Showing posts with label BBC drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BBC drama. Show all posts

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Five: Early Radio Days

Outside our flat in Edinburgh's Great King Street
with one of my flatmates, Eileen.
 

As I wrote in an earlier post, my first radio drama producer was Gordon Emslie. I don't have a picture of him, sadly, and he died far too young, while still in his 30s. Over my subsequent career in radio, a career that came to an abrupt end, for reasons I'll outline in a later post, I was lucky enough to work with many talented producers but Gordon was the first. 

Gordon was definitely one of the good guys. He produced my first short radio plays, The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness. I learned so much from him and began to hone my craft, finding out  what worked and what didn't. Above all, I learned something about the practicalities of production which in those days involved 'spot effects' that had to be co-ordinated with the movements of the actors around the microphones - sounds like the rustle of bedding, the clatter of teacups, the clash of swords - and background sound effects produced by supremely talented individuals rushing about between tape and record decks  - the 'FX' were often on vinyl -  mixing sounds to match the setting and performances. Contrary to popular perception, radio acting involves some movement, as well as the ability to visualise the reality of each scene. Spot effects are still used, of course although other broader background sounds are generally laid on digitally, afterwards. Sometimes these sounds are played to the cast, so that they can appreciate - for example - the volume of storm noise over which they may be pitching the dialogue!

There were other fascinating aspects to all this. Radio plays are seldom recorded chronologically. Studio time is always at a premium. So a script will be read through, then rehearsed and recorded all within a very short space of time. Depending on the availability of the cast, who may well be involved with other work commitments, the play is generally recorded if not randomly, then patchily, rather than in sequence. Productions with several episodes and an extensive cast will always involve this patchwork of scenes which are then edited together. It is, I think, the nightmare of every producer and production assistant to get to the end of a major production and find that a key scene is missing!

The producer/director is the magician at the heart of all this, making it work. As the writer, I was expected to be there for much of the production, because I might want or need to make cuts or do rewriting 'on the hoof'. Like all drama this is a collaborative medium, and if you don't enjoy the heat of collaboration, you're best to stay away from this particular kitchen altogether. 

It's a fascinating experience, because it's only when you hear your words in an actor's mouth that you can see where changes may need to be made. A good producer/director, like a director in theatre, has the last word. The actor can ask for, and the writer can suggest changes, but all of this goes through the producer who is responsible for pulling the whole thing together, maintaining the central vision, to borrow an expression from the world of video games.

You learn not just how to work with dialogue, but also how to orchestrate, including 'stage' directions about where people are in relation to each other, and what they are doing. I remember writing 'they fight' as one direction, whereupon my producer pointed out that this was something of a cop out. (It was.) The actors needed to know exactly how they were going to fight, so that they could move -and breathe - in relation to the microphone and each other and produce a perfect sound picture.

On the other hand, the writer should never be giving precise instructions about how actors should say their lines: those superfluous 'slowly, loudly, angrily, sadly' adverbs that often litter scripts from beginners. You need to let the actors practise their craft too. Besides, if it isn't already there in the dialogue, then - with one or two exceptions where the meaning runs counter to the actual text - you're probably not making a very good job of your dialogue. 

I learned so much and enjoyed the whole process. You can read more about my subsequent radio work on this blog, here. 

I was writing other things: short stories, poems and reviews, but although future radio commissions seemed a distinct possibility, I knew that I needed something else, something to broaden my experience. 

Having put out a few feelers here and there, I was called to a meeting with Professor Stuart Piggott, a scarily distinguished (and rather handsome) archaeologist at Edinburgh University. I remember that he had a stuffed owl in his office, but very little else about that meeting. His friend and colleague Stewart Sanderson was running a course in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. He was offering me a place to do a postgraduate Masters degree there. 

I packed my bags and went back to the city where I was born.



How Not To Be A Writer - Part Three: University

 


When I was seventeen, I headed off to Edinburgh University to study English Language and Literature, one of only two people from my school to go there, as far as I remember - and given that the other girl was on a completely different course, we never saw each other. 

I loved the university and the city, made some lifelong friends, and started to take my writing a lot more seriously. I was mostly focused on poetry back then, something I had written on and off since my early teens. This was when I began to submit to various magazines, take part in public readings and generally mix with other young poets who were just starting out on the long long road to penury. That's me in the picture, long hair, long skirts and - although you can't see it - a bell around my neck. 

