Friday 27 November 2009, 09:19
Editors note: Alan Dein is a historian and he makes extraordinary radio features, many of which are on my list of favourites of all time. I asked him to write a piece introducing series five of Lives in a Landscape which is on-air now - SB.
"You canna see Canna, it's hidden beyond Rum", explained the Captain of the 'CalMac' ferry service as it headed out of Mallaig on the Scottish mainland towards the small islands of the inner Hebrides. "In the winter season we only sail three days a week, and that's dependent on the weather".
This voyage to the remote isle of Canna, whose entire population consists of eleven adults and six children, was my final recording destination for this year's series of BBC R4's Lives in a Landscape. For four days both myself and producer Neil McCarthy listened to the stories of the islanders - including the gardener, the primary school teacher, the archivist, the proprietors of our supposedly haunted guesthouse, and both of the islands two farmers. Besides recording plenty of conversations, we were compelled to point the microphone at the natural landscape itself, with its extraordinary ever-changing light, wind and birdsong.
For me, it's all of this, and more, that excited me when I was offered the role of the narrator and the reporter on Lives in a Landscape. It was the chance to pursue the kind of radio that I'm passionate about - a heady, unconventional combination of voices, stories and the environments.
The series was created five years ago by Simon Elmes, Creative Director of Radio Features and Documentaries. When it began the programmes ran as montages - non-presented, skilfully constructed audio essays. 'Lives' retains all of this magic and ethos of feature documentary making, but for the past two years, in addition to the collage of characters, there's my voice guiding the listener through the half-hour ride. Sometimes I'm almost an omnipresent investigator, like in 'Tilting at Windmills' (produced by Sara-Jane Hall), our exploration of Knighton, a border-town situated right in the middle of Offa's Dyke. The plan to erect four massive wind turbines is causing rifts within the community. Of course Knighton's backyard could also be yours or mine.
In other episodes, I retreat slightly, leaving the words of our cast of characters to breathe, rather than mine. This year's opener 'Play for Tomorrow' (produced by Laurence Grissell), is an example of that - a gentle and penetrating study of first-year sixth formers from Grimsby as they while away their Summer. A chance for us to home in, to consider voices, and lives, that don't seem to get heard very often at all.
In today's programme, members of a special writers group created for former Royal Ulster Constabulary officers tell their stories, and their individual search for solace through poetry or prose. A week on, I hear from two brothers from Peckham, South London whose triumphs on their local BMX cycle track may transform them into potential Olympians. And then there's Canna, a remote Scottish island with its 17 inhabitants - eleven adults, four primary school-aged children, and a set of two year old twins.
What excites me about the possibilities of an anthology series like Lives in a Landscape is this very opportunity for variety. It's a case of expecting the unexpected - whether it's conveyed by the producer's sound design, or how the narrative is unravelled, or even the actual subject itself.
As the ferry pulls into Canna, and the islanders watch us disembark, I wonder what tales they will have to tell? I say farewell to the Captain, who checks the weather conditions. "Anything can happen in the next half an hour" he says.Alan Dein is an oral historian and broadcaster