Adapting Text for Radio Workshop with Jeremy Mortimer

On Friday 10 July, Migrating Texts at the IMLR hosted a workshop on adapting texts for radio with Jeremy Mortimer. Now a freelancer, Jeremy spent ‘decades’ writing and producing over 400 radio dramas with the BBC. In an equally fun-filled and informative afternoon, Jeremy led a group of 16 participants – including students, lecturers, publishers, and people preparing to start their own feminist radio station – through all the stages of turning a written text into a recorded drama.

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Jeremy began by pointing out that even though the workshop was called ‘Adaptation for radio’, really we would be adapting for sound, as today there is nothing to stop you recording your own podcast at home and sharing it with the world. Unlike television, radio has a very fast turn around; you can have an idea in the morning and have listeners by the afternoon. The radio play is still a very popular genre, with the BBC Radio 4 afternoon slot attracting 750,000 listeners daily. As Jeremy underlined, the radio play is performed in the listeners’ heads, which means 750,000 different radio plays every day.

In Jeremy’s mind, there are only two rules:
1) Don’t bore your listener!
2) Be careful about how you confuse your listener (that doesn’t mean don’t confuse them – a little confusion is a good thing).

Other suggestions from participants included bearing in mind the attention span of listeners, but Jeremy countered that broadcasters are often too patronising and shouldn’t underestimate their listeners. The key to making a good radio drama is the resonance of the human voice. Referring to the prologue of Henry V, in which a sole voice creates epic battles, Jeremy affirmed that speaking directly to the audience, giving them something, is essential to successful radio drama. Using space and distance is also very important – you need to consider where to position your actors in relation to the microphone depending on whether you want them whispering in the listeners’ ears or shouting at them. Adding music can then increase the drama and direct the listeners’ emotions.

As for the question of fidelity, Jeremy asked “Fidelity to what?” Perspectives shift over time, so even if we stuck to Shakespeare’s words, our listeners would interpret his meanings in a very different way to that originally intended. On the other hand, an adaptation could sound very different and yet be very faithful to the spirit or effects of the source material. We should be less reverential when adapting, Jeremy insisted. He added that changing tenses is particularly important as past tense doesn’t work on radio!

Introductions to radio drama over, the real work began. We were divided into four groups and each given a text to adapt: two poems by Li Po, ‘Bringing in the Wine’ and ‘Chang Kan Village Song’; an extract from Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel; and the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez’s short story ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’. To download the texts, click here. We were challenged to write a script of roughly one minute, starting with our first impressions and the words jump off the page for us.MT scripts

With the help of three seasoned radio drama performers, we then recorded our scripts.

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If the embedded player does not work, please click here to listen on Soundcloud.

Having listened back to our recordings, we noted that physicality is very important; even though we can’t be seen, physically acting out the roles made for much livelier and more convincing recordings. As Jeremy reminded us, voices rely on bodies to work properly.

The afternoon ended with a final piece of advice from Jeremy: if you are interested in writing for radio, get out there and do it! Actually record your script so you have something to play people if you want them to commission you. Even if your ultimate aim is the BBC, you will need plenty of experience to get there, so try university or local radio stations or just start uploading podcasts from your home.


Migrating Texts recap: Adaptation

Over two days, Migrating Texts brought together 17 expert speakers, four panel chairs, and a wide range of attendees from academia and the cultural and creative industries to discuss subtitling, translation and adaptation. We’re incredibly grateful to all those who came and contributed to the conversation. For those who couldn’t make it, over three blogs we’ll be bringing you the main points from each session. Last but not least: adaptation.

L-R: Melanie Stokes, Gwyneth Hughes, Jeremy Mortimer

L-R: Melanie Stokes, Gwyneth Hughes, Jeremy Mortimer

The adaptation session began with a panel of industry professionals discussing their adaptations of Dickens to film, radio and television. Our first speaker, Gwyneth Hughes, explained that you have to pitch based on your ability as a screenwriter to stand up to the greats like Dickens. In adaptation you have to be prepared to kill your darlings. You have the genius on your shoulder, but your employers just want to make money and don’t care much for fidelity. Huge casts of characters and lavish settings just aren’t affordable. Gwyneth called Edwin Drood, which she has written a screen adaptation of, THE great unfinished novel. Everyone has an idea for it, but you have to do what’s possible. The biggest challenge in adapting a classic is how to get across what people are thinking and feeling: “In novels you’re inside people’s heads. On telly you’re outside someone’s face”.

