Radio Drama: In Memory of Hamish Wilson

Hamish, second from the right: 'Running Before the Wind.'

My career as a writer began with radio drama. And one of the finest, funniest, most intelligent and creative producers I ever had the good fortune to work with, died last week. For his family, of course, he is irreplaceable. But the outpouring of sadness from so many people who worked with him over the years, both as a producer/director (in radio the jobs are conflated) and as an actor too, is genuine and heartfelt.

Quite simply, Hamish was one of the good guys.

Courtesy of the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs the Diversity website , keeping track of and celebrating radio drama, I acquired a list of all the productions I have ever done. My first radio production was in 1975 (I was pretty young!) and my last radio production was - incredibly, because it doesn't seem so long ago - in 2007, although of course the odd repeat crops up on R4 Extra. I felt tired just looking at it. I'm in the habit of saying that I have about 100 hours of produced radio to my name, including original plays and series, dramatizations, abridgments, readings and talks, but seeing the actual titles, the episodes, the actors and directors I had the good fortune to work with, the sheer time and effort involved in all of it, gave me pause for thought.

The majority of my work - albeit not all of it - was produced by two excellent producer/directors: Marilyn Imrie and Hamish Wilson. I began by working with another fine producer, Gordon Emslie, who died tragically young. Then I worked very happily with Marilyn on productions as diverse as Kidnapped and Catriona, and (perhaps my favourite of everything I wrote at that time) an original play called Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring. But when she moved away from Scotland, I was 'passed on' to Hamish, who had moved to the BBC from Radio Clyde, where he had been making award winning radio drama, back when commercial stations still did that kind of thing.

We got on. And we immediately discovered that we shared a fascination for Scottish history, tradition and music. Of the various productions we worked on together, including several dramatizations of other work, the ones that chiefly stay in my memory are three original serials with very Scottish themes: The Peggers and the Creelers, about families of Ayrshire bootmakers and fisherfolk, and Running Before the Wind, about a fictional family of Clyde Coast yachtbuilders and the Curiosity Cabinet, which I eventually wrote as a novel. It's unusual for the drama to precede the book, but that's the way it was!

Hamish was a joy to work with. He was imaginative, perceptive and generous. He always understood your intentions as a writer. When you sent him a first draft of a script, he wouldn't change things. He would just ask you a series of extremely tricky questions - often about just those parts of the script that you had been unsure about yourself - and in finding the answers to them, you would make the whole thing better.

Hugely experienced in radio, he would never ever allow you to take the easy path of - for example - introducing superfluous narrators, to make things easier for yourself. 'Dramatise, Catherine!' he would say. 'Find a way to dramatise!' - which is advice I have carried with me ever since, even now that I'm writing fiction.

He loved his family and his pride in them was always obvious. He was a raconteur and his tales were funny. He was fascinated by all things historical, but military history in particular, and he would occasionally come out with the most bizarre anecdotes that always turned out to be true. Studio time is invariably limited and you are often 'imprisoned' in small spaces for hours at a time when you're making radio drama. Writers are expected to be able to edit on the hoof. Tempers can fray, but Hamish was adept at running a tight ship, while dispersing professional tensions by making people laugh. It was a gift, one that Marilyn Imrie possessed too.

He was kind to actors, giving them space to work their magic, and he was respectful to the technical staff without whom he knew that nothing good could happen. All drama is collaborative, and he was a consummate professional. The results were obvious in a string of fine productions. This was a producer who had won many awards and indeed had been a juror and jury chairman in the Prix Italia, Prix Futura Berlin and the Prix Europa - but he wore his distinction lightly.

In 1996, we worked on a play about the writing of Robert Burns's epic poem Tam O' Shanter, to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet's death. This was followed by a trio of dramatizations of Ray Bradbury short stories, matched by another trio dramatised by Brian Sibley, first broadcast in 1997, I think. Ray himself topped and tailed the recordings. We were honoured to be asked.

