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Horror on the radio: We Outnumber You

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Jessica Dromgoole Jessica Dromgoole 10:23, Friday, 23 April 2010

Black Helicopter

Could we do a horror on radio? Could we horrify people? Not an atmospheric, gothic spook with resonant chords and the whiff of damp tweed, but something actually scary. Something to make the audience squelch. That was the ambition.

There's a mantra in Hollywood that to be effective, a screenplay has to make your organs squelch three times while reading it. For organs read tear ducts, stomach, heart, bowels, the skin on the back of your neck, throat, toes... whatever. Are you literally physically moved by the writing? And if not, it's not ready.

Reading the final script of We Outnumber You (Friday Play, 2100 23 April) gave me a rare workout in squelching. It also reads like a list of fantastic challenges. Here are just a few, and how we achieved them.

A man, wearing a microphone, walks into a jackal enclosure at the zoo, and is attacked, killed and eaten by jackals, while an attendant crowd take pictures. Layer upon layer of sound went into this. The actor, Luke Treadaway, played it for real on his own in studio. The spot studio manager (who helps us record live effects), simultaneously chomped down on some melon very close to another mic. Separately we recorded the crowd, first screaming then stunned. We begged recordings of jackals off the Natural History Unit in Bristol, which we layered into the sound picture, together with some dog, and then degraded the whole edit to give the effect of a mashed up piece of equipment. All this work, and then the truly effective moment comes during the silence after the microphone goes dead.

A stampede of hippos that run down a crowd of visitors. Agitated hippos faithfully recorded sound remarkably - and disappointingly - like Denis Healey laughing, so that was out. However, we did find that hippos on tarmac sound very like horses on turf, slowed down, and pitch-changed, with added grunting from a mix of bear, pig and lion. And the actors did the rest, some of them running away, three of them staying and being crushed and one, the character whose foot is bitten off, holding the microphone.

A helicopter issuing a live news report crashes into an enormous bird sanctuary. Michael Shelford, the actor playing the reporter inside the helicopter, had to imagine the level of sound he was working against, and yelled his lines into the microphone. Behind him, we used the effect of a functioning light helicopter, which we then mixed with tearing metal, and a malfunctioning washing machine, and added an alarm clock (persistently and gratuitously warning the occupants something might have gone wrong). As the helicopter crashes through the enormous aviary cage, more metal tears, branches crack, wings flurry, and a cacophony of panicked bird cries add to the chaos, gradually trailing off as they all fly free, leaving only the burning of the wreckage.

A camera, set to record, is dropped fifty metres through foliage. The spot studio manager took a deep breath and blew steadily onto the mic, which after 'freefalling' for a second or two, was then hit from both sides by branches, before being dropped onto the ground, during which activity the actor - Ben Crowe - retreated silently to the other end of the studio sound trap so that his next line could sound fifty metres away.

And the hardest of all - a group of primary school children are crying. Weirdly the hardest sound to get right. It's easy to imagine children crying for attention, or crying with pain, but crying together from fear is so difficult to put your finger on. There are some stored recordings of children crying, little electronic pockets of misery on a hard drive, but they're the tears of children whose parents appear to be recording them when they should be comforting them, and not quite right. The Stalisfield Youth Theatre, in Kent, offered to cry for us. And scream. And stampede. And imitate monkeys. They were so great at screaming. Brilliant at stampeding past the microphone in mock panic. Hilarious monkey impersonators. But it took thirty attempts to get them crying right. Take after take foundered on 'boo-hoo'ing, on over-sniffing, on wailing, but mainly on giggling, and with each attempt the children became more and more miserable, understandably. And by the time they went home, they were utterly disconsolate.

So. We hope you squelch.

Jessica Dromgoole is Director of We Outnumber You


  • Comment number 1.

    Jessica, this sounds amazing - am in South Africa at the moment though.. any easy way of listening to it from here - podcast or something perhaps?


  • Comment number 2.

    I thought this was a brilliant play; disturbing and thought-provoking.
    It was interesting also in that it portrayed the terrorists as just that - terrorists, with no feelings for fellow human beings. The BBC usually portrays them, particularly Asian terrorists, as freedom fighters, with right on their side.
    It certainly provided food for thought; I had never realised that we British were so hated by so many people of the Indian sub-continent, and blamed for the Wests reaction to the sunami.
    I have always been sort of middle-of-the-road politically, with an attitude of live and let live. But this drama opened my eyes to the dangers posed to this country from not just the islamist fundamentalists but also the many other religious zealots that blame us for all the worlds ills.
    Thanks BBC, for this timely warning.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sizwe M All Radio 4 programmes can be heard from anywhere in the world via the Radio 4 web site for seven days after transmission - so unfortunately you've missed your chance with this play but keep your eye on the web site and on the drama category here on the blog for more good stuff.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog


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