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"How about one-and-a-half?" Torchwood on Radio 4

Friday 3 July 2009, 13:10

Kate McAll Kate McAll

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Torchwood_team.jpg

Casting a radio drama can be one of a radio producer's most nerve-wracking jobs. To be honest, money is part of the reason. Actors, by and large, do radio for love because radio fees are, shall we say, modest compared to the bigger bucks offered by television, film or commercials. A part in a Saturday Play or a voiceover on major advertising campaign? No contest! What this means is that actors' agents rarely commit their clients to a radio job more than two weeks in advance - just in case one of those far more lucrative offers come in. So as the days tick down towards a recording, the air in the drama office is taut with anxiety. Will we get our dream cast? We consult Spotlight (a kind of glossy catalogue of actors and their CVs), we rifle through the huge file in the office marked 'Actors', and dredge our memory banks for people we've seen and heard in other productions. Eleri McAuliffe, BBC Wales Radio Drama Production Assistant has a brilliant memory for voices and always has plenty of good suggestions. I make lists - if Clooney says no, offer to Pitt, if he turns it down try Depp - OK, I'm fantasising a little but you get my drift.

Recording Torchwood for Radio 4

The casting of the three Torchwood Afternoon Plays, however, presented an altogether different conundrum. How do you get an established cast, including John Barrowman, aka the busiest man in showbiz, into a radio studio in Cardiff to record three 45 minute dramas - something which would normally take around six days?

What we usually do to record a 45 minute drama is to assemble the cast for 2 days, start at 1000 on the first day with a read-through and then rehearse and record each scene according to the schedule. The schedule, i.e. the order the scenes are recorded, is determined by when each actor is available and how economically they can be used, so is always recorded out of scene order. The three Torchwood plays would involve 15 actors, including the three main cast - John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones) - who would be needed for most of the time.

Recording Torchwood for Radio 4

Negotiations begin with John Barrowman's agent. 'Can it be done in one day?' they ask, optimistically. 'No,' we reply, 'it can't! We need him for six.' 'Ok,' they counter, 'How about one and a half?' In the end we have to settle for two days, the only two days available in fact between the end of John's Saturday night television show and the start of his nationwide concert tour. We grab them and sign him up.

In the meantime, the writers (Anita Sullivan, James Goss and Phil Ford) are still working on last minute adjustments to the scripts. Usually a producer and writer work together on a script one-to-one. Again, Torchwood is different. It's a brand, with existing characters, a big back story, and a huge and dedicated fanbase - the facts, the character portrayals, the atmosphere and the story arc have to fit. So, in addition to my notes, every script is scrutinised by a Torchwood script editor, as well by Julie Gardner, the Exec Producer of the television series, and - most important of all - the great man himself series creator, Russell T Davies. John's availability, or lack of it, poses a big problem so a major creative decision is taken with John's storyline in Phil Ford's drama, The Dead Line. (You'll have to listen to find out!).

Recording Torchwood for Radio 4

Meanwhile, the rest of the casting starts to fall into place. We pin down Tom Price (PC Andy Davidson) in between stand-up gigs, and Kai Owen (Rhys Williams) on a day when he isn't training for or actually running the London Marathon, and Gareth David-Lloyd is signed up the moment he flies back in from LA. I audition six young girls for the lead in Asylum, and ten Asian actors for key parts in Golden Age which is set in Delhi. At the back, well the front, of my mind, though, is a nagging worry. Eve Myles, a central Torchwood cast member, still hasn't been booked. She's 'technically' free, according to her agent, but 'her people' still haven't actually signed the contract. This is getting scary. Everyone else is in place. If Eve can't do these dates for some reason, the unpicking would be a nightmare - and the possibility of finding two other free days in Mr Barrowman's hectic schedule extremely unlikely. Eleri calls Eve's agent again. We can't do these plays without Eve. This is one show where you can't recast at the last moment - there can be no substitutes! Finally, we're given the go-ahead to book her. Phew.

Now, that schedule. I make a list of who is available on which days, then a list of who is in which scene with whom, and juggle it all to a conclusion. We will record the three plays, 74 scenes, in bits and pieces over a period of eight days. We're used to recording drama out of order but three plays, all jumbled up is something else! Eleri checks and double checks that every scene and every actor is accounted for. We breathe a sigh of relief.

Recording Torchwood for Radio 4

Then, disaster. Just as Eve's contract is about to be signed we get a call. Another offer has come in for her - it's a lead in a film with Trevor Eve which starts filming the same week as our recording. Eve's agent is apologetic but she has to encourage her client to take the part. (Who wouldn't? It's six weeks film work in a major production!) But Eve is also desperate to do the radio and doesn't want to let us down. 'Can she do both?' asks the agent. Eleri and I stare hard at the schedule once more feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of taking the whole jig-saw apart and starting again. We have to fit in Eve's scenes around her constantly changing filming schedule. I spend the next three days on the phone to the producer of the film - and somehow, we manage it.

