Showing posts with label radio drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label radio 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 One: Childhood

 

Here's me with my plaits. My hair was so long that I could sit on it. Mum plaited it every day - I must have been one of the few kids in my school that didn't get head lice, probably because they couldn't get any purchase on the tight braids. 

I don't remember learning how to read and write. My school was a small Roman Catholic state primary, not particularly close to where we lived in Leeds. There were always books in our house, including a set of old Wonder Books that had belonged to my Aunt Nora, beautifully illustrated extracts from the classics, poems and short stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I loved them, but I don't remember when I moved smoothly from having them read to me (along with little Noddy and The Faraway Tree) and being able to read them for myself.

We had a good, kindly infant teacher called Winifred Burgess, one of the very few teachers I remember with real affection, but I would always rather be at home than at school. The 'big girls' bullied us every playtime, pretending to balance us on the school wall, but in reality threatening to topple us over. Ever since my school days, I've marvelled at the naivety of adults about children and schools and the low key nastiness that went on, and I'm sure still does go on. 

My wish to be at home was granted in terms of a constant stream of childhood illnesses, interspersed with serious asthma, so I spent a lot of time at home, mostly in my nana and grandad's house, at 32 Whitehall Road, sitting on the rag rug in front of their fire, listening to their wireless, and reading. My parents started their married life in a tiny two roomed flat above their adjacent small shops - a sweet and tobacconist and my grandad's fishing tackle shop. When I was well enough, I would take myself along to his shop and sit with him in there, bothering him with questions that he never minded answering. He called me his little queen, in the old Yorkshire - nay, the old English - way. His 'little woman'.  I was very much loved and wanted for nothing, except perhaps a pair of patent leather ankle strap shoes, and I'm pretty sure I got those as well. Mum and dad took me to the 'pictures' - the Gainsborough in Holbeck - to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Afterwards, I made the whole family reenact it, alongside all my toys, with myself in the starring role, of course. An early venture into theatre.

I don't remember learning how to read and write, but somehow I could and did. I listened to the wireless - Listen With Mother, then Children's Hour, and the terrifying excitement of Journey Into Space. I have another memory of what must have been an early dramatisation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and its haunting opening lines 'last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' - so vivid that I can still see it in my mind's eye. We had no television, nor would have for years, so the words had created the pictures long before I was old enough to read the book. 

At some point, I must have thought 'I could do that'.  

I was right. I could and, some fifteen years later, I did. On the whole, it was a mistake. It was a wonderful medium, but once television came on the scene, BBC radio drama was the poor relation. The cheap option. Of which much more later in this story. The talent they had accumulated was prodigious, but they neither knew nor cared just how extraordinary. It did, however, teach me how to write dialogue, and how to visualise things when I wanted to write about them, how to orchestrate. For some years, it would earn me a living of sorts, and even a couple of awards. All that, though, was far in the future.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire in Scotland. I was an incomer. An interlowper. I was an awkward adolescent and my accent was all wrong. Good experience for a writer-in-training, but not very comfortable at the time. No wonder I retreated into my head. It was a time that I still think of as 'bullying and Burns'. Great experience for a would-be writer though. 





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. 

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. 

Monologues and Stuff

Ken O'Hara WAS Rab in The Price of a Fish Supper

I've been thinking about The Archers on Radio 4 recently, because after a small hiatus when they repeated some of the older episodes - but not, alas, the divine Nelson Gabriel - they have resumed in monologue form, taking account of the need for social distancing. Challenging for all concerned. Except that it's not really monologue form at all. And therein, I think, lies the problem.

I know a lot about radio writing. It's where I started out, and I have more than 100 hours of produced radio drama to my name, both adaptations, original plays and series. You can read a bit about all that here.

 I've written a couple of stage plays that are monologues. But it's not a format for beginners - even though beginners tend to think that it'll be easy.  The most successful was probably the Price of a Fish Supper which started out as a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, was produced on BBC R4, and then  directed very successfully by Isi Nimmo, with Ken O'Hara in the role of Rab - a production that toured to full houses throughout Ayrshire. It's a 50 minute monologue and what's known as a 'big learn' and a demanding one, for any actor. Ken was outstanding.

