Thursday, 19 July 2012

Behind The Scenes - researching a life

While researching my late father's life and work for the BBC's Great Lives series (this one is due to air on Radio 4 on 21st August 2012) it was clear that there were going to be problems finding suitable audio material. The producer sent me a list of what the BBC had in their sound archives; lots of short programme descriptions of weekly Radio Scotland Arts/Magazine programmes he presented in the 1950s, (i.e. before I was born), but there was little that seemed to me to demonstrate the variety of his abilities as a broadcaster, or indeed as a writer.

Of his 3 award-winning plays - The Wasting of Dunbar, Navigator In The 7th Circle and Henrysoun and the Ploomdam - the Dunbar had been broadcast on Radio Scotland and the Navigator on the Third Programme (as it was then called) in the same years as their theatrical premieres; but the actual tapes were gone. I'd heard it was common practice to re-use/recycle those big expensive reels of tape, but the knowledge that those particular plays no longer existed was depressing, and on behalf of my late Pa I undertook some grumbling and cursing.

However, after hours of scrabbling about in our own family archive (a series of boxes underneath a staircase) I found a parcel, tucked into my father's old briefcase. It contained three boxes of 1/4 inch BBC magnetic recording tape, purporting to be from the 1976 studio recording The Wasting of Dunbar. I had no idea if they were the originals, or copies made by some friendly sound engineer with a nod from the Producer, or if they might contain only sound effects, either from the broadcast or from the original stage production. No way to know unless I could get them transferred to digital format. Luckily, the Radio Media Manager at the BBC's new Pacific Quay HQ in Glasgow agreed to try this, so I handed them over, and she did the job, and sent the sound files by email to the producer in Bristol.

Emboldened by that discovery, and having been reminded by my father's actor friend David McKail (himself author and performer of several plays) of an enterprise called 'Diversity' which is, among other things, a non-BBC archive for culled radio programmes, I wrote to Diversity, asking what they might have from Leonard Maguire's radio days; to my great surprise they replied that there was indeed a copy of his Coleridge play, Navigator in the 7th Circle. With generosity and with great speed, Nigel of Diversity reformatted and emailed it to the programme producer in Bristol, just in time. I was hugely relieved that now we'd have at least two elements from his own written and performed work to include.

So on the day of recording of the programme, I got up at 5.30am and caught a plane to Bristol, spent the morning walking around (the Zoo is nice) and arrived at BBC for 2pm. Met Bill Paterson (whom I'd met once before, on a boat in the firth of Forth, but that's another story) and Matthew Pariss and we settled in the studio to begin the 'conversation' - that's what it was, really, Matthew asking questions, Bill and I dredging our memories to supply detailed personal answers and anecdotes. During the recording, a number of audio clips were played. The sound quality of the 'lost & found' Dunbar play was not great - (perhaps years of lying in a briefcase had damaged the oxide) - but it was astonishing to hear my father's voice once again speaking this poem:
Now, of wemen, this I say for me:
Off erthly thingis nane may bettir be,
They shuld haf wirchip and honouring
Off men aboif al uthir erthly thing...
(Trans: Of women, this I say for me/Of earthly things none may better be/They should have worship and honouring/Of men above all other earthly thing.)

It took me straight back to 1976, to standing inside the door of the Salisbury Church hall in Edinburgh, taking tickets, and hovering at the back throughout many performances, every time transfixed by watching Pa become a 15th Century poet...

(to be continued)

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