I recently did a Q and A for the newsletter run by Charlot King. Charlot is the author of the Cambridge Murder Mysteries, and the owner of a quite extraordinary looking dog, Moobear often appears in the photographs which Charlot shares on Twitter.
She has kindly agreed that I can reproduce the interview here. It goes into some detail about my path to the astonishing privilege of being allowed to write for The Archers, and into even more detail about how I do it.
Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer – where did you start and how is that journey progressing?
I’m not a very academic or introspective person; I tend to just get on with things. So I might not have very enlightening answers to these questions. In fact, the idea of my having a ‘journey’ as a writer sounds absurdly pretentious to me. I may have a very specialised, very limited celebrity, but inside I still feel like little Keri Davies who grew up in a dull Wiltshire town. Sorry Trowbridge, but you have to admit you’ll never be Prague…
I have always had some facility with words, which has bubbled up in all of the rag bag of jobs that comprise my ‘career’ (not so much chequered as houndstoothed): bank clerk, RAF officer, PR, advertising, presentation training… I was in my thirties when I joined the BBC as a press officer, and I only moved over to The Archers temporarily, to fill an emergency vacancy. That was in 1992, and sometimes I still can’t believe that I work on the programme that I began to listen to in my well-ordered room at RAF College Cranwell.
Surprisingly, my time in the RAF was a direct step on the road to where I am now. While a recruiting officer, I suggested and wrote the script for an audio-visual package about officer life. And off-duty I wrote and directed plays and pantomimes. These amateur efforts were a long way from professional drama; when I started work on The Archers, I had a massive learning curve. But it all helped, as does having a wide range of life experiences to enlighten my writing.
I suppose we are drawn to things we are good at, and this is the one thing I’m really good at. I’ve just been so lucky that by a catalogue of accidents I’ve found a niche where I’ve been able to earn a living at it for so long.
How do you write? What is your process?
I don’t really have a process. I have deadlines. Ninety percent of my writing is scripts for The Archers, so the requirements of the programme dictate my approach (about which more below).
Do you remember the first radio play, tv or film that stuck with you? And the library in your formative years that you remember fondly?
I’m going to swerve this slightly, because one of my greatest influences is the fact that my parents were active in the local musical theatre scene. In fact, before I was born they were members of the Welsh National Opera Company, in the days when it had an amateur chorus. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in rehearsals of The Mikado or South Pacific, and it infected me with a lifelong love of music and drama.
And the library… oh yes. Scratch any writer (or any decent writer) and you’ll find a reader. Precocious little swot that I was, at primary school I remember asking if I could use the upper school library, because all the books I was meant to be reading were too ‘babyish’. And later, I’d cycle regularly to Trowbridge Library. Four books every week for years. Science fiction and PG Wodehouse were particular favourites (Wodehouse still is – perhaps the nicest compliment I was ever paid as a writer was that I was a cross between PG Wodehouse and Hunter S Thompson).
You are known for the writing The Archers, can you tell us about that?
A caveat: my answers to this question reflect the ‘usual’ Archers, which from May 2020 will be replaced by a simpler format until things return to whatever normality will then be in place.
One of the great things about writing The Archers is that it’s a blend of team and individual working. As writers, we work hand in glove with the production team, who in fact are responsible for a lot of research, story creation and early drafting.
The whole team gets together twice a year to brainstorm long term stories, but the detailed planning is done in script meetings every five weeks. At this stage we are working with ‘storylines’ – short stories written in the present tense, which outline in some detail what will happen to our characters approximately three months hence.
Individual writers are each responsible for a week on air – six episodes Sunday to Friday. So five out of the dozen or so on the team then return to their lonely writers’ garrets. They each have to turn their week, containing seven or so storylines, into six episodes of drama that also works as one 75 minute play.
This is the moment where artistic ambition bashes heads with budgets and logistics. We need actors to tell our stories. Actors (quite rightly) cost money, so there is a limit to how many we can use in a week: actually 39 appearances, from around 25 or so individual characters. To make it even more interesting, not all the actors are available for all recording sessions. So at this stage, it’s like doing a jigsaw when you’ve lost the lid with the picture on.
We have to decide which parts of which story we will tell on each day, and how; which characters we need to hear; and which bits we can hear ‘by report’. And where possible, we try to find ways to link stories, so the listener isn’t simply jumping back and forth between isolated strands.
All Archers writers work differently, but the way I do it is to take a sheet of A3 paper and rule it into six columns, one for each day. Then I work through the storylines, jotting major plot segments – ‘beats’ as we call them – onto little sticky notes, using a different colour for each storyline. Ah, the glamour of showbiz…
You can see my most recent plan here:
The scribblings are quite cryptic: “Lee to Lynda. Lynda furious with Robert”, “Ben bumps into Chloe. Josh – hilar”. But it’s enough to trigger in my mind the full content of the scene in question. Within the constraints, I distribute these beats through the week to form an interlocking web of dramatic arcs. I try to get a good balance of big and small, drama and comedy, domestic and farming, with ‘hooks’ to keep the listener tuning in, and of course an extra-large hook on the Friday.
It’s a case of trial and error – or ‘trial and improvement’ as children are now taught. Once I’ve added up all my actor bookings, I frequently have to revise my initial thoughts. For example, I might decide that we’ll hear the run up and aftermath of a meeting using two characters, rather than dramatising the full thing with three.
