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Afternoon Play: The Big Broadcast (or Tap Dancing on the Radio)


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Editor's note: Neil Brand is a highly experienced radio playwright and award-winning composer/lyricist who with director David Hunter is responsible for today's Afternoon Play: The Big Broadcast which you can hear online for the next seven days. Here Neil relates the evolution of The Big Broadcast from idea to recording in front of a live audience in the BBC's Radio Theatre. And if that weren't enough for one person to be getting on with, Neil is also a pianist for silent film and worked with Paul Merton on his recent TV series about silent movies - PM.

I've always loved musicals.

It seemed the right time, from the depths of one recession, to be looking back at the Hollywood/Broadway view of the Great Depression of the 30s and using radio to celebrate... well, radio.

My friend Timothy Brock lent me some original US radio shows from the 30s to listen to and Radio 4 came back on my and David Hunter's proposal with the suggestion of a live recording in the Radio Theatre incorporating the BBC singers, starry names and the wonderful Radio Rep company who had all, it turned out, done time in West End musicals.

Recording a radio play can be an insular experience - eight-hour studio days in a windowless space or a control room listening intently to voices inches away from microphones. Musicals, on the other hand, are there to be belted out, songs and scenes alike, and throughout the writing process the characters in my head were on a stage, making stage entrances and playing to please a crowd.

I tried to write lines Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn would enjoy delivering, waspish put-downs, sly in-jokes and Chicago gangster-patter. I indulged in my favourite musical pastiches knowing the performers' voices would match the spirit of the times. Above all I wanted to make the story gripping for the listener, make them feel involved in the plot as well as the fun in the hall, and pay tribute along the way to the songwriting teams of Golden Age Broadway whose lyrics danced one minute and broke your heart the next.

How, exactly, would they write a love song at gunpoint whilst going through a messy divorce?

When it came to the performance, our company assembled in its entirety for the first time at 2pm on recording day, after only a day of rehearsals. The wonderful stars Josie Lawrence and Nigel Harman lived and breathed the text and songs as if they'd been playing them for weeks. The actors loved having the BBC singers producing the sound of a massive, close-harmonising chorus from only four voices; the singers really enjoyed the adrenalin and theatricality of the other performers.

The microphone movements were blocked, the brilliant Colin Guthrie, our on-stage live spot-effects operator, announced he was satisfied with his huge assembly of door-slams, wind machines and tap-shoes - we ran through the show once, then headed backstage and waited.

The last half-hour before hitting a live audience with something new is always muted - people prepare quietly, there's not much chat - too much to try and hold in one's head. One by one the cast appeared in smart costumes, scripts and scores in hand. On the call we all mounted the stairs to the stage and heard the buzz of a packed Radio Theatre - and I saw the performers bridle like racehorses at the sound of a full house - smiles, deep breaths and on we went.

I hope you like the result. I am enormously proud of it and hugely grateful to the BBC and everybody involved.

Neil Brand wrote and composed The Big Broadcast.

  • Of the video clip (above), director David Hunter says: "The Big Broadcast's audience and the listeners have a story of love gone wrong, of gambling and hoodlums and a cheesy soap opera. But the piece de resistance is studio manager Colin Guthrie, actors Jane Whittenshaw and Stuart McLoughlin throwing caution to the wind and, borrowed tap shoes on hands, creating rhythmic toe-tapping choreography for the radio. Tap dancing on the radio."
  • You can listen to The Big Broadcast on the Radio 4 website for the next seven days.

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