- Production Diary - Series 1
- by Dirk Maggs
Monday June 4th 2007
It's a fine day in Shepherds Bush and the weather sets an upbeat mood as the cast assemble at The Soundhouse and swap horror stories about the London rush hour. On the assumption this will be the last of the English summer, most of us are in t-shirts and Jim Carter even appears in intrepid tiger-hunting shorts. But we have no time to chat. Jo is looking anxiously at her watch and after quick introductions we jump straight into a read through of Episode One in the only space large enough to spread out - the studio's cafe area. It's a first chance to see how the thing comes off the page and John Langdon and I listen carefully to places where the lines need finessing. Due to other commitments and various diversions we have only had four weeks to write and polish the majority of the material.
Jo Wheeler producing - calm, unflappable, paddling like mad below ...
The rehearsal process isn't confined to the read-through. Harry phoned me at home yesterday after being away, our first chance to discuss how Dirk G should sound. He has an idea of using a sort of Estuary accent, rather than the 'faint East European' one that is hinted at in the Dirk Gently material that Robbie Stamp has kindly provided from Douglas's hard drive. The voice Harry proposes has a slight Peter Cook/E.L. Wisty feel, which, given the Cambridge connections in the script and Douglas's own Footlights history seems a good start.
The first scene recorded is a very deliberate comedy romp in a time honoured Light Entertainment style which would be recognisable as such to Douglas, a sketch set in the court of King George III at the height of his madness. The best actor to wrestle material like this into submission is Jeffrey Holland, who, abetted by the wonderfully po-faced Jon Glover, duly delivers a scene-chewing performance, while the rest of the ensemble play his bemused court.
The day continues with set-ups which take a little longer to arrive at than usual because Paul Deeley and Paul Weir are working out how to plumb in the various effects settings for Electric Monks, ghosts, etc. Thus the scenes with Dirk Gently are deliberately put back to the end of the afternoon so Harry and Olivia (charming, unflappable and amazingly agile whilst being very pregnant) get our undivided attention. By the time the scenes are put to bed it is 6.40pm and rather than work everybody into the ground, it's decided to break and pick up the remainder tomorrow. At this point I realise poor Andrew Sachs has waited patiently for hours to play his first scenes as 'Reg' Chronotis and now is being sent home. He is as ever charmingly dismissive at having sat around all afternoon and is happy to come in first thing tomorrow and pick up all the St Cedd's stuff. This means Harry and Olivia can have an extra hour at home at the start of the day, which they've thoroughly earned after a gruelling session.
As everyone departs I remember Philip Pope left us a rough mix of the signature tune and we listen to it with big smiles on our faces. It's a perfect blend of detective noir and prog rock odyssey.
Tuesday June 5th 2007
3am - Director wakes up with nagging feeling all is not quite right with what we have recorded. Mentally replaying yesterday I realise that Harry's "Wisty" voice for Dirk, though very funny, may not be flexible enough to cover the huge range of inflection and expression that's coming up for the character in Episodes 2 to 6.
9.30am - arrive at Soundhouse and once the actors arrive we launch into the St Cedd's Coleridge dinner scenes. The background acting from Jon Glover, Michael Fenton Stevens and Toby Longworth is very funny, I have to ask them to hold it down so that Billy and Andrew Sachs can stop laughing and start delivering the script to microphone. It seems Billy is just as much on form this morning as yesterday - soon we discover he is on top form every morning and a tireless and inventive performer. Before we started the recordings his agent rang to ask if we wanted him to play the part of Richard Macduff in an English accent. But the point about casting him was to help spread the range of accents and voices in the series as widely as possible. It was a conscious attempt to make the piece feel contemporary and inclusive. Why shouldn't Richard Macduff from Glasgow get a scholarship for Cambridge? The name after all is Scottish. All we needed was a brilliant and innovative actor to play the part, and Billy is making it his own. In fact the only disturbing thing about Billy is that he has turned out to be of normal stature with hairless feet. In a brief break between recording the Coleridge dinner and the scenes in the Professor's rooms, Harry arrives on his scooter. I ask if we can have a quick chat. "You don't like the voice, do you?" he pre-empts, disarmingly. I nod in relief. Harry's got such conviction and energy for the part, this is really only a technicality, and he's had the same thoughts too. For maximum flexibility we agree it might work better to use something near his natural voice - which has the added advantage of being unfamiliar to the audience. In his first scene we try this out and immediately we have found the sound of Dirk. Put all mental images of Harry out of mind when listening and Douglas's quirky character comes to vibrant life.
