Sunday, 20 October 2013

CATCH MY BREATH - BBC Radio 4 Extra - Behind The Scenes - Part 2

My gothic horror serial CATCH MY BREATH is on BBC Radio 4 Extra once again this coming week, Monday 21st - Friday 25th October, 6pm every day, with a midnight repeat (and then each episode available digitally for 7 days afterward). So I thought I'd write a bit about the background of the story....

(Meanwhile, if you catch CATCH MY BREATH and like it, catch me LIVE at the London Horror Festival in my two shows there, the very vampiric BLOOD AND STONE: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory on Oct 30th and my Edinburgh Fringe hit 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS on Halloween.)

...So one night, while guiding up in the Cairngorms, I got the news - courtesy of a public phone booth in a remote highland village (a mobile signal - don't make me laugh....) that we were commissioned by BBC 7 (later Radio 4 Extra). My play about the expressionist poet Else Lasker Schuler, My Blue Piano, had been commissioned by Radio 4 around the same time, so it was a busy autumn shifting back and forth between the two projects. Director once again, as with all my BBC projects up to that point, was Bruce Young: we were a good partnership, in part because we were in many ways opposites in terms of aesthetic temperament, Bruce very pragmatic, keen on straightforward, coherent storytelling and an economical use of language, me the baroque fantasist, the reckless head-in-the-clouds dreamer. Even now, when I haven't done a production with him for some while, it's always a useful exercise to me to ask myself "What would Bruce say?" about this or that scene or speech or individual line of dialogue. He's certainly the guy who taught me the proverbial ropes in terms of radio storytelling and I owe him a lot.

A key contribution Bruce made was in pressing me to keep Strachan from being too straightforwardly villainous - my concern in the first draft or two was in making sure he was genuinely scary, but Bruce was insistent there be more to him than that. BBC directors are always too respectful of writers to tell you what to write, but they're good at discreet nudges - and so scenes like the attic scene between Strachan and the old man in episode 3, a scene in which we begin to get a sense of what an utterly lost soul Strachan is, a scene that's one of my favourites in the whole story, was very much my response to Bruce's promptings.

We recorded at a former school in a former school in the tiny village of Pencaitland in eastern Scotland. The old BBC radio studios in Edinburgh (where my first BBC play A Hundred Miles was recorded) had been shut down when the Beeb sold the property and while the BBC offices that now stand on Pacific Quay in Glasgow were being laboriously completed, with their own in-house studios, we used this tiny independent studio: all but Hundred Miles and Rough Magick of my BBC Scotland work were recorded there. I loved Pencaitland - cast and crew without their own transport would meet in Waverley Station in Edinburgh and be mini-bused for the better part of an hour out to this tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. The studio was actually alongside a graveyard, where I used to go strolling in the coffee breaks, maybe a better setting for recording this sort of story than the corporate offices on Pacific Quay.

We had a good cast. Claire Knight was in BBC Scotland's soap River City, a good strong presence to hold the thing together. Suzanne Donaldson was more of a newcomer to radio, but I really liked her performance. I remember Suzanne telling me that she was a major Marilyn Monroe fan - and maybe there's a teeny whiff of Marilyn's influence in the way her characterization combines a sort of breezy sexual self confidence and a deeper vulnerability. We had Eileen McCallum as Isla Thorwald - a bit poignant for me as my grandmother had died just a couple of weeks before the recording: she was the biggest influence on me both as a human being and as an artist and she'd been a big fan of Take The High Road, the STV soap on which Eileen was the star, so she missed by a couple of weeks hearing one of her soap favourites appear in one of my dramas. (She was an even bigger fan of Frazer Hines - on account of Emmerdale rather than Doctor Who: if only she'd lived to hear Night's Black Agents a couple of years later....).

