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Bringing old favourites to life: illustrating Radio 4 drama

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Ashley Stewart-Noble Ashley Stewart-Noble 10:33, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A while back I posted about why we use illustrations on iPlayer for key radio programming (on the BBC Internet blog). In short we want to avoid galleries of largely unknown faces which don't really hook the listener as much as a well-executed illustration.

When we come to illustrate dramas which feature popular and loved characters we are posed with a dilemma - we want to give depth and feeling to the drama without personifying the character too much. The mind's eye is a wonderful thing which conjures up its own distinct image of how Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Ruth Archer from The Archers look - it's not the job of the illustration to give a face to the characters, its job is to nod to their characteristics.

You'll have seen two illustrations recently for Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders and The Complete Smiley, both on Radio 4. I'll hand over to my picture editors Javier Hirschfeld and Dominik Klimowski who commissioned these illustrations:

The Complete Smiley (Commissioned by Javier Hirschfeld):

le Carre Smiley illustration

"I thought of the illustrator Swava Harasymowicz since there is something of the classic spy/gangster Hollywood movies in many of her works. I focused on the role of Smiley rather than John le Carré himself. Smiley's a spy who should not be easily recognised by the people that see him so we decided to go with the film noir look and feel to create that classic spy scenario. Below are Swava's drafts and the explanations of them." The illustrator writes:

"The main rough would use 'slices' suggesting blinds with the figure - half-seen, half-not-seen - within them, sort of layered. There may be very faint outlines of cities too, or a close up of a spy-like man with a lighter instead of a gun (apparently he had a favourite lighter). In both cases there would be colour - not monochrome.
le Carre Smiley sketch

"We opted for the blinds option because this would add mystery and this way the character's face will not be as prominent, therefore not identifiable with Sir Alec Guinness or with Simon Russell-Beale. Smiley will be defined by the spy look, the papers and the silhouette, since he is always in the shadows and must never be seen."

Rumpole Penge Bungalow Murders

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Commissioned by Dominik Klimowski):

Steph von Reiswitz was the natural choice when commissioning an illustration for the 'Rumpole' series on Radio 4. She has illustrated numerous radio programmes for us including 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and the 'The Complete Ripley'. Her idiosyncratic style fits perfectly with these 'period' dramas and it is further backed up by a knowledge of the material. If there is one thing more reassuring than an illustrator who is keen to research the content we are promoting, it is one who is familiar with it already.

Rumpole Penge Bungalow sketch

The illustration was made specifically to be generic so that it can promote any of the Rumpole stories. His features, the décor and the props are all carefully considered and I think this is where illustration will always win out. The image has been created from thin air. It does not rely on an actor, or a specific setting or action, all of which would make it too specific and interfere with our imaginations. Instead it is an image as original as the one each of us carries in our mind's eye when we turn on the radio and listen to 'Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders'.

Ashley Stewart-Noble is a Senior Content Producer at BBC Future Media & Technology


  • Comment number 1.

    Whilst your illustrations are very accommplished, I'm afraid that I don't really like the big pictures on the new web page. I wonder if any other listeners feel the same way.

  • Comment number 2.

    This Radio 4 Webpage with or without the illustrations is one of the worst webpage I've ever seen on the NET since years. Coming from a public institution like the BBC, this enlarge self publicity is a total shame and show only incompetence at the highest levels. No text or pertinent information .All flashy pictures over substance, excessive categories but with a poor navigation & a counter intuitive links (not even a BACK TO TOP at the bottom of a page)
    To paraphrase a quote about software engineering:
    "If architects designed buildings the way they design web sites, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."

  • Comment number 3.

    Ashley, the fact that you actually think (or were told) to celebrate and inform us how these derisable attempts to 'hook the listener' are done is more than ample evidence (as if we needed it) that you lot (to coin a popular phrase) 'just don't get it'.
    The R4 webpage redesign is a travesty. Incompetent, ugly, uninformative and often broken.
    Just look at this blog page, I am viewing this on a 22" widescreen monitor, at normal res, the screen area is 11.25" high.
    The first words of your Blog Ashley, appear 7, yes seven inches down the screen. Above it 2" of screen space is given to a dark blue strip with nothing but 'The Radio 4 Blog' and some semicircles.
    A 'feature' found on many of the R4 pages.
    What folk with smaller screens experience I can only imagine.
    Furthermore, as scalable windows appear to be beyond the skillset of you lot, unless the brower window is full width, elements on the right of the page are hidden.

    Heres some advice, forget about the crummy drawings of Rumpole and Smiley, (my 10 year old could do better) and sort the website out.

  • Comment number 4.

    Lucky, I was going to refer you to the several hundred unfavourable comments about the ghastly oversized pictures on previous blogs, but I find that all the comments for April blogs have been deleted.

  • Comment number 5.