Jeremy Mortimer, who has produced over 200 radio dramas for the BBC, explained how the way that the BBC has changed its time-slots has changed approaches to adaptations, especially the introduction of the 15 minute drama slot. In the 80s, the approach was big books over many many episodes. A Tale of Two Cities in 1989 was 7 hours long, whereas the 2011 version had only 3 hours. Jeremy equated this process to how Dickens himself had to adapt his writing to publishers’ needs, with the beginning of Barnaby Rudge published long before Dickens wrote the end. While novels are often written in the past tense, radio adaptations have to be in the present because “A novel is what happened whereas drama is absolutely now”. Unlike TV and film, radio allows much greater use of a narrator and has no restrictions in terms of settings (so the latest verion of Barnaby Rudge starts in the modern day Middle East). Jeremy affirmed that casting is an important part of the adaptation process as it affects how people experience the text. He therefore cast Daniel Laurie, an actor with Downs syndrome, as Barnaby because he didn’t want to direct an actor pretending. He ended with the assertion that every adaptation, even The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, adds to our collective idea of what Dickens means. As long as you preserve the essence of Dickens (his impressionist style, his care for his characters), you are doing Dickens.

Our final speaker in this panel, Melanie Stokes once presented “Not As Good As the Book” for Channel 4, in which she concluded that all adaptations are personal readings. Film, she argued, is more like real-life. Time never stops and you can never know what’s in someone’s head. You have to be very careful using literary devices for the screen: voice over can be the death of the story as it loses urgency. Pacing is absolutely key in films. What makes someone like Danny Boyle a great director is that he makes films like music. Dickens, Melanie maintained, is tragicomedy, but he’s as messy as life: with romance, grotesque, silliness,and sinister villains. Modern audiences aren’t used to such a mish-mash of genres, so the biggest challenge is how to set the tone, “like streaky bacon”. Melanie argued that, in a way, new approaches to period pieces say more about our world than contemporary works. Nick Nickleby is the first contemporary adaptation of Dickens for TV. Inspired by Sherlock, it used excerpts from the original text, bleeding time periods together. The orphanage was updated to the scandal of old-people’s homes, a modern problem that Dickens would have been interested in.

In the Q+A, Kate Griffiths raised the question of authorship. Gwyneth Hughes said there would be no product without an enormous team. Melanie Stokes added that the job of the producer is to protect the writer’s vision but it depends on the alchemy of the team. As for why contemporary audiences remain drawn to Victorian texts, Melanie Stokes suggested that the Victorian feels like it’s “us” as it’s the start of modern Britain so it doesn’t need updating. Gwyneth Hughes agreed that these Victorian stories are so exciting because there was so much on the line for people back then. “Telephones and high-speed trains ruin much of the drama of 19th century stories” Jeremy Mortimer quipped. Finally, in response to a question about the relationship between academic experts and writers, Gwyneth Hughes replied that she does obsessive research for her adaptations in a very scholarly way rather than consulting an outside expert.

L-R: Kit Yee Wong, Prof. Dan Rebellato, Dr Andrew Watts, Dr Kate Griffiths

L-R: Kit Yee Wong, Prof. Dan Rebellato, Dr Andrew Watts, Dr Kate Griffiths

The second adaptation session focused on adaptations of Zola and Balzac across different media, from an academic, analytical point of view. Professor Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway) began by introducing the latest BBC radio adaptation of Zola he is now working on, despite having avoided reading Zola for many years. When he reads a novel he thinks whether it would work on radio. His original answer to Rougon-Macquarts was no, but now that he is working on it, he likes the challenge of adapting 20 novels, trying to weave them together and introduce connections. “Too many classic serials sound like nothing but classic serials”, he claimed. “We want to keep the originality of Zola”. The end result will be 3 series with 9 45-min episodes each, called Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. “The number of people who’ve read one of the novels is in the hundreds of thousands. Those who’ve read all 20 could fit in this room”. Part of the challenge is therefore making the stories accessible to those with little knowledge of the books, while still giving listeners the thrill of recognising parts that they have read. Prof Rebellato highlighted that these books are intensely, immersively visual, with set pieces of big public events. Zola includes more detail than our imaginations can process; his approach to writing was as an empirical science. To get around this, Prof Rebellato argued, it is best to use two or three sound cues and leave it up to listeners’ imaginations.

Dr Kate Griffiths (Cardiff University) described how Zola’s works are themselves full of adaptations. ‘Interminable’ myth is reinterpreted in Thérèse Raquin, as are paintings like Manet’s ‘Olympia’. While film versions of Thérèse have attracted scholarly attention, TV and radio adaptations have not. Dr Griffiths argued that the best adaptations of Zola are as self-reflexive as their source material. The BBC adaptation, for example, “makes art of what it can’t show” particularly when it came to sex scenes. Radio, by contrast, can be much freer not only with sexual content but other disturbing scenes like the drowning. Moreover, radio allows listeners to hear the thoughts of characters in the same way as a novel would. As such, “Radio is not blind, it is the medium of inner vision”.

