One Way to Write a Radio Play:
Philip Corker

It’s twenty years since I wrote it, and it remains the only radio play I’ve managed to get broadcast, but A Red Car In The Fountain undoubtedly represents the happiest episode in my writing life.

For one thing, it wasn’t my usual fare, oh no. It was a holiday from all that. It was light and vaguely humourous, it was possibly even entertaining. Nobody who knew me would ever suspect I could conjure up such a frivolous diversion from the true business of serious writing. But it was fun to discover and piece together, something which has never happened since.

The origins of it are a source of pleasure and comfort to this day because it was born out of a chance meeting and a much more enduring and beautiful work, a song. A deeply beguiling song. Ideas come from many places, but this was a new one for me.

I had already had a shot at radio drama with a piece called Phantoms, about a man who lost both of his legs in a car crash, my typically cheerful stuff. I had sent it off with a kiss and a prayer to the Christchurch studios here in Bristol. But the months were passing and no word was heard. A repeated process I would become depressingly familiar with in the years to come. Silence and rejection, silence and rejection.

Meanwhile I was anxious to start a second radio play, but the ideas cupboard was bare. Enter Captain Fate. One evening I was introduced to a local musician in a pub on the marvel that is Gloucester Rd. We started talking favourite albums. I called on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and he told me about his current soul-buster. It was titled A Walk Across The Rooftops by a band from Glasgow. They named themselves The Blue Nile.

I had never heard of them but this man praised their album so lavishly that I decided I would just go out and buy it. Anticipation was high as I took the cassette home – ah, cassettes, those were the days – ready to hit play before I’d taken my coat off. Surely a musician with impeccable tastes couldn’t be wrong, could he?

It was one of the great disappointments of my listening life. I had not heard anything quite like it before and I just didn’t get it. It seemed strained and almost wilfully discordant from the outset to the end. An avant-garde headache. I was almost angry and was sure I’d be heading back to the store for a swap. Instead I relented awhile, put it aside for a week or so before I approached it again, cautiously.

Second listen, not so awful. Maybe it was a little more melodic than I’d given it credit.

Third listen, started to get the hang of it. Fourth, growing. By the end of the fifth play there was a new love in my life and it was called A Walk Across The Rooftops.

I was especially drawn to track two, Tinseltown In The Rain. It had a driving bass line and a lovewise lyric which accepted our romantic dreams and designs, our forays and failures, the aspiring architecture and landscape of our private lives..

Why did we ever come so far
I knew I’d seen it all before
Tall buildings reach up in vain
Tinseltown is in the rain..
I know now love was so exciting..

Paul Buchanan’s voice delivered his own lyrics with a special quality which seemingly ranged from a resigned despair to a heartfelt celebration all in the space of a few lines..

One day this love will all blow over
Time for leaving the parade
Is there a place in this city
A place to always feel this way..

Then came the line which in many ways changed my life and for which I can never be too grateful..

And hey, there’s a red car in the fountain.

The more I thought about this line and image, the more intrigued and puzzled I became by it. What was it about and what was it doing there? It didn’t seem connected to the song at all. No doubt the composer would have a straightforward explanation for it, something he’d observed or heard of. It may have been a mundane affair, an accident or an advertising stunt. I recalled a Conisborough garage from boyhood which always had a car on its roof. I loved to see it when we drove by and I always wondered how it got up there. But Buchanan’s motor may even have been a car of the hand, a child’s toy thrown or dropped into the water. Dinky or Matchbox or Corgi.

But what if it wasn’t so ordinary an event? What if it was a real headscratcher, a puzzle, a downright mystery indeed. After considering this for a while, the almost inevitable thought followed – why not take that unlikely possibility and use it as the basis for a story, a tall tale I could invent as I pleased? So it was that a serendipitous conversation in a pub metamorphosed into the second radio play I had been searching for.

But it is one thing to have an idea for a story and another thing to start it, shape it and build it. That’s called writing.

More often than not I start a piece from a title and feel at a loss from the outset if I don’t have one. It doesn’t matter what the form is, a play, a short story, a poem or a novel. A title I’m happy with helps to push the boat out, though in this case the boat had four wheels. So at least the start of my new project was easy as it couldn’t be called anything other than ‘A Red Car In The Fountain.’

I decided that my distinctly odd automobile would appear overnight and its impending arrival would be heralded by a city-wide power cut. The new morning would reveal the appearance of a red car in a very public fountain. Let the fun begin.

Naturally, a turn up for the books like this would clearly attract not only the attention of the local citizenry but also the incumbent authorities, especially the central copshop. Enter Inspector George Wright, a man for whom the world holds no insoluble problems - ‘Things happen and they can all be traced back to something.’ Enter Mary Wright, George’s wife, a woman who is waiting ‘for something incredible to happen.’ Clearly a conflict of marital proportions is on the cards.

