Radio producer Gordon House recently talked with Mike Lloyd about his experiences in radio drama. They covered a lot of ground, and Gordon gave permission for part of the conversation to be published here.
Mike has been listening to radio plays for several decades. Gordon has worked in radio since the late 70s. He was head of BBC Radio Drama from 2001-2005 and now works for indie company Goldhawk.
I was in my third year at Christ’s College Cambridge, and had already applied – successfully – for a place at the local Teachers’ Training College; teaching was the profession for me. But a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that the BBC were recruiting for “Production Operation Assistants in Radio” (now called Studio Managers) and were doing preliminary interviews with third year students. I thought it might be interesting to find out more about the BBC, and test out my abilities – if any – as an interviewee. I enjoyed my interview; was offered a subsequent “final” one in London; managed to convince the board that I had the necessary personal skills (if not technical ones!) to progress further, and accepted a six months’ contract to start as a Trainee P.O.A. the following October. I thought I might get a bit of “life experience” working for the BBC for two or three years before resuming my Teacher Training. In the event I stayed for 37 years…..
I can do no better than quote from an autobiographical work I am currently writing (which will probably never see the light of day!”) “It was 1960, I was eleven years old, and my mother came into my bedroom to find tears streaming down my face. She looked gratifyingly concerned. “Gordon - what on earth is the matter? Are you feeling worse?”
Actually I felt fine - and had done for the last 24 hours. But when you’re off school with ‘flu, there was no point in recovering too quickly - particularly when the week-end beckoned and you could miss Friday afternoon’s double-maths.
No. I had been listening to a radio play - something I had rarely done in the past - and it had - astonishingly - reduced me to tears; tears I desperately tried to hide, shame-faced that my mother, of all people, should see me blubbing.
The play was no great work of art; I can’t remember the title or its author, but its pivotal moment will live with me for ever. A father is out at sea with his son, and his son’s best friend. The boat hits a rock and rapidly starts sinking. They are foolishly unprepared for any accident, there are no life-jackets aboard; and though they’re not far from the shore, the father realises he only has the strength to swim back with one child. The other will be left to fend for himself. Who will the father rescue? The son he loves more than anyone in the world? Or the son’s friend with whose welfare and safety he has been entrusted?
He chooses his son’s friend. They swim off to safety - but we, the radio audience, stay with the son - we hear him vainly fighting the swell - we hear him pitifully calling to his father - we hear the waves close over him as his strength deserts him. As I type these words fifty years later I find my eyes welling up once more at the extraordinarily vivid memory of the “glug glug sink-emptying” sound effect that the producer had chosen to illustrate the moment of death. (Realistically quite wrong, but dramatically horribly effective.)
At the time I simply remembered being appalled at the father’s choice. Would my Dad have done the same thing? Left me to drown while he rescued one of my friends? Yes he probably would have done; he would do anything to avoid upsetting the neighbours. I vowed to myself never to get in a boat with him again.
At a deeper and unarticulated level I also realised how powerful a play could be on the radio - it was as if it was being performed for me, and me alone. I had eavesdropped on a real and terrifying human experience; how else to explain the tears that even my mother’s appearance had not completely extinguished.
But I had no intention of explaining any of this to her. In an effort to divert her concern, however, I announced rather grandly that should my wish to become a film actor not be realised, I had determined on a second, rather less glamorous career. I would direct radio plays....
As a Studio Manager I did training stints at both Broadcasting House (with the then “Domestic Service) and Bush House (from where World Service programmes were made.) I found, on the whole, the multi-national Bush House building a much friendlier and more invigorating place to work, than Broadcasting House, where, as an SM, you were given less freedom and responsibility. So having done successful attachments to Children’s TV Programmes (twice), the Radio Drama Script Unit and the BBC World Service Sports Department, I was delighted when – in the late 1970’s - a production job in World Service Drama was offered to me, first on attachment, and then as a permanent staff position. I went on to become Head of World Service Drama and was to stay with the service for nearly 25 years.
There were very clear budget restrictions at World Service; for many years we had very little money to commission original radio dramas – these were “bought in” from Domestic Drama. The great bulk of our work was adapting stage plays for the medium, and our brief was twofold: to demonstrate the breadth of British writing and acting talent to the world with adaptations of modern and classic British stage plays; and to “reflect the world back to the world” by also making productions of major international dramas by the likes of Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Ibsen, Patrick White, Joyce Carol Oates, Fugard, Pirandello, Sartre, Tolstoy, Soyinka, Marguerite Duras, Durrenmatt, Frisch etc.