    How interesting, Boldrodent. I too was one of the hundreds who went to the trouble of complaining. But, you see, we do not fit in with the scheme of whoever commissioned this dreadful mess. Because they took no notice at all. They do not even do us the courtesy of an explanation. Nor does anybody admit responsibility. What more can one do?

  • Comment number 6.

    I still listen to Radio 4 but I do not use the Radio 4 website as, like so many others, I hate it so much. However, I do pop back and forwards to the blog (shutting my eyes as I have to hit the Radio 4 website to get here) and, too, have noticed that all our complaints in April and May have been wiped clean away. I agree wholeheartedly with all 5 of the comments above. Sadly, I know that those at the BBC who think they know best are going to continue to ignore us. However, I am heartened that there are so many people who still feel like I do. We must keep complaining even if we do not get anywhere.

  • Comment number 7.

    Just to add to the chorus of complaint about the new page design.
    The new layout seems to use "Web pages that Suck" as its design manual.
    Stealing vertical screen space for huge banners is very annoying but the whole thing has the intellectual depth of Teletubbies. In earlier times the BBC website was a model for the use of the 'new' internet technology.

    "we want to avoid galleries of largely unknown faces which don't really hook the listener as much as a well-executed illustration"
    It's RADIO. Why does it need ANY visual representation? Personally I'd rather see my licence fee used for making programmes rather than adverts for those programmes.

  • Comment number 8.

    Moreover, real Radio 4 listeners do not write phrases like "we are posed with a dilemma". You can say "we are faced with a dilemma" if you like; or "a dilemma is posed". But we are not posed except perhaps by a photographer. Which brings us back to the wretched question of the photos on this website. Hello?

  • Comment number 9.

    Bold Rodent,
    If we are to be deleted for saying that the new website design, with its huge photos, no news headlines, no weather &tc. &tc.is horrible, perhaps we should enjoy the freedom of not being recorded (so rare these days)and say something truely subversive. Any ideas?

  • Comment number 10.

    @luckylukic The idea that comments are being deleted is gaining the status of an urban myth. As I said here yesterday, comments are never deleted, unless they break the house rules. If they relate to the redesign you'll find them attached to one of ten posts on the topic (listed here). A handy way of finding a particular user's comments is to click on the username at the top of each comment. For instance, I can see from this page that you've commented four times on this topic.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 11.

    'In short we want to avoid galleries of largely unknown faces which don't really hook the listener as much as a well-executed illustration.'

    I really do have to add, that as well as the arrogance shown to the users of the website by the re-designers, that statement is such a kick in the teeth to the performers!
    How nice to know that if you are lucky enough to perform in a play, or recite a poem or reading, the BBC R4 website team is on a mission to make sure the listener won't be able to know what you look like. You're unknown and the self appointed 'designers' are planning to keep it that way. Rather than show you, (which in my opinion would be nice and informative, cost the BBC nothing and be a useful bit of promotion for you) they are going to PAY licence fee money to one of their illustrator friends to come up with an amateurish (well executed, I don't think so) picture.
    Not only that but the cast of Rumpole featured that largely unknown actor Timothy West, and Smiley, that other great unknown, Simon Russell-Beale. Were they and the rest of the cast consulted on this policy?

  • Comment number 12.

    @Jenna Rator You make a very interesting point. Lots of people, like you, want to see cast pictures (many enjoyed this batch of pics of Simon Russell-Beale from the Radio 4 marketing people) but not everybody agrees.

    If you go over to The Archers character A-Z, for instance, you'll see that actors' faces are concealed by default (it's optional: you can click a button to display them). This is because a lot of listeners don't want to see the faces of cast members because they're worried it might spoil their mental image of the characters.

    Radio actors, after all, don't have to physically resemble the characters they play. Le Carre describes Smiley as 'somewhat short and fat'. That doesn't sound like Simon Russell-Beale to me (in his blog post about the season, Commissioning Editor Jeremy Howe says he was 'to the part born').

    I wonder if I should go and find a drama producer to write a blog post about this... I'll see what I can come up with.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 13.

    Mr Bowbrick, thankyou for your reply but really, you betray startling arrogance and ingnorance.
    So 'Lots of people want to see cast pictures, but not everybody agrees'
    Who are these 'everybodies?' You, the cast, a listeners' group? And why do their opinions trump 'Lots of people like me'?
    Furthermore, your example of the Archers is rather undermined by the fact that much was made of 'Will & Emma's Wedding Pictures', being used to promote the show on its website. There for all to see were pictures of the Cast.
    And if you think there might be objections to pictures of the cast undermining listeners' imaginations, then use other images, of the Authors for instance with text of background detail.

    I suspect this is just a nice little earner for your 'illustrator' friends. But as illustrations go, they are pretty poor, amateurish, ugly and uninformative.

