Marilyn Imrie: Another Sad Goodbye

David Rintoul and Paul Young in Kidnapped

This is the second time in a few months that I've found myself writing in sadness about the death of somebody who was not just a valued work colleague, but an old friend too. Hamish Wilson died earlier this year. Now Marilyn Imrie has left us as well.

When I first began writing radio drama, not long after I finished university, I worked with a BBC Producer called Gordon Emslie. After he died, tragically young, Marilyn and I worked together for many years and on many hours of radio, including original plays and mammoth dramatisations such as Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona.

When Marilyn moved south, I began to work with Hamish, but we maintained contact and still managed to work together from time to time. Like all such long distance friendships, we kept in touch, told each other news of our offspring, always meant to meet up 'soon' - but years passed and even when Marilyn and James moved back to Edinburgh, my visits to that city were few and far between.

I had stopped writing for radio by that time, although until a few years ago, Marilyn would still suggest putting my name to a proposal. None of them ever 'took' and besides, I had other creative fish to fry by then: novels and non fiction books. My radio days were over, but not our friendship.

When I think about Marilyn now - beautiful, kind, enthusiastic and inspirational - it's very hard to imagine that she isn't here. I have a kind of patchwork in my head, composed of vivid fragments of our shared history, but mostly of the hours, days and weeks spent in small, airless studios deep inside the warren of the Edinburgh drama department. I remember the script meetings, the editing 'on the hoof' that all radio writers must learn how to do, the frequent cups of strong coffee, the freshly baked BBC scones that helped to keep us all going.

When we were working on Kidnapped and Catriona, we spent a couple of days reading my scripts aloud in advance, all ten of them, so that we could spot the places where the cast might find themselves dissolving into giggles. Not that she ever minded laughter. We were a happy bunch. But this production involved ten hours of radio, some 600 pages of script, studio time was limited and we needed to be ahead of the game in every way.

We came into the little control cubicle one day, in the middle of this big, stressful production, to find that she had pinned up a quote from Kidnapped - 'Day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern of the ship's bowels.'

To appreciate something of her talent and patience, you need to know that radio productions like this, with large casts and complex scripts, aren't necessarily recorded in the order in which they are written. Actors often have other commitments, so will be booked for specific days. It is one vast juggling act. And it is the director/producer, with the help of a production assistant, who makes this impossibly difficult task look easy. The reality was that Marilyn could manage a complicated production like this one with grace, unfailing good humour and the most amazing skill.

By the time we were doing Kidnapped, we had already worked on my first big dramatisation: Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. I have a postcard beside my desk that she sent to me in 1982, purporting to be from the great man himself, congratulating me on the 'remarkably fine retelling of my own favourite tale'. Details. She always took care of the details.

She produced my play O Flower of Scotland that won an award for best original radio play of 1980 - entailing a day trip to London, big celebrations and rather a lot of gin, as far as I remember. She produced another play called Bonnie Blue Hen that won a Scottish Radio Industries Club award. And later, we fulfilled a long held mutual ambition to work together on Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. We both loved the book, but it took us some 20 years to get the BBC to agree to it. So much of the radio success I enjoyed then was down to the talents of both Marilyn and Hamish. So many plays, so much joyful work.

I remember her flair and her positivity. I remember her visiting us in Ayrshire when her elder daughter was little, and inadvertently melting a pair of wellie boots while drying them next to our wood burning stove. I remember staying with her in Edinburgh when I was in the middle of another kind of melt down, some years previously, and her kindness and encouragement on that occasion.

Recently, I found a cassette that my dad recorded for me before he died. He's reading fragments of a play called Noon Ghosts. It was inspired in part by my father's childhood in eastern Poland. Marilyn wanted the cast to hear an authentic Polish voice. Coincidentally, I'm about to start work on a new book about my father's family, and about the grandfather I never knew. I'm listening to Noon Ghosts as I write this, and thinking about that production, and the chocolate covered plums I bought in a Polish deli in Broughton Street, and how we ate them in the studio with more of the tarry BBC coffee that left you jangly for hours afterwards.

A few months ago, when I heard that Marilyn was very unwell, I wrote to her. We were all in lockdown by then. She sent me a short letter of such loving kindness that it made me cry a little, because it seemed, as indeed it turned out to be, a valedictory letter.

I'll treasure it, as I treasure the memory of her.  But perhaps Stevenson's words are enough for now.

... and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence. 'Well, goodbye,' said Alan, and held out his left hand. 'Goodbye,' said I, and gave the hand a little grasp and went off down the hill. 
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one back glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke and cry and weep like any baby. 

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