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Producing and directing Our Mutual Friend

Friday 6 November 2009, 16:00

Jessica Dromgoole Jessica Dromgoole Editor, Home Front

Editor's note: the second instalment of our series about this year's big Christmas adaptation, Our Mutual Friend, is by producer/director Jessica Dromgoole:

5 May 2009. Behold London! Behold Oxford Circus tube station! Behold Broadcasting House! Behold 60a! The studio is primed for nine days of wonder. Ordinarily, four weeks of Woman's Hour Dramas would take twelve days to record, but we're ambitious for the economy of scale; creating complex equations of cast size, cast calibre and time spent on the episodes. Jeremy and I have been poring over the recording schedule for longer than is healthy, with an eye to clustered threads of story, locations, the actors' availability, and the Studio Managers' and our own sanity. Matilda and James - the broadcast assistants - have been negotiating with contracts, agents, the actors themselves, the actors' childminders, and the radio rep coordinator, keeping up with our ambitions, and often exceeding them. They're extraordinary.

The first day is daunting. Jeremy is directing. I'm sitting in, absorbing as much as I can. Everything the actors do today will hold fast for the series. Their vocal choices, the level of their articulacy, the breadth of the comedy, the dynamic of each of their relationships. The strongest boldest performances are already working really well. The actors are loving the script. Outside of the leads, the world of Our Mutual Friend is such a melting pot of front-footed characters, ambitious, driven, delighted with themselves, it calls for size and clarity, and the cast are delivering beautifully.

6 May. My scenes today are new territory, on the whole. The Boffins with Rokesmith. Jason asks whether Mr Boffin knows who John is yet. None of us know. He demonstrates the difference it makes to his performance, which is huge, but not revealing. We decide that yes, he does know, or he's 95% certain, and he's testing Rokesmith by showing him round the old house. Colin (Guthrie) and Anne (Bunting) - the Studio Managers - are working beautifully together, creating a London that is very true and simple, and doesn't feel clichéd Victoriana at all. Lee Ross gives us a variety of Weggs. He's not happy with the voice yet. He'd painted him huge and primary in the readthrough, setting a fantastic bar for everyone else there, but wants to find something else. We record the first encounter with Boffin over and over, trying to hit the dynamic which will persuade us that these men belong to the same story, and when it happens, it's a delight.

The actors at the Jolly Fellowship Porters get the giggles every time the Inspector sucks on his pipe. I don't get it. It's been a long day. How Colin and Anne look so fresh is beyond me.

7 May. Jeremy today. Episodes 6-10 already! Some great work with Daisy (Bella) and Carl (John) this morning. Making the series at this pace, it feels too early for John to declare his feelings for Bella, but of course, listening at only fifteen minutes a day, it'll be about time. Lizzie and Jenny Wren are a lovely partnership. Both voices are light and clear, but the actors are heading in different directions - Lizzie's is clouded by difficulty, Jenny's luminous with confidence. As Jeremy prepares for the Eugene/Bradley confrontation over the billiard table, I say 'Oh, my favourite scene of the whole series'. A look of panic crosses Jeremy's face, and I wish I hadn't put him under the additional pressure. It's a difficult scene to pull off, because our enjoyment of it depends so strongly on the sightlines and eyeballing of the two men. This is achievable, and Patrick and Neil are really in harmony, but it's not easy.

8 May. Great day. Episode 9 is a break away from the feel of the series so far, and Jamie (Rogue) and Carl (John) are relishing the prospect of a substantial scene. Carl admits afterwards that he was nervous about playing the hard man, out-Jamie-ing Jamie, but they work well together, feeding each other and timing beautifully. It's almost disappointing that they get it so right so quickly. Favourite exchange of the day: 'That's a good table' ... 'It's a dead table now'. We record the drowning. I love drownings on radio. Love them. Topless actors with their heads in washing up bowls of water, surfacing for each line. The method is crude but the effect is fantastic. The washing up bowl comes out. Jonathan (Radfoot) blanches. He's got a cold and didn't know he'd be asked to put his head in the water. We warm the water for him. He's very game. Each element sounds great, but we'll have to wait for the edit to see how they fit together.

