Sometimes I all of a sudden remember something amazing or odd that I got to do at some time that I hadn’t thought about for ages.
Today, I suddenly remembered that I was part of a student production team for a radio soap opera, directed by one of the foremost figures in British radio acting and radio drama production, Alan Beck. This all happened when I was on exchange at the University of Westminster when I was 20.
I wasn’t going to take the radio drama class, I was supposed to do another journalism class, but I changed at the last minute because all my classmates from radio features were doing it and by halfway through the term we had already become good friends. I do not regret this choice at all, even though I have never produced radio drama again!
There were about 12 or so of us in our radio class, so we wrote an episode each and then edited the series for continuity. We had to source atmos sounds and everything else. Alan then got professional voice actors in to do the play, and we produced it using a massive mixer in a big old studio at the university that was usually used for recording student bands.
It was an interesting process. You would think that in radio drama, you wouldn’t need to build stages, but that just wasn’t true. We built “stages” in the recording studio by using moveable walls to give the acoustic dynamics of a big room or a small room. That was something that you just couldn’t replicate using digital editing. We also needed props etc for some of the sound effects.
The actors were really cool. They were older than us and had done a lot of cool things, so I think we were a little starstruck! We chatted with them about their training and the work they had done. We even went drinking at the student pub with them after we wrapped up production. One of the actresses, Catherine, told me all about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and how she would be out of the street trying to lure people into a show right up until 10 minutes before she was supposed to start on stage…. I still really want to get there because she made it sound so amazing and described the energy so well!
Our soap was called “Leisure Island” and it was set at a recreation centre (gym and indoor swimming pool complex). The storylines were quite ridiculous and over the top… like a comedy soap style. There was a love interest and sexual tension, of course. Then there was a jokey character, a Scottish bodybuilder, who I think got stuck inside the waterslide in one ep of the soap? I can’t remember the other storylines. There was something to do with one of the exercise classes and some sort of rivalry and hmm. Yeah, I forget. There was a sassy girl and a nice girl. I remember in the episode that I wrote the sassy girl said “whatever floats your boat” to one of the male characters in this really condescending way and it was awesome.
The days where we recorded the soap with the actors and then the week or two after where we hunkered down editing the episodes were pretty fun. We also had to find theme music and everything. I think I learnt a bit about directing and organising a writing project where there are multiple authors and producers, and how to ensure continuity. But mostly, it was just fun.
The soap aired on our multi-award winning student radio station, Smoke Radio, where I spent most of my time at Westminster kicking around (either there or at the Undercroft/Underpants/Undies, the media student bar with tacky leopard print seats).
I don’t have any recordings of it, unfortunately, but I’m sure it would have been pretty hilarious. I think the script let the actors down a bit haha.
Most of all, it seemed very British. We don’t really do radio dramas in Australia, right? But the BBC radio stations still do. It’s a pretty cool form of storytelling and I remember we listened to some great examples in class. There’s more to it than just the Archers. Also, I have read about radio plays being used to deliver community health messages in Africa as part of development programs, so who knows? Maybe I might be exposed to it again some day…