Showing posts with label dramatisation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dramatisation. Show all posts

Ben Hur - At Last!

It's taken the BBC a very long time to get this out on audio but here it is at last. My dramatisation of Ben Hur was - almost unbelievably - made back in 1995. If not exactly a cast of thousands, it has a big, brilliant and very starry list of actors. Where else can you hear Sam West, Jamie Glover, Michael Hordern, Freddie Jones, Michael Gambon, Phyllis Calvert and many more, in one space, with specially composed music as well? 

They really don't make them like that any more. 

Alas, the great producers I worked with back then: Glyn Dearman, Marilyn Imrie, Hamish Wilson, are all gone and soon after that production, I found that my face no longer fit as far as radio was concerned. I had younger producers who wanted to work with me, but no proposal was ever accepted. At first, I would say, 'well you can put it forward if you like, but I fear you'll be wasting your time' and I was usually right. Eventually, I realised that, after more than a hundred hours of produced radio drama, the time had come to move on, so I did. It was hard as far as income was concerned, but very good for me as far as work was concerned, because it made me focus on theatre, but more importantly, on fiction and non-fiction writing, with some success. 

Besides, the great days of radio drama were ending, and I don't think they'll ever come back. Big productions of the classics, such as Ben Hur, Kidnapped and Catriona, The Bride of Lammermoor, Treasure Island, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, all of which I dramatised back then, could still be made and disseminated on audio,  but I don't think the budgets to pay writers, actors, skilled technicians and producers are there. Besides,  I suspect many of the unique radio skills of producers, sound engineers, radio actors (it's a very special talent) and dramatists have been lost. Which is a pity. 

Ben Hur was made at the old BBC studios in Maida Vale. Glyn had approached me to see if I would be prepared to do it and I'd jumped at the chance. It was a more demanding project than I'd thought it would be, not least because the original novel, while a wonderful story, was written in a sort of archaic pseudo biblical English and had a plot with significant holes in it. Holes that had to be filled, without damaging that fine story. Back then (unlike, say, the recent Great Expectations dramatisation) while recognising that we were working in a different medium, with its own demands, we did respect the original text as far as we could. So just as in my dramatisation of Kidnapped, we really had to find a way to make David climb that perilous tower at the House of Shaws, we couldn't possibly do Ben Hur without the chariot race. Even on radio. You cheat listener expectations of well loved stories at your peril.

I think we managed it, mostly down to some fine acting and directing, but an equally brilliant sound picture from Wilfredo Acosta. I remember that when I was deep into writing that scene, my PC crashed, and I had to do it all over again. I type so fast that back then, I routinely caused the computer to throw a wobbly. Doesn't happen now, thank goodness.

Working with such stars presented its own set of problems and challenges too. With a big radio drama project like this, you don't record in sequence. Often, actors will have other commitments that the producer has to work around, so scenes from different parts of the production will be recorded on the same day. I often thought that the production assistant had the most difficult and unenviable job of the lot, co-ordinating all this. She must have had  nightmares about getting to the end of a production only to find that a key scene with, say, Michael Gambon, had been missed out! 

Glyn Dearman was a pleasure to work with. Ben Hur stands out in my memory as one of the highlights of my radio career and that was, I think, largely down to his eccentric and charming personality, his ability to make difficult things seem easy, his extraordinary talent. 

They don't make them like him any more either. 

 David Rintoul and Paul Young in my and the late Marilyn Imrie's dramatisation of Kidnapped 

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! 

Another Nail in the Coffin of Radio Drama


A happy group of radio people, back in the day.

RIP the 'post Woman's Hour' radio drama, cancelled by the powers-that-be at the BBC, another little piece of creativity, another source of work for writers and actors, lost to the overwhelming dominance of  News and Current Affairs. I wish it really was news, because it isn't, is it? It's endless speculation about what might happen, followed by a tiny snippet of actual news, followed by equally endless analysis not just of what did happen, but what should or could have happened had things been different, and - clambering on that speculation treadmill all over again - what might happen in the future. 

More often than not, I switch off R4 these days. I'm sick of the sameness of it all and the lack of courage and the lack of - well - the lack of dramatic skill. 

I used to write for this medium, loved it and listened to it all the time. I have 100 + hours of radio drama to my name, much of it original contemporary drama, with some major dramatisations for the old Classic Serial slot: Ben Hur, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Kidnapped and Catriona. 

