Martin Jenkins

talking to Mike Lloyd of VRPCC

    I am grateful to radio producer Martin Jenkins, who recently agreed to answer some questions posed by Mike Lloyd of VRPCC, and to allow the answers to be published here - N.D.

    So- over to Mike.........

.................Martin - thank you so much for replying to my message to Pier Productions, and agreeing to answer some questions about your radio work.

Firstly - how did you start in the BBC? Were you an actor first? How did you get into work as a producer?

When I left University I won the Sunday Times National Student Drama Festival Best Actor award in 1962 and the Best Director award in 1963. I joined the RSC as an actor and director. In 1964 I was the first Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool. In 1966, I was invited to join the BBC Radio Drama Department. Until 1973, when I became a staff producer, I also worked in the theatre both in the UK and North America. I eventually became Chief Producer Drama (Radio) leaving the BBC in 1997.

You are often associated with some big radio epics. Vivat Rex is probably the most famous. How did you embark on this project and how did you manage to assemble the big star list?

In 1963 I had been an assistant director at the RSC on the epic production THE WARS OF THE ROSES. The great sweep of the Shakespeare plays had always fascinated me and to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee the Drama Department were persuaded to invest in 26 hour long episodes using plays by a range of dramatists which covered the reigns of Edward 11 to Henry V111.

My co-producer on VIVAT REX was the late Gerry Jones with whom I edited the dramas, wrote much additional 'Shakespearean' dialogue(!) and narrations necessary to introduce each episode and also to provide internal links. The latter were read by Richard Burton. Special music was composed by Christopher Whelen including a great opening which was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra - those were the days.

Casting big names has never been a problem. UK actors have always regarded radio drama as very much part of their working lives. We were fortunate to record Michael Redgrave as John of Gaunt (he was unwell but wonderful in the role), Paul Scofield as The Chorus in Henry V, Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret (the role she had played in THE WARS OF THE ROSES) and John Gielgud as Cromwell in Henry V111.

I also vividly remember John Hurt as Edward 11, Derek Jacobi as Richard 11 and Anthony Quayle as Falstaff. The gossip at lunch-time was unbeatable. Sadly, owing to the costs involved this massive serial has never been repeated.

Recently I heard The Nuremberg Trial for the first time. It's utterly brilliant. Again would you tell us something about how this programme was put together?

When I joined the Drama Department, there was always the opportunity to produce drama-documentaries and I made quite a number during my career several in co-operation with John Theocharis. Possibly our greatest achievement was THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL recorded with an American cast in Chicago in 1988. This led us to then embark on Nuremburg.

The endless trial transcripts were brilliantly edited by Peter Goodchild and I recorded these excerpts whilst John (and myself) recorded a range of interviews including some of those present at the trial eg Whitney Harris, a US Prosecutor, and Joseph Persico, one of the great authorities on the trial. Probably the most extra-ordinary interview was with Frau Jodl wife of the defendant Jodl who turned out to be partially English. She still believed passionately that as a soldier her husband should have been shot and not hanged.

The programme took many hours to shape and edit so that the main thrust and the main themes were coherent. When it was repeated, we were asked to cut it to two hours as it was felt listeners would no longer be able to absorb it at its full length. Changing times?

You are associated with work by David Pownall and Wally K Daly. Can you tell us something about them personally and how the assocations got started?

I have huge admiration for both highly imaginative writers who never cease to surprise. I first met Wally in in the mid 70s and subsequently directed some 30 plays of his many of which are based on his experiences of growing up on Teeside.

He loves words and situations and can write with great insight about anything from Sci-fi to the horrors of Rwanda. He also does a superb parrot and I managed to cast him as Cap'n Flint in TREASURE ISLAND where he reduced the entire cast to hysterics vocally perched on Peter Jeffrey's shoulder muttering 'pieces of eight'.

Wally has also been closely associated with the Writers' Unions.

My connection with David Pownall stretches back to 1984 and continues to this day. He is a remarkable writer who never ceases to surprise me with the quality of his writing and his ability to create all manner of situations. Like myself, he hails from Merseyside so we have explored quite a number of local themes. Like Wally, too, he draws heavily on his own personal experiences.

You have worked on some rather grisly horror pieces - Fear on Four, etc. Can you tell us something about this side of your radio interest?

Like so many I had grown up with THE MAN IN BLACK and together with my long-standing colleague Gerry Jones we felt that the fear/horror genre (perfect radio) had been neglected for too long. Together we directed about 40 FEAR ON FOUR. These have now become radio 'classics' and they are often repeated on Radio 7.

They required a different style and approach. Sound effects were of supreme importance in working on the imagination of the listener. Interestingly, when the first 'Fear on Four' THE SNOWMAN KILLING went out in the 6.30pm slot it was deemed too frightening and we were asked to tone things down but refused. Later 'Fear on Four' was moved to a more appropriate late evening slot where it garnered a huge student audience.

You have worked with some of radio's most wonderful actors - anyone you would single out? I rate Ronald Pickup very highly - especially in your productions of The Winter's Tale and Undiscovered Country.

Very difficult. Recently, I remember every nuance of Paul Scofield in HARD FROSTS IN FLORENCE, a 45min monologue written specially for him by David Pownall. Years ago, I recall working with the young Martin Jarvis and discussing with him with the various techniques for obtaining variety in basic storytelling. Bernard Cribbins is a brilliant storyteller.

Would you chose your favourite top five from among your radio productions?

Again very difficult because I have forgotten so many (probably wisely!). For various often very different reasons I remember vividly :-

THE CRUCIBLE - recorded in Los Angeles with a star-studded American cast.

THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL - an almost perfect example of the drama-documentary at its best.

DAY AT THE DENTIST - a superb example of the fear genre.

PARADISE LOST where all the music was created by school-children

THE IMAGE OF GOD - the great sweep of the English mystery plays dramatised by David Buck - again this was a terrific ensemble piece with many big names where the cast sang everything and created all the sound effects live. It would not be possible financially today.

I remember your 1973 production of "Julius Caesar" with Anthony Bate - an actor I know nothing about.

Tony Bate was one of the most successful actors of his generation and during the 70s he played a string of major roles on television. He had the ability to capture Brutus' mix of aloofness and inner turmoil.

Another of your epics is the Ibsen play about Julian the Apostate. For me, at least, the story and large number of characters are confusing on radio. Music was important in this piece. You mention the late Christopher Whelen's work for 'Vivat Rex'. Can you say something about how the radio producer has to relate to the composer?

If music is specially composed, the relationship between producer and composer is paramount. Working within budget constraints, each cue is discussed down to the finest detail - purpose, mood, length, etc. Finally the number of musicians has to be taken into account. Christos Pittas had a genius for inhabiting the spirit of the great Greek tragedies, writing some exquisite music; some of the tunes I can still remember. In the past, the score was often recorded in the studio with the actors taking part. Today most music has to be pre-recorded, and because of costs, a lot is composed on computer.

Why are you freelancing now?

When I was made redundant by the BBC in 1997, I continued directing plays for both R3 and R4 almost exclusively with Pier productions and Jarvis & Ayres. I did go back in-house about five years ago to cover for a former colleague.

Many thanks, Martin, for answering these questions and for allowing them to be published on behalf of VRPCC.

(Dec 2010)

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