Turning a historic photograph into radio ...
Michael Symmons Roberts is an award-winning poet and writer of fiction, libretti and scripts for radio and TV. His latest radio drama - 'Migrant Mother' - will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 28th November at 20.00. Here, Michael explains how the play came about and writes about the challenges and pleasures of writing for radio.
The story of ‘Migrant Mother’ begins in Bolton, Lancashire. Bear with me... I know that Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson was taken in California at the peak of the Great Depression in America. But the radio drama Migrant Mother began when I wrote a play called Worktown for Radio 4. Worktown was written in response to Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton in the 1930s, showing the everyday lives of working people - in pubs, shops, factories and funeral parlours. Spender’s pictures were part of the so-called ‘Mass Observation’ movement, the first stirrings of what we now know as documentary photography. When ‘Worktown’ was broadcast, the BBC website and the network of UK city centre ‘Big Screens’ ran a montage of the photographs to accompany the play.
The challenge of working in a sound-only medium, but taking photographs as a starting-point, was fascinating and liberating for me as a writer. I wasn’t looking for a documentary truth about the people captured in the ‘Worktown’ pictures. Quite the reverse, I was using the pictures as a springboard into fiction, interweaving stories to flesh out the imagined lives of the people on those Bolton streets. Writing ‘Worktown’ was such a compelling process, that when it was done I started to think about other photographs with dramatic potential, and quickly thought of ‘Migrant Mother’. At around the same time that Spender was wandering the streets of Bolton with a camera, a society portrait photographer from San Francisco was starting her own photographic revolution. Shocked by the rapid collapse of the American economy in the 1930’s, by the growing dole queues and grinding poverty, Dorothea Lange left her studio and took her camera on the road.
Together with her husband, the economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Dorothea travelled round the so-called ‘Hoover Camps’ that were emerging across California. These were turning into places of hunger, sickness and despair, as thousands of refugees from the dustbowl in Oklahoma packed up their lives on the roofs of old cars and headed west in search of work and hope. What they found was far from hopeful. Not only were jobs few and far between, but the travellers met with overcrowding, fear and hostility. Lange believed that the right photograph could mobilise American public opinion to respond to the plight of these migrant workers. And she finally took that photograph in a pea-pickers’ camp near Nipomo in 1936, when she came across a 32-year-old mother and her seven children. That photograph went on to become the defining image of the American depression.
As I worked with Charlotte Riches and Susan Roberts at BBC North to develop a play about ‘Migrant Mother’, the world’s economy began to slide towards a new depression. Economists began to draw parallels with the 1930s. Lange’s picture seemed more and more apposite, and the questions it raised - about the nature of hope and resilience, the political power of photography, the vulnerability of what we regard as ‘civilisation’ - seemed more and more urgent.
But this new drama would not be an American version of ‘Worktown’. This play offered a whole new set of challenges. The characters in ‘Migrant Mother’ are well-known, and their stories are well-documented. I didn’t see any point in making a radio biography, masquerading as a drama. The reason why so many writers - including me - love to write for radio is that so much is possible. You can eavesdrop on a character’s thoughts, you can give voice to anything (including a transplant lung in one of my previous plays), and crucially you can cut between many different registers of speech and language. For me, as for many other poets, the latter is the greatest joy of writing for radio. ‘Migrant Mother’ gave me the opportunity to write arguments, riots and love scenes, new words for bluegrass songs and short lyric poems. The poems were the imagined introspective voice of Dorothea as she catalogued her pictures.
We did feel a responsibility to the characters - to Dorothea and Florence in particular - not to ignore what we knew about their real lives. But this drama is fiction, and its focus is the inner and outer worlds of the two remarkable women at either end of the lens in the ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph. At a time when financial and domestic security feels terrifyingly fragile again for many people, I hope that we have been able to capture something of the resilience, passion and commitment of these two women, united forever by a single photograph, taken on a late winter’s afternoon in 1936.