I've refrained from commenting on the long threads of discussions about the Archers on Facebook for a couple of reasons. One is that the community is fairly evenly divided between those who dislike the new format intensely, and those who love it and I'm not about to wade in. I've given it a good go, and I have to say that, personally, I'm not a fan. But at the same time, I know that those people who are asking 'how hard can it be to record some kind of dialogue online' are blissfully unaware of all the technical difficulties and complexities. So my sympathies tend to be with the makers: the writers, actors and producers who are struggling to please everyone in uniquely difficult circumstances.

All the same, I think I know why these episodes aren't working as well as they might for many people.

Monologues only really work properly when the audience becomes so involved that they forget they are listening to one person. They are there, within the drama, the other side of a conversation if you like. It's a hugely demanding form for writer and actor alike.  But the new format Archers, in an effort to satisfy everyone, intercuts one very short monologue with another. And sometimes - disastrously, I think - they even have terrible one sided conversations online or on the phone, with people the audience doesn't hear. 

Given the demands of the time and the relatively short length of each slot - why not be brave? Why not give each main actor a shot at a genuine monologue - something for actor, writer and audience to get our collective 'teeth' into?

The monologue form par excellence was, of course, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Everything else seems like a pale imitation. But the Archers' writers are by no means beginners. So it might have been good to seize the day and give them free rein to have a go.

Mightn't it?











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.



As A Writer: Five Things I Would Do Differently Now

Whether you are in the early stages or in the middle of a career in writing, but struggling, you may find this post helpful. It arose from a conversation I had recently with an artist friend. We often compare notes about our respective professions and it's always illuminating for both of us.

'Would you do anything differently?' she asked me. 'Knowing what you know now?' 

It struck a chord with me, because it's something I think about quite often these days - how I might have done things differently; how I might have approached things, so that I ended up struggling less and enjoying the process more. Opportunities are very different from when I was starting out: it was better in some ways, much worse in others, so I realise that hindsight is a great thing. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on where I went wrong. 

1 I would pay a lot less attention to advice about what I should and shouldn't write
Practically every single piece of advice I've been given about what to write as opposed to how to write it, has turned out to be wrong. I don't mean technical development advice. All of us need some of that, and if you can find a good editor or mentor  - somebody who is willing to work with you and whose advice you know you can trust - then seize it with both hands.
We all need to learn our craft.
But I mean the casual, throwaway advice, often from people who are in 'the business' in some way.

Write this, don't write that. 
There's a market for this or this but not for that. 
Don't turn this radio play into a stage play. It won't work.  
Don't write non fiction. 
There's no market for the supernatural.
There's no market for ... just about anything you fancy writing.

When I felt in my bones that I wanted to write something, I was right and they were wrong. Often, I was simply ahead of the game.
Read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and then write what you want because he was right. Nobody knows anything.  

2 I would do a postgraduate business studies or marketing course.
I've only learned about the business side of writing and publishing as the years have gone by. I'm still not great at it, if the truth be told, but I'm better than I was. The 'creative industries' are full of writers who don't know nearly enough about the business side of writing and publishing, about being self employed and running your own business.

This means knowing your responsibilities as well as your rights. Being professional. Meeting deadlines. Writing for love but publishing for money and treating it as a business at the same time. Knowing what the cost of running that business involves, even if you're working from home.

All those years ago, when I started out, a knowledge of business wasn't deemed important for people working in the arts, on the creative side at least. We left all that to the middle men and women. Silly us. Because suddenly, we found that we were working in something called the Creative Industries, while still being advised not to worry our little heads about such things. I suspect even now, many university creative writing courses do little to address the business and marketing side of creative practice.

Understanding the business side of things is vital for anyone hoping to build a career as a writer - and it would have been so much easier if I had known more about it earlier.


3 I would never work for any big company on the promise of exposure or jam tomorrow or a  future commission.  
This is closely linked to 2 , above. I've done this two or three times, mostly with television proposals. I don't mean a basic proposal or submission. Getting a foothold in any area of creative practice means actually doing it. When a fellow writer told me, a long time ago, that the only way to learn how to write was to write, he was absolutely right and most writers do an awful lot of writing on spec before publication or production.

