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Adapting Our Mutual Friend for radio

Tuesday 27 October 2009, 12:00

Jeremy Mortimer Jeremy Mortimer Producer

Of course making a Hollywood film, or directing at the National Theatre may be all very well (I wouldn't know as I haven't done either) but there are times when there is simply nothing more rewarding than being in the radio studio working on a really meaty drama serial. Over the last few months I've had the chance to work on the twenty episode dramatisation of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, and the Radio 4 Blog people thought it might be an idea for us to share some of the behind the scenes stuff about the making of a big radio drama. So here is my diary of the work that went into the first, crucial part of the process - the scripts.

And you can listen to a short conversation between me and writer Mike Walker here:

October 2007. The last day of recording Dombey and Son. We are doing the Dickens narrations with Alex Jennings, and he asks which Dickens we're going to do next. Mike Walker (writer) Jessica Dromgoole and I (producers) have been having snatched conversations about this, but haven't reached a conclusion. Mike and I have worked on four Dickens dramatisations for the R4 Woman's Hour drama slot - Nicholas Nickleby (2001), The Old Curiosity Shop (2003), and David Copperfield (2005). Dickens' novels seem to fall so naturally into short episodes - possibly because he wrote them in serial form. The characters seem to be perfectly formed for radio, and the audience has responded well to the brilliant Dickens mix of comedy and high drama. So what next?

May 2008. The decision has been taken, and we have sent the proposal to Radio 4 Drama commissioner Jeremy Howe. We have gone for Our Mutual Friend. We're a bit nervous about this because it is Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer's favourite Dickens. But we're excited by the challenges posed by Dickens' sprawling novel (his last complete work) in which corpses, identities and reputations rise and fall in the tidal reaches of London's great river.

July 2008. We get the green light. Our Mutual Friend will be broadcast in twenty episodes starting in November 2009. We have already done a breakdown of the story into the four weekly parts, but now we have to break it down into its fifteen minute episodes, making sure that no episode uses more than seven characters. It is quite a challenge. We book the drama studio in Broadcasting House for nine days recording in May 2009.

September 2008. Over the summer we have all been re-reading the book. Mike submits a revised episode breakdown and we have a long meeting in which we sort some key questions about the plot, and try to get to the bottom of the character of John Rokesmith - the Mutual Friend himself.

November 2008. The first ten scripts come in. Always an exciting moment. How will the characters behave - do we care about them. It is clear immediately that Bella Wilfer is going to be a star. Feisty, funny and impetuous. We're still not so sure about Rokesmith. Who is he?

December 2008. With recording just a few months away the pressure is on. We now have 15 of the scripts, but we know they will need to go through a couple more drafts. We're confident that Mike can do it. He seems to be able to live and breathe Dickens. He doesn't so much adapt the books as re-make them for radio. Every episode needs a cliff-hanger, and every character needs their own moment in the sun.

January 2009. 2 January 2009. My email to Mike Walker:

I think you have done a grand job in pulling it all together - and there are some truly excellent scenes. But I reckon that for draft 2 we need to do quite a bit of honing and polishing just to keep the listeners on track, and we need to underline the two key romances of the story so that they know whose lives they are following. I found that the Riderhoods, and to a degree the Wegg/Venus stories slightly got in the way at times, and I found my attention wandering. Also lost track of Bradley and Eugene. Really hard to underline without being too obvious, but we can use Dickens more, and I think that it is about getting the nuances right in the story.

We now have first drafts of all twenty scripts. We need a long script meeting to sort out the key moments in the climax of the story - a business of multiple revelations.

February 2009. Second draft scripts come in thick and fast. We still need to make more of the Dickens narration. We are strict with ourselves in the use of this. It is not to be used to tell the story - that's the role of the drama. But we want the listener to be able to see how the characters affect their creator. Dickens has written that his characters tend to write themselves. He watches their antics and is often surprised by what they do.

March 2009. Third draft scripts come in. All the stories now interweave in a way that we think the listeners will be able to follow, and the various denouements seem to work. There are some exciting action sequences which will be tricky to pull off in the studio, but we're up for the challenge. Jessica and I have started a scene breakdown, which will become a vital tool as a recording schedule.

April 2009. The Radio Drama Company - a small team of actors contracted to the Radio Drama Department - is a crucial resource for us, and we have now cast quite a few key roles from the company. Music is also crucial to the production. I have just been to a showcase of graduates from the National Film and Television school and was very struck by the work of a young composer, Roger Goula. Jessica and I listen to his work and invite him in. Roger appears undaunted by the challenge of writing music for twenty episodes of a radio serial, or by the fact that we want him to present us with key themes before we start recording.

1st April. We get the good news that Alex Jennings is free to take the role of Dickens. Of course his availability might change, but it feels like a good start.

On the day that we receive the final scripts (9th April) we start casting in earnest. Our wish list is a mix of old friends and new actors we have never worked with before. We start sending out scripts.

20th April. Our first choice for the part of Jenny Wren is Nicola Miles-Wildin, who Jessica auditioned over the phone. Nicola uses a wheelchair and some of the production team need to complete wheelchair evacuation training in Broadcasting House. We spend a few hours lowering each other downstairs in a chair with caterpillar tracks.

22nd April. The recording schedule has been completed. Over eight recording days we will be recording a new scene every twenty minutes. Jessica and I will direct on alternate days.

1st May 2009. 10.00 am. Twenty-two actors assemble, together with Mike and Roger, in a windowless room in Bush House for the readthrough, which will take most of the day. Everyone is nervous, but excited. Alex Jennings starts:

Behold! London. And the river - silver and black under the moon - silver and silent... A big man, hunched at the prow - grizzled hair - wind blown face... peering up-river at the coming tide.

Jeremy Mortimer is Executive Producer, BBC Radio Drama

  • Look out for further blog reports on the recording process, with contributions from Jeremy's fellow-producer Jessica Dromgoole, composer Roger Goula, studio manager Colin Guthrie and members of the cast.
  • Radio 4's 2007 production of Dombey and Son
  • A fascinating account of the serialisation of Our Mutual Friend in 1864 and 65 by Robert L. Patten at Rice University and of the great dust-heap from R.H. Horne.
  • We'd love to hear your thoughts about Dickens dramatisations you have heard and enjoyed on the radio. And which of the novels do you think Radio 4 should tackle next?
  • There are production photos of the whole cast, taken for Radio 4 by Phil Fisk, here.

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