My last production was a radio version of my stage play, The Price of a Fish Supper. I had to take all the swear words out, but it worked pretty well with the same actor and director who had been involved with the original production. That was back in 2008. After that, I was frequently asked to submit proposals. For a while, I had producers queuing up to work with me, but when not a single proposal ever got through, I abandoned radio altogether and started working on fiction and non fiction. I've never looked back in a professional sense. But I do look back a little sadly at the amount of talent and expertise that the BBC seems to have jettisoned - including one of the best producers they ever had, my friend, the late and much missed Hamish Wilson who had won significant awards for his work, but was still made redundant while less talented colleagues stayed on. 

This is, as the Polish saying goes, not my circus and not my monkeys. Not now. But I still care about the medium and it all sounds a little cut price these days. Back in the olden days when I was a young dramatist, I remember Hamish sending back one of my scripts with the comment that I needed to 'orchestrate' a bit more. And 'be careful with the narration' he said. Narration is a handy device in a drama. But it has to be used sparingly. I needed to dramatise. To show rather than tell. You can learn how to do it for radio, but only if somebody more experienced is there to teach you. I hear far too many radio dramas these days that don't seem to be dramas at all. They are some weird hybrid in which people report events and dialogue, saying 'he said/she said' - even while saying it. The result is a string of half dramas in which the narrator does all the heavy lifting. 

The single credible reason for cutting the post Woman's Hour drama, a nice creative punctuation to the day, was to save money. We certainly don't need more current affairs. But another fifteen minutes of worthy interviews comes a whole lot cheaper. They say they'll be ploughing that saving into other productions. 

Aye, right, as we say in Scotland. 

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury.

Some years ago, while I was still writing radio drama, and having already worked on a serial based on a little known Sci Fi novel by Zenna Henderson, called Pilgrimage, I was asked to dramatise some of Ray Bradbury's short stories for a radio series called Tales of the Bizarre. My fellow playwright was Brian Sibley, a fine writer and a friend of Bradbury's who has written his own tribute to the great man here. The series was produced by award winning producer/director Hamish Wilson, with whom I was doing a fair amount of radio work at the time.

There was no prescription about the work. I was simply handed a huge volume of Bradbury's collected stories and asked to pick the ones I liked best. The only difficulty was in choosing, because there were so many wonderful stories - and not all of them 'science fiction'. Some of them could more accurately be classed as 'horror'; some of them were simply bizarre.  But all of them were beautifully written and often poetic. I loved them. And fortunately, Brian and I chose different stories, so there was no haggling!

There were two series and my choice included I Sing The Body Electric, Skeleton, The Man Upstairs, The Day It Rained Forever, Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You and And So Died Riabouchinska. All of them were quite different, but all were a pleasure to dramatise.

I've written plenty of original drama, but when I was working in radio, I was sometimes asked to dramatise classics and contemporary fiction. I've also found myself turning my own radio plays and series into novels and stories, reversing the process. My novel The Curiosity Cabinet began life as a trilogy of radio plays, also directed by Hamish Wilson. The act of dramatising a work of fiction, of finding the drama while staying true to the original, is a peculiar and quite difficult skill, not to be undertaken lightly. It can be especially challenging when the work of fiction is well loved. And - unexpectedly - the dramatist can find a piece of work dissolving in the transformation. It has happened to me on one occasion and it can be disturbing to realise that a widely acclaimed novel seems to be all style and no substance.

This, however, never happened with Bradbury. These stories were all brilliant combinations of style and substance.

Although I enjoyed the whole process, there were two stories which stand out in my memory, perhaps because both of them were uniquely suitable for radio. One was Skeleton, a truly horrific tale of a 'bone specialist' who turns out to be a little more sinister than a simple osteopath. Think vampires, but fixated on something quite different from blood, and you get the drift. It was fun to do from start to finish, including our bone specialist, played by Liam Brennan, crunching on breadstick, to get the sound effects just right. Oh, and there was a bowl of jelly somewhere in the studio. The result was both revolting and riveting.

The other story which worked very well as radio drama was The Day It Rained Forever. This is a magical story about so many things that you can't pin it down. It's about drought and rain, about sterility and fertility, about death and life, about age and youth, about poetry and rejuvenation. I still think about it sometimes, with that little kick of pleasure that a great story gives you, even in retrospect. Oh, and it involves a woman who plays the rain on her harp: a delicate and beautiful tale, quite the opposite of Skeleton. And therein, I think, lies the genius of this writer.

Bradbury introduced each episode of Tales of the Bizarre in his own inimitable and generous way. I remember being very happy that he approved of my dramatisations, and also being touched by the fact that - unusually - he always pronounced my surname accurately, without having to ask! Somehow, that little courtesy seemed to encapsulate the man I knew only from his stories.