This was something different. I already had a track record, but this involved months of unpaid work, encouraged by a script editor. When I look back on the waste of time, I could scream, and yet it was my fault. I was a willing volunteer. I went along with it in pursuit of all that lovely jam tomorrow. Eventually, it occurred to me that the script editor was being paid - not handsomely, but a whole lot more than me - to work with a number of different proposals, most of which would never be made. This would have been fine if they paid development money for the work involved. But they never did. There was 'no money in the budget'.

Whenever anyone says this to you, bear in mind that it means that there is, in fact, a budget. They have just never included the writer in it.  There should be a fee for this kind of speculative work that they are asking you to do. And if they decide not to use it after all, there should be a kill fee - a sum of money to give you some compensation for your time and effort. 

4 I wouldn't write radio drama at all. 
This is a big - and quite emotional - issue for me. I began my writing career as a poet and short story writer (with a decent publication record by the time I was thirty) and in parallel with that as a radio playwright. I loved the medium. But with hindsight, radio drama was a dead end for me.
I worked with some fine producers, people I still admire and they taught me plenty.
I used to say that radio taught me how to write dialogue, but I was pretty good at that anyway and I could have learned.

As a career pathway, it was useless.

After a while, radio drama that had once been exciting and experimental for me, became something of a treadmill, albeit an enticing one. It was hard work, but it was fun to do. It was difficult to turn down commissions, because it paid some of the bills, but it wasn't nearly as well paid as a 'proper' job would have been, and yet it was equally time consuming and tricky. While I was writing for radio - sometimes ten part serials for the Classic Serial slot - I wasn't writing other things. And yet I was always a single commission away from financial disaster.

There was only one real outlet for an experienced radio dramatist, and that was via the BBC. If the work dried up, as mine did, almost overnight, there was nowhere else to go, no other outlet for a very singular set of skills. Just at the point of commission, there was a change of personnel and the plug was pulled on a major series. I did a bit of audio work for various visitor attractions. I turned to theatre for a while, and enjoyed the experience, but eventually I returned to the work I should have been doing twenty years earlier: writing fiction and popular non-fiction. I'm glad I did, but I wish I'd done it much sooner. Radio allowed me to feel that I was making a living as a writer, but the reality was that I was going nowhere and had relinquished control over my future to a single editor.

5 I wouldn't be ever so humble.
The truth is that now, writers do have options, self publishing, blogging and podcasts to name a few. As I said at the start of this small rant, hindsight is a great thing and most of us find it hard to plan out a creative career. Life takes us where it will. Perhaps all of us should - with the provisos of being polite, businesslike and responsible - learn to be a little less accommodating.

As with every single area of life and work - and the creative industries are no exception - people will want to look after their own interests. This doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them human. But the 'creatives' working at the sharp end tend to get into the habit of seeing themselves as supplicants, of being scared to rock the boat, of assuming Uriah Heap levels of humility. Actually even this isn't always true, and I'm told by publisher friends that those with the least talent are invariably the most entitled and rude. So don't let's get carried away with ourselves!

All the same, what we are looking for is a modicum of professionalism in the way we are treated, with the proviso that we behave professionally in return.

To that end, we need to be aware of our own agency, aware that we are sole traders, navigating difficult and precarious waters for the sake of ourselves and the work that is so important to us. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should at least try to 'be excellent to each other.'

That shouldn't be too much to ask for, should it?


Starting out. 











The Archers: Why I've Stopped Listening.

I listened to the Archers back in the fifties, hearing the familiar signature tune as I lay in my bed as a very little girl, waiting for sleep. And then, when I was old enough to understand it all, I listened properly but intermittently. Sometimes I would absent myself for years, coming back, catching up, then leaving it again. Regretting the loss of Walter and then Nelson Gabriel. I loved Nelson. And I was very sad about Nigel but found myself giggling at the jokes too. Don't jump off the roof, Nige...

