Thursday, 24 October 2013

Misadventures & Echoes

In July this year, I wrote and delivered a new short story for BBC Radio 4.

It's part of a series* called EDINBURGH HAUNTS, which starts on Friday 25th October and mine - THE MISADVENTURES OF MAGNUS LOVATT - will be broadcast on Friday 1st November at 3.45pm.

It concerns an actor at the Edinburgh Fringe, doing a one man show based on little-known tale The Misadventures of John Nicholson by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can read the RLS text here

The RLS story follows the (mis)adventures of a foolish young man in Edinburgh, his disgrace, his flight, and his prodigal return to yet further difficulties, not least of which the disapproving eye of his stern banker father.

RLS himself considered it not one of his best efforts, dashed off as a Christmas story for 1894, but I heard it adapted for radio and read by John McGlynn, many years ago, and it stayed with me.

'Misadventures of Magnus' was a commission and it came about by a circuitous route, the details of which may interest other story-tellers.

In late August last year I happened to spot a tweet from the BBC Radio 4 Commissioning Editor Comedy & Fiction, saying that she'd been in Edinburgh during the Festival and had seen a ghost, in the New Town - seen it twice.

Normally I would not approach online someone I know in a professional capacity about possible work (and don't recommend anyone else try it) but we had met and emailed before and I do have a track record with Radio 4
I tweeted back, "...idea there for a series of Edinburgh ghost stories?"

...and she kindly suggested I email her with an outline.
So I did. Given the cuts to the Afternoon Reading strand, knowing it was more likely to be greenlit if not a solo project, I suggested sharing it with two other writers.

The Comm. Ed. liked the basic outline and - given the logistics of this theme, and the location of the ghosts - handed the proposal on to a drama/readings producer in Glasgow, whom I didn't know personally. (I had for some time been working with producers based in BBC Bristol, not in Scotland, but that's another story). It would, I knew, be added by BBC Radio Scotland's Drama department to their bunch of offers (er, technical term) for the next commissioning round, i.e. it would eventually head back to the fore-mentioned Commissioning Editor for a swift and executive style yea or nay.

Time passed....

In January this year I heard that the proposal had been accepted 'in a slightly altered format' - instead of Festival Ghost stories, the BBC wanted Edinburgh Haunts, broadcast not at Festival time but around Halloween. The plan was to record them in the locations featured in each story (that element was, in the end, ditched for perfectly sound reasons). At this point the project was handed to another producer.  And so on and so forth.

I'll cut to the chase a bit...

From the moment I spotted the Comm. Ed.'s tweet, I knew my narrator would be an actor of a certain age and temperament - a bit like X in terms of career path with some Y thrown in to leaven the raging egotism. (Who? Not telling.)

Then it was just a matter of how to conjure ambiguities of interpretation - by the hauntee, and by the listener - and sow them into the story at various stages. And fit everything in. (Not everything fits, ever, and that's fine, and that's why I love short stories.)

RLS looked over my shoulder from the outset; I've been aware of his stories and their supernatural elements since I was a teenager when, for a few years living abroad, my only reading material in English had been a full Household edition of Dickens and the Tusitala edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's works - i.e. about two yards of Classic Literature.
I devoured them, slowly, with some fromage frais and a nice Orangina.
About writing for radio.. even when it's a commission, essentially you're writing for yourself, writing to your own critical standards the kind of thing you want to read and/or hear. A short story is the perfect vehicle for such megalomaniacal control - I don't mean that in a negative sense at all.  But authors aren't present in the studio when short readings are recorded, they're at home biting their nails, so it's the producer and an actor who - together - lift your narrative off the page and twist it carefully so that it fits into the listener's ear and stimulates his or her own imagination.

I hope listeners to 'Misadventures of Magnus' will get the performance-within-performance aspect of this, where the actor is speaking the RLS text inside my text.

This project gave me the nudge to revisit the Scottish Storytelling Centre - the former Netherbow Theatre on the Royal Mile - where Magnus's show is staged; it's a venue I remember not only from seeing actors of repute perform literary gems there in the '70s, but where, in the '80s, I performed comedy in various personae for audiences who'd not yet heard the words 'Alternative Comedy', let alone seen any such thing on their home turf.

As it turns out, much of what I did there wasn't Alternative in the least - I didn't do jokes, as such. Didn't like hearing jokes about either Tories or Tampons and didn't make them. My kind of comedy starting with inventing a character - voice, intonation, fixation, compulsion, some or all of those emerging and developing - then following that person's thinking out loud in a kind of trance-state.

It took me approximately 10 years or so to gain the confidence to believe I could do that on the page.

When I did, BBC Radio in Queen Street in Edinburgh was where I sent my early efforts - to the three producers who guided the now defunct Storyline strand on Radio Scotland - and it was a rewarding way to get my start. I hope there will always be avenues for other writers to learn through the broadcast medium (pun intended).

If ghosts exist, I might rather like to be haunted by RLS. Then again, in a sense, living and working in Edinburgh, maybe I already am?

*The other tales in this series are by Val McDermid (25th Oct) and Louise Welsh (8th November)

Saturday, 19 October 2013


 I remember Hallowe'en being quite a low key thing in my childhood - it wasn't seen as quite proper to celebrate the dead, or make fun of ghosts and hauntings. 

We lived for a while in a remote part of Argyllshire, and one year my brother and I were invited to a party in a rather grim grey stone castle around Hallowe'en time, for which we had to dress up.

My brother had a plastic sword, shield, helmet and breastplate, which he wore with set of knitted grey wool 'chain mail' - I thought it looked pretty good. My outfit was adapted from one of my mother's 50's skirts, a dark purplish blue, covered with little figures, which draped around me like a full length cape, and she made me a pointy witch hat out of newspaper, painted black.

We were not a camera-owning family, alas, and I'd love now to see what we looked like. The strange intoxication of dressing up at that age was far more exciting - and memorable - than any other aspect of the evening; though I do remember - as if it were an illustration from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (the Fezziwigs' ball) - standing on the threshold of a very large room, seeing our hostess - an imposing woman, tall, with a shelf bosom and glinting spectacles - beckon us in towards a row of spooky silhouettes which turned out to be guests standing in front of a blazing orange log fire in a hearth the height and breadth of a Highland cow.

Thinking about all this made me go looking for vintage postcard images of Hallowe'en, and I found many online, mostly American. I particularly like the nightmare-inspiring vegetable-people in some of these.