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The making of a new version of The Wind in the Willows with a full orchestra

Selina Ream

Production Coordinator

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Ed's note: On Saturday afternoon this new version of The Wind in the Willows was broadcast on Radio 4. You can hear it on Radio iPlayer for the next five days. Here the project's production coordinator Selina Ream describes the process once they got into the BBC studios at Maida Vale a few days before Christmas.

Toad stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car...

When I asked to work on the new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows just over a year ago, little did I know how different the production process would turn out, but also how moving and unforgettable our time would be recording it.

So how do the cast fit their lines to the live musical score (in front of a studio audience) with less than three days to get it right?

Day One: The orchestra are in Studio 1 and we are in Studio 3 with Colin Guthrie (studio manager) cueing an electronic version of the music on a laptop. Neil Brand (orchestrator and adapter) motions to the actors and gives notes: “When you feel the urge to go fast – don’t. When you feel the urge to slow down – don’t.”  It’s an incredibly precise art and a little nerve-wracking.

Day Two: The BBC Symphony Orchestra only played the piece for the first time yesterday. We go in to see them run through – it is unutterably beautiful and surprisingly loud. The music has both an emotional and visceral effect on me having never sat in front of a full orchestra before nor having heard Neil’s beautiful music in all its glory.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC singers play music composed by Neil Brand

By the afternoon, the actors are placed in front of the orchestra complete with ‘Madonna’ microphones attached to their heads, but they simply can’t be heard over the music. Neil realises that this volume would be perfect for the Royal Albert Hall but is too loud for us.

When we return from tea-break (ushered in and out by the brass section playing carols) several members of the Orchestra have been released of their duties (they are happy, they get Christmas holidays early). We carry on and the storytelling finally comes alive.  Relief.

Day Three: The BBCSO and actors run through with adjustments to various sections of the show from director David Hunter, Neil Brand and producer Ann McKay. It’s unusual having to think of sound for the invited audience and those tuning in at a later date simultaneously.

Stephen Mangan (Toad) is getting really poorly which is a worry, but he still soldiers on. Neil Brand becomes a conductor for the actors and cues them in at exactly the right moment. We are in safe hands.

Performance day: After several run-throughs everyone is ready for the two evening shows. As the audience queue up outside I place cough medicine under Stephen’s chair and retire to the cubicle to hear the mix.

Studio manager Neil Pemberton has different characters and orchestra sections assigned to most of the faders on the mixing desk. There are at least 40, which he glides up and down to get the correct sound picture.  

A second studio manager (whilst reading the score) whispers across "Stay with Mole, Stay with Badger, fade the chimes".  The actors all give an outstanding performance. Doctor Theatre has worked his magic and Stephen delivers his lines (and two songs which he literally learnt overnight) with full cough-free energy and wit. 

A short break, and another performance which ups the game even more. The audience laugh, clap and look on in awe.



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