James Follett - novelist and radio play writer... lost his sight when a child; learned Braille, sight restored in his teens by an operation; man of many talents - he even built a large boat thirty-odd years ago. His well-crafted science fiction (and other) plays are familiar to radio drama enthusiasts, especially the two "Earthsearch" epics from 1981 and 1982, where two organic computers responsible for the running of a huge spaceship slowly go out of their minds. His last radio plays were "Ice" and "A Darkening of the Moon", both broadcast in 1986.

This page contains a piece explaining why James no longer writes radio plays. Following this is a list of his radio work, and finally there are notes on some of the plays.

There is an excellent James Follett website run by David Williams which contains a complete listing of his work, plus an entertaining biographical section. The url is at the foot of this page.

I am grateful to Greg Linden for locating the following piece on a "Usenet" discussion board, and for obtaining Mr. Follett's permission to use it; thanks also to James Follett.

Why don't you write radio plays any more, and was it your decision or theirs? (discussion forum: uk.media.radio.bbc-r4)

A bit of both, I suppose. The BBC used to have a smooth-running machine designed to maintain a high standard of radio drama together with quantity. The Beeb used to claim that they were producing a play a day. The script unit bought in scripts, suggested rewrites, and producers could bid for them at script meetings. It wasn't a rigid system. Where producers had developed a good relationship with a writer they could commission material directly.

There was excellent support for producers in the form of internal organizations such as the BBC Drama Repertory Company which gave actors and actresses the chance to gain a great deal of experience on six- monthly contracts, plus a competent copyright department that looked after the contractual side.

All this added up to a stable market which attracted writers.

Sadly, that infrastructure has now largely gone in favour of an internal market "producers' choice" system in which producers are given a budget and have to use it to finance all the services needed to produce drama.

This sea change has favoured the growth of independent production houses who produce ready-made radio drama and shoulder responsibility for all the associated services such as looking after copyright and seeing that residual payments are made to contributors.

I did actually form such a company with a couple of colleagues and we produced some saleable dramas but we had to devote a huge amount of time to buying scripts (although I wrote some), booking studios and editing facilities, writing endless letters, negotiating with agents etc. Have a member of the cast go sick on a recording day and you could kiss goodbye to the profit on that production. It was a lot of work, a lot of stress, and not to my taste because I wanted to write rather than get bogged down in the time-consuming minutia and hassle of radio production. Others revelled in it but not me.

So I drifted out of writing radio drama. In way I'm more fortunate than many writers because I'm equally at home writing advertising copy, TV and novels, and fire brigade work on movie screenplays.

James Follett

10.11.73 Rules Of Asylum
06.07.74 The Light Of A Thousand Suns
14.08.74 The Doppelganger Machine
18.12.74 Speculator Sport
22.02.75 The U-Boat That Lost Its Nerve
26.07.75 The Light Of A Thousand Suns,rpt
31.12.75 The Last Riot
13.03.76 Jumbo
28.08.76 The Rabid Summer
21.04.77 The Twisted Image
04.06.77 The Spanish Package
19.11.77 A Touch of Slander
07.01.78 The U-Boat That Lost Its Nerve,rpt
11.03.78 Destruction Factor "The Seeds Of Creation"
18.03.78 Destruction Factor "World Without Fire"
20.01.79 Vendetta For A Judge
29.03.80 The Long, Lonely Voyage Of U-395
05.09.80 Oboe at the Embassy
26.07.86 A Darkening Of The Moon
08.11.86 Ice

06.01.81 Earthsearch 1 (10 x 30m): weekly
06.01.82 Earthsearch 2 (10 x 30m): weekly

1979 Series - Just Before Midnight ( all 15m):
The devil to pay
Softly steal the hours to dawn
The man who invented yesterday

Drama, based on actual events
1975 The war in secret (3 x 45m)
1977 The war behind the wire (4 x 45m)



James Follett's first published work. Originally broadcast R4, and repeated on BBC7, 14 Jan 04, using an ancient cassette recording belonging to Mr. Follett and largely restored by him. (an interesting article on his restoration of the tape is given on his website; address below)

What might happen if a completely secure defence system goes wrong....

See "Aircraft and Airmen" radio plays page. An intriguing "timeslip" play; 55m, with Peter Pratt and Hector Ross.

