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The Culture Zone: Marshall and Me

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Elizabeth Clark | 12:00 UK time, Sunday, 12 September 2010

For every radio producer, there's one programme or series that you're most proud of. Our current Culture Zone features one such series, produced for Radio New Zealand by Tim Dodd. And as Tim explains, there's usually something more than just words and music that come together to create radio magic.

One of the first tasks when I first joined the staff of Radio New Zealand in 1990 as a producer for the Concert Programme (as it was called then) was to look after the programme Composer of the Week. 1991 was Prokofiev's centenary and we planned to devote two weeks to him. A man called Marshall Walker - a professor of English Literature - was game to take it on.

I had never heard of him but my colleagues let me know that Marshall Walker was something special. They said he was a 'natural broadcaster'. I think it was with some trepidation that I rang him to discuss how he might approach the Prokofiev project. I was but a callow youth, new in my role.

The first thing that strikes you on the phone or on the radio is the voice. It's tangy, it shoots you a bolt, but it warms you and makes you smile and it hints at mysteries of the soil and of Celtic ancestors. It's like a mouthful of Laphroaig.

I couldn't at first work out how old he was. His reputation, the authority of his voice, his 'professorshipness' led one to assume that he was an older gentleman and yet on the phone that day when we spoke for the first time he was talking to me as a long-time friend and equal. He was casual and funny - he could have been one of my older brother's set. I was charmed.

Marshall Walker and Tim Dodd

Marshall Walker and Tim Dodd

Later - I can't remember how it came about - but in 1997, Marshall sent me a script of something he'd been working on which he thought might have potential as a radio programme.

It was a letter to Sibelius, written to relate the story of Marshall's pilgrimage to Finland, visiting the places of significance to the composer. I could sense immediately that this was something of a different order than what I had seen till that point. The words cried out for music. And when I started working on it, putting Sibelius's music around and under Marshall's voice, magic happened. In that first programme, Marshall mentions Sibelius's belief in a mystical logic - which Sibelius calls 'God' - that governs a work of art. Well, for me making these programmes, there were many instances of a similar feeling. The pieces just had to be assembled in the right way - very often they fell in place by themselves - and the truth emerged. I have to say that, Marshall's brilliant writing aside, the music of Sibelius is a radio producer's dream material. It gives you every emotion you need but it also provides drama and space. I don't think we would have come as far as we did if he had brought along an equally brilliant Letter to Boccherini. (Pace, Luigi).

We went on to make four more Letters over a period of ten years. The subsequent ones became more elaborate in their production. I got the opportunity to experiment with feature production techniques that were new to me. I introduced sound effects and ambiences and a few voices other than Marshall's: a local Scottish folk singer and my own daughters singing There's Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose in Valse Triste and a bunch of wonderful Xhosa actors for Doctor Big Man. But in the most part it is just Marshall's voice and music and that is all that is needed. I'm immensely proud of all five programmes. My partnership with Marshall has been absorbing and rewarding work - the core and greatest satisfaction of my career. It's made me a better radio producer and it's also been a hell of a laugh.

Listen to Letters to Sibelius from The Culture Zone, on BBC Radio Scotland, and see more photographs in the gallery.

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