Lunch is snatched, grazing on spicy goodies from a local supermarket. It's a chance to tell Jim Carter how pleased we are he's playing DS Gilks. Jim shrugs - "They're good scripts". Phew.
After lunch Jim and Andy Secombe play the first scene of Episode 2. Andy had throat problems at the end of last year but is now back, fighting fit, and after a sip of water to wet the whistle, as much on form as ever.
Much of Episode 2 takes place in the offices of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. For the purposes of running the scenes smoothly we 'build' the offices in Studio 6 using the larger area for Janice's domain and the smaller 'dead' area for Dirk's inner sanctum. These are recorded on four tracks as a surround rig using two stereo pairs but when it comes to the final mixes we are told surround isn't a priority and thus it becomes much easier to isolate the different acoustics. In all, Tuesday is a day of huge strides, but we are finishing at 7.00pm after two days with virtually no breaks. Something needs to be done to ease the pressure.
Dirk trying to gauge how this scene will sound with music and effects added (Photo: James Thrift)
Wednesday June 6th 2007
Arrive and consult with Jo and John Langdon. Read throughs of the scripts are useful but steal 40 plus minutes of our day away when everybody is at their freshest. As we then go on to re-rehearse at the microphone for each scene before recording anyway, the logical step to save time at the end of the day is to abandon read through and get stuck in. This proposal meets with approval from all and so we roll our first scene - Episode 3 page 1 as it happens - at precisely 10.20am. Five takes later at 10.33am it's in the can and we are sailing on nicely. The benefit becomes clear in contrast to yesterday when we did not start recording till 11.10am, and Monday which saw no studio action till 11.30am.
Ep3 is where we really get to grips with Gordon's ghostly voice. Robert Duncan provides us with a bravura portrait of a man trapped in the afterlife without a clue of what he is supposed to do next. The effect on his voice is down to Paul Weir's sound design skills, a sort of shivery vibrato which sucks a lot of the tonal element out of Robert's voice. It's a long long way from Gus in Drop The Dead Donkey, but despite all the electronics doing their best to drain his acting of inflection and emphasis, Rob delivers a poignant and gutsy tour-de-force. He gets a round of applause from the control room as he staggers out to join the feeding frenzy for lunch.
In the afternoon we get to grips with the Electric Monk again, with Toby as the android and Wayne Forester as the serenely dim Constable Luke. They provide a double act which has the rest of us doubled up. As with Marvin in our Hitchhiker Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases, Toby's voice is treated and combined with a 'mechanical noises' loop generated by Paul Weir, then the resulting mix is played back through a studio loudspeaker situated at the same microphone as the actor(s) playing the other character(s). This makes for more believability in the acoustic and helps the cast work together, sparking off each other's performances. This is followed by Felicity and Michael's big confrontation scene as Susan Way and Michael Wenton Weakes. They are both such thoughtful and intelligent actors and the subtleties they draw out of the characters make the scene both cosy and eerily ominous.
Thursday June 7th 2007
Philip Pope acts with Toby who is hiding in that speaker
Day by day the sessions present less unknowns to solve, the comfort and familiarity levels rise and so Kevin Davies our videographer can intrude more and more in the studio to cover the recording for the 'Behind The Scenes' videos. Kevin worked on the original TV series of Hitchhikers and over the years collaborated with Douglas on projects including a twentieth anniversary Hitchhikers documentary featuring our chum Simon Jones reprising his lead role as Arthur Dent - and of course Kevin shot and brilliantly edited the backstage videos of the Hitchhikers sessions in 2003 and 2005. Kevin describes himself as "the world's biggest fly on the wall" providing a wealth of enthusiasm and perceptive observation worth his weight in gold. Which is quite a lot of gold really.
Today Kevin is really leaping about because we've set up a pair of mics in the lobby outside the studio and the action moves from one location to another in a single take. When planning these recordings I had hoped to use other areas around the studio, including the car park and its vehicles to achieve a wide variety of acoustics. It wasn't quite going on location but it would make for more variation in the texture of the episodes. However pressure of time has meant cutting back on such ambitious plans and this is a compromise that works really well. The lobby has served both as the stairwell outside Richard Macduff's flat and now as the hallway and stairs up to the door of the Detective Agency. It's got a big open acoustic with lots of bounce and the contrast when, say, Janice moves from her 'office' microphones to the 'stairs' mic just by opening the studio door is really pronounced.
