On the R4 Home Front

The script of Home Front

As Radio 4 WW1 drama Home Front launches on Monday 4 August, Ariel goes behind the scenes at the BBC's landmark new radio commission.

You know you're probably in a radio studio when an actress is being recorded vocally echoing life during World War I - while holding an iPad.

But this is not just any radio studio, it's the temporary home - 'borrowed' from The Archers - of the biggest ever radio drama commission, Home Front.

The first of some 600 episodes, spread across 15 seasons over four years, airs on Radio 4 on Monday 4 August. Each 12-minute episode is set exactly 100 years before the broadcast date - with a historical truth rooting it to that particular day.

Home Front in brief

Home Front's image of a map with a woman
  • Home Front to have 600 episodes
  • Will run for four years 2014-2018
  • Broadcast on weekdays at 12pm on Radio 4
  • Each episode 12 minutes long
  • Starts on Monday 4 August

'There are nice nuggets of history in every single episode, like a treasure hunt,' says studio manager Martha Littlehailes.

Home Front is a fictional drama based on the mosaic of experiences within Britain, as war raged on the continent. The aim 'is to get a sense of how many different lives were affected', says production coordinator Ciaran Bermingham.

One way to depict this mosaic is through the sheer number of characters - 63 in season one, 76 in the second run.

'They are all lovable, that's a very strong artistic decision not to have "baddies",' says editor Jessica Dromgoole. 'They're people that you want to listen to and have a stake in.'

The timing of her comment is odd. I've just witnessed a scene in which one character effectively tries to buy another's baby because she's from a lower class.

'You really come around to her,' smiles Dromgoole.

Martha Littlehailes 'There are nice nuggets of history in every single episode,' says studio manager Martha Littlehailes

Start Quote

I used to think that WWI was black and white”

End Quote Jessica Dromgoole

The crew are working on three seasons simultaneously, racing through two and a half episodes a day on average. 'We're in a cycle of finishing off season one, recording season two, and planning for season three,' explains Bermingham.

For many of the crew, their involvement in the show has transformed their understanding of the war.

'I've become a terrible bore, I don't know anything else,' says Dromgoole. 'I used to think that WWI was black and white.

'I think I'd consigned WWI to a general thing,' she explains. 'I vaguely knew when it was and that my great uncle died in it, my granddad didn't, [but] that was probably as much as I thought about it.

'If you focus on anything then it becomes far more interesting, accessible, human and familiar, as well as being really exotic,' she explains.

Shaun McKenna Shaun McKenna, one of the show's writers, watches the recording of an episode

Start Quote

You would never get a four-year commission in telly, it's way too big”

End Quote Jessica Dromgoole

With no shortage of shows marking the anniversary of WWI, there's fierce competition for people's attention. But without the graphic explosions available to tv, radio offers something entirely different, says Dromgoole.

'The thing about radio is that almost everyone listens on their own, so it's quite a personal relationship that you have with your audience,' she suggests.

'You would never get a four-year commission in telly, it's way too big,' she says. Listeners over the four-year lifespan will experience their own major life events in that time. 'That sense of the scale of the war can only really be put across with a commission this size, so that's the excitement.'

It's an ambitious commitment, Littlehailes says, with responsibilities to match - not least historical accuracy. Were there vacuum cleaners? How would they have lit a cigarette?

Two microphones

Start Quote

It's surprisingly tricky finding child actors who can do a 1914 Folkestone accent”

End Quote Ciaran Bermingham

Swan matches was the answer to the latter, consigning the Zippo sound effects to some future WWII anniversary, as by then they were ubiquitous, she adds.

Vacuum cleaners had existed for some time, invented in 1901. But would a theatre have had electricity by then? No, the team decided. Cue sounds of brooms sweeping floors.

It's not just sound effects. '"Vacuuming" as a verb didn't [officially] come in until 1922,' Bermingham tells me. Even though it's unlikely that it took 20 years for someone to make the leap from 'vacuum cleaner' to the action 'vacuuming', he points out.

And even when the words are authentic, how about diction?

'It's surprisingly tricky finding child actors who can do a 1914 Folkestone accent, for instance,' Bermingham admits.

'Kitty' and 'Phyllis' Ami Metcalfe, who plays Kitty Wilson, practises lines with Christine Absalom, who portrays Phyllis Lumley

At one point in the studio, a mild note of alarm is raised. Ami Metcalfe, who plays teenager Kitty Wilson, says Folkestone with a pronounced 'L'. The team discuss. 'As long as she's always said it like that it's OK,' they conclude.

Folkestone - with or without a pronounced 'L' - is the setting for season one, before the series follows some of the characters to Newcastle and then to Devon, enabling the show to draw on various diverse aspects of British life during the war.

While the Kent seaside resort quickly became a main hub of the military machine, as well as a centre for Belgian refugees, the roving settings permit the show to touch on themes such as industrial protests, conscientious objectors and rural life.

So why Devon? That was selected - at least in part, Dromgoole hints - because of one Belgian refugee in particular. One who met a young Agatha Christie while she was working as a wartime nurse and who would later inspire her creation of Hercule Poirot.

The first episode of Home Front will air on Monday 4 August at 12pm on Radio 4

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