John Fletcher is an award-winning playwright who has written extensively for radio. His work includes Death and the Tango, The Great Chocolate Murders, Baghdad Burning, and The Sicilian Expedition, among many others. I'm very pleased that he was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for this blog. Many thanks!
Modern Soundling: How did you first become involved in writing for radio?
John Fletcher: A French girlfriend of a friend of mine read a verse play of mine and said you should try this with radio. I sent it to the BBC and they liked it - though it wasn't suitable for radio - and this encouraged me to write a full script on spec - Wandering In Eden - which was accepted. For the first time a seemingly large sum of money fell into my hands. Love at first sight!
MS: Many writers say they like writing for radio because of the lack of restrictions. But radio plays are perhaps less visible (or less lucrative) than film or television – is there a trade-off?
JF: Dead right. Radio is a wonderful medium to write for. A sort of cinema for words. (And, as they say, radio has the BEST pictures). But the money is awful. I was told sternly in a very headmasterly way by the then Head of Scripts Richard Imison that I would never make a living out of radio. (Though I did raise a family on it - a feat which included often long periods of farm labouring, teaching, driving white vans, hedge laying, grave digging and working in butchers shops - even quite recently).
So I also wrote a fair amount for TV and theatre. (And theatre is the key in Britain to getting anywhere. It is, foolishly and mistakenly, the most prestigious of the dramatic forms, though virtually no one goes to it). And I have tried on several occasions to get into films - which I feel to be, with radio, my natural form. (Films and film making have many close parallels with the making of radio plays). But without success. So radio its been.
(And audio drama these days, with the internet, torrents and i-pods, seems to be potentially an increasingly influential and enjoyed medium.)
MS: Of your many plays, are there any particular ones that you are especially proud of?
JF: I don't really have favourites. Stuff I've written in the past I very rarely or never re-listen to and I tend to be concentrated on the project I'm doing. So trying to remember the plots of past plays for Audio Wiki has been quite good fun (if probably pretty inaccurate). I do have recordings of almost all my plays and I suppose I should be sending those he hasn't already got to Nigel Deacon so he can re-record them.
I think "Russia" is probably my favourite - though the second best sequence had to be dropped for reasons of time. The opening goes on a bit, but I dwell so much on the Edwardian anarcho-syndicalist trade unions and strikes because anarcho-syndicalism is my favourite form of political organization - before marxist-leninism and fascism screwed up working class movements probably for ever. Phil Davies does a staggering performance as The Sergeant.
I like my two domestic dramas "Suddenly" and "The Glory of the Lord." Reflecting on "The Glory" now I can see that the two male leads, played by Steve Hodson and Christian Rodska, prefigure the characters the same actors play in "Death and the Tango." Steve Hodson plays the down-to-earth mystic, Christian Rodska the self-destructive romantic. But while Tango resolves itself through comedy, "The Glory" is definitely going in the direction of tragedy.
I'm also very fond of "Death and the Tango" - the sustained fantasy and some of the humour - though I think the second half in heaven goes on a bit too much. (There are several different versions, all with different timings). Incidentally, it took me 7 years to persuade the Beeb to do it, and if Nigel Bryant hadn't come along (we'd already worked together in theatre) it would probably never have been done.
The third part of my "Democracy and Language" trilogy is also good, especially the Russian woman storyline. "D&L" is essentially the story of the rise and fall of civilization. In Athens just after the defeat of the Persians, ideas and concepts such as democracy were being invented so fast that language had to be consciously invented just so that people could conceive of what was happening. That is the first leg of the trilogy, narrated by Aeschylus. The second part is about the formation of the Churchill coalition in 1940 and its first few highly unsteady months. All Churchill had was words. The power in government was still with the appeasers and we hardly had any weapons for our defense, so for a while Churchill's language was the only thing that held it together. Originally only these two dramas were in the proposal, and I wanted to do three 90 minute plays on both. This was rejected. (The Churchill play, especially, was so seriously shortened, it ended up as a too flippant piece).
I reduced them to two single plays, then added a third, divided equally between contemporary Russia and the US. They are about the death of democracy through the loss of language. The American strand is based on historical events, set in the US maximum security prison in Wyoming where Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, Ramzi Yousef (the al Qaeda member who tried to blow up the WTC in the early 90's), and America's Number One gangster (a Mexican) whose name now escapes me were all imprisoned. In the prison exercise yard McVeigh and Yousef first found they had a common interest in old films, then all four of them started a political debating club. But being locked up, their words can lead nowhere. Meanwhile, in the Russian strand, the woman, searching for the bones of her son lost in the Chechen War (also based on a true story), leads the return to the sort of matriarchal society Aeschylus originally escaped from.
The play was all about the issues thrown up by 9/11. It was written before 9/11, recorded before it, but was scheduled to be broadcast a couple of months after it. The BBC panicked as it involved members of al Qaeda, even though it wasn't about terrorism. The trilogy was broadcast on Radio 3 very late at night with minimal publicity and nothing has been heard of it since.