Another scene we record this afternoon is the recording session for the hit single 'Hot Potato', which actually a story strand from the second Dirk Gently novel but is useful to 'plant' in this first series. An impromptu band is assembled for the largely improvised scene. Andrew Secombe - a drummer in his wilder moments - is sat behind a floor tom and hi-hat - it's a pretty strange drum kit but they have been hastily borrowed from The Soundhouse's Freddy to make 'drum foley' noises rather than play anything. Billy is also a musician and that inform his portrayal of Richard's agony as a good musician in a rubbish band, whilst our series composer Philip Pope - who has put Douglas's lyrics for 'Hot Potato' into a sort of New Age Spinal Tap arrangement - plays the lead singer - which of course he is on the recording. Toby improvises talk from the control room and we spend a couple of takes larking about before a final scene is arrived at.
A studio band with half a drum kit and half a brain between them
There's not a huge amount of time for extra-curricular fun but an esprit de corps is building up out in the studio's café area, which serves as a 'green room' for the cast. This is because Kevin has appropriated the lobby (when we're not recording in it) to get interviews with everybody as the days go by, so actors not required in scenes need somewhere to go. There's a computer out by the french doors linked to the internet so people can check their emails, however Toby Longworth has introduced everybody to Google Earth, and so quite a lot of the time there's a clump of actors around the computer fighting for the mouse. Once they've shown each other their houses and where they went on their holidays, competitions begin for finding the most bizarre sights visible from space. Quite appropriate to a Douglas Adams production.
At the end of the day Billy and I swap CDs of our respective bands. He's in a four-piece called Beecake, and the CD is so good I put it on 'repeat' whilst driving home. Billy has a beautifully clear singing voice. It reminds me of the brilliant Jeff Buckley, and all evening I'm humming the songs in my head. Talented fella, good band.
Friday June 8th 2007
A busy day today. We have the BBC photographer coming in to take publicity shots which inevitably creates hold ups, and Jon Glover and Felicity Montagu need to finish early due to travel commitments. I also want to record Felicity's only Episode Six scene today, on top of Episode Five's busy script. She has spent long hours every day this week waiting patiently to be called, then delivering really brilliant performances and it seems silly to call her in from wildest Gloucestershire just for a single scene after the weekend.
Cramming in material like this often means that mapping and rehearsing the live sound effects that create the sense of reality around the action isn't possible, and the actors work in relative silence, doing the moves and saying the lines, and the effects will be added later. This creates a dilemma for our live effects operator, Alison Mackenzie. Ali is one of the handful of top radio live effects people and I've know her since we were Studio Managers together long long ago. She is patient and unflappable and charming, and as ever has arrived for the sessions with suitcases packed full of props from cream crackers (for 'eating' scenes) to coconut shells (for... er - coconut scenes). Now I'm asking her to hold off from adding the effects the scene needs to save time - this means I must later find time for her and Paul Deeley to record them 'wild' in the empty studio so I can drop them in later during tracklay and mix. Ali is as ever calm about this but she is a real professional and inside, she's frustrated at not finishing the job. I must not forget to make time for her.
Alison Mackenzie - live sound effects while you wait ...
Our first scene today is the 'jungle' scene from page 31 of the script and that's all pre-recorded 'FX' added in post-production anyway, so a rapid start is made. By the time we move on to Dirk and Richard's arrival at St Cedd's (" ... College of Sir Isaac Newton ... inventor of the cat flap ..."), things are moving along, though the photographer has arrived and says he has been asked by Radio Times to take studio shots. That's fine but I need to get more audio in the can before slowing things down with an extra body in the room. He's really helpful about this and while our production assistant Lisa Meyer capably guides him out to set up for the 'formal' shots in the Soundhouse car park, I press on with Harry, Billy and Andrew Sachs as Professor 'Reg' Chronotis.