The Archers saw me through marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, various troubles with parental sickness and death - and lots and lots of my own writing. As a fairly sickly child, I had listened to plenty of radio drama and in my twenties, I began to write it professionally too. I had some thirty years of writing for BBC radio, more than one hundred hours of original plays, series, dramatisations. Oddly, I never wanted to write for the Archers. I was asked once, but I said a polite no. I knew I wouldn't enjoy having to stick to other people's constraints about overall plot and character development.

One of my early radio plays, O Flower of Scotland, was about rape - a rarely tackled theme back then. It won a major award. I think it worked because it was about the kind of assault that is not carried out by a stranger, but by somebody known to the victim and it didn't shrink from examining the horror of it, not least in the after effects.

When the radio work stopped - quite suddenly, as careers at the BBC are apt to do for no very obvious reason - I turned my attention with continuing success to novels, short stories, non fiction and some stage plays as well. I still run occasional workshops on writing drama, still know how to write - and how not to write - issue based drama in particular. My stage play Wormwood, written for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was all about the Chernobyl disaster and you don't get much more issue based than that.

Which is why I've been following recent events in The Archers - and the vast numbers of passionate and occasionally heated comments about what has undoubtedly become the 'Rob and Helen Show' - with interest. Listeners are pretty much divided. Some people, especially people who are all too aware of the reality of abuse, are praising it for its authenticity. 'It really happens like that. In fact it's much worse. It goes on for years,' they say. A significant number of people on the other hand assert that they have stopped listening. I switched off a little while ago but I dipped back in again a few times out of sheer curiosity, when a denouement threatened, only to switch off again more permanently. And now, I'm examining my own motives.

The relief was immense and that surprised me. The thought of not having to listen to it brings a little extra frisson of pleasure to my day. I didn't expect that, but it's true. Nobody, incidentally, should ever assume that people switch off a particularly distressing programme because they don't want anything to disturb the even tenor of their days. Life isn't like that. Radio, as I was always told back in the olden days, when working producers had the time to teach aspiring writers their craft, is incredibly immediate and consequently can be very shocking. Much more so than television. It happens right inside your head. Everyone has his or her own stresses and struggles, worries, challenges, miseries. So although we can and do care for others, sometimes we also have to be realistic about looking after ourselves and those close to us and the need to avoid piling on extra sadness.

What else? Well, I'm sorry to say that anyone who believes that producers only plan these kind of storylines from the purest possible motives knows very little about the ways in which media corporations function. It might be true to say that those at the top live or perish by audience response and happy endings do not equate to increased listener numbers. That's why there's added jeopardy. Trams fall off viaducts, cars are driven into canals and landowners slide off roofs. They aren't doing this just to drive home a health and safety message. Listening figures matter. Coverage matters. Publicity matters. The fact that the Archers has been covered across so many different media - I'm blogging about it now and in a small way, feeding into the craze - is so much jam for those in charge.

But I still have a whole heap of reservations.

One of the first things you tell aspiring writers, as an experienced playwright is that 'It really happens like this' is no excuse for poor storytelling or cynical manipulation of a set of pre-existing characters. It seems to me that the Rob and Helen story has thrown the balance of the whole programme out of kilter. 'It really happens like this' (and of course it does! It happens like this and like that and it goes on for longer, it goes on for years and people are scarred for life and sometimes they die) is paramount when we're talking about the accuracy or otherwise of a factual documentary.

But this isn't a documentary. And it worries me that people seem to have lost the ability or even the desire to distinguish between drama and documentary. It used to be that listeners would send wreaths when a much loved character in a soap died. We snigger at them, but at least that was down to naivety. Now there's a certain indignation if a playwright or novelist doesn't always adhere to some strict representation of the truth as the listener perceives it.

Which is more unreasonable? To assume the truth of fiction or to assume that fiction must always reflect your own personal truth?

The Archers is a drama and a well loved one. Made up truth if you like. So it must be 'true' but it must also be shaped and - you know - dramatised. To get to the truth of a situation or an issue, to involve people, to enlighten them, you have to do it sensitively and by that, I don't mean prudishly avoiding the issue. I mean that you must be aware of when you are dealing with complex and long established characters, when you are shaping reality to enlighten, inform, engage - and, by contrast, you must know when you are cynically turning the screw.

