How life became radio drama

Recording This Solitary Bird, May 11


BBC link to This Solitary Bird

Not long after my friend Will McMillan passed away in 2005 (see The Saving Grace), I began to consider writing about him. His angry public outbursts were no secret, but I knew a much deeper, more generous man too and wanted to commemorate his short but vigorous life. I remembered many conversations, often surprising to both of us, which lent themselves to drama – particularly the intimate, intense medium of radio drama. But I had no prior experience in that field.

Thankfully, I was able to get a place in 2009 on the excellent Radio Lab, at that time run jointly by the Scottish Book Trust and BBC Radio Scotland as a way of fostering new radio writers. About ten of us spent a week working intensively with seasoned BBC producer David Ian Neville and other writers/dramatists on exercises ranging from dry-run pitching sessions to a collaborative 45-minute play recorded at BBC Scotland in Glasgow. It was a great primer, and soon afterwards David encouraged me to write what would become This Solitary Bird. As a first-time dramatist, I would need a full draft to show to commissioning editors in London, with no guarantee that anyone would broadcast it.


I duly started hammering out a script, and promptly hit a problem. Although the colourful memories from my friendship with Will made an interesting series of anecdotes, they didn’t automatically cohere into a compelling narrative. I would need to inject all the usual devices of suspense, plotting and characterisation in order to sustain interest – and that might mean being a little more playful with the story. As if to confirm this, Radio 4 knocked back a pitch from an early draft on the basis that while Will’s character was fascinating and dynamic, the journalist (ie a thinly-veiled yours truly) needed work to sustain interest. Ouch! Taking that one on the chin, I started fictionalising more freely, improvising with new plot twists and injecting some narrative tension to the play. One draft on, BBC Radio Scotland liked what they saw, and commissioned it.

However, completing the play still felt difficult – I kept getting stuck, particularly with the character of the journalist. I was simultaneously in the final stages of writing a very personal book, and frankly a little jaded with confessional writing from personal experience, however cunningly disguised. Yet for some reason I also balked at the idea of complete fiction. As the deadline for the penultimate script meeting with David approached, I had a sinking feeling that the whole project was about to die in my arms.


In desperation, I resorted to an old trick for overcoming writer’s block – I changed gender. Rick the rookie reporter became Kate instead, and the change in energy was immediate. The whole thing suddenly felt bigger, more spacious. Released from the shackles of literal reportage of what happened to me and Will, I began to think myself into larger truths, and found the writing coming alive as a result. Instead of the biography of a friendship, I accepted that the play would now be a fictionalised story only loosely based on Will’s personality – but still intended as a tribute to the man I once knew, and others like him.

While a number of scenes were still drawn from real life, I rather liked the fact that nobody would know which ones – that anything unhelpful could be blamed on my overactive writer’s imagination, not taken as biographical evidence against me or, more importantly, Will – who was of course no longer around to speak for himself. I whistled through the final draft, got a thumbs up from the almost supernaturally patient David Ian Neville, and by May 2011 we were ready to record it . It was almost two years since I first sent my application to Radio Lab, and six years since Will’s death.

Here’s what the BBC advance publicity said:

Kate is a young journalist starting work on a Scottish newspaper. Bill is a disenfranchised loner with an axe to grind. Their unlikely alliance begins in simple self-interest: Bill wants the ear of a privileged insider, while Kate sees a guide to the underclass she hopes to document. Neither is prepared for the intensity of their shared journey as they reach across Edinburgh’s dark social divide in search of the truth about one another. What is the dark secret that lies behind Bill’s disfiguring bruises – or his desperate religious certainties? Unknown to Kate, time is running out for her chaotic friend – and instead of an article, she is destined to deliver Bill’s funeral address.


Cast of This Solitary Bird, TX Aug11

Full cast, This Solitary Bird

Watching my written words take life in the studio at Pacific Quay was a bizarre and awe-inspiring experience. Thanks to David’s great casting, Finlay McLean as Bill sounded so uncannily like Will that I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck as he growled the lines. Kim Gerard was also an inspired choice as Kate the reporter trying to get to grips with Bill’s chaotic life, and Kenny Blyth and Julie Austin were pitch perfect across the various other parts.

I was on hand to clear up ambiguities (and excessive expletives) in the script and also to find cuts, often at a moment’s notice, to keep the play to its allotted 28 minutes. The writerly dictum “kill your babies” has never felt so apt, but there was no time for getting precious. Just slash this, cut that, and move on – invigorating stuff.

Meanwhile the intricacies of the recording process were utterly fascinating, if slightly more subtle than the sink-plunger sound-effects for Dr Who I’d once seen on Blue Peter.  The studio is laid out in different sub-rooms to create the maximum number of alternative acoustic environments. So, for example, the built in stairs were surfaced with three different parallel surfaces – concrete, wood or metal – leading to a front door equipped with either soft suburban doorbell or harsh tenement buzzer. And the guys in the sound booth could also overlay tracks from the archives to create anything from a newsroom with background murmur and chirping phones, to a busy Edinburgh street or boat trip to Bass Rock.

It’s all a wonderful illusion, yet it somehow works even when you can see behind the scenes. At one point I could look through a glass screen and see Finlay and Kim holding scripts in front of microphones and stamping up and down on gravel beds inlaid in the studio floor – and yet we were still unequivocally in the midst of an emotional showdown on the beach at North Berwick, thanks to overlaid sound-effects of gulls and waves, and some fabulous acting and direction.

That’s what they call the magic of radio. And I think I’m hooked.

Posted on: 04 Aug 2011 in Broadcasting, Features, General, Journalism

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