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A Tale of Two Cities on BBC Radio 4. And a podcast too!

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Jessica Dromgoole Jessica Dromgoole 14:00, Monday, 26 December 2011

Editor's note: Starting on Boxing Day the Afternoon Play is running a five part adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. You will also be able to download the series to keep as a podcast from the podcast page. On the blog some of the people who've brought you this marvellous production share some of their thoughts and behind the scenes knowledge with Jessica Dromgoole, one of the producers of A Tale of Two Cities - PM.

The cast

Some of the cast of BBC Radio 4's A Tale of Two Cities in the studio with Andrew Scott and Paul Ready
in the foreground

Paul Ready plays Sydney Carton

I had never read A Tale Of Two Cities before being asked to do this project. I knew the very basics; that it was set in Paris and London and the opening line, but nothing beyond this. I had no idea it was such a gripping and moving story. Having read the book first, followed by the script, I found that Mike Walker's dramatisation was every bit as epic while simultaneously bringing a great freshness, humour and humanity to the story and characters.

And what fantastic characters! Unforgettable. I was thrilled to be asked to play Sydney Carton. I found him heartbreaking - a man with such huge potential but unable to see beyond his crippling self -loathing. The script, for me, is full of characters and moments with which we can identify and is a timeless story about how during the terrifying dark passages of history, of which there are many, it is ultimately acts of love, big and small - that see us through.

Jonathan Coy plays Mr Jarvis Lorry

Actors often say they love playing the baddies - fired by the notion that "the Devil has all the best tunes". I love playing goodness. I believe in 'goodness', in the power of decent behaviour to make a difference. So too, clearly, did Charles Dickens. This whole story is, I suppose, with the ultimate sacrifice in its thrilling finale, all about that concept.

Mr Jarvis Lorry is a good, decent man. A devoted servant of the Bank and its clients, his life has been one of diligence and integrity, without, as he acknowledges himself, the comforts of companionship and family. Late in his particular day, he has the chance to look after the interests of his old friend, Dr Manette, reclaiming him to life after his years of desperate incarceration, and finding in his daughter, Lucie, the child he had never had to love and care for.

My favourite line of Mr Lorry's is when, with his skills and intellect, it is suggested to him that he could have made an excellent career as a lawyer. "Oh, no," he explains, "I have no taste for blood"!

Rikki Lawton plays various roles

Working on The Tale of Two Cities was an amazing experience. It was the longest production in terms of recording time I have been involved in and working with such great actors was a complete honour. The piece itself was beautifully adapted and it was a joy to help bring some of those dirty and gritty scenes to life.

I played a few of the smaller characters throughout the episodes, and felt responsible for creating the right atmosphere of the play, alongside my colleagues. Specifically, in the opening scene where the Dover coach is travelling at night , it was our job to take the listener right smack into the midst of the freezing weather that looms over that frightening evening.

I played the part of Joe in that scene and we wrapped ourselves up in long black trench coats and held them tightly around us when we recorded it. The huge tension throughout that and the thought of potentially being robbed by highwaymen in the middle of the bitter night was quite daunting- thank goodness Joe had his gun stuck to his side the whole time (I did actually have a gun in my hands when recording) - otherwise there would have been trouble.

Alison Craig and Jenni Burnett (Spot Studio Managers)

In A Tale of Two Cities, there were several scenes that needed the intervention of the SSS (Special Spot Services)

"Spot" Studio Managing can run from the hum drum, such as a teacup being placed on a saucer (note to self - I always do this too loud!) to more complex sequences of sounds and action, such as a dragon being hatched from a shell and flying away. It can be creative, it can fun, it can be downright dirty, and dangerous.

Take him away, the pig is drunk!

In Episode five, Carton plies Charles Darnay with brandy to the point where he is physically sick. Now short of sticking her fingers down actor Andrew Scott's throat (which might have prevented him doing his lines, and resulted in a law suit), we resorted to the old Foley trick of using a hot water bottle. The recipe is as follows:
1. Take a hot water bottle, and discard the stopper
2. Fill with cold water and lumpy bits (I use cotton wool, but for particularly graphic effect I hear that tinned fruit salad is especially good.)
3. Get the actor to make retching sounds
4. Hold the hot water bottle upright against your body and, at the appropriate moment, give it a quick squeeze, projecting contents onto the desired target (here, a concrete floor)

Why not try it yourselves this New Year?

