‘Be bold…’ the words of Kate Rowland are at the heart of The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows.
The idea of children playing adults was central to the pitch. It was a device that would allow me to explore familiar territory afresh. Well, I say familiar territory, but how often do we really hear elderly people talk truthfully about what it’s like to be old, the reality - warts and all?
I wanted to make this drama distinctive, something which couldn’t easily be ignored or forgotten, like so many elderly people are, in our society.
BBC Radio 3: The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows
Pauline Harris who is the Producer/Director, and I worked intensively and collaboratively from commission to broadcast. I interviewed four people and Pauline interviewed two. We wanted to ask the questions that people shy away from about ageing … illness, indignity, loneliness and death. We selected the accounts which had an unflinching honesty about the later years of life, the ‘truths’ in the title if you like.
With regard to the central premise, I wanted listeners to put themselves in the shoes of older people. To me, lack of empathy is one of the things wrong with our society, whether it’s on a macro level… politicians making decisions that have devastating consequences for individuals, or on a micro level… carelessly brushing past someone in the street who is elderly and frail.
Rhoda, Stan and Ron’s stories affected me profoundly. Out of the three transcripts selected I had never met two of the contributors, never even heard their voices, and was just dealing with the words on the page. Ideally, I do like to meet and form a relationship with the contributors, but in a strange way, it was a great discipline to have only the words on the page to craft.
Dramatising verbatim is a difficult task, both technically and ethically. And there was so much material to whittle down, it wasn’t so much panning for gold, but sculpting with it. I had been given something very precious – the stories of people’s lives - and I didn’t want to ruin it.
Pauline and I worked closely to select the strongest material. Inevitably along the way some beautiful stories and images had to be discarded - whole strands and character traits that we had grown to love. But as the overarching narrative was defined - that of the characters being snowed in - the responsibility shifted to the piece as a whole rather than the individual’s story arc. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly given the ages of the contributors, there were huge similarities in their histories: illnesses, bereavements, addictions and multiple marriages.
Part of me was hesitant about tinkering with the natural narratives which were so strong. I was concerned that by layering drama on the original stories it would somehow damage them. The beauty of some of the accounts lay in their reflective sagacity; add drama to the mix and there would inevitably be a shift in pace and tone. By placing the characters in the present and adding jeopardy they would become more active. I was very keen to avoid children pretending to be old people.
What Pauline and our young actors created was amazing; they inhabited their characters rather than performing. We were both astonished that they instinctively seemed to pick up the characteristics of the older people without ever having met them. This was confirmation that I’d captured and retained the essence of Rhoda, Ron and Stan in the script. But all credit must go to Pauline for casting so well and her very special talent of directing young people. Watching her work with Daniel, Ellis and Sydney was a joy, she put them at their ease and instilled confidence, all the while talking and guiding them through their character’s emotional journeys.
By hearing the stories recounted by a young person we start to hear our three octogenarian’s lives with added depth and breadth, and see them from different perspectives - through the eyes of a child. By using a young person’s voice it’s almost as if a child is foreseeing their lives, the possibilities, successes, failures, heartbreaks and bereavements.
As I was dramatizing Ron’s monologue, which was based on his fear of the carers not turning up, I was thinking, ‘this is awful, but it could never happen… it’s just his irrational fear.’ I’d literally just typed the last full stop and switched on the news to hear the tragic story of 81 year old Gloria Foster. Gloria had died as a result of being left without essential care (food, medication or water) for nine days. I was shocked and extremely saddened that this could happen. I always knew that The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows would be relevant to a society with an ageing population, but this terrible news added to its significance and timeliness.
In juxtaposing youth and age we highlight how quickly life passes and how almost within the blink of an eye we go from being eight to eighty. Having said this, it is not a depressing piece, to me it is life affirming; it encourages us to live life to the full. I’ll leave the last line with the very wonderful and very wise Rhoda: ‘Life is so short, and it goes so quickly… try not to waste it; try to enjoy each day.’
Fiona Evans is the writer of The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows – an innovative radio drama based on verbatim interviews with three elderly people who in this production are performed by children.
The drama is repeated on Radio 3 – on Saturday 10th August 2014 at 10.15pm Find out more on the programme page.