The structure of recent episodes seems all wrong to me. You involve listeners or viewers in a continuing drama by putting them on a switchback and skilfully orchestrating the issues in terms of the characters as we know them, rather than taking them on a long slow slide into hell - however 'realistic' that may be. The Archers could have done this by - for example - shifting the focus to Helen's parents, Pat and Tony, from time to time, as they gradually became aware of what was going on but were still powerless to stop it. There are plenty of people in Ambridge who, on the evidence of past storylines, are all too aware of 'what Rob is really like'. Rather than a wholesale - and faintly ridiculous, let's face it - isolation of Helen by giving everyone else a sort of collective amnesia or mass delusion (Rob's a demon, oh wait, what a nice man he is!) and rather than the introduction of Cruella in the shape of Rob's mum, the writers could have been allowed to explore those tensions. I'd lay bets some of them wanted to. Helen might have made several attempts to leave, resulting in an escalation of her husband's violence. It would have been infinitely more dramatic and credible than the current 'Free The Ambridge One' scenario. It would also have been 'true' to a great many incarnations of domestic abuse.

For every parent who has no idea what is going on with their beloved child, there will be another who knows exactly what is going on and is desperate but unable to do something about it. And if you really want to advise and instruct people as well as entertaining them, then you tackle that much more low key but equally challenging state of affairs by dramatising it and you take your listeners with you on that journey, rather than force them to shout 'you deluded moron' at the radio throughout more than one episode.

Here's a recent example, from television. A single brilliantly written and acted couple of scenes in Happy Valley told me more about the reality of coping with alcoholism in a loved one than any number of documentaries on the same topic. But don't you just get the feeling that if this had been the Archers, right now, the much loved sister who had fallen off the wagon would have been abandoned by Catherine and been found dead in a ditch the next morning instead of sitting with a sore head and a cup of tea? That too would have been 'true to life' but it would have evaded all kinds of sensitive and subtle issues that Sally Wainwright managed to explore in fairly short scenes that have - interestingly enough - stayed with me ever since.

If the BBC wanted to run a piece of continuing, issue based, real time drama about domestic abuse - and it might have been a worthy project - then that's what they should have done. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Instead, we have an impossibly long drawn out melodrama imposed on characters we have known and lived with for years, changing them beyond all recognition. My willing suspension of disbelief was challenged weeks ago and is now gone beyond recall which is another reason why I've switched off. There's a way of tackling these things, of bringing in new listeners without alienating the old, of stitching them into the ongoing fabric of the drama that would continue to move people and involve them and might stand a chance of doing some good as well.

But I don't believe this is it.

Perhaps, too, it's as simple as recognising that a scant quarter of an hour at a time is much too short for such an exploration of evil, for such grim intensity night after night, day after day. The 'lighthearted' scenes in between seem forced and stupid by comparison - which is because they are. But pity the poor writers, because they don't stand a chance. Ruth, laughing for fifteen seconds over the profoundly unfunny stock cube in the shower is just one example. For me, the programme is bursting out of its format in no good way and it will be a brave and skilful producer who manages to get it back on track. But who knows, having jettisoned a heap of listeners, perhaps the new fans will stay. Which may have been what they intended all along.

All the same, they need to beware of what one of my old and very talented producers used to call the 'shit click' effect. It's when your listener says 'shit' and switches off. That's what I did. It'll be a long time till I go back.

Precious Vintage - Another Potential Income Source in a Precarious World.

For many years now, I've been supplementing my writing income by dealing in antique and vintage items, mostly on a part time basis, although occasionally, when the income from writing has been particularly abysmal, I've devoted a lot more time to this 'second string' to my bow. I used to write for BBC Radio 4 which was a good way of earning a day to day living, but when commissions pretty much dried up about ten or fifteen years ago, I had to find another income source.

