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A behind-the-scenes insight into the world of radio at BBC Scotland



Marilyn Imrie was a major figure, but the producer with whom I worked on many occasions was Stewart Conn, Edinburgh’s makar from 2002-05. He is a very fine poet and playwright but, as head of drama at BBC Scotland until his retiral in 1992, he had another career also of major significance in Scottish culture.

The encouragement and opportunities that Stewart gave to his fellow writers have left a legacy to which we are all much indebted.

Working with one of Scotland’s all-time greats, actor Tom Fleming, was one of many unique experiences which Stewart enabled. He had invited Tom to read the script of Carver (at that stage in Fleming’s career you did not “cast” him and then check). It is a full-length radio play about a 16th-century composer which I wrote at Stewart’s pointed request that I bring music and drama together.

Robert Carver was a real priest and a real composer, arguably Scotland’s greatest, and his music is profound, ethereal, deeply religious and stunningly beautiful. It is scored for voices only and is technically demanding. He must have had superb singers to work with, for this is some of the most sophisticated music of the late Renaissance.

We know little about Carver’s life, so I was free to develop him into a complex character in which earthiness mixed with spirituality. The story was in essence about the survival of the Carver Choirbook, the unique source for almost all his music, through the destructive horrors of the Reformation.

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Tom Fleming as Carver was a priest with a bidie-in played by Anne Kristen, an actor of such stature and breadth of humanity that she could readily partner a Tom Fleming. Fleming was a committed Baptist and it says much for him that he never asked me to change or soften a single line, for some were decidedly raunchy.

His professionalism was total and, as with so many of the greats in whatever sphere, he was humble enough to ask me was he saying the lines as I hoped? He was, and more – much more.

The read-through in the BBC green room in Queen Street, the cast in a circle, was revealing. Everyone had a script, of course, and some had highlighted their own parts; others were starting out; some had possibly read the whole script.

But when Tom started the reading, he was in character from the very first intake of breath. You could feel the frisson go round the rest of the cast as they realised this man not only knew the play in its entirety and his own place in it, but he knew exactly who he was, where he was, how he was.

When the play was broadcast, Tom rightly earned many accolades, The Times describing his as “a monumental performance that is a benchmark for the entire cast”.

The National: THE ART 

More than anything in my script, I treasure his reading of the Latin lines from Carver’s motet O Bone Jesu at the very end of the play. Read with quiet but deep sincerity, the Latin invocation, full of words which, slightly changed, we still use, was coloured by his rich Scots voice which melded into Carver’s sublime music. It is all in the sounds.

O Bone Jesu, O clementissime Jesu deprecor te per illum sanguinem pretiosum quem pro pecatoribus effundere voluisti ut abluas iniquitatem meam et in me respicias miserum et indignum peccatorum et hoc nomen Jesum invocantem

O nomen Jesu, nomen dulce, nomen dilectabile, nomen Jesu, nomen suave …

Stewart directed Carver using the Synclavier – the world’s first digital production of a play. He also commissioned The Taverner Consort to record the necessary excerpts from Carver’s masses and motets. They were superb. The Synclavier was an expensive piece of kit, fed by a bank of hefty computers in their own room where they sweated it out with the aid of cooling fans.

The production was submitted for the 1991 New York International Radio Festival Awards and won gold. Stewart’s fellow radio producer, David Dorward made a splendid cartoon of Stewart receiving his award, crowned with laurel and clasping his Synclavier.

A reception was held in the BBC Queen Street offices to celebrate, but when Neil Fraser, the head of radio, came in, he read out a BBC memo he had just received. It stated that in future no part of the BBC was to enter any competition which involved an up-front fee (which is the norm, that’s how these things are funded); it had to get prior approval from down south.

Not a word of congratulation to any of us from any of the BBC drama folk in the south – not that I recall. Sour grapes. A Giles Cooper Award, handed out in the iconic boardroom of Broadcasting House in London, made amends, and the play was published by Methuen.

