As a little interlude before I finish up The History of Titus Groan, I'd like to share a little gem I found on youtube. It's a 1989 BBC documentary by Robert Clamp.
33 minutes long, it features some lovely interviews and rare behind-the-scenes footage of the BBC audio drama machine in action (perhaps at the height of its powers?). 1988 was a time in which media was still consolidated, but technology had opened up the aural possibilities of sound recording in new and interesting ways.
One of the things I love about this documentary is how it shows the production methods. The scene with Edward de Souza at the microphone, recording the intros for the Man in Black series, capture the control and the internal quality of his performance. It's a rare thing, being able to watch a real radio actor give a real radio performance. Notice how he's not mugging. A startling contrast from what you find in live “old time radio” performances, which aren't radio at all, but are actually theatre with an extra shtick.
A director asks an actor to smile! That's one of my little tricks, too You can hear a smile, though people don't believe me when I tell them that. Smiling is such a simple term that denotes a vast and subtle amount of different subconscious actions. The result is a small but noticeable change in vocal timbre. It changes the way an actor feels, and it changes the way their mouth and face shape the raw sound that comes out of the body. And it gives the scene partner something to play off of.
And the location work! The scenes of Mike Walker's Australia series, with multiple actors walking along through crunching leaves, weaving in and out of patches of sound to evoke the epic crowd in a panorama of furtive industry. Or, what about that simple scuffle on the bonnet of a car, where two men press themselves against the hollow metal with grit teeth, a fight about to erupt. These are all great examples of what one of my acting teachers used to call “actually doing it.”
The example my professor used was the door. In amateur films, there's always a door that an actor walks through, and the door itself isn't important but the actor goes through a lot of trouble to imitate walking through the door to enter the shot. While standing next to an actual door. “Just walk through the door,” my professor told me. “Don't 'act' if you don't have to. Just actually do it.”
This documentary is a rare example of the BBC promoting its radio assets. It also does something very delightful – it puts faces to names. I've talked before about how the facelessness of radio drama production makes it harder to connect with the apparatus that makes the programs possible, and it's sad that the BBC ignores this aspect. Giving an audience a glimpse behind the scenes, and introducing them to the writers and producers and actors who create the content truly enriches the listening experience.
Sometimes listening to audio plays feels like going to an automat, those 1930's New York diners. A person walks in, puts a coin in the slot, and a tiny door pops open to dispense a sandwich. You might glimpse a sleeve or a tired eye from the anonymous chef behind the wall of portals. The concept has a retro chic but is not much fun in reality. It produces a wall of coldness.
I sit and listen to a BBC play sometimes and wonder who these people are. Why do they make the creative choices they make? What are their passions and backgrounds, what are their contexts? The plays stand by themselves as wonderful creations, but that wall of anonymity doesn't serve the work. It makes it more distant.
My improv troupe is opening at a new location next month, a year-long residence at a good comedy club. Part of the gig, after the show is done, is to hang out at the bar and have a drink. Because even though the audience has just seen the show and consumed our “product”, there's something special about “behind the scenes” that people really love. And it doesn't matter what I do at the bar, I'm not obligated to talk to anybody or exert any pressure or effort to do anything. I just need to be there. And maybe have a drink. The mere presence of the performers adds depth and dimension to the experience.