My writing has changed since 9/11. I have become much more political as, from my perspective, I see the world becoming less and less stable. I wrote "Ebola Attack" simply because it is such a powerful true story that deserves a wider audience. I am also very proud to have finally - it took almost four years to persuade the BBC - gotten Riverbend's "Baghdad Burning" blog on the air. Riverbend is a magnificent writer. Let's hope she survives. I have tried to get other Iraq and Middle Eastern stuff on the air - including a 90 minuter on burial rituals in the Shia holy city of Najaf - but after the Hutton Enquiry, the BBC is very timid about doing anything in the least bit controversial or challenging.
I do sense I'm now wandering out of my strictly political stance, and am getting more imaginative again.
MS: Sometimes, producers/directors develop close associations with particular writers. Are there any producers/directors that you have had a particularly fruitful collaboration with, or that have been especially attuned to realizing your artistic intentions?
JF: Shaun MacLoughlin was the guy who really set me up as a writer and got my stuff commissioned. He was (and is) the most selfless of gentlemen, and probably did not rein me in as much as I should have been. He was very generous when recording and allowed me to talk a lot with the actors, and was always open to my views when I thought he had got the interpretation wrong. He once had to leave the studio for a morning in an emergency, and I suddenly found myself - for the only time in my life - directing a play. After a while I concluded I was doing all right as the PA had started knitting and was reading the Daily Mail.
Nigel Bryant and I used each other to develop our ideas on radio drama and its techniques in quite novel ways. It was a pity he left the Beeb as he had a real understanding and passion for drama.
Foz Allan was wonderful but left after only two plays to ascend to the giddy heights of producing "Casualty." If you're out there, mate, and happen to be looking for a job and read this, come back to radio.
Marc Beeby, my present producer, is superb.
MS: What are your feelings about the future of radio drama?
JF: Both negative and positive. Negatively, the Beeb has been so badly managed since Birt - and has been so poor in its moves against private monopolists like Murdoch and privatising politicians like Thatcher and Blair and now Jeremy Hunt - that amongst the people who actually produce programmes, as opposed to the vast corporate class which has moved into and expanded top management positions in the last 20 years (and I'm talking about a class far higher than anyone involved in audio drama), there is less and less money to spend on programmes. 90 minute plays - in my view the perfect dramatic length to write for - disappeared from Radio 4 original play schedules ten years ago at least.
Plays that are being commissioned after the latest round of cuts are getting shorter and shorter and having to be written for smaller and smaller casts. Monologues are all the rage! I don't mind writing monologues - and have written quite a few - but when you want to deal with profound and complex issues, when you really want to take an audience off for a ride through the unknown and knock their socks off - they're not the first format I'd think of. (Though Homer did achieve a fair amount in Monologue Format!)
So the future of Beeb drama output doesn't look too rosy on the surface.
But its fairly obvious we live in very interesting, very challenging, swiftly changing times. Huge amounts of money are not lying around as they once were. Compared with film or TV or theatre, audio's costs are very, very cheap, even for long, well-populated dramas. And people are becoming pissed off with Hollywood teenage blockbusters and the inanity of multi channel TV. As people get less and less money and monopolists like Murdoch suck up more and more high quality films and sport behind high paywalls, alternatives are going to be sought by the public. I-Pods and the Web provide great new platforms and distribution systems. (I hope my jargon's right here!)
A more accessible system of accessing past radio dramas is required. (I find Torrent quite arcane and difficult to operate). Perhaps an audio version of You-Tube. But that still ignores how you fund new drama. A system like Kindle? The BBC seems to be experimenting with this, charging for downloads, but to subsidize the more arcane stuff you need some genuine popular drama. Perhaps like Home Box Office.
But with people spending less and less time in front of the telly, unable to afford to go out to film/theatre, and all eared with I-Pods, there does seem to be an opening in the market.
P.S. - Beeb audio drama has apparently just signed a deal with I-Tunes. (I personally hate I-Tunes. I can't do anything audio on my Mac without being crushed by it).
MS: As an award-winning professional, are there works by others that you admire or have found inspiration from?
JF: I get most inspiration from film - especially Catholic directors like Ford, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Lang, Kevin Smith. My main radio inspiration came from comedy like Hancock, Spike Milligan and the Goons, the Glums - not so much from the drama. I admired Marc Beeby's recent black comedy on Shirley Porter, "Shirley Mander" by Gregory Evans, greatly. Tracy-Ann Oberman was stunning.
MS: Your work has included a variety of different types of stories and genres. Is there any particular story or type of story that you have not yet had the opportunity to write?