It was only in my latter years that I was able to persuade my bosses to loosen the purse strings and also commission some original radio plays written specifically for a world audience (spurred on by our “Worldplay” productions with other international broadcasters) as well as instigating what was one of the first ever major international “radio soaps” – Westway. A good drama department has to be seen to create work as well as re-shaping and re-interpreting it.
What was difficult was assimilating the World Service Drama Unit, with its very different ethos, and way of working, into the London Radio Drama Department; this was all part of John Birt’s radical re-structuring of the BBC. But in fact when I became Head, the London Drama Unit was moved in its entirety, (for cost and space reason) for a few years, to Bush House – so I felt very much at home. After some initial misgivings I think the department as a whole enjoyed the Bush House ambience and the relatively spacious working environment, where producers had individual offices – a far cry from the present “hot-desking” that is now the norm at Broadcasting House.
John Tydeman would indeed have been a hard act to follow, but there were two talented women that succeeded him as Heads of Drama – Caroline Raphael and, following her, Kate Rowland – before I took over. And by this time the job was very different from in John’s day; we no longer commissioned our own work. My job was to head a team of producers in London, Manchester and Birmingham, who would offer production ideas to the Commissioners of Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service; it was for them to accept or reject them. (This is still the remit – though World Service, alas, no longer broadcasts regular drama output.) I saw my job primarily as a facilitator for some very talented colleagues.
I don’t know about “best”! I have some personal favourites over the years; as you say below, I became something of an Alan Ayckbourn radio specialist (on radio his plays are much more “tragedies with laughs” – it’s a very different experience from watching them in the theatre with an audience laughing alongside you.) I’ve loved working with the likes of Alan Bennett, Rose Tremain, Marcy Kahan, Don Haworth, Gregory Evans, Nick Warburton and the wonderful, inimitable Peter Tinniswood.
My most recent production - Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase is one of the few plays where I’ve felt “I don’t think I could have done this much better.” Peter Souter’s Goldfish Girl is a personal favourite, and produced the largest amount of correspondence I have ever received. I shall always remember our World Service adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata with great affection, as David Suchet’s superb performance won the World Service its first ever “Sony” Award (it was to win countless more!)
Mike Walker’s play Alpha was one of the highlights of my directing career; Stephen Dunstone’s Under the Rainbow another. Rarely have I had such fun as when I directed Jeremy Clyde and Michael Cochrane in the three Raffles series, or Kerry Shale in Dr. Strangelove. Hana Maria Pravda’s War Diary about her time as a prisoner in Auschwitz was profoundly moving; Stephen King’s Pet Sematary deliciously scary. But twist my arm and ask me to name one production which I treasure, for personal and professional reasons, and it would be A Very Rare Bird Indeed by Peter Tinniswood, which won no awards, has rarely been re-broadcast, and probably languishes in some BBC archive. But a terrific cast (Judi Dench and Peter Jeffrey starred) a great technical team, and two very happy days in the studio made this a particularly memorable experience.
It is entirely appropriate that you should mention Stephen Murray, as he was probably the first actor I worked with on radio who made me realise just what differentiated “great” acting from the merely “good.” As an attachee producer I directed him in a reading of “The Invisible Man”, which for him – and myself – was a real labour of love – with the emphasis on “labour”. He was never satisfied with the merely adequate; he pushed himself all the way to produce the very best, and most truthful performance he possibly could, in the short time one has to record a radio production.
Other actors –off the top of my head I immediately think of Ian Holm, Lia Williams, Nigel Antony, Ian McDiarmid, Penelope Wilton, Cyril Shaps, Elizabeth Bell, Richard Briers, Adam Godley, Philip Jackson, Claire Rushbrook, Samantha Spiro, Daniel Massey, Indira Varma, Adrian Scarborough, Anton Lesser, Anna Calder Marshall, Geoffrey Whitehead; there are many, many others - who would also go that extra mile to make a production as strong as it possibly could be, within the time limitations that are always Radio Drama’s worst enemy.
As for directing Alan Bennett – he is an absolute joy, as writer or actor. One of my favourite memories of him, was when we were making a recent production of “Cocktail Sticks”; he played his older self; Alex Jennings his younger one. He came into the studio to listen to a scene with Alex, after which he sighed and remarked “Oh dear…..Alex is so much better as me than I am”!
