Showing posts with label writing for radio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing for radio. 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!