On the Radio Drama Experience

Friday, 18th May. I am in Bush House, temporary home of BBC Radio drama, waiting for the actors to arrive. This is the readthrough of my new piece Breaking Point, a Friday play about military interrogation. I’ve been researching and writing intensively for several months, and I am anxious to find out if the damn thing actually works.

The first actor I meet is Simon Treves, playing Colonel Reynolds in the play. Simon likes the piece, and is pleasingly flattering in the nicest kind of way, then asks if I’ve been in the Army. The answer – good heavens, no, they’d never have me! I have two left feet, two cack hands, no sense of direction, and I’m a snivelling coward. But it’s reassuring to know that the story feels real.

The rest of the cast arrive – Naomi, Bertie, John and Elliot. John is a mild mannered man with an English accent who, once the readthrough begins, immediately reverts to his native Glaswegian and chills my bones with his portrayal of SAS man Danny.

The play is read, in a little room off the main offices, in a relaxed but committed way, and all goes well. I think back to the most embarrassing readthrough I ever experienced, for my play Rubato, when Nicholas Farrell was absent and I had to read in his role. I did so, giving, I felt, rather a decent performance till I reached the last section of the script when I remembered I had to sing three verses of a Destiny’s Child song. I th0ught about ducking out, but chose to carry on, belted out the song with huge energy – and the actors fell about laughing. Oh boy.

On this occasion, blessed relief, I don’t have to sing.

Saturday 19th May. We are in Studio N41 – an airless room in the bowels of Bush House. The process is, as always, efficiently, cheerful, and astonishingly fast. Two days to record a one hour play. It would take Francis Ford Coppola three months to cover the same amount of material. Toby, the director, is a hawklike, calming presence, and he gently talks the actors through the text and their approach until every line, every beat has a meaning for them. His great talent is not to impose an approach, but to coax the actors to imbue every moment with meaning.

Elliot, as Captain Starkey, is a cheerful, big man, brimming in testosterone and charm. His idea of relaxation is to cycle to Agincourt, as preparation for playing Henry V (later this year at the Royal Exchange). And as the day progresses, Elliot becomes increasingly scary and deranged; in his performance, I hasten to add, rather than in real life. John Dougall blasts through his role and suddenly, he’s gone. He only has one scene; his part is played.

Sunday 20th May. And amazingly, we are half way through. Everyone is more relaxed, and I’m starting to feel that ‘one big family’ feeling which I find so totally addictive.

The play is about psychological manipulation, and how to ‘break’ people in interrogation. It’s a subject I’ve researched thoroughly, and though I’ve invented elements of story, everything in the play is based on truth. And in the course of a day, Richard shows me a newspaper article about a German who lost his mind after experiencing US interrogation methods over a period of 5 months. As the play makes clear, this is not torture; it’s far worse.

The last part of the day features long long scenes between Eliot and Naomi. They kiss, they quarrel, they experience post coital bliss; and at the end of the day they go home to their different families. This is the part of the process of writing I most love; seeing words become flesh, seeing the actors become the characters I created.

Toby points out that I’ve given this play exactly the same structure as our previous radio play, Blame (about industrial manslaughter.) In other words, there’s a series of short scenes leading up to a very long climactic scene full of huge speeches. This is the great indulgence of radio; unlike cinema, where ‘less is more’ and the picture is worth more than a thousand words, the radio dramatist can write and write and write…

At 6.05 pm, the recording ends. The play is done. These are my favourite days in the year – after months of lonely slog, I get to sit on my backside and watch other people make the words come alive.

On the way home, I have a new idea for a radio drama…

Photos of the actors and technicians involved in the recording of Breaking Point can be found here.

Scripts of several other broadcast radio plays by Philip Palmer can be found in this other place.

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