On Air

So about that radio play…

A few weeks ago the deadline for submitting dramatic scripts to the BBC Writer’s room was coming up fast and I had a somewhat uneven script called Gorilla ready for submission. There were a number of reasons for the dodginess of the script, the main one being lack of preparation. The general idea came out of listening to Warren Zevon’s Gorilla, You’re a Desperado  over and over because it followed Goodnight Moon alphabetically on my iTunes and I went through a period of listening to that each morning as I walked to work a while back. But I really only had a few scenes very clear in my mind, and a general sense of an atmosphere I wanted to generate.

I had a mental list of characters and what their reactions to the drama would be, in a couple of cases a had a sort of voice for some of them, but beyond that they were a bit functional and not terribly fleshy.

I also had a somewhat more extravagant end in mind (SWAT team, hostages, animal control, possibly even an exploding helicopter) which didn’t really fit with the lower-key way it was turning out as I wrote it. So in the end I had to turn the ship around and head for somewhere rather less Michael Bay, coming up with the new ending on the fly.

So of the classic trifecta of storytelling plot, character and theme I really only had the last stuck firmly in my head: I knew that wanted the play to have a challenge to human exceptionalism threaded through the play. With a pair of door-to-door Mormons providing one side of the debate, and an entirely silent gorilla called Jambo providing the other. Oh, and I wanted it to be funny, or at least amusing.

So I’ve shelved it for a bit, to come back to and do a proper job on. Because I really want it to be right.

I am possibly a little sentimental about the radio. Perhaps even more even than reading, certainly more than film or TV, cassettes and CDs were how my parents kept me and my sisters amused. As a mish-kid in Africa I was indoctrinated into the ecstatic mysteries of the Christ by Focus on the Family’s Adventure’s in Odyssey. Long car rides (my first boarding school was in the region 1,000 km and a two hour border crossing from home) were made tolerable by Dad’s Army, Round the Horne, Hancock’s Half Hour, and Martin Jarvis reading Just William (not strictly ‘drama’, but much more than just an audiobook, few people do the police in more or better voices). I would spend afternoons lazing around and listening to CDs of Bob Newhart monologues. When trying to get to sleep, I still sometimes listen to Judy Dench narrating Winnie the Pooh, with Stephen Fry as the bear of very little brain. And even though I have listened to it maybe twice in the last decade I can still quote at length from Hitchhikers.

Point being, I don’t really want to be hackish about this, in the way I might be about other forms of writing – you know, like blogging.

Which is a pain, cus unlike screenplays and the theatre, there’s not all that much guidance for radio plays. People don’t write books on writing for the radio. Clicking on a few specimen scripts on the BBC website doesn’t even offer you a consistent set of formatting rules. Helpfully I was able to read through a few of Big Finish’s scripts with the audio playing which gives a sense of how the FX lines can be used and a few examples of good and execrable exposition to use as models.

There are certain formal tricks to make life easier: give a character a reason to tell a story to another for you and you can use them as a narrator then you can use them when dramatic dialogue is not enough. Certain sounds act as an obvious shorthand, setting up scenes – like rainfall, doors creaking, announcements over a tannoy system, cars passing. When you’re out of other options and really need someone to describe (in a rather unnatural way) what they are looking at or what is happening you can get away with a lot if you make it funny. But in the end what made the bits that I felt worked work was thinking in terms of a short story, scribbling it down and then adapting it as best I could to the format.

This is what I will be bearing in mind when I come to the re-write: it is, after all, just storytelling.

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