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Thursday, 16 June 2011

My Start

It's only looking back that I realise how fortuitous my career timing was. With just one spec Saturday Night Theatre script it was like I stepped into radio's National Theatre. My very first producer (on The Humane Solution) was the legendary John Tydeman, who'd pretty much launched the careers of Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. He was head of BBC radio drama and led a very small team of highly experienced producers.

Martin Jenkins produced my next (An Alternative to Suicide) and I think with one exception he directed everything I wrote for BBC radio thereafter. We got on really well. While I was still working for Granada he came up to Manchester and I took him to see the outdoor set for Coronation Street, of which he was a fan.

He obviously enjoyed the fact that my stuff was anything but social realism, and that it gave him opportunities to push the medium in all kinds of unusual ways. For my part, I got an enormous sense of uplift walking through the doors of Broadcasting House on Portland Place, feeling a connection with everything that had passed through those studios before. On Alternative, a science fiction piece starring Michael Jayston, I can remember the studio managers wiring up every piece of weird and extreme equipment in the building, tying up every channel and turntable. When I had to leave for my train they were still bringing in more.

(Without telling me, Martin sent the Alternative script over to the Doctor Who production office which was then in Threshold House, possibly the dullest, grimmest office building on the planet just a couple of doors away from the Shepherds Bush Empire. But that was the start of another story.)

I wasn't the biggest fan of radio drama in my growing-up years; that would be the 60s and for me the most meaningful radio of the time was the scripted comedy. We must have had terrible reception in the house because I can remember going out to the garage and lying on the scratchy back seat of my dad's Ford Popular to listen. The model didn't come with a radio but he'd installed his own and that's where I'd catch the block of comedy shows on a Sunday afternoon. The material was a mix of traditional and radical – Ken Dodd, The Navy Lark and The Clitheroe Kid alongside I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and Round the Horne. Actually, in retrospect I'd move Ken Dodd into the radicals' camp. These days he's usually thought of as the last of the traditional variety performers, but on radio I remember him as a demented surrealist.

The drama that probably influenced me most in terms of what the medium could do, and what it ought to sound like, was a series of Sexton Blake stories dramatised by Donald Stuart. This was 1967, so I'd be 12 or 13. William Franklyn was terrific in the lead. In form and pacing they were almost cinematic, way more so than the TV of the time, where you were very limited in sets, staging, and coverage. Stuart had been writing Blake for story papers and pulps since the 20s but there was nothing dusty about his radio technique.

That spec script didn't come out of nowhere. Prior to my first BBC sale I'd written drama for Piccadilly Radio, a commercial station in Manchester, where my total lack of experience coupled with enthusiasm made me appealingly cheap. Piccadilly was a music station, but they'd made a commitment in their franchise application to deliver scripted content.

We made the episodes as a kind of co-operative, in the sense of everyone mucking-in and no money. Tony Hawkins was their commercials producer, and he produced. Pete Baker was the breakfast DJ and he handled the technical side. Our cast was drawn from the actors and voiceover people we worked with every day... Malcolm Brown, John Munday, Peter Wheeler, Chris Kay, Jim Pope, Charles Foster, Diana Mather, Colin Weston, Mike Hurley... a year or so later I roped many of the same people into making a short film which, if I'm lucky, will never see the light of day again.

Pete devised a method by which we'd use our limited time with the actors to get a clean voice recording, and then he'd prepare all the sound effects on the instant-start cartridges used for commercials and jingles. Then he'd re-record the voice track through the DJ's desk in the station's unused backup studio, varying the acoustics with equalisation and playing in all the effects in real time.

The serial was called The Last Rose of Summer, and Piccadilly traded it to other independent stations that were in the same pickle vis-a-vis their franchise commitments.

It was a different situation at the BBC. There it was a rehearse-record system. Different parts of the studio were furnished in different ways to produce different kinds of sound quality, and effects were either created live with props by a studio manager, or played-in from pre-cued vinyl recordings on one of a bank of turntables. Watching it all come together was like some great elaborate ballet resulting in auditory magic. This was my words getting the historic BBC treatment and I was living the dream. But Pete's method was ahead of its time and gave a comparable result, I've always thought.

I still get mail about The Last Rose of Summer. The master tapes are now in the North West Sound Archive and there are bootleg copies knocking around online, if you know how to find that kind of thing.

I mourn the dismantling of BBC radio drama production in its old form, simply because it was the nearest thing we'll ever have to a National Writing School. I was a 23-year-old from the provinces who sent in a spec script and from day one was treated with the same consideration as any experienced pro. The structure and dialogue skills I learned in radio have served me as an equal foundation for both prose and screenplay writing.

But while I mourn, affordable technology and new means of distribution mean that the 'co-op' approach that got me started is now available to anyone. If you want to make a play, you can make a play and put it online, podcast it, whatever. What's harder is that move from there up to the next level.

4 comments:

MB said...

You demonstrated remarkable acting skills in Trick Shot and so should not be ashamed of it. Standing up in a boat is no mean feat !

May I point your readers to Dirk Magg's recent sensational SEXTON BLAKE -
http://www.perfectlynormal.net/sextonblake.html featuring a cameo appearance of the beloved William Franklyn.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Malcolm 'MB' Brown is way too modest to mention his star turn as the villain in the Dirk Maggs Sexton Blake, giving this whole account a shape, weave, and resonance only usually found in fiction!

Malcolm took leading roles in The Last Rose of Summer and in Trick Shot, the half-hour 16mm thriller we made in Norway and the Lakes (we shot a weekend in Oslo but it was mostly the Lakes pretending to be Norway).

We rented a steamer on the lake, we rented a shooting lodge in Martindale, we had a glorious time; I cadged film stock from World in Action and had my own account at Humphries Labs in Salford, now long gone.

I got about a dozen friends involved in one role or another. Jim Pope played the Heavy and catered with one of his legendary hand-raised pork pies and a side of roast beef out of a Robin Hood movie. Charles Foster amazed me when he learned a page of dialogue with a 10-second glance and got it perfect on the fist take. Jimmy Grant, now aka Lee Child, handled lighting in the bar of the Piccadilly hotel. We sipped single malt whisky and watched the sun go down over Ullswater from the deck of verandah of a shooting lodge built for a visit by Kaiser Wilhelm.

We had serious fun and I learned tons. But trust me. You don't need to see the movie.

MB said...

Oh shucks! I blush at my erroneous placing of an apostrophe in Maggs.
But thank you for that little buff to my ego.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Not as big a gaffe as 'the fist take'...