But another crucial bit of casting came with the character of Strachan himself. Bruce had an actor lined up - a very good actor who'd been in a couple of my previous pieces, but a middle-aged character actor, not necessarily the sort of radio presence who'd make you swoon over every syllable. There was, however, a scheduling conflict and with about a day to go, that actor pulled out and Bruce had to recast: maybe, as with Rochenda Sandall in Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, all major roles should be cast last minute, because as with Rochenda we wound up with someone brilliant, in the form of Liam Brennan.

I confess that when Bruce told me over the phone who he'd cast, my response was "Liam who?", Liam being primarily known as a classical actor on the Scottish stage, rather than TV or film. But he was utterly brilliant, all I could have asked for. Crucially, he connected with that aforementioned 'lost soul' aspect of the character: without his changing a single word of the script, I could see and hear him, day by day, deepening, expanding, the character beyond my own vision of it. That's the greatest part of being a playwright - when an actor, while respecting your text, gives it a richer life than you could ever have envisioned. It's like a parent seeing his or her kid doing something you never guessed the kid had in it. Just listen to him in the final scene between Strachan and Isla Thorwald in episode 5 and you'll hear what I mean....

As with Ghost Zone, we found an episode or two running too short in the recording, what with the hectic pace, so I had to write a couple of extra scenes at short notice. But one of these, the scene in episode 4 where Strachan does Colleen's make up for her, is almost my favourite in the whole thing. There's nothing overtly sexual in the scene, but it's a deeply creepy, sensual, fetishistic moment, more pervy and disturbing than any overt sex scene. That's one of the joys of writing a sexually-charged story in a very tightly censored medium - like Josef Von Sternberg in all those 30s Marlene Dietrich movies, you have to constantly find metaphors for the sexual aspects you can't portray directly. And the way Bruce directed the scene, so that in contrast to the material either side of it, it's all very S-L-O-W and hushed, almost if the actors were whispering in a trance, a kind of 'underwater' acting even, is really effective; I think it's almost my favourite bit of direction from Bruce on any of the shows we did together.

(Again, the scene in episode 3 with the horse falling over the cliff and dying very slowly and audibly while Strachan embraces Colleen above, shows how that kind of outrageous, bizarrely displaced imagery can be more sexual than any sex scene, that broken backed horse belching out blood and froth and screams a hundred feet below the lovers a bolder image of sexual violation than any sex scene could ever be: a kind of 'blatantly indirect' surrealist sexual fetishism.)

Things I wasn't happy about? Well, we had a genius doing the sound effects on Ghost Zone and we didn't quite have that this time around - the 'demons in the forest' FX could have been much better. I wish I'd breached recording studio etiquette and jumped in front of the mic myself when some of those demonic voices were being recorded (although I do appear as one of the cackling party guests in ep.4.) But all told, it was one of the productions I was happiest with - and it meant a lot, after all those years, to see my Primal Scenes trio of Kate, Colleen and Strachan gain the fullblown dramatic life so many other dream projects of those early years failed to achieve... an ongoing dramatic life given how often the BBC repeat it. Do tune in and listen at:

Friday, 18 October 2013

Catch My Breath - BBC Radio 4 Extra - Behind The Scenes Part 1

My gothic horror serial CATCH MY BREATH is on BBC Radio 4 Extra once again this coming week, Monday 21st - Friday 25th October, 6pm every day, with a midnight repeat (and then each episode available digitally for 7 days afterward). So I thought I'd write a bit about the background of the story....

(Meanwhile, if you catch CATCH MY BREATH and like it, catch me LIVE at the London Horror Festival in my two shows there, the very vampiric BLOOD AND STONE: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory on Oct 30th and my Edinburgh Fringe hit 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS on Halloween.)

