social media hadn’t taken off – just imagine the interactive fun that could be had nowadays, with a York Gate Facebook page and a Twitter account for the Woman Who Knows, the gossipy narrator who held things together.
Hardly anyone remembers York Gate now, but it still rates as a proud achievement – not big but proud. And isn’t it the way that our lives are measured in modest achievements.
At the time my soap was greatly enjoyed by a small but hardy band of readers, some of whom helped me to shape the story. It’s all long gone now, but on the wall at home we have one of the drawings Richard Stansfield did to accompany my words. People sometimes ask me about the picture, so I tell them the story of the soap that disappeared long ago.
Incidentally, it occurs to me that interaction may have its limitations. Just look at the rancour and chaos which has followed that referendum we had last year.