Strange magic

Day Six of Mr Blue Sky series 2. Though I didn’t log it, yesterday was Day Five, which was actually a half-day, and I wasn’t able to attend the recording due to my Guardian Telly Addict videocast, which had to be moved in order for me to be available for the whole day tomorrow, which will be Day Six and the final day of the recording. Yes? (Telly Addict will go up at the usual time, around 4pm on Friday.) Having recorded Simon Day – who cameos in this series as the book-burning neighbour Mr Leopold – and Mark outside in the car park on Tuesday, and Claire and Navin in a van in the car park yesterday, studio director Wilfredo had us all outside in the cloudless sunshine again this morning for some more exterior scenes (you type “EXT.” in a radio script, and you do not imagine you’ll actually be outside, but Wilfredo is something of a guerilla sound recordist). Frankly, it was lovely to be able to process some Vitamin D after a week of being anything but free range.

Above, in a photo taken by production assistant Rob, you can see producer Anna, Justin Edwards (who plays Harvey’s best friend, the oncologist Ray, and has had a nice neat haircut for his part in the new series of The Thick Of It, which he is making concurrently), Michael Legge (who plays Harvey’s megalomaniac boss Sean and is, in real life, hungover), Mark (method acting the sound of Harvey climbing into a van), and Wilfredo. Below, for a later scene in which Harvey and Ray drive to Gatwick (hey, no spoilers!), Wilfredo records them in the cab of the same van.

Hitchcock style, I appear in the next photo, too. And that’s not my iPhone, as I will never buy an iPhone, it’s Anna’s.

This happened last year, on the recording of the first series: a certain degree of hysteria has set in. There is a lot more mucking about in the studio. It’s fine. Mark and Justin were telling jokes in there this morning and kindly offering them to Michael for an upcoming stand-up gig. None of them are suitable. This is how you want actors and comedians to behave under pressure. It’s been kind of the opposite of a rollercoaster ride, the recording, in that it’s pretty steady – despite the massive emotional ups and downs of the scripts, naturally – working our way through the scenes, ticking them off, or making them go green on Anke’s grid. I have to say, it’s been as physically draining and mentally demanding as I remember Series 1 being, except cranked up, as we’re doing half as many episodes again this time. (“Physically draining” sounds unlikely – not to mention insulting to everyone with a physical job – as I am mainly just sitting on a chair, listening and eating biscuits, but I’m not used to eating so much wheat, so it does take it out of me. After seeing what happens when Richard Herring occasionally suggests that his job is hard, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m not even paying for these biscuits.)

I can’t believe we actually finish tomorrow. (Finish recording and say goodbye to the lovely actors; the edit begins on Monday, of course, with just three weeks to go before the first episode airs on Radio 4.) As I sign off, I am listening to a professional actor saying the word “recalcitrant” in the studio, a word nobody except Will Self says in real life, and which I only put in because I’ve always liked the sound of it. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as shit can’t say it.”

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Me and the farmer

When you get past a certain age, you stop expecting new things to take you by surprise. You think you’ve pretty much got the measure of what you’re into, and what you’re not into, and from which direction things that might occupy your mind will come from. And then you’ll find yourself hooked into a world you had no prior interest in. For me, such has become the Farming Today Podcast. It is my new favourite thing in the world.

Now, some context. I wouldn’t say I was not interested in farming before. Indeed, over the past 15 years, as I’ve become more and more sensitive to where the food I eat comes from, and how it gets to my plate, I’d say I’ve also become more interested in farming, but at one remove, like most vacuum-packed townies. Thanks to the organic revolution, and the cultural and legislative ripples extending therefrom, I now know the names of the farms where my meat comes from, as does every supermarket shopper who cares to read the label. I choose to order a lot of my meat from Abel & Cole, and it is accompanied by a tremendous amount of information about the farms – and farmers – it comes from. Assuming you’d rather eat local produce – and why the heck wouldn’t you? – this gets you attuned to the seasons. I’ve long been acquainted with “the hungry gap” and the difficulties of growing broccoli in a cold spring, or indeed a hot summer, without ever having once planted a seed.