Once the maths is done, it’s time for the English again. I use my chart as the basis of a scene-by-scene synopsis. For the week we’re looking at, mine started:
1. INT, HOSPITAL WARD. 1400 HRS
LYNDA, CHLOE, ROY
Chloe is attending to Lynda [I’ll research something appropriate for Lynda’s condition and Chloe’s likely experience level]. Chloe is encouraging about Lynda’s progress but it falls on stony ground…
And so on over 18 pages or so, until the final moment of Friday’s episode:
7A. INT. HOSPITAL, CORRIDOR. CONTINUOUS
The door closes behind Gavin. Dad, it’s me, he says darkly. We might have a problem.
How long do we have to do all this? A long weekend. Archers deadlines are pretty brutal.
At this point, we pause. All five writers send their synopses to the Archers editor Jeremy Howe, the agricultural advisor Sarah Swadling, and two producers who as part of their jobs also work as script editors. You won’t hear their names unless they happen to direct episodes, but the script editors are the unsung heroes of The Archers. They compare our synopses with the storylines, to make sure we stay on-piste, and that everything hangs together across the five weeks. And they often give insightful comments that tighten and improve the drama.
After a detailed conversation with our individual script editor, we can finally start to write the actual scripts. We don’t have long for this; usually about 11 days. It would be impossible from a standing start and a blank screen. But as you can see, a vast amount of work has already been done, so now it’s a case of making the outline live and breathe. At this stage I am writing as fast as I can type, taking dictation from the characters in my head. In any other walk of life, hearing voices might be worrying. For us, it’s a positive advantage.
Again, the script editors work through the five weeks of scripts, and we have a weekend to do any rewriting that’s requested. Then pretty soon the pack for the next scriptmeeting will arrive in our email: ninety or so pages of research, briefings, archive references and draft storylines.
And it all starts again…
The Archers has responded to the Covid-19 crisis in a very creative and laudable way. What can you tell us about what’s been happening behind the scenes, and how that will play out in the programmes to come?
My production colleagues have worked minor and largely unseen miracles. Our response has been twofold. First, the challenge of recording episodes which were already written and scheduled for transmission. This usually requires a large and changing cast flowing into and out of the BBC’s studios at The Mailbox in Birmingham, many of whom are well past normal retirement age. One (June Spencer who plays Peggy Woolley) is over 100 years old. I can’t begin to imagine how they managed it, but I understand a great deal of disinfectant was involved.
That gave us a buffer of episodes, which at the time of writing we are eking out to early May, at five transmissions a week rather than our usual six. We’re then going to broadcast a few weeks of archive episodes before we start broadcasting in our new format. Because the existing episodes were written before the realities of Covid-19 became apparent, for a while Ambridge has had to remain unaffected by the virus. I know it would have been nice if we could have reflected the national situation in real time. But that would have meant ditching practically every storyline, because almost all of them involved people meeting in some way, or refer to activities that were now not happening (mass VE Day celebrations, to take just one example). We’d then have to invent all-new stories, and then write completely new scripts. From my answer above, I hope people realise how impossible that would be. So it was a case of temporarily virus-free Archers or none at all.
The second challenge was to conceive and then create a drama which could carry the torch of The Archers, but which could be made under lockdown conditions. So for a while, the format of the programme will change significantly. We will hear single voices – several in each episode, but not directly conversing with each other. And we’ll use all the techniques available to us to tell stories about Ambridge getting on with life despite the restrictions. These include telephone calls, voicemail messages, even the occasional video blog – and we’ll hear our characters’ thoughts as they go about their daily work, reflecting their actions and their interactions with their fellow villagers.
Covid-19 will be present, but it will not be central to our stories. We feel people are hearing quite enough about that on the news, and indeed in their own lives.
We have equipped our actors with audio gear and training so they can record their scenes at home. And our talented sound engineers will use all the magic of the radio studio to conjure up the familiar Ambridge, which our listeners know almost as well as their own neighbourhoods.
I was in the first wave of writers to take on the new format, and I don’t mind telling you it was a bit of a white-knuckle ride for all involved. But now I’m through the other side and looking forward to my next episodes, I’m confident that it’s going to work. It’s still The Archers, with its conflict and comedy, countryside and character; just told in a different way.
Are there any other projects you are involved with that you can speak about?
Are you kidding? No, seriously The Archers keeps me pretty busy. But in 2019 I was lucky enough to be asked to write a spin-off book: The Archers Year of Food and Farming. It takes a month-by-month look at what happens in the farms, gardens and kitchens of
Ambridge, with recipes, archive memories, and newly imagined stories, exclusive to the book. It was a new style of writing for me, but I’m pleased to say it’s been very well received.
And I recently trained with Humanists UK to conduct non-religious funerals. It uses my writing and presentation skills in a very direct way, to help families at a crucial time. People can read more about my approach and practice on my celebrant webpage
Whether writing, performance, music, painting, sculpture and more – I think the arts have never been more vital. What is your take on the arts and their role in society?
Given that what we call civilization spans five thousand years or more, I’d hesitate to say ‘never more vital’. ‘Seldom more at threat’ seems more the mark, as market fundamentalism has denigrated anything that doesn’t increase shareholder value. If the only way you can access high quality art, in any medium, is through a high-priced ticket, we have failed art and we have failed society.
I think of my parents in the 1950s. A carpenter and a sewing machinist jumping on the train after work and rushing down to Cardiff, not just to consume but to participate in grand opera. We need more of that inclusivity.
Finally, three albums you’d take to a desert island and one book?
I mentioned how important music was to me, so this is torture. Very quickly, then: Blue by Joni Mitchell, so I can have a good cry. Settle by Disclosure, so I can have a good dance. And something I’ve never heard before, washed up at random on the shore. I’m a great believer in the importance of new experiences to keep you alive.
For the book… let’s have a PG Wodehouse omnibus, so I can immerse myself in that beautifully crafted world-that-never-was.