It wasn't that I stopped writing drama, just that the BBC, for reasons they have never divulged, stopped wanting what I wrote. I went from being an experienced radio writer with more than 100 hours of well reviewed and varied radio drama under my belt, to being the kiss of death on any submission, almost overnight. There had been no falling out, nothing that I could ever put my finger on. And I still had producers queuing up to work with me. It's just that almost nothing we proposed was ever accepted.  I write this not so much to complain - well, it's a bit of a complaint, or I wouldn't be human! - but really to point out the tenuous nature even of a career that appears to be quite successful.

In reality, it was a blessing in disguise, like so many of these unpleasant crises can be, because it forced me to take stock and make other plans.

With hindsight, and although I had loved radio and had thoroughly enjoyed most of what I had written for this most imaginative of media, I should have quit well before I was pushed. We are much too inclined to stay with what we know. We are also - of course - reluctant to abandon something that pays the bills. But even so, any career that relies on submission and commission from an organisation as capricious as Aunty, is skating on very thin ice indeed. It's one of the reasons why I keep banging on about the need for writers, like all creatives, to be well aware of business realities. You need to think of yourself as a sole trader rather than a humble supplicant, and act accordingly! Most of us learn this quite late in the day.

My husband and I are both freelances, so times were hard for a while. But two things came to my rescue. I had been collecting antique and vintage textiles in particular since I was very young and first went to the saleroom with my mum, who loved pottery and porcelain. Over the years, I had amassed not just the textiles, but a certain amount of knowledge about them. Meanwhile, fiction writing had really taken over from drama for me (although I would never say never if the opportunity to work on a new stage play came along) and my love of antiques in general and textiles in particular began to find its way into my novels and stories, especially my historical fiction. The Curiosity Cabinet and The Physic Garden both involve embroidery and textiles, albeit as only one among many themes in both novels. Some of my short stories involve antiques too - including a few ghost stories.

It occurred to me that one way of filling the income gap left by radio might be to try dealing in antique and vintage collectables. With the wealth of television programmes and magazine articles as well as the general interest in 'vintage', which I had loved well before it became fashionable, this seemed like an idea whose time had come. But my current home area was not the ideal place to take on shop premises and besides, I didn't want that kind of commitment. I had too much writing to do.

It didn't matter. The relative ease of selling online meant that I could work from home. One of the most appealing aspects though was the idea of being in charge, taking control. It's hard to explain to somebody who hasn't been involved with the submission/rejection process central to the 'creative industries'  how difficult it can be. We're not talking about the necessary learning process here. We're talking about a giant game of snakes and ladders during which you can be an experienced professional, climbing the ladders (not making any fortunes, but surviving) but can suddenly and without warning, find yourself sliding all the way down to the bottom of the board within a matter of weeks. In these circumstances, my love of vintage became very precious indeed.


I've been dealing in Scottish and Irish antiques, mainly textiles, but really, whatever takes my fancy, for more than ten years now, and have learned a lot along the way. I've also found my research invaluable in providing inspiration for so much of my fiction. The other factor that helped immeasurably was the ease with which it is now possible to publish, and republish work in eBook form, the possibility of being a 'hybrid' writer, of working with a publisher on certain projects, self publishing others. It makes for a complicated but undeniably interesting working life.

I notice that an increasing number of my friends and colleagues are willing to try their hand at antique and collectable dealing, either online, or at antique markets, or with a combination of both. Often it's because they could do with some money to supplement the family finances but need something that can be part time and flexible. It also occurred to me that some of them were very knowledgeable about their favourite area of collecting, more knowledgeable than some of the dealers I had met, but a little bit nervous of dipping a toe into the waters of selling.

That was when I thought about writing a short guide - by no means a definitive 'how to'  - but something that summarised all the hints and tips I had learnt over ten years or more of trading. Precious Vintage is the result. I should caution that this is in no way a 'get rich quick' scheme. However you decide to do this, hard work and good customer service are the key to making some kind of income. As with writing, other people's experience will be different from yours, and that's fine. But if you've been clearing out your granny's attic and wondering if you might have a go at some trading, then this little eBook guide might be a helpful preliminary read.


You can download it on Amazon UK here. 
The guide is written from a UK perspective, but since so much buying and selling is conducted worldwide, readers elsewhere may find it helpful. You can download it on Amazon.com here.