That said, until my most recent stint on the 6 Music Breakfast show, I would never have sought out Farming Today on Radio 4. But because my Monday-Friday BBC cab ride put me on the back seat for half an hour each day, starting at 5.30am, I found myself listening with rapt attention to presenter Charlotte Smith one morning – Farming Today airs daily from 5.45-6am – as she linked items about Schmallenberg, public footpath legislation, the East Anglian drought and the National Farmers’ Union conference. (She and Anna Hill share presenting duties.) I found myself asking the next day’s driver if he minded putting Radio 4 on, and within two days I was a convert. I started looking forward to 5.45am.

Once back in the routine of the real world, I was thrilled, if not surprised, to discover that Farming Today is available as a daily podcast – including the 25-minute Saturday morning compendium – and I immediately subscribed, by now desperate for my fix of farming news. I need to hear what latest excuse Caroline Spellman is giving for the badger cull, and whether they’ve had any more cases of Schmallenberg at the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar.

Charlotte Smith and Anna Hill are excellent presenters, always linking the show from somewhere farmy, like a lambing shed in Shropshire, or a ford in Norfolk (I think it’s Charlotte who always forgets to take her wellies), and brilliantly and poetically describing what they can see (the classic “painting with words” found in much quality radio). It seems to me to be a very balanced programme; no more anti-town or get-off-my-land than the farmers are anti-welfare. The programme clearly acts as a bulletin to those in the farming community, but it strikes me that it’s designed just as carefully to appeal to those of us on the outside of the perimeter fence. Difficult questions are always asked whether it’s of those in government, or in industrial food manufacturing, or environmental pressure groups. (For instance, a woman from Compassion In World Farming, a group with whom I might generally ally myself, was given a hard time for persecuting pig farmers in a recent edition, and she failed to defend the group’s actions in this case. An item on halal meat was similarly fair, covering the inconsistency of labelling and the cruelty of slaughtering cows without stunning them first, without disregarding the religious reasoning behind it.)

Hey, Schmallenberg. It’s a horribly unpredictable new German viral infection that causes birth defects in lambs and calves and has begun to crop up across Europe and in this country – potentially the next bluetongue – and although you won’t read much about it in the mainstream media, if you listen to Farming Today, you’ll be well ahead of the worrying curve. As yet, it is a condition farmers are not even legally obliged to report, and as it’s thought to be transmitted by midges, there’s nothing anybody can do about it yet, with livestock farmers able only to cross their fingers during lambing. Unlike The Archers, which I’ve always disliked, this really is the everyday story of country folk, and I would hate to miss an episode.

I’m not really writing this blog entry with the intention of sending anyone rushing to the Farming Today podcast page, but the programme is an excellent example of what the BBC should be doing. Since tuning in, I have become much better informed about so many aspects of farming, from livestock to arable, horticulture to straw production. (Did you know that power stations use straw for fuel, which drives up the price and reduces the stock generally used by livestock farmers to feed their cows and to make their lives more comfortable in sheds and yards?) Even better, they have yet to mention Alex James in all of the editions I’ve listened to. Long may that continue.

Discovery

Green light. Day Four of Mr Blue Sky. This green light, whether mounted on a stick, or sitting on a desk, says something really heavy. It says, “Go.” From where I sit, with producer Anna, studio director Wilfredo, production coordinator Anke (whose name is, aptly, pronounced “Anchor”) and production assistant Rob, in the control room, the green light can be operated. But it flashes green out there in the studio, and it has the power to make fiction start. It’s weird to sit on this side of the glass. The actors know that we can hear every word they’re saying when they’re in there, but unless we press “talkback”, they can’t hear us. It’s an unfair dynamic, but it spells out who’s boss.

Although I’m not an actor, I have gifted myself a couple of tiny parts in this series, DJ and Labradoodle Man, the first of whom has one speech, the second of whom only mutters one or two words when passed in the street with his dog, who is called Martin. I have already been called upon to give life to these two characters (DJ’s speech in the can on Day One; two takes), and when you’re not used to it, it’s oddly disorientating. Paranoia that you are being talked about can set in. In fact, does set in.

