Ghost stories on the radio, and the page.

I listened to three ghost stories on BBC Radio 4 last week. A new decade was beginning, and I was tuned in to three fifteen minute stories that were over a hundred years old. They may have been the best bit of my radio week.

This wasn’t just about the excellence of the stories, or of the actor reading, it was a clever piece of programming that began in the Radio 4 soap opera, called The Archers. The edges of this fictional village have often blurred and blended into the real world. In its early years, this was deliberate.

The soap was developed in collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then, it was billed as an everyday story of country folk.

These days The Archers is billed as, a contemporary drama in a rural setting. It’s set in a fictional village called Ambridge, in a fictional county called Borsetshire, which is somewhere near Birmingham. The story plays out in fifteen minutes slots on weekdays, with an omnibus on Sunday mornings.

As autumn 2019 drew to a close, several Ambridge residents began to ask who would volunteer to organise the village panto. Several characters were approached, but – ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t.’

Tension in the village, and amongst the listeners, mounted. Ambridge theatricals have often been broadcast by Radio 4 as a spin-off, over Christmas. Surely this tradition wasn’t going to be cut?

Not so much cut, as transformed, thanks to a Halloween episode. Jim Lloyd, a retired university lecturer, seriously spooked Robert Snell, another character, by repeating a Victorian ghost story he knew, as they were sitting in an isolated bird-watching hide. By December Jim had been persuaded to tell similar stories to a bigger audience as a Christmas Show.

We listened to fragments of the rehearsals in his performance place, the attic of a local stately home. He clashed first with his stage manager, then his artistic director. While they thrashed out artistic differences, for this listener, the surroundings became clear, even tangible.

It would be almost dark. The attic debris has been cleared to the side of the room, and seats added. It’s a place of shadows, of objects laid aside for decades: random and the once valued. Above are rafters, dusty and cobwebbed. The floor is bare boards. Jim is seated in an armchair, with his book, facing his audience.

On opening night tension mounted. Curtain-up time approached and only four people had arrived. Maybe the premise was too unusual, the setting too odd… Jim was talking of calling it off, when a busload of listeners trooped in.

The show was, of course, a smash hit, a sell out. Other characters discussed it, raved about it, regretted failing to get a ticket.

I now know what they missed, because Jim’s tales went out in that separate slot on the schedule. The first one, broadcast on December 30th, was The Room in the Tower, by E.F. Benson. It’s a 1912 story. Lost Hearts, the 1895 story by M.R. James went out the next day, and The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, published in 1902, on New Years Day.

The long cold nights of winter are, of course, the ideal time for ghost stories. I first read tales like these in traditional teenage fashion, under the bed-covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. I can still recall being aware of every sound, as the house cooled and settled into silence, and menace.

John Rowe, the actor who plays Jim Lloyd, paced his reading carefully, convincingly. His was the voice of someone recalling something they are still struggling to understand, it was perfectly suited to the confessional tone of these beautifully designed story openings: ‘It was when I was about 16...’; ‘It was in September of the year 1811…’; ‘Without, the night was cold and wet...’.

Many turn-of-the-century authors wrote as if their story were being spoken. Some actually described the family and friends at a fireside. We imagine the flickering of the gas or candle-light, turned down so that it fails to quite reach the corners of the room. Notice how those shadows are inclined to dance…

The broadcast stories needed no sound effects. They were abridged, by Jeremy Osbourne and Jeremy Howe.

John Rowe, an actor, playing a character who is taking on the voice of another fictional character, read all of the necessary voices beautifully – chillingly.

School Drama, BBC Radio 4: teaching Shakespeare

This week, I’ve been gripped by a four-part Radio 4 play, School Drama, written by Andy Mulligan.  I’ve listened on the I-Player, rather than as it was scheduled, and it’s available there until 13th April 2018, if you’re interested. Professional actors take the leading roles, other parts are played by students and teachers from Portsmouth Grammar school, where it was recorded. It’s a lively production, with some contemporary sub-plots.

school drama, andy mulliganGeoff Cathcart, ‘has-been actor’, steps in to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet for a secondary school that’s taking part in a Shakespeare competition.  The teacher who was in charge has taken indefinite sick-leave, and his drama colleague would rather direct ‘Oliver’, but is told she must work with Geoff on the Shakespeare.

