Richard Wortley:
Mood Music, translators, further notes and queries...

On Mood Music

The long tradition, despite budget restrictions, of special music commissioned for radio plays continues. William Walton was a distinguished example from the past. The sensuality-enhancing mood of music can be overwhelming. The trouble occurs when it over-dominates, no good humming a tune if you’ve missed a turn in the plot.

At the simplest level, a radio character playing the piano appears in radio story after story. Most touching is a good musician asked to play badly; my prime exponent here being Mary Nash, a charming modest person with a real feel for drama.

I mentioned Pink Floyd earlier but my chief experiences have been with women composers, notably Ilona Sekacz and Elizabeth Parker. The latter emerged from that foundry of BBC music talent ‘the Radiophonic Workshop’ created by Desmond Briscoe.

This set-up introduced me to the artistic persona of Delia Derbyshire who dying ‘young’ has reached iconic status as a sort of ‘soundscape’ Virginia Woolf. I also met a less ethereal figure who appeared to rest on one laurel after inventing the signature tune for ‘Doctor Who’.

Another Note on Translators

The importance of sensitive, virile translation from foreign text can never be overestimated. In other branches of the arts I think of Anthony Burgess and his work on the movie ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (Gerard Depardieu) or ‘The Leopard’ where the complete unabridged version was read for me by Corin Redgrave (a mail-order Cover to Cover product), the translator - Archibald Colquhoun.

Or again Michael Hulse translating W G Sebald into marvellous English.

Eivor Martinus a Swedish academic translated an original Swedish monologue by the film-maker polymath Ingmar Bergman. She was anxious to break the monopoly in this field by Michael Meyer and she succeeded. I relished Anna Massey acting our English interpretation but for international competition Sweden won the radio prize, quite rightly.

A further spin of memory transports me to Epping Forest. Our dramatist Jeremy Sandford looked poetically ‘alternative’ fiddling with his occarina on the bus journey out - a household name with his pioneer social problem play ‘Cathy Come Home’ for television. Our well-intentioned radio drama about gypsies contained a sentimental strain: the location scenes with foxgloves in the hedgerows might have boosted our morale but they failed to improve the art.

Further Notes and Queries

An old adage declares that radio directing is seventy five percent casting; some put the percentage higher.

‘The play’s the thing with which we’ll catch the conscience of the king’; so who acts on the radio and why? A voice doesn’t have to be super-plus Richard Burton or super-minus John Gilbert but it’s a wonderful weapon without needing to be an opera star. Audrey Hepburn had inspirational cheekbones but also close your eyes and listen to that delicate hint of Dutch in her voice.

Few make a proper living from the wireless. Television voice-overs and resident cartoon characters are exceptions but in a high-risk high-unemployment, choice of career ‘I’m resting at the moment’ every little helps.

It is hard now to conjure up that short period between 1926 and 1954 when a huge radiogram dominated the living room. No television, no vinyl long players, no cassettes, CDs, videos, DVDs, websites or internet. This was when the Radio Times was the Radio Times, when BBC radio drama had a resident company of forty eight ‘not-so-strolling players’ and their ‘announcer’ may or may not have worn a dinner jacket speaking to an audience of eighteen million, when chez Carleton Hobbs offered a whole room stacked from floor to ceiling with his drama ‘top sheets’ not least in his long running capacity as Sherlock Holmes.

There is nothing more ghastly than false nostalgia; after all, present research suggests younger folk stoked to the eardrums in rock, pop and rap have lost the aural code for plays; so without the picture, sound becomes meaningless.

Why should they be amazed by a surreal Goon Show from the 1950s when today they can press their remote control switch to find ‘The Simpsons’, or their envelope pushed a little further with ‘South Park’, or catch them both on their video phone? The present world of hard drives and screen-peering for digital editing seems a galaxy away from my beginnings in radio.

But I don’t have to tilt at windmills or wear a dodo on my shield to throw down my gauntlet for thespians waiting in ‘our’ studio green room.

Antidote to negativity is to trumpet a universal need for the actor to act and when the material ‘comes good’ it is a privilege to hear it brought to such life, that real chance to create character from the huge output of contemporary writers and literary giants of the past. As the blind medium, radio will never bring an actor full glamour but job satisfaction is in abundance. The simplicity of the tools needed, voice, tone, focus, fluency without glibness, belies the naked skill involved.

Set the mood and it’s frequent fun as well. Not all actors respond to theatre improvisation but in radio ‘off mic’ when it comes to personal anecdote, most are unbeatable; I would just love to ‘bottle’ the laughter gene inside the likes of Rachel Atkins and Alison Pettitt.

Production methods have obviously shifted with modern technology, though it didn’t get far with the Kuntskopf and quadraphonics, which went the way of 3D movies and ‘smellarama’.

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