In these pictures, you can see me having to act opposite one of the greats, Benton himself. It’s a foolish position to put oneself in; equally, it’s nice to be able to watch a professional working, close enough to smell his after shave, and for him to be able to smell your fear. (Mark Benton is currently appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which means that after a hard day’s reading out my nonsense, he has to go to a theatre and read out Shakespeare’s. I don’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.)

Lunchtime is important in life. In drama, doubly so. You need to recharge your batteries. And although someone from Equity does not come round with a stopwatch to ensure you get 60 minutes, it’s accepted that lunch is non-negotiable. And even on a low-budget radio production, you get nice Pret sandwiches, there’s constant hot and cold running drinks, and the biscuit jars miraculously refill throughout the day. This is the actors’ green room area, with a couch suitable for power-napping on if you’re not required for a certain length of time, or if you’ve got a new baby and you’re getting no sleep at home. (Radio is great, in that you get to hold your script in front of you when you act, and don’t have to learn your lines, although some preparation is expected, and its absence is noted.)

I’m keen to show you round the studio while the actors aren’t in it. This is the main area.

And this is the stairs, which are for walking up and down if your character is supposed to enter by coming down the stairs, or exit going up them. It’s quite hard to stop actors going up and down them, even if no dialogue on the stairs is required. It gets them in the right frame of mind.

It is Tuesday. We finish on Friday. That’s also non-negotiable. And known unknowns still haunt Anke and her tightly-plotted schedule – a hospital appointment here; an audition there; an agent trying it on there – all of which have to be absorbed. We may even have to move the lunch hour from 1-2pm on Thursday to 12.30-1.30pm. I know. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. There’s continuity to keep abreast of, too. Yesterday, Monday, we recorded the final take of a scene involving four characters, and we’d all forgotten that Harvey was supposed to have a bandage on his nose, and thus Mark was supposed to talk with his fingers on his nose. Mark remembered on the way home last night. We checked the take. He was right. So we’ll have to re-take that one.

Otherwise, we’re still on schedule. Yesterday, I tweaked the press release. At the end of last week, I wrote the summary of episode one that’ll go to the listings magazines. It’s all happening.

And nobody’s noticed the running theme of the headlines yet …

For ease, here are the previous days:

Day One: It’s a living thing; Day Two: Out of the blue; Day Three: On the third day

On the third day

Day Three of Mr Blue Sky – after a working weekend I spent script editing someone else’s script, but don’t feel sorry for me! – and it’s all slotting together. We had an easy morning, in that we recorded all of Harvey’s monologues from all six episodes, which by definition, only required one actor, the mighty Mark Benton, who did such a sterling job, we were ahead of schedule by lunch. (The most complicated day we’ve saved until last – Friday. That’s going to be a frazzler, with pretty much the entire squad in, including all three of our star cameos, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. Photographic evidence of this car crash of talent will be forthcoming.)

By lunchtime, the whole family was here. They are not a family. They are four – sometimes five, sometimes six – unrelated professional actors, but in the bunker of a radio production, the lines between reality and comedy drama blur, so that actors are often addressed over the talkback by their character names, and this is not meant as an insult. If anything, it’s a compliment! When Tyger Drew Honey arrives, having been stuck in traffic in Hammersmith, we say, “Robbie’s here!” When Mark arrives, having been stuck in the same traffic, we say, “Harvey’s here.” Nobody’s going “method” but if they wished to, they’d get no complaints from in here, behind the glass.

In the pic above, we see Tyger, physically blurred, as he is a highly caffeinated 16-year-old and very seldom still. Sorcha Cusack, who plays his racist grandmother Lou, is like acting royalty, and – guess what? – a sweetheart. She hits her mark every time, and is a pleasure to have around. And she was Brad Pitt’s mother in Snatch.