We go back a long way do me and 'Catch My Breath' (on BBC Radio 4 Extra all this week LISTEN HERE.... It began one day in my teenage years when I came across a film still in a very highbrow movie magazine, a still from a German Expressionist silent film. I long since parted company with that magazine, but I have a faint memory that the still was supposed to come from the film Schatten / Warning Shadows... although I've since seen, and loved, that film and could nowhere see in it an image exactly matching the one I recalled from that movie magazine. But the still depicted a darkly handsome man holding a candelabra standing at the foot of a staircase and looking directly up at the camera. I don't think the accompanying article said anything about the narrative context of the image - it was a general survey of the German silent cinema - but there was a game I used to play in those days as a would-be writer, a sort of imaginative five finger exercise. I would look at a still from a film I'd never seen, about whose story I knew nothing, and make up my own story to go with the image. (I would also do this with titles of films I otherwise knew nothing about: I once got a great plot out of the title Spider Baby).

Anyway, I stared at this intriguing still, asking myself who is this man? What staircase is he stood at the foot at? And who is he looking at with that handsome but untrustworthy grin. And I started to come up with answers. He's in a grand house, he owns that house, he's welcoming us to that house, we're lost, we need someplace to stay, he's handsome, charming, seductive. But he's not to be trusted. He has a secret. A downright demonic secret.

It was just a game, but already it was the beginnings of an honest-to-goodness story and when I started to get serious about being a writer, clunking a typewriter onto a kitchen chair in my first Glasgow bedsit, I began using it as the starting point for a screenplay called 'Primal Scenes': there had been a brief boomlet in low budget British horror cinema and I thought, like many an ambitious tyro writer... who knows? Of course, like 99.9 % of screenplays it didn't have half a hope of actually being produced, although it did at least get me shortlisted for the National Film School's screenwriting course. But I didn't give up on the story, converting it into my first, abortive, attempt at writing a novel and then, when Ghost Zone was something of a hit on BBC 7 as (Radio 4 Extra then was) and I was offered the chance to do another serial for them, I decided to rework Primal Scenes into radio drama.

There was quite a bit of reworking required, as the change of title implies. The most obvious difference between Primal Scenes and Catch My Breath is that the two heroines of Primal Scenes were a mother, Colleen, and her daughter, Kate, both escaping suburbia and a violent / drunken husband / father. But when the chance to do the story for radio came along, I immediately wanted to change this: for one thing, I was aware of the radio convention that when there's a child character, directors tend to cast adult actors doing 'child voices' - and it's never really convincing. It's acceptable for a small part, but I didn't want the main actor through the whole 2 1/2 hours of a five part serial sounding like that, so I changed the situation to make Kate and Colleen both young women... though Kate's experiences with a violent father did find their way back into the plot - even more dramatically, in fact. And the dynamic of the two characters didn't even change as much as one might anticipate with a significantly younger Colleen still sexually self confident and an older Kate still implicitly virginal and fearful of the whole world of sexuality a figure like Adam Strachan embodies.

Furthermore, Primal Scenes had been much closer to a traditional vampire story - I was a child of Hammer Horror, the classy atmospheric gothic of Brides Of Dracula and Kiss Of the Vampire a particular influence. But by the time I did Catch My Breath, I'd been earning spare time money as a walking guide on the long distance paths of the Scottish highlands and, for the first time in my life, steeping myself in the supernatural folklore of my own country and culture, as distinct from that of Transylvania, or Bray Studios, or Hollywood. I can still remember the rainy, 'dreich' night in the King's House hotel out on Rannoch Moor when, huddling close to the fire in the bar, I fell into conversation with a much older hiker (from Aberdeen, I think), who'd caught me reading J.F. Campbell's Popular Tales Of The West Highlands and told me "Och, son, I ken a few mair fearful tales than yi'll find in an auld book like the yon." I called his bluff and he told me about a creature called a Beatha-Greimach that drew the breath from its victim's bodies. Instantly I was grabbing a beer mat and scrawling the name on the margin of a beer mat (like most names in Gaelic it doesn't look anything like how it sounds). This sounded fascinating: Scottish folklore doesn't have any vampires, but it's well known that it has creatures very close to the vampire, the beautiful female Leanhan Shee, for example, who may have been a stronger influence on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla or Bram Stoker's vampiresses than anything in Romanian folklore. Maybe that's what lies behind the fact that the four most important 19th century writers in the vampire genre were all Celts, or part-Celt at least; the Scots-Italian Polidori, the Scottish James Malcolm Rymer (Varney The Vampyre) and the Irish Stoker and LeFanu. What, I thought, if I ditched conventional vampirism in favour of a tradition of supernatural horror a Scottish author could truly call his own? One day that old man from the King's House bar is going to catch up with me and demand a 'finder's fee' at the very least!

