I’m hugging a dustbin. I’m in the back of a cab on my way to the Y Theatre in Leicester and the dustbin is important. Ten hours from now we’re going to be using it to help create some sound effects in a new full-cast audio recording of Dick Barton – Special Agent. I’ve asked the taxi company to send the biggest cab they’ve got. It’s got to be big enough to take not only the huge aluminium dustbin, but also a big wicker basket, several wine bottles, some big sheets of glass, a tray full of gravel, half a dozen costumes, a four foot long echo chamber and a load of other bits and pieces that will be used to recreate the experience of being in an early fifties BBC radio recording studio. Just as it would have been back in 1951, the cast will meet for the first time this morning. They’ll rehearse the script for the first time this afternoon. And they’ll record it for the first (and only) time this evening. The recording will be live in front of 200-strong audience and none of us has ever done anything like this before. The cab that eventually turns up is far too small and that’s why the dustbin is currently wedged between me and the dashboard.
The cab drops me on the pavement outside the Y Theatre. The place is deserted. I put the bin inside the wicker basket and can just about manage to shuffle inside with it and most of my bags. I take my chances and leave a wooden captain’s chair and the echo chamber to sit outside on the kerb for the moment, while I check in. The echo chamber is actually a chromium-plated pedal-bin, screwed to a camera tripod, with some artfully arranged knicker elastic inside it and I hope that the chances of anyone stealing it from the roadside are pretty slim.
The Phoenix Arts Centre (just round the corner from the theatre), where we’re having the read-through in a hired room. The cast aren’t due for another half-hour. This should give me plenty of time to see the caterers, lay out the room and be ready to meet the cast as they arrive at 11.30. However the cast arrive very early and the caterers aren’t here at all yet. I collapse into the foyer with my hundredweight of carrier-bags and go over to meet them.
I leave the cast in the capable hands of our director (Rob Thrush) and wonderfully alert script supervisor Emma Shelley, to wrap up the readthrough and rehearsal and eat up the rest of the food. Meanwhile I walk back over to the theatre to help set up with our sound engineer, Bob Smith. The readthrough has been a lot of fun. Everyone gets on terribly well and a startling amount of innuendo is squeezed out of the names ‘Dick’ and ‘Jock’. We don’t have the microphones for the rehearsal and, to be honest, the room isn’t really big enough to fit all the period recording kit in anyway. So we have to compromise. We clear the furniture to the sides and stand a pedal-bin (they get a lot of use today) on a chair in the middle of the room. This will represent the microphone for the purposes of rehearsals. The cast have to rotate around it, making sure they’re always on either one side of it or the other, avoiding an acoustically dead-zone in the middle. The trick is to maintain a constant flow of people round the mic, allowing the actors to retreat to their chairs at the back whenever they need to without bumping into one another. Barnaby Edwards (who also happens to be the lead-Dalek-operator in Doctor Who) comes back from the café with a cup of coffee and looks at the pedal-bin standing in the middle of the room. He asks if we’re proposing he get inside.
Bob, myself and Bob’s son David (who’s come along to help out) are standing over on the street again outside the theatre. We’re taking up most of the pavement with our stuff – a massive 1970’s Studer reel-to-reel tape machine, two beautiful 1960s ribbon microphones, a pair of mic-stands, a box of theatre programmes and a slightly warm pint of milk for making the tea. The theatre doors are locked and there’s nobody about to let us in. In less than hour, I’m due back at the rehearsal room to collect the cast and bring them back to a fully laid-out recreation of a 1950s radio studio – the same 1950s radio studio that is currently sitting out on the kerb. Bob seems breezily unfazed by all this in the way only BBC engineers can be – confident that whatever problem arises he can probably fix it. All BBC engineers are like this and it’s very comforting. They genuinely can fix anything, Bob most of all. They’re not like ordinary people and never panic. They are, in fact, Gods.
Someone finally lets us into the theatre and we wheel in the recording equipment, perched on an inadvisably small wooden trolley. The microphones are gorgeous things. Loaned to us by BBC Radio Derby, they come in two little wooden boxes. They’re Coles 4038 ribbon mics that probably predate BBC Radio Derby’s very existence. As the name suggests they’ve got little metal ribbons inside them that vibrate when sound waves hit them. And basically that’s all there is to them. It’s barn-door engineering. As long as they don’t go rusty, they’ll last forever. There’s nothing to go wrong with them and they sound every bit as crisp, warm and wonderful as they did when they were new. Even though the technology behind them goes back until at least as early as the 1930s, they’re still wonderful microphones and there really is nothing better to record the human voice with. We’re still setting them up on the Y Theatre’s main stage, when (as expected) a film-crew turn up from BBC East Midlands to cover the recording for the news. The cameraman they send over is a freelancer called Mark, who isn’t usually on duty, but is covering some weekend shifts. By coincidence, I was working with him on an entirely different project for the BBC only three days ago and look forward to having a chat with him again, but we don’t get the opportunity. Between now and ten o’clock, I won’t get a chance to leave this room.
Rob, Emma and the cast turn up unexpectedly. Apparently they finished the rehearsals earlier than they thought they would and so rather than sit around doing nothing, they decided to come over to the theatre on their own. There’s only about 200 yards separating the two buildings, so it didn’t take them long to just nip over the road. Rob unpacks some stuff from the boot of his car and proudly shows me a rather worrying collection of WW2 rifles he’s brought along to help with some the live sound effects. He had wanted to fire a small starting pistol to convey the sounds of gunshots at various points in the drama, but I had to tactfully veto that one. He has, however, brought along a grenade and a riding-crop. I think it’s best not to ask.
