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:

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