Twenty Five Years of Work in One Small Box


One small box
In the above picture, you're looking at twenty five years of my radio drama, packed into one small box. I sorted them all out when I was decluttering my office recently and these were on their way to the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs a radio archive, as well as being an expert in apples and a fine musician too. My chief feeling when I looked at them was one of exhaustion bordering on depression. So much work, and so little trace of it left.

This isn't strictly true, of course. Some of them still exist in CD form, and some of them crop up on Radio 4 Extra from time to time - my dramatisation of Ben Hur for instance was repeated quite recently, and I enjoyed listening to it again. 

The cassettes are a mixture of original drama, dramatisations, mostly for the old Classic Serial slot, and one or two abridgments, but that wasn't really my thing. I had completely forgotten about some of them, which is hardly surprising, since I started writing for radio when I was in my very early 20s. 

Drama made in Scotland
My first two plays were The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness: two slightly weird half hour plays, made with the late Gordon Emslie, who died much too young. They were broadcast only in Scotland. Those were the days when Scotland actually had its own radio drama budget and could make decisions about what it produced, without - as now - filtering everything through a London editor. Revolutionary idea, eh?

O Flower of Scotland won a UK-wide best original play of its year and Bonnie Blue Hen won a Scottish radio industries club award. I remember going to London to pick up my award for Flower and being hissed at by the young woman waiting to usher me onto the platform to 'be quick, we're running out of time'. Even then, radio was the poor relation. No acceptance speeches for me. 

Maydays, the Butterfly Bowl, Sardine Burial, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring, Madame Butterfly, Tam o' Shanter  - there they all were, bringing so many happy memories with them, especially of the radio drama department in the welcoming warren of a building on Queen Street. It was originally in the old BBC building at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, but most of my work was made in Edinburgh. In all the years I worked on productions there, I never could find my way around it without help - but I loved the place. And I certainly remember the ultra strong coffee and hot scones that kept us going during long hours in the studio.

There were original series: The Peggers and the Creelers, Running Before the Wind and The Curiosity Cabinet that later became a successful novel. (Usually it works the other way round, but not this time!) 
Looking back, I still think my titles were intriguing. 

There was a trio of Polish themed plays directed by Marilyn Imrie, with whom I worked for years - Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts, of which I liked Noon Ghosts best. This was the last performance of distinguished Scottish actor Callum Mill, with the equally wonderful Harry Stamper. The BBC wanted to repeat it but found that they had deleted it and nobody had a copy that was good enough to broadcast. 

Then came a series of big dramatisations: Kidnapped and Catriona. Ten hours of radio. Such luxury is practically unheard of nowadays. The Bride of Lammermoor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, the Mysteries of Udolpho and good old Ben Hur with a starry cast that included Samuel West, Jamie Glover and Michael Gambon. 

Sound effects and serials
When I started out, the tapestry of sound effects had to be done in the studio, simultaneously with the recording, rather than added after. Some technical wizard would run between record decks, fading sounds in and out - a lark in a clear sky, a bumble bee buzzing past. It involved an awesome amount of skill and a real commitment to the script. 

'Spot effects' were, and probably remain, good fun. Actors standing on chairs shaking bunches of keys sound remarkably like men on horseback, with the jingling of harness, but the swords in Kidnapped were real enough. They belonged to my husband, and still have the notches to prove it. 

There were Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre that I dramatised with Brian Sibley - each of us allowed to choose favourite stories. A wholly enjoyable experience that one, with the brilliant Hamish Wilson producing - so brilliant in fact that the Beeb did its usual trick of suddenly making this international prizewinning producer redundant only a few years later. I doubt if he ever got over it. I certainly didn't.  

There were a few random post-Woman's Hour serials, for a slot that no longer exists, because - you know - current affairs. Hilary Spurling's brilliant and bizarre La Grande Therese was by far the best and most enjoyable of these, but my own original Voices from Vindolanda worked well too, and one of these days I may do something else with that material. The last serial I did was something called Feelings Under Siege by Bridie Canning, with an excellent producer who had wanted to work with me, but by then the BBC had decided to borrow the role of script editor from television and impose it on a system that was already working well. This one stuck an unwelcome oar into the relationship between producer/director and writer, and I think the result was unsatisfactory for all concerned. 

After that, my last radio play was The Price of a Fish Supper. I suspect that was only because my stage play had received such glowing reviews, and went on to have another life as a successful touring production, that they couldn't quite bring themselves to turn it down.

After that, silence. My name became the kiss of death on any submission. For a while, I had young producers who wanted to work with me but I had to tell them that there was little point in it. Like Hamish, a few years earlier, my face just didn't fit any more. Once or twice, Marilyn Imrie, with whom I had had a long and productive working relationship and friendship until her death eighteen months ago, would suggest an idea with my name on it, but it would always fall at the first hurdle. 

Was I sad about it? Well, at first I was. My first intimation of trouble ahead was when a big commission was summarily cancelled just before the contract was due to be finalised. That had been money that I was counting on as a significant part of our household budget, so there was a certain amount of panic. But of course freelance work is always uncertain and until the cash is in your account, nothing is ever sure. 

Moving on
In the long run, it was very good for me, forcing me out of my comfort zone.  I wrote a few well reviewed stage plays but, more importantly, I turned to fiction, and found that I loved it. Some nine novels later, although radio paid a whole lot better, I would never now go back to it. Besides, it isn't what it was, perhaps because budgets hardly ever allow for the 'elbow room' of a big bold production like Ben Hur. Radio drama has been subject to a slow process of attrition with slots disappearing all over the place. It's wonderful to see new writers coming forward, but the BBC allowed experience, especially technical experience, to leach away, getting rid of the old before they had time to train the new in the nuts and bolts of how to make a good radio drama. 

I'll tell you what I do miss though. I miss the collaboration. I miss the good working relationship with an excellent producer/director. I miss the script readings with fine actors, and the technical expertise, and the sheer pleasure of that experience. I miss the way I used to write in the knowledge that I would go on to work with a group of talented people to create something that was faithful to my vision, but better - alive, engrossing, a thing apart. Novel writing is a solitary business by comparison. 

Oh, and I miss the tarry coffee and the hot scones as well. 


Mavis said…
A fascinating life well-lived, Catherine - and beautifully told. I met you through your visit to the islay Book Festival and have always enjoyed reading and rereading your novels. Thank you for the hours of pleasure you have given me.
Mavis Gulliver
Nigel Deacon said…
Nigel Deacon here - I have made a (slow) start on the digitising, and six of the earlier plays are done. I will recommence as soon as our apple grafting workshops are over. I've enjoyed Catherine's plays a great deal, and of course the serializations - Ben Hur, Kidnapped & Catriona. It will be good to hear the ones I missed.

They will be stored in multiple locations when they're done.