“Too much custard powder and not enough gobstoppers.”
This was my quote of the week from Radio 4’s new series of programmes devoted to Eric Blair, aka as George Orwell. The Real George Orwell is celebrating the 110th anniversary of Orwell’s birth and the 75th anniversary of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell when struggling to make a name as a writer had turned to shopkeeping to earn a crust. He and his wife ran a small general stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire and sold desserts and confectionery. The quote came from a radio drama about Homage to Catalonia being aired at the moment.
I am particularly interested in radio drama at present as I am writing a book about Laurie Lee’s Spanish Civil War years for publication next year to coincide with Lee’s Centenary anniversary year. He was born in Slad, Gloucestershire in June 1914. His famous memoir Cider with Rosie was set in this edge-of-Cotswolds village. My part -biography of Lee, is told by myself, as I retrace Lee’s walk across Spain on the brink of civil war in 1935. I had always assumed that narrated non-fiction drama would not work well as a radio drama piece.
However, as a just graduated MA Professional Writing student, I was invited back to Falmouth University recently to attend a talk being given by James Robinson, a senior BBC Radio Drama producer. James oversees the Radio 4 Afternoon Play series and is passionate about narrated drama and has made a career out of proving that it can work in a primetime slot with 1 million listeners. James played a clip of a drama aired last year called Cry for Me: The Battle of Goose Green. It was made to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Goose Green, a key event in the Falklands War. This drama-documentary looks at the events of May 1982 from the Argentinian perspective. The drama tells the story of two fictional Argentine conscripts and it is gripping. The conscripts tell their story in the moment and a narrator pulls the strands together.
James demonstrated how narration can work in a very powerful way in the very intimate medium of radio. I began to wonder whether As I Walked Out in Search of Laurie Lee’s Spain, the title of my book, could work as narrated radio drama. I had a very general discussion with James after the talk and it was clear that the subject matter was potentially appealing, the existence of a significant anniversary being a big positive (he also told me that programmes on Dylan Thomas who also has a 2014 centenary were in the pipeline.) Significantly however, from my perspective, he also warned me that first-time radio drama writers very rarely pitched successfully for prime time Radio 4 drama slots.
That’s that I thought…. and then I began to think about a tie-up with an established radio drama writer who might adapt my book…. and then I listened to Orwell last week and his custard powder and gobstoppers and was captivated.
I remembered also a radio series aired a year ago on Radio 4. It featured a contemporary writer following in the footsteps of another writer who had made a journey in the early1930s through a troubled country, Scotland. Louise Welsh, crime writer and presenter of Welsh’s Scottish Journey retraces the journey taken by the Orcadian poet and writer Edwin Muir across Scotland. Like now Scotland was a country full of savage contradictions, a country uncertain about its future while struggling to live up to its past. Similarities certainly with the Spain of 1935 and now. Spain, a nation still hiding behind a” pact of amnesia” in respect of its civil war past, and facing austerity and mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
England, especially with the threat of the break up of the United Kingdom, is too suffering an identity crisis and the halcyon days of Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer morning could well provide a useful tonic in 2014 when, of course, the mainstream spotlight of the publishing and broadcast anniversary season will be focusing on the start of the Great War.
I will leave the last word with James Robinson who talked generally of great radio drama “going into somebody’s head and going with them,” and specifically about “finishing a scene with a question.”
So, what am I going to do about finding a great Radio 4 drama writer who shares my passion for Laurie Lee and Spain and who has got a window over the next 12 months?