Early Warning programme image
Some ideas begin with a character, some with a story, or a theme. Early Warning began with a photograph; a black and white image of a concrete dish, a massive monolith, like a giant satellite dish, stood isolated on a shingle beach. It looked like some strange brutalist piece of architecture. It was only later, talking to a friend who lived on the coast, I discovered it was, in fact, an ‘acoustic mirror’ – built before the First World War as part of an early warning system to detect incoming enemy aircraft. A hundred years ago there was a whole chain of these extraordinary structures dotted along the coastline, each manned by an operator who’d sit in a bunker at the foot of the dish listening over headphones to a microphone positioned in the centre of the mirror, scanning the horizon for alien sounds. They were known locally as ‘Listening Ears’.
I’ve always been interested in sound. After leaving film school I worked for a time as a dubbing editor on television documentaries. My job was to create the finished soundtrack by gathering together background ‘atmos’ tracks from sound libraries, as well as recording ‘spot fx’ in studio, before laying them down in layers, sometimes up to a dozen at a time. So when I was asked to put forward an idea for The Wire, I jumped at the opportunity to write a play that really experimented with the medium. And I realize now just how important that training as editor has been to my writing; not only in terms of understanding structure and the way scenes are cut together, but also in inspiring my interest in audio drama.
Even though I was convinced that these bizarre ‘sound sculptures’ offered tremendous potential for a radio play, it took me a while to work out exactly how to incorporate them into some kind of narrative. I needed a way in - a human story. Just as I imagined the operators sat in their bunkers, listening for hours on end, trying to discern the distant hum of an engine from all the other sounds of the landscape, so I tried to establish what was important. What was this play really about?
As tends to happen, if you think long and hard enough, characters begin to emerge. Gradually they become clearer, until they take on a life of their own. So by the time I started to write the script I found that I had my protagonist; a profoundly deaf fourteen-year-old girl, called Ella – an outsider, recently moved to the coast - someone for whom the ‘Listening Ear’ plays a crucial role. But whilst this was a start, it wasn’t enough. Unlike film, where a writer has the luxury of creating scenes that are purely visual, in radio the story needs to be told, either through some form of narration, or by having characters divulge information through dialogue. As I wanted Ella to be a loner, unhappy both at school and at home, I knew that if I wasn’t careful I could simply end up writing a monologue, as she expressed her thoughts through voice-over. I therefore needed to create other characters for Ella to interact with and so came up with Leanne, a school friend, and an old man whom Ella meets out on The Marsh; both of whose stories needed to tie in with the main narrative. (Although, at this point, I was still unsure exactly what that narrative was. All I knew was that Ella would hear something in the dish – something disturbing and that because she was deaf no one would believe her.) It was only when I began to experiment with the individual layers that the bigger picture started to appear – a process not unlike creating a sound track.
In the original treatment I’d imagined events of the past echoing those of the present and so now needed to decide whether to dramatise those events (cutting between the two time frames) or simply set the entire play in the present and have the characters reveal their own stories. I decided on the latter. It seemed simpler and given the other elements that I was considering introducing, potentially less confusing.
So I had my basic framework – a structure – what was lacking was detail. If I was to write convincingly about a deaf girl I needed to know what it was like to inhabit her world. I often find it more helpful to research an idea once I’ve worked out the basic plot, even if this then changes as a result of subsequent investigation. After being put in touch with an audiologist I arranged to meet a group of deaf teenagers who gave me an invaluable insight into their lives; the day-to-day difficulties of being at school, making friends, the practicalities of wearing a hearing aid – the pressures and advantages of not being able to hear. From the hours spent talking to them, certain themes began to emerge - isolation – frustration – alienation – themes which sparked new thoughts – new layers of narrative. Inspired by our meeting at the clinic I also decided that Ella should undergo a hearing test over the course of the play which triggers memories from the past.
It’s rare when writing a play that I ever envisage the whole piece from start to finish – usually it grows in complexity as characters become more rounded and storylines become interwoven. This was certainly the case with Early Warning; in fact the script changed continually, right up to the point of recording and beyond. One of the luxuries of writing for radio is that the writer is involved in the whole process, from casting through to the final edit. Sitting in the edit suite listening to the extraordinary soundscape created by sound designer, Steve Brooke, I felt very privileged. A writer can only imagine so much; the script is just a starting point, a baton to be passed on in a relay. Fortunately, in this case, it ended up in the safe hands of a brilliant director, Nadia Molinari, who gathered around her an amazing cast.
Listen to Early Warning this Saturday 23rd February at 21:00 on BBC Radio 3 as part of The Wire series. Richard Monks' thriller is about a deaf girl who believes that she has heard a murder – her fight to be heard forces her to take action, putting her own life in danger.
The Early Warning script is available to download from our script library.