Friday 3 July 2009, 13:10
Casting a radio drama can be one of a radio producer's most nerve-wracking jobs. To be honest, money is part of the reason. Actors, by and large, do radio for love because radio fees are, shall we say, modest compared to the bigger bucks offered by television, film or commercials. A part in a Saturday Play or a voiceover on major advertising campaign? No contest! What this means is that actors' agents rarely commit their clients to a radio job more than two weeks in advance - just in case one of those far more lucrative offers come in. So as the days tick down towards a recording, the air in the drama office is taut with anxiety. Will we get our dream cast? We consult Spotlight (a kind of glossy catalogue of actors and their CVs), we rifle through the huge file in the office marked 'Actors', and dredge our memory banks for people we've seen and heard in other productions. Eleri McAuliffe, BBC Wales Radio Drama Production Assistant has a brilliant memory for voices and always has plenty of good suggestions. I make lists - if Clooney says no, offer to Pitt, if he turns it down try Depp - OK, I'm fantasising a little but you get my drift.
The casting of the three Torchwood Afternoon Plays, however, presented an altogether different conundrum. How do you get an established cast, including John Barrowman, aka the busiest man in showbiz, into a radio studio in Cardiff to record three 45 minute dramas - something which would normally take around six days?
What we usually do to record a 45 minute drama is to assemble the cast for 2 days, start at 1000 on the first day with a read-through and then rehearse and record each scene according to the schedule. The schedule, i.e. the order the scenes are recorded, is determined by when each actor is available and how economically they can be used, so is always recorded out of scene order. The three Torchwood plays would involve 15 actors, including the three main cast - John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones) - who would be needed for most of the time.
Negotiations begin with John Barrowman's agent. 'Can it be done in one day?' they ask, optimistically. 'No,' we reply, 'it can't! We need him for six.' 'Ok,' they counter, 'How about one and a half?' In the end we have to settle for two days, the only two days available in fact between the end of John's Saturday night television show and the start of his nationwide concert tour. We grab them and sign him up.
In the meantime, the writers (Anita Sullivan, James Goss and Phil Ford) are still working on last minute adjustments to the scripts. Usually a producer and writer work together on a script one-to-one. Again, Torchwood is different. It's a brand, with existing characters, a big back story, and a huge and dedicated fanbase - the facts, the character portrayals, the atmosphere and the story arc have to fit. So, in addition to my notes, every script is scrutinised by a Torchwood script editor, as well by Julie Gardner, the Exec Producer of the television series, and - most important of all - the great man himself series creator, Russell T Davies. John's availability, or lack of it, poses a big problem so a major creative decision is taken with John's storyline in Phil Ford's drama, The Dead Line. (You'll have to listen to find out!).
Meanwhile, the rest of the casting starts to fall into place. We pin down Tom Price (PC Andy Davidson) in between stand-up gigs, and Kai Owen (Rhys Williams) on a day when he isn't training for or actually running the London Marathon, and Gareth David-Lloyd is signed up the moment he flies back in from LA. I audition six young girls for the lead in Asylum, and ten Asian actors for key parts in Golden Age which is set in Delhi. At the back, well the front, of my mind, though, is a nagging worry. Eve Myles, a central Torchwood cast member, still hasn't been booked. She's 'technically' free, according to her agent, but 'her people' still haven't actually signed the contract. This is getting scary. Everyone else is in place. If Eve can't do these dates for some reason, the unpicking would be a nightmare - and the possibility of finding two other free days in Mr Barrowman's hectic schedule extremely unlikely. Eleri calls Eve's agent again. We can't do these plays without Eve. This is one show where you can't recast at the last moment - there can be no substitutes! Finally, we're given the go-ahead to book her. Phew.
Now, that schedule. I make a list of who is available on which days, then a list of who is in which scene with whom, and juggle it all to a conclusion. We will record the three plays, 74 scenes, in bits and pieces over a period of eight days. We're used to recording drama out of order but three plays, all jumbled up is something else! Eleri checks and double checks that every scene and every actor is accounted for. We breathe a sigh of relief.
Then, disaster. Just as Eve's contract is about to be signed we get a call. Another offer has come in for her - it's a lead in a film with Trevor Eve which starts filming the same week as our recording. Eve's agent is apologetic but she has to encourage her client to take the part. (Who wouldn't? It's six weeks film work in a major production!) But Eve is also desperate to do the radio and doesn't want to let us down. 'Can she do both?' asks the agent. Eleri and I stare hard at the schedule once more feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of taking the whole jig-saw apart and starting again. We have to fit in Eve's scenes around her constantly changing filming schedule. I spend the next three days on the phone to the producer of the film - and somehow, we manage it.
Before we know it, the first recording day is upon us. Once the red light goes on and the production starts, it all flies by at top speed. By the end of the eighth day we are dizzy and exhausted but elated - we've done it! Everyone turned up at the right time and in the right place. We've survived Eve being whisked away for a last minute love scene with Trevor Eve. We release Gareth only to find that he still has two lines to record! Happily they're on the phone so we record him from home, on the phone, which is why they sound particularly realistic! John's boundless energy has infected everyone and as he heads out of the building in his pale pink sweater and on to his next gig, we're sad to see him go - yet still buoyed up by the enthusiasm of all the actors and their terrific performances. As we leave for the day, Eleri and I look back at the wall chart. Only ten more days to go until the next recording. Tomorrow morning we start all over again!
Kate McAll is a Senior Producer, Radio Drama at BBC Wales
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