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Bringing old favourites to life: illustrating Radio 4 drama

Tuesday 2 June 2009, 11:33

Ashley Stewart-Noble Ashley Stewart-Noble

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A while back I posted about why we use illustrations on iPlayer for key radio programming (on the BBC Internet blog). In short we want to avoid galleries of largely unknown faces which don't really hook the listener as much as a well-executed illustration.

When we come to illustrate dramas which feature popular and loved characters we are posed with a dilemma - we want to give depth and feeling to the drama without personifying the character too much. The mind's eye is a wonderful thing which conjures up its own distinct image of how Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Ruth Archer from The Archers look - it's not the job of the illustration to give a face to the characters, its job is to nod to their characteristics.

You'll have seen two illustrations recently for Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders and The Complete Smiley, both on Radio 4. I'll hand over to my picture editors Javier Hirschfeld and Dominik Klimowski who commissioned these illustrations:

The Complete Smiley (Commissioned by Javier Hirschfeld):

le Carre Smiley illustration

"I thought of the illustrator Swava Harasymowicz since there is something of the classic spy/gangster Hollywood movies in many of her works. I focused on the role of Smiley rather than John le Carré himself. Smiley's a spy who should not be easily recognised by the people that see him so we decided to go with the film noir look and feel to create that classic spy scenario. Below are Swava's drafts and the explanations of them." The illustrator writes:

"The main rough would use 'slices' suggesting blinds with the figure - half-seen, half-not-seen - within them, sort of layered. There may be very faint outlines of cities too, or a close up of a spy-like man with a lighter instead of a gun (apparently he had a favourite lighter). In both cases there would be colour - not monochrome.
le Carre Smiley sketch

"We opted for the blinds option because this would add mystery and this way the character's face will not be as prominent, therefore not identifiable with Sir Alec Guinness or with Simon Russell-Beale. Smiley will be defined by the spy look, the papers and the silhouette, since he is always in the shadows and must never be seen."

Rumpole Penge Bungalow Murders

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Commissioned by Dominik Klimowski):

Steph von Reiswitz was the natural choice when commissioning an illustration for the 'Rumpole' series on Radio 4. She has illustrated numerous radio programmes for us including 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and the 'The Complete Ripley'. Her idiosyncratic style fits perfectly with these 'period' dramas and it is further backed up by a knowledge of the material. If there is one thing more reassuring than an illustrator who is keen to research the content we are promoting, it is one who is familiar with it already.

Rumpole Penge Bungalow sketch

The illustration was made specifically to be generic so that it can promote any of the Rumpole stories. His features, the décor and the props are all carefully considered and I think this is where illustration will always win out. The image has been created from thin air. It does not rely on an actor, or a specific setting or action, all of which would make it too specific and interfere with our imaginations. Instead it is an image as original as the one each of us carries in our mind's eye when we turn on the radio and listen to 'Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders'.

Ashley Stewart-Noble is a Senior Content Producer at BBC Future Media & Technology

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Whilst your illustrations are very accommplished, I'm afraid that I don't really like the big pictures on the new web page. I wonder if any other listeners feel the same way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This Radio 4 Webpage with or without the illustrations is one of the worst webpage I've ever seen on the NET since years. Coming from a public institution like the BBC, this enlarge self publicity is a total shame and show only incompetence at the highest levels. No text or pertinent information .All flashy pictures over substance, excessive categories but with a poor navigation & a counter intuitive links (not even a BACK TO TOP at the bottom of a page)
    To paraphrase a quote about software engineering:
    "If architects designed buildings the way they design web sites, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Ashley, the fact that you actually think (or were told) to celebrate and inform us how these derisable attempts to 'hook the listener' are done is more than ample evidence (as if we needed it) that you lot (to coin a popular phrase) 'just don't get it'.
    The R4 webpage redesign is a travesty. Incompetent, ugly, uninformative and often broken.
    Just look at this blog page, I am viewing this on a 22" widescreen monitor, at normal res, the screen area is 11.25" high.
    The first words of your Blog Ashley, appear 7, yes seven inches down the screen. Above it 2" of screen space is given to a dark blue strip with nothing but 'The Radio 4 Blog' and some semicircles.
    A 'feature' found on many of the R4 pages.
    What folk with smaller screens experience I can only imagine.
    Furthermore, as scalable windows appear to be beyond the skillset of you lot, unless the brower window is full width, elements on the right of the page are hidden.

    Heres some advice, forget about the crummy drawings of Rumpole and Smiley, (my 10 year old could do better) and sort the website out.

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    Comment number 4.

    Lucky, I was going to refer you to the several hundred unfavourable comments about the ghastly oversized pictures on previous blogs, but I find that all the comments for April blogs have been deleted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    How interesting, Boldrodent. I too was one of the hundreds who went to the trouble of complaining. But, you see, we do not fit in with the scheme of whoever commissioned this dreadful mess. Because they took no notice at all. They do not even do us the courtesy of an explanation. Nor does anybody admit responsibility. What more can one do?


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