Andrew is very good at handling the long speeches which are the hallmarks of Douglas's work. Rather like Simon Jones and Geoff McGivern as Arthur and Ford, he has the knack of making long strings of obscure argument sound completely reasonable, and funny to boot. Billy is troubled this morning about the logic of this scene - specifically, how many questions George III is supposed to have asked, as there appear to be three but in the book - and the script - Douglas has Dirk Gently say, "... it explains what the missing third question was, or rather - and this is the significant point - it explains what the missing first question was!" which implies there might even have been four. I race back to the control room to check the novel, where Douglas has pulled a sort of logical double shuffle but it seems there really were just three questions, so we simplify things somewhat by cutting the confusing references. After all listeners joining the series late in the game will have quite enough to deal with. Billy's really on the ball though, and I compliment him. "Did you used to do this with Peter Jackson on Lord Of The Rings?" I ask. "Every night", he answers. "And we'd find bits of the book that had been cut and call him and ask if they could be put back in". No wonder those movies were so long ... and so faithful to the source material.
Lunchtime on the Friday consists of grabbed sandwiches and a mad race to get photos done for publicity. We don't have a budget for costumes so by asking the cast to wear clothing 'in character' and searching out a few oddments that can be borrowed means that we have something a bit more stylish than studio wear. Sadly there is not time to source a Dirk Gently flat brimmed round red hat and flappy leather coat, so a trilby and trench coat will have to do. In the event we have two trench coats one black, one khaki, and Harry is photographed in both.
Jim and Harry try out trench coats ... close up snap 'cos Jim's got cycle shorts underneath.
After the photos Michael Fenton Stevens is looking concerned. He's not sure he hit a key beat in the Episode Four scene between Michael Wenton Weakes and his psychiatrist. Is there any chance we can retake it? Any opportunity to polish material a little more is welcome, however this adds another element to juggle in a tight afternoon. Somehow we manage it - and, more amazingly still, we're finished with everybody by 4.30pm which leaves plenty of time to reprise the secene between Michael (who picks up the point he feels he missed brilliantly) and Andy Secombe, and then gives us time to work out what's left to do on Monday before departing for the weekend.
Monday June 11th 2007
It's hard to come back to the intensity of recordings after the first weekend in ages when John Langdon and I have not been locked away with our computers working on scripts. We're in the eye of the storm, because the next two months will be spent editing, tracklaying and mixing these recordings to meet the CD mastering deadline for BBC Audiobooks.
Considerably lumps of Episode Six are already in the can, so the remaining scenes go quickly and there is time to really play with the big set-pieces, one of which is a period romp to book-end our George III scene from Episode One. This time it's Wayne Forester's turn to chew the scenery as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 18th Century poet, laudanum addict and unhappy victim of the Person From Porlock.
History has it that Coleridge's poem, 'Kubla Khan' was to be an epic on the scale of his 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner'; perhaps even a tome to rival Milton's 'Paradise Lost', but just as he'd sobered up enough to write out his hallucogenic vision, there was a knock at the door and a man from the neighbouring village of Porlock - who could not be got rid of - engaged poor Coleridge in such a long boring conversation that by the time he'd gone the poet had lost his thread. Kubla Khan was left as a three-page overture to a non-existent word opera, and it was the idea that in a parallel existence Coleridge might actually have finished it, that Douglas wove one of the key threads of this story.
At lunchtime there's a break for the actors when John Marsh arrives to read the credits. Now part-retired, John was the 'voice' of all the Hitchhiker opening and closing sequences from the Primary to Quintessential Phases for all but the very first episode, and our only conscious salute across the decades to Douglas's other great work. He is as calm and unflappable as he was when a BBC staff announcer and it's wonderful just to give him the scripts and let his polished precise delivery turn the business of setting up and then crediting the contributors to each episode into a kind of poetry.
The afternoon belongs to Harry and Olivia. Because last Monday's Episode One scenes featuring Dirk Gently and Miss Pearce were recorded using the 'Wisty' voice, we need to retake them as well as the office scenes in Episode Five. Quite often on productions one revisits early scenes at the very end so that the most most polished results appear early on in the piece, and these scenes now glide along beautifully thanks to Harry and Olivia sparking off each other. At six minutes past five precisely the last take in the last scene of the last episode is in the can and it's done, barring some of poor Alison's sound effects, which can be recorded tomorrow. There's time for the briefest goodbyes to Harry and Olivia but Billy has stuck around for a drink and so Paul Deeley, Billy and I march off to find a pint. It's a great way to wrap the recordings and we decide we thoroughly deserve it.