It is interesting you should pick out Patrick Magee, as he was indeed one of the very few actors with whom – for one day at least - I really found it hard to work. “When We Dead Awaken” is hardly a barrel of laughs, but the chill temperature in the studio was absolute zero when Patrick arrived in the studio on the first day of production; he was somewhat the worse for drink and in a thoroughly bad mood. He made life hell for both myself and his co-star Anna Massey, refusing to take any direction, and being plain rude to Anna. Then – miracle of miracles – he arrived on the second day with flowers for Anna and a bottle of whisky for myself, and was an absolute bunny-rabbit. I’ve no idea whether he tested all his actors and directors like this; he was, I think, a complex and troubled man. But he was great casting for the part!
I’ve rarely had problems with actors in the studio – and particularly “big stage stars.” (It is those who would have liked to be “big” and carry a permanent chip on their shoulders who can sometimes be more difficult….) But in the short time we have to make radio plays I always try to treat every actor the same, and I think they appreciate this. Likewise everyone “mucks in”! Dame Judi is always the first to offer to be an extra in a crowd scene (somewhere I still have out-takes of her more imaginative offerings as “extra number 2”) and if you want star treatment, then radio is not the medium for you! As for “scaling down performances” (very necessary for radio) most stage stars do film work, and adapt quite easily to the radio medium. A good actor is a good actor is a good actor….
Sadly I have never worked with Alan Ayckbourn! Over the years he has kindly given me permission to adapt many of his plays, but has always been too busy to come to the studio. I do, however, have a collection of postcards from him thanking me for CDs of the finished production and (generally!) praising the work. I am indebted to him for allowing me to produce so much of his back–catalogue; he is undoubtedly one of the great playwrights of the last 100 years.
But I also agree with you that Artist Descending a Staircase (which John Tydeman thinks is Stoppard’s best play) is an under-valued jewel in the Stoppardian crown. I wanted to do a new production for a new audience, and John T was very happy for me to do this. I listened again to the original production – of which I had - and have - fond memories – and found it very much a production of its time; there’s some great acting, but it felt to me very studio-bound; I got little sense of location or period. So my approach was simply to imagine that this was a new radio script that had turned up on my desk, and that my job now was to make it an exciting listen for an audience who might never have come across it.
Tom seemed very happy with the final outcome; I am very grateful to him for allowing me to make a new production.
Accolades was an original radio play written by one of our younger and most talented radio drama writers Christopher William Hill. This was a play I sold to Radio 4 as an Independent Radio Drama Producer. Ian Richardson wasn’t part of the “package” – but he seemed (and was) an ideal man to play the larger-than-life A.L. Rowse, and I was delighted that he was available to be cast. It was so sad that he died a few days after the production was completed. It was indeed his last play, and I, in fact, was the last person to act with him!
At the very end of the final day, I recorded a short scene with him, playing Rowse’s literary agent. Money is tight for Independent companies – hence the decision to pay the director absolutely nothing to play a tiny role! But I’ve always been a bit worried that my Hitchcock cameo may have contributed to his untimely demise ….
Having never taken that “Teacher Training course” all those years ago, I’m delighted that I now have the opportunity to teach Radio Drama Acting at several drama schools. I work a regular 3-week shift a year at ALRA, but have done Masterclasses and directed radio dramas at Royal Welsh College, Arts Ed, Rose Bruford, East 15 and several other drama schools. Most of the BBC radio productions I have made as an “Indie”Radio Producer (since retiring from the BBC) have been with Essential Music Ltd (formerly “Goldhawk Essential”), though as one gets older, it becomes – understandably – much harder to “sell” ideas to the radio commissioners. I am not quite an old has-been, but I’m rapidly achieving this status.
I am more optimistic than I was a few years ago. While at World Service I helped established “The Worldplay Group” – an association of radio producers working in Radio Drama (in English) around the world. One by one those radio teams – in CBC, in ABC, in New Zealand, in Hong Kong, in South Africa – have been disbanded. Here in the UK, we are one of the last bastions of a medium that I love, and have spent most of my professional life developing.
Since I left the BBC as Head of Radio Drama, the World Service Drama Unit has been disbanded, the two “soaps” Westway and Silver Street no longer run (though Home Front is a welcome addition to the airwaves), Radio 3 has cut back on its drama output, and Radio 4 has lost the Friday Play.
But I do still think there is a BBC Management commitment to the continuation of audio drama; the DG has been very supportive, and now there is no immediate threat to the licence fee, the future is looking a little rosier. Companies such as Audible are giving non-BBC radio drama an online-presence, and competition is always a good thing.
The BBC Audio Awards reflect the fact that the BBC continues to make some excellent productions, both “in-house”, and from the increasingly active Independent sector, where producers like John Dryden have helped to raise everybody’s game. There is no cause for complacency, but I think Radio Drama will survive for a good few more years yet. And so it should – there is no medium like it!
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