When it comes to radio drama, my default advice to anyone going along to a recording session at a BBC studio is take cuts with you. There's nothing worse than sitting in on the read-through of your script as it sails past the maximum duration of your slot. When I wrote a Women's Hour Drama play in 2006, it ran long for the allocated 15-minute slot [closer to 13.5 minutes in actuality].
Having been forewarned about this possibility by my producer, I'd brought cuts along. But even those weren't enough on the day, so I found more cuts to get it down to length. Timings for drama are an inexact science, as different acting styles have a marked effect on how long scenes run. Yes, there are indicative word counts to guide writers, but nothing is an absolute.
Last week I was at BBC Scotland's Pacific Quay headquarters for recording of a new radio play, Legacy. Louise Ironside had written part one and I had written part two. Both episodes are for the 30 minutes 7th Dimension slot on BBC7, with transmission dates at the end of August. During writing we both struggled to hit the suggested length of 4000 words [4200 at a pinch].
My play was recorded on Thursday, and had come in around 4500 words - nearly 10% over length. So I prepared as many cuts as I could, but found it very difficult. Legacy is a tightly plotted tale, there wasn't much fat on the bones available for trimming. When we got to the end of the read through, finding cuts was not an issue. The play had short by several minutes. Yikes!
[There's lots of possible explanations for why it was short. Legacy is a thriller, with lots of overlapping dialogue and on-the-run scenes. That made it considerably pacier than the more sedate pace found in other radio drama. We didn't have any form of narration either, which adds considerable length. Suspect it was sheer pace that did for us.]
I delved back into previous drafts and found a large chunk of scene I'd cut because it wasn't working. I wrote some bridging lines and reinserted it back into the script. Even so, I hadn't solved the problem that caused it to be cut in the first place. this became evident when the actors were given the new pages. But hearing it acted out loud helped us find a solution. Phew.
The final scene also offered an opportunity to add pages. The climatic ending read fine on the page, but the read through made it clear more was needed to make the most of the tense finale. By this point it was 4.40pm and I had to leave in 30 minutes for the first night of a play I was directing, two hours away from Pacific Quay. It was a real now or never moment.
I borrowed Louise's laptop and devised two new pages to augment the finale scene. Then a dash up to the fourth floor to print them out, and another dash down to the ground floor studio to hand them over. I had to leave before the final scene got recorded, but my producer sent positive noises the next door so it all seemed to work. Guerilla radio drama writing at work.
All in all, it was a fascinating - if somewhat scary - experience. I've never done rewrites under such pressure in a professional situation before, certainly not with actors waiting in the next room. It was reassuring to find I could meet the challenge, my years in daily newspaper journalism paying off. But I wouldn't want to make a habit of it, if possible. Onwards!