11 May. I can't be in studio today. Too much else to do. I've got a studio (for In Mates, an Afternoon Play) at the end of the month and need to turn the script around in time to cast it. I live so resolutely in Our Mutual Friend, I'm aware that I'm trying to cast In Mates like an Our Mutual Friend reunion*. Jeremy is recording Rogue's drowning, Wegg's first turning of the Boffin screw, and the Wilfers' anniversary dinner, cooked by Bella. I email-pester Matilda and James asking for progress reports. I send two texts to Jeremy by lunchtime. I'm an Our Mutual Friend stalker. Absence is focusing my mind exquisitely. I'm done by four, and hot foot it to Broadcasting House, and back to the oxygen of filthy old London. I'm sent straight into studio to be an extra in the Jolly Fellowship Porters. I'm rubbish. People wish I'd stayed away. *I do, and Pauline Quirke (Mrs Boffin) plays Michelle, Lizzy Watts (Lizzie) plays Kirsty, Malcolm Tierney (Old Harmon) plays the father-in-law, and Ben Askew (Sloppy) plays Pavel.

12 May. Busy studio today. A lot of short scenes. A lot of movement. Something strikes me about the third week of the series. The third quarter of the book, too. The characters are set, and there is little time to delight in their foibles and quirks. Their journeys are at their most complex, and they are - for the most part - facing the worst of their troubles. Individually the scenes are exciting, witty, beautifully turned. Together the day is enormous. We fail to record all the scenes on the schedule. We've been breaking our backs to keep to the schedule, and plug at each scene until we're perfectly happy, and it's a horrible feeling to be responsible for the one lapse. It's a sad day, too, because characters are beginning to leave the series. Saying goodbye to Nicola (Jenny) is unnecessarily hurried because of my schedule guilt. We'll see her on Thursday at the aftershow drinks, but the studio will be smaller without her.

13 May. Jeremy's day, full of exquisite two handed scenes - Rogue and Bradley, John and Bella, Bradley and Charlie, Eugene and Lizzie. The actors are so sure of who they are by now, and so compelled by the paths of their own stories, Jeremy is directing them so simply, and Colin and Anne are approaching them with so little clutter, sitting in the cubicle is a privilege. It's fascinating how Dickens has moved his characters - his leads - from uncertainty, questing, fecklessness, superficiality, towards something more driven, more sure, more in line with the bigger, bolder characters who have peopled the world they move in.

14 May. The last day of full cast recording. I mustn't give away the story, but there are scenes and moments, and performances I will treasure. A double drowning. Two brimming washing up bowls. Two discarded tops. My favourite thing, twice. Bradley's justification, which Neil and I worked on until it had barely an inflection at all; Rokesmith's wild moment of clarity on the street with Mortimer, where Carl manages to suggest that he is working with only the top 5% of his brain; Wegg's counterattack at the moment of his comeuppance, which Lee gives with utter conviction, silencing the room and possibly delivering the message of the book; these come once in a blue moon ordinarily. To get to work on them all in one day is utopian. We end on Lizzie's song, which feels lovely and obscure, carrying a lot of the tone, but none of the narrative of the series, and then repair to the pub for drinks with as many of the cast as possible. Carl and Neil are both appearing in theatre, so don't make it, and are missed, but the atmosphere is very positive and celebratory. I leave as Nicola is offering Jamie a wheelchair lift to his home in South East London on her lap.

15 May. Alex Jennings. So completely at ease with Dickens, Mike's writing, the microphone. He's a joy. He's disappointed to have been such an outsider to the process, having called in to studio the day before and 'felt the love', but we can tell how crucial his voice and his interest will be to the pieces as a whole.

Jessica Dromgoole is a producer at BBC Radio Drama

  • Radio 4's 20-part adaptation of Our Mutual Friend begins on Monday at 1945
  • Jeremy Mortimer, Executive Producer, wrote about adapting Our Mutual Friend here on the blog last week.
  • Look out for further blog reports on the recording process, with contributions from composer Roger Goula, studio manager Colin Guthrie and members of the cast.
  • 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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