Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In the studio: BBC Radio vs Big Finish

So, a couple of weeks back I went to the studio BBC Radio Scotland currently uses to record a lot of its drama. Pencaitland is a converted schoolhouse in a lovely little village south of Edinburgh, complete with plush sofas, cream cakes and a studio booth that puts the Starship Enterprise to shame [at least NCC-1701]. The task for the day was recording all the dialogue for three 15-minute plays, plus some pick-ups left over from the previous day. For that the director, cast and crew had nine and a half hours, including lunch.

By way of comparison, Big Finish aims to tape all the dialogue for a 60-minute audio drama in eight hours, including lunch. But Big Finish devotes a lot more time to post-production, particularly the creation of suitable incidental music and sound. The BBC opts for a simpler soundscape and feeds most of its sound effects into the studio on the recording day, either by creating them on the spot or using pre-recorded sounds, effects and music.

At a Big Finish session, the actors are usually kept in separate, soundproof booths. This makes post-production treatment of the voices much easier, something that's particularly important when you're making predominantly science fiction. The voices of robots, computers and aliens are much easier to create in post, using human speech samples recording in the studio. But the BBC groups all the actors together in an open plan studio and records them simultaneously, allowing more interaction between them and freedom of movement.

It was fascinating to see the differences between how the BBC records its radio plays and how Big Finish Productions tapes the dialogue for its audio dramas. I haven't been to BFP's new home in west London, but must say the Pencaitland studios currently used by BBC Radio Scotland certainly trump the old Moat Studios near Stockwell tube station in South London. Of course, BBC Scotland is having a swanky new home built for it in Glasgow and, I imagine, will be recording its radio drama there soon.

Which method works better? to be honest, I think it's horses for courses. The nature of BFP's material tends to require much more in the way of post-production. The exception to this was the recent Cyberman mini-series, where director-writer Nicholas Briggs deliberately aped the BBC Radio method to achieve an urgency of performance [and foreshortening of post-production!] the usual Big Finish process doesn't always get. I'd love to have been in the studio for those sessions...

The irony of my day at Pencaitland was I got to hear all the recording sessions for two of the three plays tapes that day - but no my own. I had to leave after only the first take of the first scene, to rush back to Biggar for the opening of Sweet Charity. [Boy, does that feel like a lifetime ago!] But I did have the chance to hear the read-through and make some comments. Frankly, I had nothing of import to say - it's not my job to tell the director how to do his job [especially when he's vastly more experienced than me!], nor did the actors need my help to find the essence of their characters. Having now heard the finished play, I'm very happy with the results of that sunny day in early May.

My script, Ronald, went through four drafts and numerous tweaks along the way. There's not many lines of dialogue that survived from the start to the finish, and entire characters came and went during the writing process. But, most importantly, the theme of my story, the idea that got me the commission in the first place, did not change or alter. Producer-director David Ian Neville pushed me to find the best way of telling the story, but he never tried to interfere with my play, or turn it into a story that he wanted to tell.

I learned a hell of a lot from the experience over the past five months. Hopefully I'll get another chance to learn even more. For now, all I can do is wait for the finished play to be broadcast. It's only a 15-minute segment, one of five in its slot, one of more than a dozen dramas being broadcast on radio in the next week or so, so it's not going to get reviewed or drawn massive attention, but it's a real milestone for me, a step forwards in my career. For that, I'm more than grateful.

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