Developing links with the Scottish folk tale tradition allowed me to go more into the origins of my supernatural villain, and that in its turn, allowed me to develop the character of Isla Thorwald, a character who existed in Primal Scenes solely as a babbling, toothless old crazy woman jumping out of the scenery occasionally to provide a scare or two, but who now became a major, developed character.

There were other, essentially practical changes. Primal Scenes was very much a film script, orientated around set pieces of visual action. There was a great scene, for example, where Kate tails Strachan all the way to the back streets of Glasgow, where she catches him 'in the act' with a young woman. Strachan chases Kate through the streets, he in a car, she on foot. She jumps on a train out to the countryside and he drives like a madman to head her off at the station. But that kind of purely visual, wordless action just doesn't work in the verbal medium of radio so you're better off reworking all that stuff into scenes that, though action-packed, are word driven.

The other main change came at a prompt from Patrick Rayner, head of drama at BBC Scotland. I'd been developing the idea with Bruce Young, the director, and we were all ready to go in terms of submitting the final pitch to the commissioning editor down in London, when on the day of the deadline Patrick got in touch to say he liked the idea, but we needed 'one more character': my storyline, devised initially for a two hour film might not have enough plot for a 2 1/2 hour radio slot. Panic! A whole other major character, with the deadline that afternoon? Who? Doing what?

So I took the dog for a very intensive walk around the local nature reserve and racked my brains. But something came to me very quickly. Originally, I'd purposefully not attempted to explain how a supernatural forest demon came to acquire a human name and identity: I thought it was fair enough in a gothic tale to leave some details shrouded in mystery. But then I thought there might be real dramatic potential in developing a human character from whom the demon's human identity was stolen. And, of course, to a writer in the Scottish gothic tradition, the tradition of Jekyll& Hyde and the Justified Sinner, the doppelganger aspects were irresistible. So suddenly there was an extra resident creeping around the upstairs recesses of the Strachan house. And the pitch made the deadline!

In part 2, I'll talk about the actual production.....

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk - BBC Radio 4 Friday

It was a few years ago now that in a reference book I encountered a mention of a Russian novella about a romantic murderess haunted by a ghostly cat. I sought out the story - it took a bit of searching! - and then a little while after encountered Shostakovich's opera based on the story: I remember getting hold of a box set CD of it just after getting my first ever BBC drama commission, for A Hundred Miles - another story set in Russia. In fact, I stole some Russian cuss-words for my play from the Russian libretto of the Shostakovich opera!

The Leskov story was always lurking somewhere at the back of my mind... I suppose its indirect influence can be seen in my novel Aztec Love Song...
Aztec Love Song - my novel
...which again features a very uncompromisingly murderous anti-heroine, although that's not set in Russia but in my own home town of Newton Mearns. But when Wireless Theatre Company, who'd produced Medusa On The BeachBlood And Stone (in conjunction with 3D Horror Fi) and Redder Than Roses asked for suggestions for an adaptation that could be pitched to BBC Radio 4, it was top of my list. And at last after a few rejiggings (it was going to be a 2 part serial, then a one hour one off, then suddenly a 45 minute afternoon play), it was commissioned - on a very hit-the-ground-running schedule.

But the piece basically wrote itself (sort of): the Leskov plot was so tight and brilliant, the only trouble was cramming everything (or nearly everything) in - and the short running time forced me to curb my more baroque flourishes in terms of language in favour of a terse, laconic style... which in itself suggested something of the dialogue in the 40s films noirs which we'd used as a reference point in selling the idea in the first place. And then suddenly we were round Cherry Cookson's house in the bright August sunshine, recording this evocation of Russia's chilly wastes in her back garden and her son's bedroom. And it all worked!