Speculator Sport....1974
1st Broadcast 18th December 1974, producer Margaret Etall. "I'll tell you what. You do the place up as if we were trying to sell it. After all, the only time we've ever had a house worth living in is when we're trying to unload it on someone else"

Judith Grayson- Joanna Wake
George Grayson- David Brierley
Major Birkett- Brian Haines
Mr. Smallpot- Leslie Pitt
Doctor - Leslie Pitt
Maurice- Paul Gaymon
Miranda- Carole Boyd
Fred - Peter Pacey
DJ - Peter Pacey
Frank - Jack Carr
Builder - Jack Carr
Surveyor - Jack Carr
Judith's mother - Norma Ronald
Mrs. Carlton - Olive Crowe
Beale - Peter Whitman

Wartime story based on real events. Imagine you are commanding a U-boat; you are on the surface, and suddenly an enemy plane appears, fully armed. You have been taken by surprise and are defenceless. Do you attempt to dive (which will probably result in the death of the everyone on board) or do you surrender? You have to decide in, say, 5 seconds. The consequences of your decision will affect the rest of your life.

This play was directed by Margaret Etall.

Part of the series "The War In Secret". (see above). My friend SS writes: A vast amount of BBC drama is dramatised historical stories, not quite factual, with more or less connection to what may have really happened. Having now listened to Operation Aspidistra I see it far more as drama than factual. It is based on "Black Boomerang"; volume 2 of an autobiography by Sefton Delmer, and fits in very well with the other dramatisations of wartime events by Follett. As an early example of his dramatisations it has broad value.

In 1978 there was a BBC tv drama program broadly based on the same book - "Play for Today- Licking Hitler", written and directed by David Hare who at the same time was writing a somewhat similar stage play "Plenty". Hare's theme was more dealing with post-war corruption and deceipt.

A long, hot summer, and rabies spreads to England....

The Twisted Image....1977
BBC 7 Drama 2004-09-03
First broadcast 1977-04-21

James Follett's futuristic murder mystery. Two police officers discover the body of a local businessman's wife in the boot of his Rolls-Royce, stolen from outside his shop in the new town centre. It should be an open and shut case - only the new town centre won't be built for another five years...

Detective Inspector Simmons ... Douglas Blackwell
Detective Sergeant Coult ...... Peter Wickham
Mrs Francis ................... Joan Matheson
Policewoman ................... Anne Rosenfeld
Alan .......................... Alaric Cotter
Helen ......................... Christine Absalom
Pathologist ................... Jonathan Scott
Paul Holden/Doctor ............ Gavin Campbell
Councillor/Butcher ............ William Eedle
Powell ........................ Cyril Appleton

Produced & directed by Margaret Etall
Info. sent by Hans Olsson, Stockholm

Criminals do not always accept that the judge is just carrying out his job...and revenge is sweet.

He's home at 5.20 ... a respectable, contented, married man, secure in a nice routine. But someone is determined that the routine must end...her tight sweater and indecently split-skirt may help... with Jane Knowles, Rowena Roberts, Peter Jeffrey, Philip Voss and Michael Spice; produced by Gerry Jones.

EARTHSEARCH 1981 and 1982
Famous science fiction serial: the descendants of Earth are looking for another Earth-type planet where they can settle. The ship's control system - a highly intelligent organic computer - can think for itself. What will happen when it is no longer needed? Broadcast in two series.

Thousands of square miles of ice have broken off from the Southern Continent and are drifting towards New York. Can the collision be averted?

An autobiographical episode from James Follett's childhood. 26 July 1986 (Saturday Night Theatre). 90m. With Graham Blockley, Blain Fairman, Bonnie Hurren and Jenny Funnell. This is a story, based on the author's own experience, about a boy dealing with a serious injury to his eyes. Below is a long piece the author which talks about his injury and describes the origins of this play - his last for Radio 4. It first appeared on a "Usenet" posting, and I am grateful to Greg Linden for finding it and to James Follett for giving permission to reproduce it.

..................You were blind and you got better? How did that happen?

It was a plant, a gorse bush during horseplay on training hike in early 1953 for our dear Queen's coronation. A thorn punctured right through the cornea of my left eye, through the lens, and into the anterior chamber.

Thanks to Dr Harold Ridley [1] at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, my left eye did not have to be removed apart from the lens that had to go. The problem was the nasty bugs on that gorse thorn that caused infection to spread to my right eye and damage the cornea -- exposing it to further infection. In those days there weren't the narrow spectrum anti-biotics that there are today; to prevent infection causing further damage, my eyelids were stitched down. Eyelids were considered the best dressing. What I thought would be two weeks with stitched eyelids became many months so I was packed to yet another hospital for pre-op intermediate care where my talent for being an obnoxious cunt stood me in good stead because I wanted to teach myself Braille.