Recording Torchwood for Radio 4

Before we know it, the first recording day is upon us. Once the red light goes on and the production starts, it all flies by at top speed. By the end of the eighth day we are dizzy and exhausted but elated - we've done it! Everyone turned up at the right time and in the right place. We've survived Eve being whisked away for a last minute love scene with Trevor Eve. We release Gareth only to find that he still has two lines to record! Happily they're on the phone so we record him from home, on the phone, which is why they sound particularly realistic! John's boundless energy has infected everyone and as he heads out of the building in his pale pink sweater and on to his next gig, we're sad to see him go - yet still buoyed up by the enthusiasm of all the actors and their terrific performances. As we leave for the day, Eleri and I look back at the wall chart. Only ten more days to go until the next recording. Tomorrow morning we start all over again!

Kate McAll is a Senior Producer, Radio Drama at BBC Wales

  • You can listen to all three of the Torchwood Afternoon Plays on iPlayer and, for the first time, download the programmes as MP3 files to keep forever (or until the planet is vaporised by a belligerent alien race or something).
  • Kate McAll was Executive Producer and Director for all three episodes. Her Co-Producers were Brian Minchin for Golden Age and Lindsey Alford for Asylum and The Dead Line.
  • Theatre weekly The Stage has carried a lot of Torchwood coverage this week, including this page about the radio plays.
  • Thanks to Simon Hugo at Torchwood Magazine for permission to use the production pictures in this post.
  • Barrowman talks about his new talent show Tonight's The Night.
  • Torchwood Forum, a busy Torchwood Community site.
  • The new Torchwood TV series, Children of Earth, begins on BBC 1 on Monday 6 July and runs at 2100 every night for the rest of the week.

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    Comment number 1.

    Well done for pulling it together - it sounds like a nightmare, but you managed to pull it together to make some of the best "Afternoon Play" output for a long time.

    So far (two down, one to go), the plots, acting, and production values are at the same extraordinarily high level as the TV series - arguably even better - as always, the special effects are better on radio.

    I watch very little telly these days, relying on the iplayer for most things, and I far prefer drama on the radio. Torchwood/Dr Who are amongst the few things I do watch, so happy to see more cross-media stuff after the brilliant "Big Bang Day".

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    Comment number 2.

    Of course, this wonderful show is not available to all of us, you omit to say.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    @stevioa Clarify for me. Is it not available for you? Are you talking about iPlayer or the MP3 downloads?

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

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    Comment number 4.

    Is it just me or is Joh Barrowman the most overrated actor on TV? I listened to some of the Torchwood stuff as my sister was convincing me to take a listen to it... and he really is wooden. I wont go into how undynamic and monotone his singing voice is as this thread is not about singing.

    Reading the blog above I can understand that he is part of this brand right now. Who on earth cast him in the first place?

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    Comment number 5.

    I'd guess that stevioa is referring to the fact that fans in the US (and possibly other countries) are prevented from downloading or listening to the radio shows. Personally, I'm crushed. I really wanted to have the chance to hear these!

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    Comment number 6.

    I downloaded the MP3s, and whilst the story and voice acting was great, the mixing, stereo imaging and sound effects were awful and frankly ruined my enjoyment. I have become used to pretty high quality from the BBC7 Doctor Who radio series, and this was clearly not a patch on that.

    Why did all the action and all the sound effects take place in the mono centre? Where was the feeling of space and the sound of streets and nature during the outdoor scenes? Where was the reverb and echo during the indoor scenes? A police interview room should sound cold and echoey. Offices should have a general buzz of keyboard-tapping, air conditioning and low chatter. A river should have sounds of water and birds. Instead all we got was the occasional car acceleration noise and police sirens which frankly sounded like they'd been taken from special effects albums of the 1970s.

    It became an effort to persevere and consciously suspend my disbelief, rather than feel I was immersed in a believable world.

    Sorry but whoever mixed this - or whoever encoded it to MP3 and lost all the stereo and detail, assuming it was ever there in the first place - needs reprimanding. The BBC clearly has access to better sound engineers, as the BBC7 Doctor Who radio plays demonstrate.

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    Comment number 7.

    The BBC didn't make the BBC7 Doctor Who radio plays. They were made by a company called Big Finish which has had the license to do Doctor Who audio adventures on CD for donkey's years, and was commissioned by the BBC to make the BBC7 radio plays. I've bought a number of them and the sound design is excellent with a proper use of sound effects and music to enhance the drama without being distracting. Perhaps if the BBC do more Torchwood they ought to consider outsourcing it in the same way?

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    Comment number 8.

    "Sorry but whoever mixed this - or whoever encoded it to MP3 and lost all the stereo and detail"

    Actually, the downloads were in mono, but the broadcast was in stereo. I think the mono downloads were to encourage people to buy the stereo CDs

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    Comment number 9.

    @aoakley and Wonko the Sane I've looked into this and it turns out that the downloads were intended to be published in stereo but a technical problem caused the files to be encoded in mono. Although this was noticed while they were still available for download (and I announced, using the Radio 4 blog's Twitter account, that the final download would be in stereo), the third programme was also encoded in mono and the seven-day window closed before the mono files could be replaced with stereo versions.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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