Good casting helped enormously. I've learned the hard way that the one thing a dramatist can't survive is miscasting - but here everything worked perfectly. We had a certain well known actress from a certain lah-di-dah high end soap lined up to play our anti-heroine Katerina, but she exercised a star's prerogative to drop you in the deep end at the last moment, forcing poor Cherry to recast over the phone while stuck in a traffic jam... she had an ex-student she thought might be able to handle the role, a prospect that gave one momentary pause... what was this - nepotism where we'd been after a Big Name??? But in fact Rochenda Sandall was/is utterly brilliant in the role - all this playwright could have asked for. Away from the mic, she's a bubbly laugh-a-minute young woman, in front of the mic she's fully wedded to the character's crazy, passionate intensity. If she's not a Big Name now, she will be very soon, I suspect.

As male lead we had Joe Armstrong. Joe was just back from holiday... unfortunately, he'd come back with a sore throat and worried about his ability to cope with the vocal demands of the role. That first day, he spent all his free time collapsed across a bed, trying to muster his strength for the next take, apologising to us, convinced he sounded like some hoarse subterranean monster in a horror flick, even as we kept reassuring him "No, no, Joe, it sounds fine." And then the second day his sore throat had miraculously cleared up - and now he worried he wouldn't sound like the same guy who'd done the other half of the scenes the day before. But again we reassured him that on-mic you couldn't tell the difference. And hearing him in the final cut was a revelation; they used to always say that when Gene Hackman acted on set, he hardly seemed to be doing that much, but then you saw him on screen you suddenly realised what a powerfully etched performance he'd created. Joe, I think, is a bit like that in front of a radio mic: what he does is very subtle, internal, he thinks deeply about what he's doing, asks a lot of questions... and you wind up, in Lady M with a performance of real power.

Backing those two up we had an ensemble of real skill, ranging from well known character actors to those who'd got their break through Wireless Theatre, such as Jessica Dennis who'd just given a terrific performance in another of my plays, Redder Than Roses, playing Mary, Queen Of Scots. Then the whole thing went into the editing suite... I was anxious about this as my previous BBC production Rough Magick had had to lose about 10 minutes in the editing room - and I was particularly worried the violence of the story would get cut away to nothing... and the hard clear eye Leskov has for violence is one of the great aesthetic virtues of his story - it's one of the great things Russians like Leskov or Dostoevsky do... they don't keep the hard dark edge of life at a genteel distance - like, for example, their English contemporaries. They go in hard for the hard gritty truths of life. A Glaswegian can relate to that....

Anyway,  the violence survived, as close to intact as I could have wished for (I'm willing to concede that in the script I maybe pushed a wee bit TOO far - rather than play safe!)... this is quite an intense piece when all's done and dusted. I have this fancy of folk listening on Friday after sitting through The Archers, thinking "19th century Russia? Set on a farm? Unhappy marriage? It must be like a sort of Russian version of the Archers...." and then getting knocked out of their seats by what we have for them.

Anyway, there it is -- and it goes out this Friday at 2.15 pm, and then onto the iPlayer for the next 7 days. I hope people like it... Radio Times certainly did. But it's the play I had in mind all along, certainly. It's not every time round I'm as completely happy with a production as I am with this - and for that I thank Cherry, Mariele and the wonderful cast (although I should add that if you listen very closely you can hear me shouting and mumbling in the background as a sort of extra filling out the crowd scenes... it's long been a tradition with me to do a bit of a 'Hitchcock' in my radio plays... I'm a soldier dying horribly in Ghost Zone (shortly to return to BBC Radio 4 Extra - and I'm a cackling demonic partygoer in Catch My Breath...)

Anyway, here's the link to the appropriate page on the BBC Radio 4 website - although it talks about my dialogue being 'Shakespearean'... not sure I can live up to that!