What is that damn noise?

A significant sound in Tale of Two Cities is that of the civic grindstone, just outside Tellsons Bank in Paris. It creates an eerie backdrop to several scenes, before coming to the foreground in the final episode.

It's a grindstone - big one. Two men turning it and... They're sharpening swords, knives... Half of the district are lining up... butcher's knives, rapiers, scythes, billhooks, sabres... kitchen knives! Men and women, children too.

Unsuprisingly this sound effect wasn't in our sound effects library, so we had to make it up.

The approach to working out how to recreate a sound is always the same.
What is the characteristic sound?
What are its component parts?
What have we got in the studio that is anything like it?

First for the sound of the grindstone itself, we used 2 flagstones, dragging one across the other in a circular motion. This could then be slowed down to sound bigger, and looped to sound continuous. To this we added the effect of the various instruments being sharpened. I held up a rather heavy piece of iron (hence the pained expression!) while the actors queued up with their ill assorted instruments for grinding, all the while singing the Carmagnole. Only in a radio studio!

She works, our Lady Guillotine...

The Guillotine itself was also a spot effect. The constituent sound being a metallic blade, whooshing though wood (and an aristo's neck) to an end stop. To do this, Jenni held a piece of wood, while one of the actors, James Lailey, had a piece of metal.

On a count of three, together they ran them down the outsides of a door frame, to hit the floor, at the exactly the same time. A cabbage falling into a wicker basket, could then be added for extra horror, although sounding out every nitty, gritty bit of the action is sometimes superfluous to the effect.

Anyway, I think we got away with it this time round. We'll have to wait and see if there's any feedback. Thing is - if it's good spot work, the chances are, you won't even notice it.

Lennert Busch (composer)

Working on the music for A Tale of Two Cities has been a real joy. Me, Jeremy and Jessica (the producers) started very early in the process to find the right themes and emotions for the story. We took our cues from the recurrent sounds - the shoemaking, the footsteps, for example - and from the essential elements of character, for example Carton's instrument always had been the cello. We didn't want to go very "18th century" music but a big story needs large music, and the script contrasts huge crowd scenes with intimate single voice work and two handers. And so the music ranges from big orchestral movements to very small pieces. Interestingly, the very first demo I made ended up being the main theme for the whole series.

Jessica Dromgoole and Jeremy Mortimer produced and directed A Tale of Two Cities for Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    Add your comment

    So the prologue, so the rest- and since that of Ed's is in insurrection against sweet intelligibility then the more of the blog-let alone the pod or prog- would sorely leave one out of sorts with that of Dickens.

  • Comment number 2.

    Turned off after the first few minutes of this production. A character such as Mr Jarvis Lorry would never never have said "Do I look like I've got a couple of barkers...?" He'd have said "Do I look as though I have a couple of barkers...?" The writer needs to know that "like" before a verb is not even bad English; it's bad American. BBC drama is getting worse and worse, unfortunately, so far as anachronisms of language are concerned. It destroys the listening pleasure when supposedly educated mature characters speak like uneducated young moderns.

  • Comment number 3.

    I enjoyed getting bits of Tale of Two Cities in the afternoons this week. More! But it was sad that the adaptation did not include the comfort Sydney Carton gave to the seamstress on the way to the guillotine. For me it is unforgetable, and proof of Dickens' genius of empathy.

  • Comment number 4.

    I did mind very much that Sid Carton's last great speech - which Dickens had put his heart and soul into, was reduced to a Richard Dawkins type critique of faith. At least I think that's what it was!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    I downloaded all five episodes but waited a week before listening to them. I thoroughly enjoyed the first four, especially Robert Lindsay as Dickens, but was devasted to find out episode five had failed to download properly and I was only able to listen the the first five minutes of it. That I found this out on the day after the podcasts were available has made it all the more annoying. I know what happens and I'll re-read the book but I'd really like to hear this last episode so does anybody know when this will be repeated or if they have an episode five download still available?

  • Comment number 6.

    I wrote devasted but meant devastated!


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