Dramatising 'Tales of the City' for Radio 4

Monday 28 January 2013, 13:29

Sue Roberts Sue Roberts Producer

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Tales-of-the-City-image.jpg Tales of the City - Radio 4

The whole thing started at the Perth Literary festival in 2011. At a dinner on the lawn of the University, amongst the fairy lights, I was lucky enough to hear Armistead Maupin introduce the starter with a hilarious reading from Mary Ann in Autumn – part of the Tales of the City series.  In fact, it began earlier than that, in my bedroom in my parents’ house, where I devoured the first book, Tales of the City and longed for the next to come out .I wanted to spend more time with these wonderful characters – Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton, Michael, Mona and so on . So when I found myself sitting opposite Armistead at the dinner, as the light lessened, I plucked up courage and, as the coffee arrived, asked if he would consider letting me loose on his stories for a Radio Four series.

Much to my joy, the answer was yes. Six months later, we were looking for another writer to work their magic to move the tales from the page to the radio. Both Armistead and I thought Bryony Lavery was the perfect person for the job. Luckily she also loves the books and set about the massive task of getting these characters into a radio script immediately.

One of the first challenges was to decide which of the many strong personalities would make it through to the airwaves. They all put up a good fight, each having compelling, reasons for being there. But in the end , the ear can’t hold as many storylines or people in as sharp focus as the page, so some had to go. Certain characters obviously had to stay such as Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton and Mouse.  Others weren’t as central to the storytelling for our purposes, such as Connie Bradshaw and although lingering for a while , were eventually evicted . Some even made it through to the studio.  Brian was in the first series before the edit, but sadly he ended up on the cutting room floor due to the pressures of time. He does make it into the second week though. Catch him at the window of his apartment in More Tales of the City.

The recording was a lot of fun if a little mad !  We laughed a lot whilst creating 28 Barbary Lane and its inhabitants in a Maida Vale studio .At various times in the windowless studio, the cast had to ice skate, be sick, climb to the top of a cathedral, fall in love, break up, and watch the sun sink behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Kate Harper who plays Anna Madrigal grew up in San Francisco . After the read through she told me that becoming the charismatic landlady was easy. She had lived through these years herself in Anna’s city.

Once we got the recording back from London to the edit in Salford, studio manager Paul Carghill and I had a very indulgent and nostalgic time listening to the hits of 1976, choosing  music appropriate to the characters and the scenes . This is where the whole jigsaw comes together and where the character of the city finally emerged , with the soundscape . Adding the detailed specific sounds of the cable cars, the San Franciscan seagulls, the voices in the streets and the creaks of the wooden walkway pulled the whole thing together.

Almost two years on from my chance meeting in Australia , the radio versions of Tales of the City and More Tales are finished and ready to go ! Enjoy ….

Susan Roberts

Armistead Maupin's classic sequence of comic novels, Tales of the City, is based on the denizens of a San Francisco apartment house in the late 70s and early 80s.

Writer Bryony Lavery has dramatised the series for Radio 4, which has been produced by Sue Roberts, Editor Audio Drama North, The Verb Radio 3

The series starts today at 10:45 on Radio 4 and will be on every day for the next two weeks and repeats in the evenings at 19:45

Listen to Episode 1 here or catch-up on BBC iPlayer

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I enjoyed the Tales of the City but was disappointed that the music didn't get a mention. Congratulations to whoever chose it. What is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I love the "Tales of the City" but I was disappointed that the actors were doing inappropriate accents for the roles. Imagine Dick Van Dyke doing his "Cockney" accent while playing Lord Grantham in "Downton Abbey" and you get a sense of what it sounds like to American ears. The accents for Edgar and Franny Halcyon would have been more appropriate for "The Honeymooners". Seems like a lot of work to go through to have it fall short with the actors' characterizations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    pure magic!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I would absolutely love to know what the music is at the start of each episode. It's a man singing the words 'I took you all around the world but you never came home' - what is the song/artist/album, please? Thank you very much!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The song that introduces each episode is called "San Francisco" by Son of Dave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I loved the TotC books when I read them. I love lots of radio drama too but the problem with this serialisation is that the story has been reduced too far. It's scraped too thin. I don't think I'd be understanding what was going on without knowing the full plot - the joining bits seem to be missing. I'm sure it's not the writer's fault - it's an impossible thing to ask someone to reduce books like these into 5x15 minutes each.

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    Comment number 7.

    I've loved this series of novels since discovering the first few in the early eighties, and credit to the BBC for dramatising the first two - I hope we can hear subsequent adventures too.

    Having listened to eight episodes now, I have only two issues so far: with such intricately-plotted novels to work from, the dramatisation tends to feel rushed and unclear at times, which makes it confusing even though I know the plots and quite a few of the lines (and thanks for leaving in "Dear, I have no objection to anything!" intact!). Perhaps take the next series a little more slowly?

    Second, I agree with DexterRiley's comment above about voices. I'm a Brit, and even I can tell that some of the American accents are a bit dodgy - this really needs work. And the voice casting is strange - Beauchamp Day sounds about twice the age he's supposed to be, which distorts his character badly, and D'Orothea/Mona/Dede need to be better distinguished to avoid confusion.

    But thanks - and well done!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Thank you Hinterland - you're a star! I love Son of Dave but had no idea this song was by them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am a huge fan of Armistead Maupin and Tales of the City and as I was listening to the series, I was wondering how easily other people who knew nothing about these books were managing to follow the story. I felt it didn't quite flow and if I hadn't read the books or watched the tv series I am not sure it would have made all that much sense to me. It's a shame really, but I think there was too much to condense into 5 x 15 mins for each book. Maybe 10 episodes of 15 mins for each book might have made it flow a bit better. Having said that I still liked it and loved the music too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    As the previous comment - yes, PLEASE let us know BBC what the snippets of incidental music were, as it doesn't state it anywhere on the website.

    Bobbie Seagroatt

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Bobbie, some of the incidental music (the gorgeous soaring harmonica melody) is also from the track San Francisco by Son of Dave that was used for the intro music. Hope this helps!


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