The Fifth Element – recording HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE Series 3

Whenever I teach radio writing seminars or lecture in creative writing about writing radio drama I like to stress there are four principle elements of writing for radio. They are as follows:

1. The voice. Although that might seem obvious it’s important to maintain an awareness of how different voices work against each other – how environment, gender, age, race, social status, accent – can allow for a chorus in which there is a clear differentiation. Two many voices of characters with too much similarity and you bump up against that frequent but telling complaint – ‘I couldn’t tell them apart’

2. Sound Effects. For one radio play – an adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ivanovich’ I requested the sound of an Grandfather Clock – and I was offered, via the BBC Sound FX library, a huge and bewildering collection. The devil is in the detail, they say- and like choosing the right pair of shoes for an actor – finding that perfect tick was a lovely way of adding richness. However, it is also the way I always recommend using sound fx sparingly.

3. Music. Either to accompany the drama or to add an additional level of meaning – or, as in musical theatre, to act as both comment and analysis – the right music can be a wonderful element. Pop music works particularly well in this regard – it’s so called ‘ephemerality’ speaks to the moment and conjures up memories emotions, associations. I have used everything from Schubert’s late sonatas, to T Rex, to Mahler to Messaien to Sinead O’Connor. In my latest series of HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE I used some Bowie – reflecting both my own need to pay tribute to an artist who has been such a major part of my life, but also appropriate to the subject matter – a middle aged married man who has come out as Gay.

4. Silence. Always present, to be used judiciously, to add to the rhythm of the drama, to allow a space in which the listeners can pour their own interpretation, and – most importantly for me – to help create the musicality of a piece.

But my recent experience recording the third series of HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT MARRIAGE, made me aware of a fifth element I have hitherto ignored, or underrated. The Fifth Element if you like – and that is location.

On Monday 23rd May I set off from Tooting up to Archway when Mel Harris, my producer, had rented out an entire house for the recording. I have never had the experience of working on a self generated project over three years, since the first series was broadcast in 2014 – and of reviewing – ever year – the marital status of Jack and Karen Dixon, played by the wonderful Greg Wise and Julia Ford, as they navigate the choppy and unpredictable waters of what it means to be a Gay married man, and a woman married to a gay man, and indeed – hopefully – perhaps some insight into the nature of marriage itself.

The house Mel had rented was a large and terraced – and on three floors – with a small garden that backed onto what looked like an industrial warehouse. Inside it was painted white. Totally white – from top to bottom – apart from the kitchen at the back. Totally white, and with no decoration whatsoever. It felt like we had stepped into a bubble, or a cocoon. The whiteness was both an invitation to create – like three floors of blank white pages – and also what I realise now was a place of safety.

At the top of the house, Mel and her sound engineer, Alisdair, had created a ‘Dead Room’. Because they were also using the house to stay in during their stay in London, they dragged all their duvets and pillows up stairs and stuffed them into the smallest bedroom, drawing down the blinds too. In one corner Greg – who had five monologues to perform – would bare his soul whilst staring at a mountain of Duvet, as if he was encased in a womb of duck feathers. The acoustic was suppressed, and the room quickly became thick with heat as three of us lurked in corners whilst Greg did his thing.

Writing this series has been difficult, by far the most difficult of the three written so far. The other two were powered by simple but huge questions, the consequences of which would ripple out through Jack and Karen’s family and friends, as they tried to deal with them. In the first series Jack told his wife he was Gay. In the second series Jack told his children he was Gay. It was relatively easy to see how the impact of that revelation would resonate.

But in series three the question seemed hidden from me for a long time, and I found it hard to think of the one issue – or question – or indeed situation – that would provoke the range of responses from Karen, and their two teenager daughters, Ella and Naomi – that would frame an exploration.

However, the moment I arrived at our location – and entered its pure, uncluttered, peaceful emptiness, those doubts started to subside. I felt – and I think Mel felt too – a new sense of confidence in the material. This increased when I had the chance to talk to Greg about my own transition from Straight Married Man to being Out Gay man – the terrifying sense of liberation, of guilt at breaking up a family, and of a desire to be truly authentic.

Out of that confidence, no doubt engendered by our immersion in this location, came a confidence to include new aspects of Jack’s new life in his monologues, touching on issues about sexual expression, about intimacy and about – most importantly – the comparison that my character – coming out of a marriage – could bring to his new gay identity, and so resulting in something that hopefully challenges both worlds.

That location was a tabula rasa, and an undoubted encouragement. With Mel and Greg’s input, we rewrote some crucial scenes – and recorded a whole new set of monologues. These undoubtedly speak to the moment, and both Mel and I feel they are a huge improvement.

So the Fifth Element is location. I guess what I have learnt is that – allow yourself the opportunity to respond to the place you make your art in, and let it into the process. Feel it’s atmosphere, sense the stories played out in that place – and then add to it.


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