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree the example of the Archers is a red herring. There is a major difference between a soap where one has gradually envisaged the cast's features over the years and imagination must and should play a very major role.

    With one off or relatively short series dramas it would seem only polite to show photographs of the casts. When listening to the first Smiley Saturday Play, I thought "oh, that Kenneth Cranham playing the policeman" but a picture of Mr. Cranham on the website would in no way have impaired my enjoyment. Quite the opposite in fact.

  • Comment number 15.

    While we're talking about drama, there's an equally interesting discussion around a blog post by Abigail Appleton, Radio 3 Head of Speech Programmes and Presentation, over on the Radio 3 blog.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 16.

    Sorry, that was a bit ungrammatical and posted before I meant to -

    should have said major difference between a soap ..... and one off....

    More haste less speed!

  • Comment number 17.

    You still don't get it. I'm only here because, having abandoned the R4 webpage for the BBC's main radio page, I discovered today that it too has been wrecked. Used to be able to click on the R4 tab to get a link to live radio, info re what was on and what was coming up, and a Listen Again link. All I needed! Now, clicking on R4 takes me to the hated R4 homepage which I will not use. So, have changed my homepage to the Guardian and go to the iPlayer to listen to R4. Your redesign has drastically curtailed my use of BBC radio and I avoid your websites like the plague. We're all closing our eyes to the pictures; keep up the changes and people will switch off the sound as well.

    One more time: R4 is supposed to be about Intelligent Speech, not white space and d-----s pictures!! You grossly underestimate the R4 audience. When can we expect a user survey?

  • Comment number 18.

    Thankyou profmay. I don't
    really need to say anything because you have said it all for me. I, too, changed my homepage to the main radio page and today have now changed it again to a newspaper's website. Logged on here to complain and found you have done it for me!! I agree with every word you say.

  • Comment number 19.

    Find myself agreeing, in part, with everyone. Personally I love those pastel sketches produced by official court artists - so evocative; they tell us much more than 93 seconds of blurry CCTV footage and draw my attention straight away. So that format would be my first choice for Rumpole and probably for many other dramas in which we understand that there are more characters present and dramatically involved than we actually hear. Simon Russell Beale is just about my favourite actor but to be honest I'd prefer to be left to imagine Smiley - he is, after all, a character we know only in outline, who blends into the shadowy background.

    I disagree completely with the poster who says that the Archers is a red herring: long-time MBers there will all tell you that we prefer, mostly, to not see the actors. TA listeners are also keen audience of other Radio 4 drama and readings [and the repeats on 7.]

    However I do agree with the criticism of the redesigned Radio 4 webpage. I used to have it up on a tab along with the News pages while working but it just tells me nothing I want to know any longer [and I have to scroll about for it.] So hard to find any programme information - everything leads straight to iPlayer.

    Ten years ago, five years ago the BBC website was so far ahead of the competition there /was/ no competition. Now I feel it would be better to go back a redesign or two for both functionality and appeal. Sometimes we forgive poverty of function if the page looks stunning; unfortunately neither holds true in this case.

  • Comment number 20.

    What have you done with the BBC radio home page??
    I had made this my home page because it gave me some options ie listening live to Radio 4, viewing the schedule, dipping into Radio 3 and Radio 7..... without having to be visually assaulted by the excessively large pictures.
    Well, now I see you've just destroyed that option.
    I, too, am off to find another home page.

  • Comment number 21.

    OK, the comments are back. But when I posted originally, they were not there - all the blogs said Comments(0). Sorry to instigate an 'urban myth'...

    I got a user survey a short while ago. When will the results be made public?

    Not sorry to see that the levels of disquiet with the format are not going away. Very sorry that the rest of the bbc website is now infected with the 'new look'.

    Going away again.

  • Comment number 22.

    I don't want to return here -- the comments are ignored by the R4 web people and I'd prefer not to give their pages any hits that could be misinterpreted as happy usage (I'm guessing R4's hits stats are quite high since the redesign, as frustrated users click desperately in search of content).

    So -- could I suggest we abandon the blog for other venues? Feedback and BBC Complaints are obvious options. I've contacted both, and also emailed the Webby award people yesterday to enquire whether they had an award for the WORST sites/redesigns. If they don't, maybe someone else does? The problems need to be made known. I doubt a user survey will be forthcoming in the immediate future, as the powers that be are already aware of what it will reveal. In the meantime, vote with your fingers and use the sites as little as possible!

  • Comment number 23.

    PS You can access the iPlayer (and radio scheduling, of course), via the Radio Times online.

    Happy listening!

  • Comment number 24.

    Thanks again profmay. This is my last visit here - Times my new homepage and access Radio 4 via IPlayer. The BBC are marching on. They have not only wrecked the Radio 4 and main Radio page they have now wrecked the news pages as well. I have stopped accessing any of the BBC websites for the first time ever. I wonder how many more people there are who have done the same thing?


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