After the first few spells of winter depression and homesickness, it was a happy time for me. I remember my dear mum coming to visit me and watching the students in their army surplus uniforms or smelly afghan coats with a mixture of astonishment and admiration. She was a talented seamstress and made me maxi dresses and a 'Lara' coat, in black wool, with fur around neck and cuffs, clothes I would never otherwise have been able to afford. We were a lucky generation. We didn't realise just how lucky. Took it for granted that our fees would be paid, that we would get grants to live on, frugally for sure, but that was fine - and accommodation would be available. 

In my Honours years, when I was specialising in Mediaeval Studies, three of us shared a big, beautiful, shabby and impossibly chilly flat in Great King Street, the heart of the New Town. Henderson's where we bought our wholemeal loaves or went downstairs to drink coffee and eat a fantastic concoction of fruit salad, Greek yoghurt and ginger, (the old hippyish restaurant and shop in Hanover Street, not the new terribly posh incarnation) was nearby. The Laigh Bakehouse owned by a waspish retired actor called Moultrie Kelsall, where we bought cakes, coming home in the early hours of the morning, was just around the corner. 

None except wealthy students would be able to afford this area now, but it was inexpensive, albeit spartan. The elderly landlord and his scary wife, all red nails and lipstick, would visit occasionally to check that we weren't ruining the place. We had to put shillings in the meter for heating and lighting and the payphone on the landing was extortionate. Mobiles weren't a thing. We had no television and didn't miss it. Nobody ever had a car.

I read my poems at a couple of big, well attended poetry festivals at the university, festivals that I had helped to organise, as well as at the Traverse, before it too became serious and posh. I had poems published in various literary magazines, in a little collection called Seven New Voices and in a joint collection with Andy Greig, called White Boats. I did a bit of reviewing for a few magazines. I earned almost nothing. 

Then, I had a story called Catch Two published in glossy She Magazine. It was a strange little tale about two people trapped in a lift and it earned me the unheard of sum of £10. I had been in the habit of drawing out £5 a week for general expenses so it seemed like a fortune. 

After graduation, I stayed on for a year with my flatmates, working part time in a small art gallery in Rose Street to pay the rent and to buy time to write. And at some point, I wrote to and managed to arrange a meeting with a Scottish Radio Drama producer called Gordon Emslie. I had been writing radio drama speculatively for years. All those periods of illness with books and radio drama for company had borne a certain amount of fruit. Gordon seemed to think so too.

He was kind, encouraging and above all a talented radio producer. Back then, if a producer was prepared to mentor a writer, give them the benefit of his or her experience, and if the aspiring writer was prepared to put in the work, a small production was more or less guaranteed. Radio Scotland had an actual drama department that produced and broadcast actual Scottish plays to actual Scottish audiences. Later, London would introduce something called 'producer choice.' In true BBC doublespeak, this meant that the producer would have no choice at all, unless London agreed. But that's for another, sadder chapter. 

Meanwhile, I was happy. I was earning just about enough to live on in a city of great beauty, I had an entertaining social life, I had good friends, and I was learning about the joys of a medium like no other. 


.

Another Outing for my Radio Dramatisation of Ben Hur




Back in the dear dead days when I was writing lots of radio drama, I dramatised Ben Hur in four episodes, for BBC R4. Now, you can hear it again on R4 Extra, and you can also catch up with it online, here

I've been listening to it again myself, because my only copies of it seem to be on cassette (although I still have the scripts filed away somewhere, I think.) To my surprise, it has stood the test of time. Not everything does, but I've occasionally listened again to my dramatisations of Kidnapped, Catriona and Treasure Island, and found that I've enjoyed them. A lot of it is down to the original material, the skills of the producer/director (with Kidnapped and Catriona it was my friend, the late Marilyn Imrie) the music, the editing and perhaps most of all to a brilliant cast. Radio, like all drama, is collaborative.

Ben Hur was directed by the late, much missed and exceptionally fine radio producer Glyn Dearman, with a cast to die for, including Jamie Glover as Ben Hur, Samuel West as a suitably villainous Messala, and Michael Gambon, no less, reading the relevant bible passages. The sound - the amazing sound and music - was by Wilfredo Acosta. 

The original novel, should you want to give it a try, is still available. I found it quite hard going. And when I was dramatising it, I found one or two significant plot holes that I had to fill in,  in the course of the drama. But it is undoubtedly a very good story indeed - as anyone who has watched the film will already know.

The most fun bit to write and record was definitely the chariot race. If you want to hear how it was done, though, you'll have listen yourself!