Dramatising 'Tales of the City' for Radio 4


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Tales of the City - Radio 4

The whole thing started at the Perth Literary festival in 2011. At a dinner on the lawn of the University, amongst the fairy lights, I was lucky enough to hear Armistead Maupin introduce the starter with a hilarious reading from Mary Ann in Autumn – part of the Tales of the City series.  In fact, it began earlier than that, in my bedroom in my parents’ house, where I devoured the first book, Tales of the City and longed for the next to come out .I wanted to spend more time with these wonderful characters – Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton, Michael, Mona and so on . So when I found myself sitting opposite Armistead at the dinner, as the light lessened, I plucked up courage and, as the coffee arrived, asked if he would consider letting me loose on his stories for a Radio Four series.

Much to my joy, the answer was yes. Six months later, we were looking for another writer to work their magic to move the tales from the page to the radio. Both Armistead and I thought Bryony Lavery was the perfect person for the job. Luckily she also loves the books and set about the massive task of getting these characters into a radio script immediately.

One of the first challenges was to decide which of the many strong personalities would make it through to the airwaves. They all put up a good fight, each having compelling, reasons for being there. But in the end , the ear can’t hold as many storylines or people in as sharp focus as the page, so some had to go. Certain characters obviously had to stay such as Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton and Mouse.  Others weren’t as central to the storytelling for our purposes, such as Connie Bradshaw and although lingering for a while , were eventually evicted . Some even made it through to the studio.  Brian was in the first series before the edit, but sadly he ended up on the cutting room floor due to the pressures of time. He does make it into the second week though. Catch him at the window of his apartment in More Tales of the City.

The recording was a lot of fun if a little mad !  We laughed a lot whilst creating 28 Barbary Lane and its inhabitants in a Maida Vale studio .At various times in the windowless studio, the cast had to ice skate, be sick, climb to the top of a cathedral, fall in love, break up, and watch the sun sink behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Kate Harper who plays Anna Madrigal grew up in San Francisco . After the read through she told me that becoming the charismatic landlady was easy. She had lived through these years herself in Anna’s city.

Once we got the recording back from London to the edit in Salford, studio manager Paul Carghill and I had a very indulgent and nostalgic time listening to the hits of 1976, choosing  music appropriate to the characters and the scenes . This is where the whole jigsaw comes together and where the character of the city finally emerged , with the soundscape . Adding the detailed specific sounds of the cable cars, the San Franciscan seagulls, the voices in the streets and the creaks of the wooden walkway pulled the whole thing together.

Almost two years on from my chance meeting in Australia , the radio versions of Tales of the City and More Tales are finished and ready to go ! Enjoy ….

Susan Roberts

Armistead Maupin's classic sequence of comic novels, Tales of the City, is based on the denizens of a San Francisco apartment house in the late 70s and early 80s.

Writer Bryony Lavery has dramatised the series for Radio 4, which has been produced by Sue Roberts, Editor Audio Drama North, The Verb Radio 3

The series starts today at 10:45 on Radio 4 and will be on every day for the next two weeks and repeats in the evenings at 19:45

Listen to Episode 1 here or catch-up on BBC iPlayer

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