Below, we see Mark and Claire Skinner, as Harvey and Jax. The scene they are recording involves the couple being in bed. This is why they are doing some top quality “quilt acting” as it’s known in the trade. No, it’s not a sex scene. Mr Blue Sky is family listening.

On Friday and today, the weather has been glorious, which is apt, of course, but also frustrating. Because I am working in my breaks and during lunch, I literally do not see the outside world between the 9am start and the 6pm finish. The glorious weather is wasted on me. But again, do not feel sorry for me! This is the best gig in the world.

Out of the blue

Day Two of Mr Blue Sky series 2. The palatial middle studio at Soundhouse on what is now an ominously deserted industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush is our place of work until the end of next week. Already, we are into a rhythm. We’re recording the six half-hour episodes very much out of sequence, in order to accommodate the intricacies of actor availability. There is something utterly thrilling about seeing massive piles of scripts, especially if you wrote them. This is why I was drawn to pointing at them in the above pic.

In the background of this shot from the green room, or anteroom, or outhouse, is Navin Chowdhry, who plays builder Rakesh – and imbues every one of his lines with such seductive innuendo we had to get him back to provide romantic intrigue with the happily married Mrs Easter. In the foreground is Rosamund, star of all the This Is Englands and Life’s Too Short, and, as of now, the new Charlie in Mr Blue Sky. In real life, as in fiction, she turns out to be something of a force of nature. You need one of these on a gruelling week of drama. (Last year we had the walking fireworks display Joe Tracini, who now belongs to Hollyoaks and, one must assume, keeps their morale up when the going gets tough.) Rosamund travels down each day from Nottingham, so she wins the prize for the longest commute, I think. The other cast members travel from as far afield as the South coast and from as near afield as pretty much over the road. Although there is much about the piecemeal assembly of a radio comedy that is not like a day at the office, it does a good impression of a day’s work, in that we start at a fixed time, end at a fixed time, and break for lunch.

Today, as you can see below, those nice people at Pieminister sent over a box of pies for us to mark National Pie Week. Although some of our cast – naming no names – are watching their weight, most of us tucked in. This was a welcome invasion by the outside world into our mostly windowless existence. Here are the cast eating their lunch (I have saved their blushes by not actually showing them shoving food into their mouths, but you can see the hands of TV’s Claire Skinner delicately dissembling her Big Cheese Pie with a plastic knife and fork.)

This was my Cow Pie before I dissembled it.

We’re on schedule as I write, which is just after lunch. Our producer and production co-ordinator have created a spreadsheet that must be obeyed. As a writer, you just merrily knock this stuff out, without too much of a care for how long scenes are, or how many characters are in it, or whether or not a character is heard enough times in a scene to suggest that they are still there – all stuff that presumably becomes second nature the more you do radio drama, which is what this essentially is – but on the day, these poor actors have to make sense of it, hit their marks, live out the fiction in a plain studio and give their best performance. The Easter family of four has become five in Series 2, and with the addition of Harvey’s racist Mum for a couple of episodes (played with fabulous gusto by the amazing Sorcha Cusack of the Cusack dynasty), which means some scenes have six voices, which is both an amazing sight to behold through the glass, and an amazing thing to hear through the speakers, but quite a headache to choreograph.

This (below) is the man who makes much of it happen. He’s Wilfredo, our studio director, who works wonders with sound effects both digital and physical, and mans the desk throughout. He is a laconic and calming presence. When all around is chaos, he keeps his head.

I shall end today’s entry with a snapshot of the whole Easter family, who, as I write, are pretending to eat in a pizza restaurant. From left to right: Claire Skinner (Jax Easter), Tyger Drew Honey (Robbie Easter), Rosamund Hanson (Charlie Easter), Mark Benton (Harvey Easter), Kill-R (Javone Prince) and Lou Easter (Sorcha Cusack).

It’s a living thing

The sun is not yet shining in the sky as I am writing this over breakfast, but I am optimistic that it will. Today is Day One of Mr Blue Sky Series 2. It is a year to the day that we embarked upon the recording of Mr Blue Sky Series 1 at the Soundhouse studio in West London – on the same industrial estate as the Innocent smoothie factory (which has since moved) – and by luck and judgement, this is where we find ourselves today.