Dr Andrew Watts (University of Birmingham) explained that TV adaptations of Balzac’s Père Goriot are often written off as disappointing by literary critics, but appealed to audiences. He maintained that adaptation is a two-way process: the novel can be read differently after seeing the adaptation. The BBC produced 3 Balzac adaptations from 1965-71 as the serial format was a way to face competition from ITV. The BBC changed the structure of Père Goriot adding in the cliff hangers that Balzac objected to, but, as Dr Watts analysed, the repetitions and returns typical of the serial format reflect Balzac’s textual returns. Dr Watts finally observed how memories of actors in previous roles add new layers of meaning in adaptations.

You can read more of Dr Griffiths and Dr Watts’ ideas about this topic in their book Adapting Nineteenth-Century France.

In the Q+A, it was asked “How much ‘France’ do we get in these adaptations? How much France do we want?”. Adaptations tend to cater for English audiences, even though French adaptations dominate. This is perhaps because traditionally far more people have studied French than other languages, and also because translations of French classics are out of copyright and therefore far cheaper to produce. As for why there are so few adaptations of theatre for television these days, Prof Rebellato suggested  that there is a real resistance to theatre adaptations for TV because TV has only recently shaken its reputation for overly theatrical acting.

Spanish Adaptations by Prof. Sally Faulkner

At Migrating Texts, panels will discuss Dickens, Balzac and Zola as case studies of intermedial adaptation, but as Prof. Sally Faulkner explores in our latest blog post, Spanish literary adaptations are another fascinating avenue for study.

While not on a scale that matches Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare adaptations in Anglophone cinema, intermedial relations between film and literature have enriched Spanish film from its inception to the present day. If adaptations of popular operas (zarzuelas) and other music-hall numbers topped the lists of most adapted texts in early Spanish cinema, by the 1920s directors were turning to literature in order to fulfil the inter-related aims of, first, securing a middle-class, literate audience who possessed the cultural capital to enjoy film versions of texts they knew, second, extending the narrative possibilities of the still relatively new medium by testing it to produce versions of literary originals, and, third, the didactic aim of bringing classic literary texts to the still largely illiterate masses (Compared to relatively high rates of literacy in Northern Europe in the early twentieth century, Spain’s were still only around 50-60% in these early decades of the new century).

With Civil War (1936-39) and dictatorship (Francoism 1939-78) literary adaptations in Spanish film, like all other areas of national culture, became entangled with politics. Received wisdom has had it that period drama adaptations of conservative authors like Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and Jacinto Benavente in the early-Francoist 1940s were at best simply escapist, at worst pro-Franco propaganda. Recent studies of popular culture of this period, spear-headed by critic Jo Labanyi, have shown that culture is rarely ‘simply escapist’, and beneath the apparently conservative surfaces of films like From Woman to Woman (Lucia 1950) lay ideas that bristled with ideological critique of the regime, especially from the point of view of gender.

But literary adaptations weren’t all period dramas that used a conservative author as a fig-leaf to hide ideological opposition. Still under dictatorship, directors dared to push an increasingly desperate censorship board (newly conscious, from the 1960s on, of how their anti-democratic activities looked in the West) by adapting daring, dynamic authors and texts, including works by Miguel de Unamuno (e.g. Aunt Tula Picazo 1964). The most famous example of this is the great exiled director, world-cinema auteur, yet son of Spanish (Aragonese) soil, Luis Buñuel, who returned to Franco’s Spain for the second time in 1969 to make his great adaptation of Tristana (1970), by Benito Pérez Galdós – the Spanish Dickens – whose liberal politics critiqued Francoism.

Under democracy, literary adaptations have been no less aesthetically inventive, nor politically potent, but have become increasingly intermedial, as directors work across large and small screen formats. Thus Mario Camus, a director trained at the Madrid Film School in the 1960s, made what is still one of the great Galdós adaptations of democracy for television, with his version of Fortunata and Jacinta (1979-80). Extraordinarily, given how difficult it is to get hold of almost all but the most contemporary Spanish films, this ten-part series is available in its entirety as a free download from the official Spanish TV website:

More recently benefiting from transnational entanglements with heritage cinema, literary adaptations in Spanish screen culture continue to delight audiences, even if they occasionally annoy critics for being too literary, too cinematic, too Spanish, too transnational or too middlebrow. Exploring the meanings of these terms within shifting Spanish and international contexts is one of the rewards that awaits students and scholars studying these adaptations!

About the author

Sally Faulkner is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Literary Adaptations in Spanish Cinema (2004) and A Cinema of Contradiction: Spanish Film of the 1960s (2006) and was awarded a Fellowship from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council for 2011. Professsor Faulkner has been named a ‘rising star’ in the field of Modern Language and Literature by the Leverhulme Trust, winning the only Leverhulme prize awarded for Hispanic Studies in 2013. Her latest book, A History of Spanish Film:Cinema and Society 1910-2010, is the first exploration of the relationship between Spanish film and social mobility.