As often as not, it’s a short story.
So how do they come into being, these seemingly-simple quarter-hours of narrative which can (at best) scoop up the unwary listener and temporarily transport him or her to another world?
It all starts, of course, with the writer. Writers can speak for themselves about what they write and how they write, and where their inspiration comes from. As a producer, you have to find – or commission – stories which you think will work for the listeners: that is, stories which entertain, enthral, move, make laugh, engage.
What kind of material works best? It’s dangerous to generalise but, perhaps for obvious reasons, stories told in the first person tend to make the biggest impression – on me when I’m sifting through piles of scripts, and later when the voice comes out of the radio to grab the listener by the lapels: “This is what happened, and it happened to me.”
A man describes how he’s accosted in a Glasgow bar by someone claiming to be an extraterrestrial alien. A recently bereaved widower reveals bitter feelings about his marriage and his family in a speech at the post-funeral reception. A star-struck schoolgirl recounts how she tracks down an international movie actor to his dressing room and there shares tea, shortbread and meaningful conversation.
Three enticing synopses. Not surprising, then, that each of these unsolicited stories stood out in the slush pile, and that each went on, when broadcast, to prompt a huge response from listeners. And although very different in tone – two comic and one very dark – all of these randomly-remembered scripts were, effectively, first-person monologues.
So: who to cast? Obviously, an actor who can – in the fullest sense – read; who can get to grips with the meaning of the text, bring it to life, and whose voice and accent are right for the material.
Not every good actor is a good reader, and only a handful are true masters and mistresses of the craft. The late Anna Massey, for example, who would turn up for a recording with her script marked up like a musical score, each syllable highlighted for a particular stress or emphasis. Or Crawford Logan (the current incarnation of radio sleuth Paul Temple), whose preparation includes slipping every page of his script into its own plastic pocket to eliminate the risk of noisy “page turns”. With readers like these, the producer’s job in the studio is – almost, but not quite – reduced to pressing the “start” button and standing back.
As budgets shrink and studio time is reduced, the temptation to use only very experienced readers is strong. When I first started producing short stories in the analogue 1980s, a fifteen-minute story would typically be allocated three hours of studio time, of which at least the first hour would be devoted to the reading itself: rehearsing it, discussing it with the actor, recording the whole thing once, then perhaps recording it all again (but without losing the freshness!), then re-taking specific sentences and passages because they were too fast or too slow, or a crucial word was indistinct, or the sense wasn’t brought out quite as well as it might have been, or maybe because there was the hint of a frog in the actor’s throat. And so on.
It’s an intense process – even more so if time is tight. I once produced a reading by an accomplished and well-known television actor who also had a lot of advertising voice-overs on his CV. He hadn’t, though – and I only found this out when we got into the studio – ever done a sustained, full-length radio reading. By the time we’d finished the man was exhausted; red-eyed, shiny-faced, his metaphorical tie metaphorically askew. “Blimey,” he said. “That’s harder than saying ‘Fly British Airways’.” But the end product was a delight: fluent, mellifluous, engaging.A note here on the physicality of reading for radio: even if you’re sitting at a lectern you need to perform with your whole body, not just your voice, and the best readers really do work up quite a sweat. I recorded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime with David Rintoul, and remember watching as he read a speech in which the distraught hero tries to send his wretched monster packing once and for all: “Begone!” bellowed David, thrusting out his arm and jabbing a trembling finger at the door of the studio. The listeners didn’t see that gesture; but they certainly heard it.
Getting a decent reading out of an actor is partly down to the producer’s directions: a helpful note here, a small suggestion there. But shaping the end product is also a question of editing, after the actor’s gone home – cutting out the fluffs and throat-clearings, of course, and sticking in the retakes; but also working on the all-important rhythm of the thing. Trimming pauses that are just a little too … long. Or inserting pauses where there are none – to mark a distinct change of scene, for example: the equivalent of a white space, with a discreetly centred asterisk, on the printed page.
Again, this kind of fine-tuning takes time. Would the audience notice if we didn’t do it? I think so. A typical listener may not be able to pinpoint what it is about a particular reading that holds the attention, that simply makes it listenable, but I suspect they can sense if the work hasn’t been done. Too many commercial audiobooks are hard to listen to because all that’s mattered is that the words are all there and in the right order. Never mind that the actor sounds tired and hoarse, or that for much of the time he’s on automatic pilot, clearly not thinking about the meaning of what he’s saying, and just anxious to get to the end before the session runs out.
Not his fault, of course, or the producer’s (if there is one); but the inevitable result of commercial pressures on time and resources – the kind of pressures which, at least until recently, have weighed less heavily in the world of readings at the BBC.
Until 2009 there were five new short stories a week on Radio 4. In recent years the short story strand has been themed – five stories by one particular writer, for example, or five stories about love/death/sex/daily life in Cumbernauld (or whatever). Go back a little further, though, and the five daily stories were a marvellously eclectic selection, picked by different producers all over the UK, and mixing the work of established (sometimes “classic”) authors with the unsolicited material from new or up-and-coming writers that constituted the bulk of the output. So you might get a Stevenson story one day, something commissioned from Fay Weldon the next, and a new submission by an unknown Alexander McCall Smith the day after that.I don’t know what happened to Alexander McCall Smith, but many of these modest offerings gave rise to greater things: a 2,000-word story I commissioned from the writer Paul Magrs, for example, became a few years later the basis for a whole series of cult novels centered on the original “bride of Frankenstein”, now intriguingly resurrected as the landlady of a B&B in Whitby. Later still, one of those books was dramatised – and produced by me – for radio. A virtuous creative circle, or what? And all this from one unassuming fifteen-minute afternoon reading.
Now that there are plans for fewer new stories on Radio 4, will there be scope for this kind of slow, quiet development? Or will there be pressure to focus every time on big name readers and big name writers, so that each – increasingly rare – new story can be packaged and promoted to make a splash; perhaps to justify the genre’s relative expense, or perhaps just to stop it withering away as people forget which day of the week to tune in?
And what about the archive? Right now there’s a big enough back catalogue of well-crafted story readings to keep Radio 4 Extra in business for at least another thirty years. But what about stocking up now for the thirty years after that?
Finally – and maybe I’m being a hopeless old romantic – if new short stories become a rarity, each one a high-profile ‘highlight’, there’s a risk of losing that unique relationship with the audience. Not every short story on radio is memorable or special, or has the potential to generate five spin-off novels. But there needs to be enough of them (is “critical mass” the term I want?) to make them an integral part of the radio landscape, and to ensure that the real gems continue to be created and serendipitously stumbled upon by individual listeners – as delightful private discoveries rather than as self-consciously over-hyped ‘events’.
Bio: David Jackson Young started his professional life in comedy – performing with Radio Active, writing for Not the Nine O’Clock News, as near as dammit winning the Perrier Award in 1982. After a quarter-century detour as a very serious BBC radio producer – making features, dramas and readings, mainly for Radio 4 – he recently resumed his precarious career as an ill-defined writer/performer, with some occasional freelance radio production on the side, just to keep his hand in.