I made... Sing in Heavenly Peace
Heather Davies is a radio producer for independent production company Unusual Productions. She produced the BBC Radio 2 documentary Sing in Heavenly Peace: The True Story of Silent Night, presented by Sir Cliff Richard, which was broadcast on Christmas Day 2012.
This is what I did
As the producer of the documentary, I was responsible for the overall shape and editorial direction of the programme, plus all the research, recording, interviewing, scripting and editing involved too.
For this programme, our starting point was the Silent Night Association - a charity based in Austria that's dedicated to researching the history and spread of the Christmas carol. They invited us over to visit the Silent Night museum and chapel that they manage, and there we met the world's only Silent Night historian who was very inspirational. We visited some of the other key sites in the story of how the carol came to be, including the tiny school where the composer taught and the chapel where he worked and might have written the music.
In addition to that trip, we also spoke to a WWI historian about the Christmas Truce of 1914 where Silent Night was sung; to former poet laureate Andrew Motion about the poetry of the lyrics; to Mercury-nominated folkster Sam Lee about the simplicity of the music; and to a host of artists who have covered the song including Petula Clark, Gloria Estefan, Joe McElderry and Glasvegas. We conducted the voiceover session with Sir Cliff Richard, and started structuring the documentary before taking it to our mixing engineer friends to make it sound beautiful. And then there was all the paperwork!
"As the producer, I was right at the heart of the whole project and was the main point of contact for everyone else." – Heather Davies
Who I worked alongside and where I sat in the overall production
As the producer, I was right at the heart of the whole project and was the main point of contact for everyone else. The idea came from a primary school head teacher called David Whitehead who had been surprised by just how much of a favourite the carol was with the children. We visited Bredgar School where he works as part of the programme to hear the children's own version of the carol and to speak to them about why it means so much to them. I was also grateful to Andrea Day and Tim Hodge who were able to provide interviews and audio from their choirs in Warrington and Lincolnshire.
I was lucky enough to have the assistance of my good friend and freelance producer Sarah Grun who conducted some of the interviews I was too busy to record and set up others that I would then do myself. Also on the team were part-time production assistants Nia Visser, Emily Webb and Sophie Evans, who helped me on an ad hoc basis with researching, digesting archive, setting up recordings, interviewing and editing. My executive producer was the broadcaster (and boss of my company) Jon Holmes, who came to Austria with me collecting audio and was also my number one contactl for advice and queries. Jon listened to early versions of the programme and suggested changes. Mixing was provided by Ali and Dan at On The Sly, and the programme was signed off in-house by Julian Grundy at BBC Radio 2. And finally, a last minute favour from the lovely Karen Pearson meant we got Gloria Estefan even though she was in Miami!
What my typical day involved
There is never a typical day in my job! The early days were spent researching the history of the carol at The British Library and finding out what there was in the BBC Archive. Then it was on to contacting potential interviewees and setting up a time and a date that was convenient for them. Then there were several weeks of lugging portable recording equipment around the country, writing questions, conducting interviews, editing them on the train home and sourcing relevant music. All of which was followed by several days staring at Post-it notes trying to work out the order, which was then followed by even more days glued to my editing software to bring the programme into some sort of shape. Finally we had two days in the studio making the transitions beautiful and a couple of days to listen and make notes at home, before the final mix was completed.
A moment I’m particularly proud of
I was thrilled to unearth some archive footage shot in Nagasaki after the dropping of the atomic bomb, where a crowd of people can clearly be heard singing Silent Night in the blasted remains of a cathedral. I happened to mention this discovery to our Silent Night historian, Renate Ebling-Winkler who hadn't heard about this and was very excited indeed! I felt like I might have contributed something to the future story of the carol.
Something I learned that I'll take on from this production to the next
That sometimes the best place to start your research is in the BBC Archive. I'd spent hours scouring texts in The British Library only to find BBC programmes that were far more up-to-date and comprehensively researched!
My biggest surprise
How well the voiceover turned out. We recorded it in Sir Cliff's living room as he was only in the UK for a couple of days and had a demanding schedule whilst he was here. I went with the co-owner of Unusual, Shane Wall who used to be a recording engineer and promised me he'd get the best sound out of the situation. Luckily he was right. It was crystal clear with hardly any echo (the major problem when not in a studio).
The programme I'd kill to work on
Despite the early mornings, I'd love to work on the Shaun Keaveny breakfast show which has been my number one appointment-to-listen programme for absolutely ages now. I am a mega fan.