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Monday 15 October 2012

Creating the Audio Drama

The first professional work I ever did was in radio drama, and I did quite a lot of it.  Long form stuff, six-part serials and 90-minute plays.  It’s a medium that provides a grounding that’s equally valid for both novel and screenplay writing.  You learn to structure, and to structure over distance.  You learn to balance scenes; you learn how to do speakable dialogue that carries story while still sounding like things that real people might say.  And, strange though it may sound, you learn the absolute value of the image as a way to deliver meaning.  You don’t have visuals in radio, so you’re forever seeking ways to put them in the audience’s mind, and you’ve an awareness of the need for them to count for something.  You can turn on your TV any night of the week and see writing that doesn’t attempt any of that.  People in rooms telling each other the plot. One up from that is the whole school of thought that believes the only ‘proper’ drama is two people arguing bitterly about their relationship.

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 Radio 4's 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 drama and led a very small team of highly experienced producers. Martin Jenkins did my next (An Alternative to Suicide) and I think with one exception he produced 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 of Coronation Street, of which he was a fan. But 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. On Alternative, which was a science fiction piece, 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.

On the half-hour Man in Blacks, I'd write the framing narration and it was understood that Martin would rewrite it for his needs. Those episodes now seem to be in constant repertory on Radio 4 Extra. Audio horror has an advantage, in that we're unsettled by incomplete information. Who's outside? What's making that noise? The moment you switch the lights on to see, that entire little universe of uncertainty collapses into something quantified. But with audio horror there's always something legitimately withheld.

I suppose if there's a weakness, it's that a lot of people imagine that an explicit visual trumps a quiet suggestion. If hearing someone scratching at your door is scary, the logic goes, then surely being confronted by them must be scarier still. I never really had to modify my writing because there was a very short note-giving chain and the people I was working with were all trained and experienced BBC staffers. But I can easily imagine having to deal with someone in the chain demanding that the uncanny be made explicit, because "that's what the audience will want."

As far as creating soundscapes is concerned, that's kind of interesting. Prior to my first BBC sale I'd written drama for a commercial radio station in Manchester. It 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 (I was working in Granada's Presentation Department, just down the road). 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.

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.

American radio drama was a quite different beast. When I imagine the kind of BBC drama I grew up with, I think of dignified thespians reading in a studio. But you listen to American 'old time radio' shows from the archives and they're like whirlwind rollercoaster rides with live music and a constant rain of shocks, stings, and climaxes. They're great fun but at the end of it you sometimes realise that it was all in the ride and nothing much of any weight has been said. The ideal is to try for something with a little more literary weight but still with that cinematic momentum.

I'd say that a good horror radio actor is one who'll go for the human truth in the scene where a lesser actor would fall into the trap of playing it for effect. Valentine Dyall – the original Man in Black, with whom I had the pleasure of working when I wrote for Doctor Who – let his natural gravitas do the job. Edward De Souza played it differently but just as effectively, by being sincere and not attempting to 'do creepy'. It's worth remembering that Vincent Price – another great radio voice – gave one of his career-best performances when, in Witchfinder General, he was shorn of all the tics and tricks that had carried him though many a crappy B-movie.


Unknown said...

An excellent article, very evocative. Living the Dream it certainly was, in those great days of John Tydeman, Martin Jenkins (whose surname seems to have slipped your keyboard), Gerry Jones, David Johnston and the rest. And the no-less legendary studio managers, who went to extraordinary lengths to create the fantastic out of the mundane.

There's still good work being done at the BBC, but considerably less of it, alas, thanks to diminishing budgets and, just possibly, diminishing ambition - or is that just nostalgia talking?

Ah well, I was there and it was wonderful (far more wonderful than I realised at the time, I think) and I am grateful.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Cheers, Bert... Martin Jenkins it was... fixed it now.

What's also noticeable is that while the number of drama hours is forever shrinking, many of the remaining slots are filled by independent production from outside the BBC. Martin himself has worked with Pier Productions and with Jarvis & Ayres. While I'm all for the diversity of access that a healthy independent sector can bring, I do miss the idea of there being that one centre of excellence where the standards are set and to walk its corridors is to feel the thrill of history. There was enough experience and wisdom around to spot potential and welcome it in. There's compensation now in the growth of the hands-on DIY podcast culture, but the time of the Jedi is no more.

Unknown said...

Walking the corridors of Broadcasting House now is no different from being in the HQ of almost any faceless corporate concern: the place is bland, uniform, open-plan and utterly devoid of any feeling of atmosphere or history. It's all a tad dispiriting.

But as you say, thank the gods for Radio 4 Extra and their constant stream of quality work from both the near and distant past.

Nathaniel Tapley said...

I can't help but wonder if the differences between classic British and American horror audio dramas stemmed from the sorts of source material that might have inspired them. One a product of the MR Jamesian English ghost story, the other from Weird Tales, and the other tradition (Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum, etc) being inspired by mid-century pulp magazines .

As an experiment a couple of years ago, we tried making an anthology series of half-hour horror-comedies. We had great casts, with actors like Lizzie Roper (Dead Boss), Michael Greco (Eastenders), Darren Strange (Parents), Ruth Bratt (Mongrels), & John Voce (Miranda), and ended up winning a couple of podcasting awards, but the commitment of time meant we only ever got to do 4 episodes.

If anyone's interested, they're here: http://inthegloamingpodcasts.wordpress.com/podcast-archive/

(Quick Plug: We've been asked to perform them live at the Leicester Square Theatre on Oct 25th and Oct 28th as part of their 13th Hour Horror Festival: http://leicestersquaretheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873483869/events?TSLVq=6bf7f17c-4851-46c6-8921-0eeb6e915571&TSLVp=89d972f9-9498-44a2-8995-929da89a882f&TSLVts=1350400389&TSLVc=ticketsolve&TSLVe=leicestersquare&TSLVh=d514e112c82dfdacc715e74366cb6153 )

Stephen Gallagher said...

'Tis a small world... John Voce was a production runner/utility player on my Saturday Night Theatre version of CHIMERA, in what I think was some kind of student placement thing from his drama school. Relieved to see that the experience didn't stunt his career.

Unknown said...

Just realised how downbeat and negative my last comments were. As I said earlier there's still some excellent radio drama being made by the Beeb, both in London and elsewhere.

And if you go right to the back of the Broadcasting House extension and seek out the farthest-flung of the staircases you'll be catapulted straight back to the BH of old. I don't think it's been touched since the days of Dick Barton.

Unknown said...

As an avid listener of radio drama for over 40 years all the people mentioned by Bert are like close friend though I've never met any of them.

I'm sad that the long form has all but disappeared from Radio 4. Classic Serials that would have been 6 to 8 episodes in the past are now only 2 or 3. The 90 minute plays now only appear to be dramatisations or adaptations of stage plays.

These days would we get Lord of the Rings or Frederick Bradnum's brilliant dramatisation of A Dance to the Music of Time?

No wonder I listen to 4 Extra more than its parent.

Marilyn said...

I wish we still had live drama on radio here in the States, but finding any is as rare as hen's teeth. I listen to the old Golden Age shows on a nostalgia radio program, and have recently become obsessed with "Suspense" which is available in CD or MP3. Glad to know I'm not the only one who's into radio.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Dirk Maggs is a producer who often applies Golden Age technique to BBC radio plays, although melodramatic flourishes now seem to lend themselves more to spoof or a comicbook sensibility than to anything more heavyweight.