As the narrative developed and the car in question displayed no signs of normality whatsoever, infuriating the logic-laden Inspector, I was inevitably faced with the big question, how would it all end? I could play safe and hedge my bets between George and Mary, leave it unresolved and hanging in the air, let nothing happen. Or I could go for broke and deliver on the prospects the strange contraption seemed to promise. For better or worse, that is what I decided to do, looking back to historical events in a very different time and place.

Whilst holding no formal or informal religious faith myself, I had long been intrigued by the story of the Marian visions of three young shepherds in Portugal in 1917. This culminated in a well documented and widely observed ‘solar’ spectacle which defied and shattered the laws of the physical world as we know and understand it. Many tens of thousands of people, believers and sceptics and scoffers alike, witnessed ‘the miracle of the sun,’ a collective experience which lasted up to ten minutes. Clearly, the real sun could not have behaved as the multitudes reported, but some phenomenal event occurred in the sky right above them.

Exactly what happened in the fields of Cova da Iria on October 13th, 1917, is lost to us now. Was it exactly as it seemed? Was it mass delusion based on months of expectation? Was it the greatest UFO sighting in history? Only the social story and the photographs of the crowd remain. But it is a great story and one which provided the denouement of A Red Car In The Fountain.

The producer, Andy Jordan (see Producers section of this site), called it ‘an urban Spielberg,’ though his films had never figured in my thoughts during the writing process. It was only a few years ago that it occurred to me that it was more like a very British X-Files, with George as Scully, the sceptic, and Mary as Mulder, the believer. But I had started the play in 1989, several years before that landmark series entered the public psyche, so I can quietly claim to have created the formula first. Not that it caught on. The piece went largely unnoticed by the media and the masses. It was, after all, just an afternoon radio play, not a big screen blockbuster.

The only audience feedback I got from the eventual broadcast was that I should be hung from the nearest yardarm for inflicting such dangerous nonsense on the international airwaves. I never imagined my little play would invoke such a strong response in anyone. It was never my intention to undermine a rational view of the world, only to beg a simple question: Even if Fatima really happened, even if an unworldy red car appeared in a public fountain overnight, what are those trifles compared to the phantasmagoria we see when we look out our windows in the morning, the everyday miracle we call the world.

Beyond the actual writing of the play, fond memories of it lie also in the production process. I was able to choose some music for it and not surprisingly turned to The Blue Nile. Some cast choices were also open to my suggestion and it was great to meet the late Diana Coupland and Christian Rodska. In ‘Bless This House’ and ‘Follyfoot,’ respectively, they had both been a part of my TV watching youth.

Beyond the broadcast there was a further sweet little twist. I had sent a copy of Red Car to Paul Buchanan, courtesy of his record company in Scotland. It seemed like a decent thing to do, given that he had unknowingly provided me with my first serious break in the writing business. I didn’t really expect a response, but a few weeks later I received a telephone call from north of the border. It was Jack Buchanan, Paul’s father. He thanked me for sending the copy and assured me it had reached his son. The singer was now living in Hollywood, he told me, with a famous and beautiful actress. I knew her name and face well and had to be impressed. She was gorgeous for sure. I asked if he had met her. ‘Aye,’ he said, with a father’s pride, ‘she’s a lovely lass.’

The whole thing seemed a hundred worlds away from the red-bricked Bristol terrace I was in, but it had a fateful ring to it. Paul had written a song about Tinseltown and I had written a radio play inspired by it. Now he was living there and had a copy of my play. How perfect was that? Not quite that perfect as it turned out. It was only a few years ago I realised that the Tinseltown of the song was not a reference to Oscarland but to the composer’s native Glasgow. That makes more sense and I really should have known.

Looking back now the whole venture seems blessed with a simple grace. How easy it all was. The writing was a stroll in the sun and the three day recording seemed like a gentle whisper of the promised land. In the studio, Dave Parkinson (grams), had told me ‘you’re in.’ This was a man who had demonstrated a better knowledge of my script than I had, so I thought he must know something I didn’t. All I had to do was write the plays and this kind of miracle would be repeated into my future. This writing lark wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought and I knew I could happily get used to it. But it never happened again.

It was a great and pleasant surprise to discover recently that A Red Car In The Fountain survives in a private collection. I am grateful to Nigel Deacon for archiving it.

Although there were no more plays I did have two short stories broadcast in 1997/8. I have recently recorded my own reading of one of them, The World Covered In Gold, and it is now on youtube. If you would like to hear this, and read the full text, along with some details of other works, please go to my page here.

Philip Corker/Diversity website

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