JF: I've always wanted to do Screwball. I really admire those American film writers of the 30's - usually WASP Ivy League/Jewish combos - who wrote them. (As someone fascinated by the rise and fall of language, I've always been gobsmacked by that period in the early C20th when Jewish immigrants into America fell in love with English). I wanted to do "The Awful Truth" (my favourite, Irene Dunne is transcendent in it and Cary Grant first becomes Cary Grant), "Bringing Up Baby", and "The Philadelphia Story", but unfortunately most of the rights had been bought up by what are called Broadway "scrapyard" agents.
I've always wanted to do Busby Berkeley musicals on radio as I love them and Rogers and Astaire stuff, but had to make do with co-writing Bollywood's first radio musical, "What am I to you." (Not my greatest success). I also tried to adapt John Ford's silent classic "The Iron Horse" - silent film, radio play (geddit?) - but we couldn't locate the rights. I'd also love to do James Ellroy's "The Big Nowhere" - its his best I think - but I was pushing for it when he wasn't famous and the Beeb went for his inferior later stuff when they finally went. Due to the disastrous decisions of its top executives in recent years, the Beeb can no longer afford to buy the rights.
I also like doing "artistic archaeology" - like the Beatles "Up Against It" - working up scripts that were never made at the time. There was a similar project I worked on with Pete Townshend - who I've known since the 60's - which was recreating the musical he planned in 1971 which involved the music he released on The Who's "Who's Next" LP. Unfortunately - (just think, getting your hands on those classics - like a barn full of vintage Rolls Royces!) - it didn't work out and someone else finally wrote the script for the radio play. (It was called "Light House.")
I've had longterm plans to do Xenophon's "The Persian Expedition", but no success, and strangely enough - I know you're a Tolkien fan - I've always wanted to do a play on the Inklings meetings in the 30's in the Oxford pub "The Eagle and Child" - where Tolkien and CS Lewis and Charles Williams (my favourite, and the guy who greatly inspired modern steam punkists like Tim Powers). I find it wonderful that the three of them, without power, in a remote backroom in a pub - met to do their best to overthrow the modernist, materialist world - and ended up, judging by their book and film sales, doing really well. I've also dreamed of doing Waugh's "Vile Bodies" for years.
I've got various ideas I've spent a lot of time working on for a long time - in various genres - but it would be best not to reveal them at the moment as I'm still trying to flog them.
MS: ''Death and the Tango'', aside from being a highly acclaimed radio play, is also one of my favorites. How did this unique story come about?
JF: From memory, I had a dream about the first half, the dark half, the ocean liner and the tango. I got the idea of the tango dancing on electric contacts from a BBC TV play (very good) about working class Brummies obsessively dancing the tango with half egg shells glued to their heels. (I might also have been subconciously influenced by Mark Twain's short story "The Great Dark" - but I might have remembered that wrong and read it after I had the dream). I then tried to sell it. It took seven years, during which at some time the other half added itself. I sometimes think the second half is a bit self-concious/artificial - light vs darkness etc, devil has the best tunes etc - but I like and am quite proud of the musical ending. (Fred Astaire in "Mr Bojangles.")
Two of my great passions are united in the play. The Tango which I love. I haunt the Buenos Aires Club videos on You-tube. And even more, Renaissance neo-platonism - it was great being able to quote great chunks of Ficino and Pico de la Mirandola. (I think there's other people quoted but I can't remember who they are). I've been a "neo-platonist" - well, I've loved it - since a school teacher explained it to me in an English lesson on "Much Ado" at the age of 16.The most influential book I've ever read was Frances Yates "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition."
MS: What's next for you, and is there anything we should look forward to in the near future you would like to mention?
JF: I'm currently on the second draft of a Woman's Hour Serial (5 X 15 minutes) adaptation of May Witwit and Bee Rowlatt's "Talking of Jane Austen in Baghdad's" book about May Witwit's attempts, as a Professor of English Literature, to teach her students the novels of Jane Austen in the middle of their ferocious and bloody civil war. I'm also adapting Nicholas Monsarrat's "The Cruel Sea" for a two part Classic Serial. It is his monumental and on occasions very powerful history of the Battle of the North Atlantic as seen through the eyes of the naval crews that actually fought it.
What excites me most though is a Radio 3 90-minuter, probably entitled "Sea Change", about the battle between appeasers and anti-appeasers in the lead-up to World War II. I'm not interested in doing the Churchill story - which has been done again and again - but it is about the much more junior individuals and ordinary people, how they finally sorted out all their conflicting emotions and petty quarrels and different politics and united to fight Germany. (How societies come together and fall apart has been part of my recent obsession - through Democracy and Language, The Sicilian Expedition and Tamburlaine to this). I see many parallels between Chamberlain and Blair - individuals who knew very little about foreign policy being swept up by simplistic, seemingly idealistic notions and wreaking havoc. It is also about how new coalitions form out of the wreckage of the old (parallels with Britain's present coalition government). I'm not really interested in what is right or wrong, I'm interested in how order can arise almost spontaneously out seemingly chaotic conditions. How the powerful finally crumble through hubris and how the weak endure their endless defeats and humiliations to suddenly cohere into government.