The Curiosity Cabinet on BBC Radio 4 Extra


Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that my trilogy of plays, The Curiosity Cabinet, first written and produced for BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre slot, some years ago, is due to be repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this coming week, 2nd, 3rd and 4th of October. You can read more about the plays and broadcast times here.  There are three episodes: The Brown Swan, The Mute Swan and The Swan on the Lake.

If you've read this story as a novel (currently available on Amazon's Kindle Store, here in the UK and here in the USA ) you may be surprised to learn that it was first written in dramatic form. It's generally the other way round. Novels are 'dramatised' as plays. But way back when I first thought about this story, I was writing lots of drama for radio and theatre and that was how I first 'heard' it in my head - as a series of plays. The novel came later.

Actually the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet had been in my head for a long time, ever since I visited an Edinburgh museum and happened to read the story of Lady Grange who was kidnapped to a remote Scottish island at the instigation of her husband. Like so many writers, I began to think 'what if?' What would it be like for a young woman (younger that the real Lady Grange) to be snatched away from all she held dear, not knowing why, and then to find herself plunged into a completely different culture? For Gaelic and Lowland cultures were very different and still are to some extent. The Henrietta Dalrymple of my imagination could not even understand the language, could hardly make herself understood, even in her state of panic and desperation. This was how the story began to take shape in my mind, but my Henrietta is nothing like the real Lady Grange. The story is set at a different time. The plot is very different. And my fictional island is a bit like Gigha and a bit like Coll and could be any one of a number of small Scottish islands.

I always knew that somehow the historical story would be intertwined with a modern day tale. I just wasn't quite sure what that story would be.  You can hear the tale in its first incarnation in the radio version but I was never very happy with the present day part of the story. This was, I should point out, nobody's fault but mine. The production was excellent and as always with the wonderful Hamish Wilson in charge it was a very happy time. But I knew I was going to have to revisit the story itself, knew I wanted to do more with it. Felt that it wasn't quite doing what I wanted it to do.

Paperback version by Polygon
When it came to the novel, the historical sections are pretty much the same but the modern day version changed a lot. I wrote the two stories separately, printed them out, and then did a literal cut and paste job of weaving them together, before replicating that on the PC. This was never going to be a real 'time slip' novel. That wasn't quite what I had in mind. My stories were always intentionally parallel. None of the characters move back and forth between past and present although the present day Alys (yes -  even her name was different in the novel version!) gradually becomes aware of Henrietta if only through some of her possessions. All the same, the stories are linked in subtle ways. This is a story about keeping secrets and learning to trust, about belonging, about motherhood and obligation. It's a story about the possibility of redeeming the past in the present. It's about the way small islands often seem to encompass past and present, layers of time, one overlain on another. It's a love story: not just the love between man and woman, but that between mother and child.

The novel was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and was subsequently published by Polygon. It's well out of print, but you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon and there's also an unabridged audio version by Oakhill, beautifully read by Caroline Bonnyman. In due course, I'll bring out a new paperback version with CreateSpace.

There's another thing about the novel. Before I was a playwright and a novelist, I was a published poet (I know, I know. Couldn't settle to anything!) and I found myself pruning and polishing this book in much the same way as I used to work at my poems. But now, I'm not entirely sure it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, you can polish a little too much. There's a fine line between the simple and the facile. With later novels, I gave myself permission to prune less. But as ever, the trick is in knowing when enough is enough and I'm still learning!

Perhaps because of this, The Curiosity Cabinet has occasionally been called a 'bit of froth' and a 'guilty pleasure' at the same time as John Burnside was describing it a 'powerful story about love and obligation.' You pays your penny, as they say...  But of all the many very nice comments and reviews this book has received, (when readers like it, they like it a lot) the one that probably pleases me most is the US reviewer who remarked that the book is 'so tightly written you could bounce a quarter off of it.' That one made me very happy indeed!

I find it hard to listen to Radio 4 Extra, here in deepest rural Scotland. I can only get it on my television. But if you are around next week, why not give it a try? It's a lovely, evocative production and it may also give you some insight into how ideas can change and evolve - sometimes quite drastically - over time.