One of the most eminent of radio actors ever was Carleton Hobbs. There was a wonderful presence to his voice, a deep intelligence and a virtuosic command of rhythm and tone. Carleton died in 1978 but he is still revered, and his name perpetuated in the Carleton Hobbs Bursary which gives six-month contracts to young actors in the BBC Radio Drama Company.

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Carleton was the reader in Fred Willetts’s radio play The Butterfly. The play is memorable artistically but it was also memorable for many difficulties. Fred himself was alarmingly intense and, inexplicably, the play was rejected by London and only broadcast on BBC Radio Four Scotland (October 28, 1970), notwithstanding the fact that both writer and performer were English.

It is not in Scotland only that we do not value what we have. Stewart wrote in protest but nothing came of it. Fred liked the music which was integral to the piece – a single work of art.

Stewart produced and his invitation to me to compose music for the production was a great honour. The Butterfly is a monologue presented in the third person.

There is no reported speech because there is no speech, only the narrator/presenter. The play lasts 30 minutes, so all depends upon that one voice and whatever I could add, for there were no sound effects.

How to describe this movingly detached horror? A little girl is the last person alive in a world without life, save a flower and a single butterfly. It is post-apocalyptic, Beckettian in its isolation, unyielding in its grim pathos, its un-assuage-able loneliness.

The unremitting realism of its descriptions and accumulating disasters culminate in the crushing of the butterfly. The child never says anything. Stewart recalled the script’s subtle use of tense, and indeed its past was unalterable, its present declaratory and its future determined. If it seemed to offer choice, it was illusory.

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Carleton, in the studio, gave us a taste of his approach. Stewart and I were in the box. When Carleton stopped, we looked at each other. “It’s not right” said Stewart. “What do you think?” I agreed. It wasn’t right. It was too attached, too emotionally engaged. Rarely have I seen or heard such professionalism as what followed.

Stewart’s immense delicacy in approaching this greatest of radio actors with the proposition that the performance had to be completely changed; Carleton’s initial dismay followed by acceptance and a request for 10 minutes to himself to rethink the whole thing. He then gave what must be one of the greatest radio performances of his life.

I was later to learn more of the power of emotional detachment from Brian Friel’s moving radio play, Winners. Let the facts speak for themselves. In The Butterfly, my own music had to inhabit that world in which there was almost a mechanical element in the presentation, like a standardised weather report, and yet convey both distance and engagement and hint at the deeply suppressed but ever-present emotion.

We had no electronic facilities in those days, so to achieve the kind of mechanical repetition I sought, we made tape loops – particularly necessary for the flute who was thereby not required to breathe. John Wiggins was the flautist, Sanchia Pielou played harp and Bernard Sumner, organ, all three employees of the BBC, all three outstanding musicians.

How we made the loops and brought them together is one of the tales of wonder that sound departments all over the world perform quietly and mostly unrecognised. To my shame I cannot recall the names of the sound engineers.

The problem was that first we had to make the loops, cutting and splicing with the utmost precision. Then, when all three instruments were heard together, each one looped, perhaps to represent a stream or the child’s chatter (which we are told of but do not hear). The loops had to be extended from the heads of the 15ips tape recorders and run round one or two pencils held in far corners of the studio. The longest loop of the three must have been nearly 20ft in length and required two pencils that had to be held absolutely steady and vertically so that the tape did not ride up them or speed up or slow down. Stewart and I were two of the nervous pencil holders.

The combined effect of all three was passed through a mixing desk to a fourth machine borrowed from another studio. So three of us stood frozen as the loops were set in motion in a pre-ordained order and at pre-ordained intervals so the timing of the overlaps could be managed. Mirabile dictu, it all worked.

Stewart wrote it up for the Radio Times (which in those days had proper space and respect for radio), commenting on the role of the music which needed to be “delicately responsive, yet icicle-like … This proved complex … as what Willetts demanded was the simplicity and completeness of a total work of art.”

I still have a letter from Fred which begins “Dear John, the first day we met I didn’t take to you at all, but by the end of the production I liked you a lot.”

That was just as well, for it was only decades later that I learnt that he had written the play not long after the death of his own daughter. He had entrusted the three of us, Carleton, Stewart and myself, with his heart and soul.

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