Why all the frigging fuss about learning Braille? I wanted to know. It was just raised letters wasn't it? A patient nurse explained about Braille cells and that it wasn't worth my learning Braille because my eyesight would be restored after my 'operation'. Besides, the hospital didn't have facilities to teach Braille. I wasn't having that. I wanted to read. The obliging nurse fetched me the only Braille book they had: THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat. Three massive volumes with a collective weight of about a quarter of a ton. She explained the Braille cell system to me as best she could and I was off. No Braille first readers; no Braille tactile exercises. Straight into the book. Do you know what the first line of THE CRUEL SEA is? I do. I'll never forget it because it took me about a week to read it: "Lieutenant Commander George Eastwood Ericson, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve."

My eye operation was delayed and delayed but I didn't mind. With THE CRUEL SEA I had a book that gave me bouts of tremendous action and bouts of tremendous sex. My feverish fingers flew over some passages. Mr Monsarrat was my new hero; a writer who knew exactly what pimply boys wanted. The intimidating length of the book didn't matter; the great thing about blindness and Braille was being able to read after lights out without the aid of a torch. The disadvantage was having to keep one's fingers on the pages during the juicy passages when they wanted to be off doing other things.

The infection wasn't clearing fast enough so I was packed off to a special needs home where a blind kid was paired with a polio victim kid -- there were a lot of polio victims in those days. Thus the two could get out and about and be independent: the blind kid providing the muscle, and the polio victim acting as the eyes. Thanks to Mr Ridley I eventually ended up with one good eye and a defunct left eye. His last words to me around 1955 were: "Come back in 25 years and we might be able to plonk an artificial lens in your left eye."

25 years later and such an operation was still impossible because there was no tissue to support the lens.

It became possible in the late 1990s with the development of a technique that involves making an incision in the side of the cornea and injecting a rolled-up acrylic lens through the side of the eye and positioning it in front of the pupil, immediately under the cornea.

I had the operation at Moorfields in 2000 and the next day, after the dressings were removed, I was in permanent gobsmacked state having near perfect vision in my left eye after nearly half a century. That's the nice thing about ophthalmic surgery. With a broken leg, you go into the hospital with a broken leg, and you come out with a broken leg. Eye ops can be instant cures.

On my last trip to the consultant in 2002 I was declared to be in possession of what he called "RAF vision".

For this reason, I always urge those with a little spare cash to donate to "Sight Savers International" (IIR, formerly the Royal Commonwealth Institute for the Blind". GBP20 buys a cataract op in India or Africa -- the worst affected regions for eye diseases in the world. Don't make the mistake I made and get involved in their CES scheme. It's a long term thing because not only do you pay for the ops, but, in the case of a kid who has lost out on their education, you can get talked into providing private tuition fees, high school fees, and so on.

Much of this boring waffle was related in the last play I wrote for Radio 4, "A Darkening of the Moon" -- a Saturday Night Theatre -- and the only play of mine that was not recorded in BH. It was produced by an old colleague, Shaun MacLoughlin, who had taken over the Network Production Centre at Bristol. He'd been on at me for sometime to write it and I had always stalled. Too bloody close to home for comfort. It's one that the BBC haven't lost.

[1] Harold Ridley is worth looking up on Google or Vivisimo. He was the great pioneer of cataract ops. In fact he performed the first successful lens implant during the last war. As a young doctor he was puzzled as to why the eyes of crashed Spitfire pilots did not react to canopy splinters whereas the eyes of Hurricane pilots did. He discovered that Spitfire canopies where made of "Perspex" -- acrylic. The stuff was inert -- the body did not react to it -- so he ignored opposition from his colleagues and made some artificial lenses out of this new plastic, and they worked. His technique is now performed routinely all over the world and has restored the sight of millions. He was knighted in (IIR) 1999 shortly before his death when he was well into his nineties. The news shook me; I had no idea at the time that he was still alive otherwise I would've written to him.

James Follett...........reproduced by permission


In the 7th Dimension, BBC7, we have two James Follett dramatisations next week. From 12-14 Jan 04 there's a chance to hear Rules of Asylum and then, on 15 Jan, The Destruction Factor begins a six-part run.

Rules of Asylum is his story of a man who, having escaped from a sanatorium, appears to pose a threat to the state. This dramatisation stars Betty Huntley-Wright and Neville Jason and was first heard as a 90-minute play on Radio 4 in November 1973. Also stars Vernon Joyner, Manning Wilson, Francis de Wolff and Cyril Shaps. (Repeated in 3 parts on BBC7 12 to 14 Jan 2004)

The Destruction Factor is a work of science fiction of a different persuasion. Directed by David Spense and starring T.P. McKenna, Rosalind Adams, Paul Copley and Bruce Beeby, this is the story of a new strain of plant created to bring relief to famine-ridden countries. It may look innocent but destruction lurks within. The Destruction Factor was first broadcast in March 1978. (info. obtained from BBC7 newsletter, 10 Jan 04)

The James Follett website is at:

list of plays compiled from info. supplied by Roger Bickerton

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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