The two director/producers are as far apart as the Capulets and the Montagues. They don’t agree on how to cast, interpret or stage the play. When Geoff’s innovative approach draws in some challenging students, tensions are hiked-up.

Andy Mulligan, explaining where his inspiration came from, writes:

A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.

Teenagers, the play demonstrates, are not only capable of exploring the intricacies of the plot, exposure to the whole text transforms them. Given access, and encouragement, the players blossom.  Students from opposite ends of the learning scale earn the respect of their peers, and develop inter-personal skills.

In contrast, the responses of the teachers, bound by the rules of safe-guarding and the dictates of biased school-governers, gets narrower.  As Geoff and the students take control of the play, the teachers, unable to recognise the beauty and originality of what is happening, are driven into increasingly radical action.

school drama 2The writing isn’t so straight-forward as to suggest that Geoff, the maverick, has all the answers.  He’s a rounded character who carries ‘baggage’, and clearly hasn’t enough understanding of the real and wider importance of ‘safe-guarding’.

I don’t think Mulligan was claiming we should abandon the rules.  The problem with the teachers was that rules, and safety, have become everything to them.  Targets, academic and economic, mean that simplifying is standard.  In discussing his own experience, Mulligan writes:

One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?

I  hope some teachers were listening to this production, and not focusing only on the dangers.  When I was at school we did the whole text of Macbeth.  At the point where we were introduced to it we went to see what, I think, must have been the 1971 Roman Polanski version. There was nudity, blood, and rude jokes from the gatekeeper to make us snigger.  But I remember that every teenager there was hooked.

school drama 3

Performers from Portsmouth Grammar school: Rory Greenwood, Rebecca Emerton, Finn Elliot and Rob Merriam

 

*Photos above from BBC, include actors, Tom Hollander, Divian Ladwa, Heather Craney, Tony Gardner & Sian Gibson

Radio Review: Lady Invincible

Are you still on the look-out for extra Christmas gifts?

Let me recommend something a little different, a great-value stocking filler: a downloadable radio play, by Lynda Kirby.

Lighthouse cover_cropped for cw jpg

Lady Invincible Illustration by Brigid Walshe

 

This is a well written, beautifully acted and produced atmospheric play, with the added bonus that all the proceeds go to a good cause.

The Lady Invincible, a lighthouse, is both the setting and the narrator for a narrative that dips back and forth through time.  The main strand shows us the interactions of the crew on the last day before the lighthouse is due to get automated, in 1996 as a storm breaks.  But lacing through that story are voices from the past and the future.

Don’t just take my word for it.  You can find it on Lynda’s blog at, http://www.lyndakirby.com

Prepare to be intrigued.

Radio Tales.

Some of the writers from my groups have been taking advantage of an invitation from the Writers’ Room for local writers to read their stories on Corinium Radio.

Unless you live in Gloucestershire you’ve probably never dreamed such a broadcast existed.  I do live in the county, and didn’t realize until I was forwarded the email calling for contributors to volunteer for a short story slot in the schedule.  Since this discovery I’ve been tuning in and enjoying an eclectic range of subjects, styles and approaches.

So why don’t you check it out too?  It’s available on-line as well as via the air-waves.

corinium radioI’m looking forward to more stories, over the next week or two.

Perhaps you should also check out your local radio stations and see if they have similar opportunities.  If they haven’t, it still might be worth approaching them with the idea…

It’s all too easy to get locked into thinking the only way to share our words is through the printed media, but the truth is there’s a whole other world of performance opportunities out there for prose people, from slams to story-telling events to internet podcasts.

Reports from the first recordings have been trickling back to me full of positive vibes.  Scary but fantastic, is what they say.  I say, what a buzz.