Previously on …
If you are not up to speed with Mr Blue Sky, it is my first ever solo-written comedy. It’s mine. All mine. Made by Avalon, it aired on BBC Radio 4 in May and June last year; four episodes. It revolves around Harvey Easter, played by the mighty Mark Benton, who is the world’s biggest optimist, a pathology challenged on a daily basis by the world around him. You can read all about the making of Series 1 in this rather long blog entry from last year.

Because it was a new show, I was rather superstitious about it, and did not even name it until we had finished recording. This year, I can be a little more open about it, as it’s Series 2. It starts airing on April 9, which is just over a month away, so it’s almost instantaneous. This reminds me why I love making radio. And it’s why everybody loves making radio: commissioning decisions can be made more easily, the technical task of making it is one unencumbered by wigs and lighting and requires only a very small and intimate crew, which means you all get to know each other very quickly and a healthy siege mentality takes hold; also, actors of a very high calibre can be recruited, as six half-hour episodes can realistically be recorded in six days, or thereabouts.

This is Day One of the recording. I guess the actual Day One was Monday, when we had the very first full cast read-through of the six scripts which I have been working on since before Christmas, to the detriment of many other things, including writing this blog. That’s how devoted to Mr Blue Sky I have been.

I will attempt to blog more regularly this time, and add pics as and when. As you can see from the pic above, taken by the spy Michael Legge on the way to the read on Monday, just over half of the original cast are back. It’s been something of a nightmare trying to reconvene the actors from Series 1, during which, for producer/director/script editor Anna, the word “availability” has been the bane of her life. As you can see, we have Mark Benton back, as well as Justin Edwards, Javone Prince, Navin Chowdhry and Michael, but the parts of Jax, Charlie and Robbie have been re-cast. So we welcome Claire Skinner, Rosamund Hanson and Tyger Drew Honey to the family! (The observant will have spotted that Claire and Tyger have already developed a fictional mother-son relationship on Outnumbered, so that worked out rather nicely.) Although it is sad when some of the original cast can’t come back, you have to admit, we’ve been very fortunate in being able to fill their big shoes with some big feet.

This is the studio control room. Javone and Rosamund are setting up through there in the darkness, ready for their first scenes together as Kill-R and Charlie. And … action.

Holding pattern

Hello, all. Another rolling apology for not tending to the blog garden as regularly as I should be. Not only am I up against the aforementioned Mr Blue Sky script delivery deadline, which looms ever closer each day (the first full cast read-through happens on March 5, on which day all six scripts will need to be in shape), but I’m doing 6 Music Breakfast all this week and next. It goes without saying that I enjoy both jobs, and could have said no to 6 Music, but I am determined to fit both in, and emerge triumphant and not as throaty and tired as I feel today. (I’m mainlining Vitamin C, and going to bed as early as 9pm, and not drinking, so I’m looking after myself.)

Breakfast is a blast. I like the photograph above of me hugging Alex Horne, and he hugging me back. I thought I’d publish it to raise a smile. Also, lest we forget, it means I am podcasting on a daily basis. The bite-sized best-of Breakfast Podcast is available all week right here. Yesterday’s includes the Alex Horne interview, too. (He does too many things, as I do, many of them in the evening when I am nodding off in front of Friday Night Lights, and he has a young family. I don’t know how he does it.)

I am also beholden to Radio Times to supply at least a weekly blog for their website, so, if you don’t already, why not bookmark this page, and maybe have a glance at my most recent blogs about The Muppets, and J. Edgar. I’ve been managing to fit in numerous film screenings, so there’s a massive backlog of reviews I’ve not had time to write: Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Girl Model, Carnage, the DVD of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Pt 2, the list goes on.

Thank you for bearing with me. It’s amazing that the blog still gets over 500 visitors a day, even when I don’t post anything new. Normal service will be resumed. And there’ll be another Telly Addict on Saturday. I don’t remember when I was last this busy, but the self-employed do not complain about such things.