I was married and living in Ayrshire, trekking through to Edinburgh for script meetings and productions, working in theatre as well. But we always had plans for future work simmering away. One of those plans involved a series of Scottish plays based around traditional occupations and social change. After all, we were both fans of Ewan MacColl, both keen on folksong too.

So what happened? Well, suffice to say, John Birt in London happened, and one of the BBC's finest Scottish talents quite suddenly became surplus to requirements. After that, I did some more productions with Marilyn, who was working in London as an independent producer, including fulfilling our long held desire to dramatise Tove Jansson's Summer Book. I also dramatised Ben Hur with the late, great Glyn Dearman who wanted to work with me and had the clout to ask for me.

But all too soon, I realised that for me too, it was time to go. It was sad, but it provided the push I needed to get back to writing fiction, which is mostly what I do today, still with a profound interest in Scottish history and tradition. For Hamish it meant a return to acting, and appearances in many popular shows. I saw him and his wife briefly at the Wigtown book festival last year, but had a meeting arranged and couldn't linger. Before that, when I had been invited to the town to talk about my novel, The Jewel, all about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, we had tea and cakes and reminisced about radio, and about the way in which the research for Tam O' Shanter had first triggered my desire to write about Jean.

It's impossible to exaggerate the positive influence he had over my work.
And it's sad to think of him not being there, even though we had stopped working together so many years earlier. As the actor friend who told me the news said, 'it's our Hamish.'
Hamish, wherever you are, here's to you. You were and remain one of the best.

Don't Come To The Highlands - Read This Instead!

Dun Beag Broch, Skye

My spooky little novella, Rewilding, is currently free on Amazon Kindle, and will be till the end of the week, so download it now, even if you don't want to read it till later.

I wrote this late last year, after a trip to visit friends who live on the beautiful Isle of Skye. We've been talking on the phone now, lamenting the fact that we won't see each other for a little while.

The cover picture is of the amazing Dun Beag Broch on that island, although that isn't where this particular story is set - but it was certainly one of the things that inspired it. The other was this extraordinary song by Julie Fowlis - not just beautiful, but very unusual because it is sung from the point of view of the 'water horse', (not the kelpie who is a little more benign) pining for the woman who has deserted him, when this creature is usually portrayed as one of the most dangerous of supernatural creatures.

This long short story that I called Rewilding, hardly long enough to be called a novella, but certainly too long for a short story - seemed to arrive all of a piece, the way things sometimes do. I could see it so vividly in my mind's eye that it was almost like taking dictation. It's a theme I may well go back to later - something that intrigues me. After all, I have a Masters degree in Folklore, and every now and then my fascination with these things rears its head all over again.

Some years ago, when we were driving back from the Isle of Gigha, on one of those sunny, cloudy, gorgeous days that you so often get in this part of the world, we were heading down the side of Loch Fyne. As anyone who has driven along this stretch of road knows, there's a range of high hills on the opposite side of the loch, treeless and smooth. As we rounded one of the many bends, we were more or less facing these hills, where intermittent cloud shadows and sunshine chased each other.
And then ...
'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?' I asked my husband, who was driving.
''Yes,' he said. 'And I can't stop anywhere.'
He couldn't of course, and he had to keep his eyes on the road. So there are no pictures.
But briefly, straight ahead of us, the cloud shadows had formed a clear image, like a sharp projection on the hillside, of two huge horses, rearing up, black horses, manes flying in an unseen wind.
It was uncanny. I have never seen anything like it before or since. And it faded as quickly as it had come.

I think that experience too fed into the writing of this story. In my head, there's a sequel. Maybe I'll write it.

Meanwhile - please, please, please don't go to rural areas, thinking to 'escape the virus'. All you do is endanger those of us who live here. But you could escape into a story instead!

Like a Puck to the Head: Ice Hockey Memories - and Ice Dancing

Village in the Snow,
by Alan Lees
I've just edited, polished and republished a new edition of a novel called Ice Dancing for Kindle - and there will be a paperback available before too long.

