HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT RECORDING
HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT RECORDING.
SUNDAY 23rd April
I woke to grey gloomy Sunday, the day of the London Marathon. I jumped on the tube and made my way up to an address in West Hampstead, which is where HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE Series 4 was being recorded. I can’t remember the last time I recorded a radio play in a studio. Technology drives the options available to producers – recording on location is cheaper and more flexible, yet looses some degree of control. For my Series, set in a rambunctious Hampstead household, all creaking floors and muffled music – the sudden intrusion of a plane flying overhead actually adds to the ambience. For a period piece is it obviously a problem.
Most of the cast had already assembled at the beautiful large house we were using. Not only would this location act as the Dixon household, but if would be transformed sonically into a Bar, a Café, even Primrose Hill! From the first series in 2013, both my Director, Mel Harris, and myself had wanted to capture the slightly chaotic but genuine feel of family life – with characters talking over one another, or even improvising at certain points. We wanted to create ‘Lean In’ radio – where the demand for the audience to pay attention was repaid with a richness of character, of dialogue, and of tone. To do that required distinct voices from our cast – you had to know at any one time exactly who you were listening to.
The cast were gathered – Izzy Watts, Katriona Perrett, Julia Ford, Greg Wise, Dona Croll. The last member – Andrew Hayden Smith – would only be needed for one day, and would arrive tomorrow, when neither Julia nor Dona would be called. The nature of Radio drama is that budgetary discipline requires that Mel organise the schedule as efficiently as possible – and often actors might never meet. The scheduling document is key to the success of the two days – Mel had grouped actors together but organised the scenes chronologically, rather than out of sequences. For actors that requires a nimbleness of mind to be able to jump from one point in the story to another. For Mel it requires absolute focus.
We read the whole series right through, and timed it. Greg lounged back in his chair, whilst Julia sat forward, staring across over her glasses. Here they were creating my characters Jack and Karen Dixon for the fourth time, over the last four years. Both Izzy and Katriona fizzed with teenage energy – brittle and bolshie. I knew instinctively how good they were going to be – and this really was their series. Previous series had used Karen and Jack’s POV as a framing device, as we explored the husband and wife dynamic. Now we were going to hear from the children – a signature opening scene together under the duvet in every episode, and some of my best writing for radio. Series 4 belonged to them.
So as the chilly sun spilled through the windows, and Dona huddled under a car blanket, we started recording. Our sound designer, David Chiltern, swept back his resplendently long mane of silvery grey hair in order to wear his headphones, and stood, or crouched, or perched, or sat, where he could best angle the microphone. Mel wore headphones – or ‘cans’ – to. Those of us not in the scene sat silently, or leapt to turn off the refrigerator hum, or play a grump neighbour banging the floor upstairs, or the laughter of two characters who never speak, but hide in the bathroom (the utility room, since you ask). These additional sound effects, or moments that have to be threaded into the final recording, alongside general ‘atmos’ (atmosphere) – are referred to as Wild Tracks. Small details that are easy to forget, but essential.
Mel would rehearse a scene before going for a take, and sometimes there were tweaks made to the dialogue in order to enhance clarity and occasionally to alter meaning or characterisation. Mel would complain that I had a tendency to slip into TV writing – by which she meant I would assume meaning in a stage direction that could not possibly convey to a radio audience. I dislike the overly literal nature of a lot of radio writing – and especially so when trying to capture the haphazard intimacy of a family. On the other I don’t wish to confuse my audience – do that and you lose their attention. They get bored, rather than stay intrigued, which is what I want.
A small crisis hit us mid afternoon. The timings suggested I had underwritten some episodes, one by as much as two minutes. Mel and I sat outside and went through the scripts, looking for places where we could expand the dialogue. It is always better to do into editing with more than you need rather than less. I left with homework.
The other decisions we had to make was over music. Previous series had used a song as a way of commenting on the action, and creating a mood. For example, Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares To You’ was a powerful way of complimenting a story about a man rejecting his wife by Coming Out. We had struggled to find something that worked well for this story – but we got there. Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – magnificent and moody.
MONDAY 24th APRIL
After a terrible night’s sleep I woke and started the rewrites at 0630. An hour and a half later I grab copies off the printer and join the pack thronging the Northern Line.
I arrive early and am ushered into David’s inner sanctum, where he plays me some of the versions of ‘Creep’ that he has found – actually more than found, created himself! There is an acoustic version, an RnB version, even a choral version! This more than confirms that we made the right choice – and Mel agrees.
Back into the recording – and the morning is spent upstairs under the duvet when Izzy and Katriona – who play Ella and Naomi – start every episode. It is their safe space, their confessional, their womb. Mel encourages them to improvise around some of the dialogue – bounce from subject to subject like teenage girls do – boys, sex, makeup, whatever – and they rise to the challenge. Even their fictional dog – Bruno – smelly, messy, hairy – seems to come to life in that room. It is a magical moment.
Now there is an increasing sense of confidence amongst us, which partly comes a familiarity amongst us that I have been lucky to experience over these past four years. The last member of our cast appears – Andrew Hayden-Smith – hotfooting it from Holyoaks where he has been playing a policeman. Now he plays the feckless and manipulative – but gorgeous – boyfriend to Jack. We practice a fight in the living room, with bodies slamming down on pillows. David thinks it sounds great – and that’s a wrap.
Suddenly everybody is gone, or going. Trains to catch to Liverpool (Andrew), Theatre to endure(Greg), or Friends to meet (Katriona). That moment of creative intimacy – a cheerful lightness that conceals a desire to tell a real story to touch others and to create something of real quality – disperses.
Until next year. HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE Series 5. Yes, that’s right – the pitch is already in….
HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE S4 will be broadcast Monday 26th – Friday 30th June @ 1045-1100 & 1945-2000.
NGM 29th May 2017