It's a story about Scottish village life. It's a very grown up love story with a heroine who is almost ten years older than the man she loves. (Why is that so unusual?) There's a dark side to it. But it's also a story about the beauty and skill and poetry of a sport that I've loved for a very long time.

There's a Canadian hockey song that talks about love being like a 'frozen puck to the head.' If you've never seen a hockey game, and never felt the size, weight and speed of a frozen ice hockey puck, that won't mean much to you. But once felt, never forgotten. Even when the puck occasionally flies over the protective plexi glass and connects with a spectator, it can be painful, and people are advised to keep their eye on it at all times. So not a bad way of describing the kind of love that comes out of nowhere and strikes like a bolt of lightning.

My own love affair with ice hockey began many years ago when I was a young woman teaching English to adults in Tampere, in Finland. I spent two very happy years there, and one of the first things we learned was that if you wanted to get the young engineers and other techies talking - which was our job, after all - you had only to ask them about ice hockey. We would have long conversations about the rules of the game and the state of play of the local teams. It was hard not to become involved, especially when these 'students' - who were essentially the same age as we were - invited us out to hockey games so that we could see just what they were talking about!

Cue forward some years and the UK saw a renaissance of interest in professional ice hockey, with the setting up of the so-called Superleague, involving several high calibre teams. This was a bit controversial in that these teams employed many ‘imported’, particularly Canadian, players, but it undeniably raised the standards of play for the spectators who had the privilege of watching some world class hockey on home ice. Plus the standard of coaching for young, aspiring British players, my own son included, was excellent and inspirational.

Although there are still teams throughout the UK, playing excellent, entertaining hockey, the Superleague lasted only from 1995 to 2003, after which it was disbanded and replaced with the Elite Hockey League. My own seasons spent as a ‘UK hockey mom’ inspired at least some of the background to the novel, a time I remember with a great deal of affection, not least because of the off-ice chat and laughter. Hockey was and remains a very inclusive sport. 

When I was writing Ice Dancing, though, it was another occasion I remembered. I had taken my son and his friend to a public skating session at our local ice arena, when a young man, casually dressed in jeans and a fleece, started moving gently over the ice in time to the music. Except that it was like no dancing on ice I had ever seen before. I never found out who he was, but I remember thinking that he might have been a hockey player, because most of them have the same grace as ice dancers and there was something about his movements that suggested hockey. Of course I wrote it as fiction.

'In the control box, someone had put on Too Lost In You, and lowered the lights just a little. It was strange. Other people were still skating, but he made them look clumsy. He skated gently and deftly around them and among them, not bothering them at all, making patterns on the ice in time to the music. He skated like a dream. He was showing off now. I knew fine he was showing off for me and everyone else, unable to resist the temptation of that music and those sexy words. After a while, people went to the side, just so they could watch him. The stewards stood with their arms folded, defensive and a bit jealous. Players didn’t usually do this. They normally kept themselves to themselves. But here was Joe, putting on a display for free. It wasn’t done.

And what Joe was doing, it wasn’t exactly dancing, but it was rhythmic and fluid and sometimes it was acrobatic. A man sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now you know why they call him Sky Napier. Good, isn’t he?’ And I nodded but he was more than good. He was utterly and completely beautiful out there on the ice. The music was part of the magic, sensual and insistent. He seemed like nothing but movement. I could have watched him all day. A creature of ice and fire. Bright and enticing.'

Ice Dancing is entirely fictional, but there is a darker side of the sport - of all sports  - that is a part of the fabric of the novel. And on another topic, the wartime internment of Italians who had made their homes in Scotland for many years is a matter of shameful fact. Given the more recent experiences of the Windrush generation, it is one that has by no means been consigned to history.

All the same - this is mainly a book about an unexpected physical and mental attraction, the sheer, overwhelming joy of falling unwisely in love - and the sheer joy of ice hockey too! 

Picture by Skeeze on Pixabay