The dustbin has been filled up with water ready for its starring rôle as ‘hull of a big metal boat in some choppy waters.’ The table has been laid out with all the props needed to make the live effects and the rest of the effects are ready to be played in from disc. The actors go off to the dressing room and although I’m running round all over the place, it’s all looking quite good.
About thirty seconds later:
The dustbin is out. Within moments of it being filled up from the tap, a pool of water started to appear underneath it, soaking into the wooden stage. Clearly the bin had sprung a leak somewhere. There’s now a steady stream of water making its way slowly across the stage toward a maze of wires and microphones at the actors’ feet. Many of the cables are live and the microphone stand is totally un-insulated. Aware that electrocuting your cast is generally frowned upon in radio, I grab hold of the wet dustbin by its handles and jump into the orchestra pit with a splash. Nobody seems impressed with my act of extreme bravery, so I climb back onto the stage feeling a bit deflated and use some pristine white towels to mop up the spilt water. We now have no means of creating water effects for the drama (and we’re also out of towels).
We’re supposed to be doing our technical run. We’ve only got about two hours to do it in, but we’re running late. I allow the BBC East Midlands crew far too long to interview the cast and by the time we begin the technicals, we’re cutting it really fine. We’ll be okay, as long as nothing at all goes wrong between now and 19.00.
Two minutes later:
Something goes wrong. The first sound effect is cued up and it’s not what we were expecting it to be. Both Bob and myself have spent months plotting all the effects out and there are several pages of very intricate spreadsheets to help cue up each of the two effects discs in the right order and at the right time. However, it doesn’t help. Something fairly fundamental has gone wrong with the numbering. The first track isn’t numbered properly and throws everything else out of sync. Bob now has to do some very quick arithmetic in his head to work out the true track number of each track before he can play it. Essentially, the pages of planned track listings now offer little more than a rough guide and it’s nigh on impossible to get a complex scene right first time. We’re rehearsing a scene in which a helicopter takes offer under heavy machine gun fire. Bob’s got to change the track maybe two or three times on both discs every ten seconds. Every time we run the scene again from the top, I hold my breath and hope the right sound comes in first time. It doesn’t. The cast wait for the sound of door softly clicking shut. Instead there’s a machine gun blasting away a plate-glass window. We have to go from the top again. We’ve barely got through two scenes, but the audience are already waiting outside and, one way or another, the curtain will go up in a very few minutes time. There’s nothing for it, we’ll just have to wing it. Rob very bravely volunteers to take over all the live foley effects (without any kind of rehearsal), giving me the chance to sit at the mixing desk with Bob, in the hope that I can help him keep things on the rails at his end. There’s no good reason for this not to work, but then there was no particularly good reason for the technical run to crash like it did either.
We start 15 minutes late, which isn’t bad considering. I have the theatre’s technical manager (Sheraton) on my left and Bob on my right. All the effects cues are labelled either A1, A2, A3, A4 etc or B1, B2, B3, B4 etc, signifying whether or not the effect is on disc A or disc B. Disc A is mainly background effects and disc B is mainly spot effects. As a scene starts, I check Bob’s ready with disc A and that disc B is cued up. I give Bob the nod and he fades up the first effect. Then I signal Sheraton to flash the green cue-light to the actors so that they know to start the scene. At the right point, disc B is then faded up. Maybe A is then faded down, then up again, then B up and A down or whatever is needed until we reach the end of the scene when we pause and reset. Then we start on the next scene. Bob is nothing short of amazing. I don’t think anyone realises just how much concentration and precision we’re asking of him and he’s doing all this whilst simultaneously checking the levels and monitoring the tape recorder that’s taping the whole thing.
We break for the interval – exhausted.
We begin recording part 2. And do you know what? It’s going okay. It’s fine. It’s more than fine. Okay, there are a few retakes – more than a few actually. And every time someone gets a line wrong (not very often) or a sound effect doesn’t work (very often), I have to stop the scene. However, the audience don’t really mind. In fact, they seem to look forward to those bits most of all. The atmosphere of a live radio recording with all of its bumps and excitements is, after all, what they came to see. When things do go wrong, Tim becomes a fantastic MC shouting about the productions inefficiencies with mock outrage (I hope it’s mock outrage) and the audience love it. You’ll hear a lot of this in the outtakes compilation that is included with the new audiobook. The sheer unwavering professionalism of Rob, Emma, Bob and the whole cast holds everything together and we make it to the end. And more than that, it’s actually good – really good. The boats don’t make any sound in the water, because the dustbin’s gone and there’s only so much Rob can do with a wet tea-towel and a plank of wood, but we can always add splashes in post-production (and we do).
It’s all over. We’ve done all the pickups and the audience have filed out. I’ve got until ten to pack up everything and somehow figure out a way to get home with all the stuff. We can’t record anything further now anyway, even if we wanted to. A vital component of the tape-recorder has now actually melted in the heat and glued itself to the mastertape, which now has to be chiselled away from the machine. Amazingly, it makes no difference to the recording itself and when Bob plays it back 24 hours later, both tape and machine sound absolutely fine. At the back of the stage, the actors are in the dressing-rooms getting changed. Much to my surprise, after everything I’ve put them through, they all say that they want to do another Dick Barton as soon as possible. And in spite of all the stress and work; in spite of everything that went wrong, I want to do it again too. I’ve loved working with these people. I love how Tim made everybody laugh when they might otherwise have gone home. I love Terry Molloy and Nick Scovell, being so impossibly nice all the time and giving us characters so utterly different to what I was expecting. I love that David Benson was quite prepared to play an entire scene by talking to himself with three different voices as three different characters. I love that Lisa Bowerman didn’t tell me until afterwards that the skirt we provided for her had a bloody big hole in the side. I desperately want to do it all again, because even when so much was so very far from smooth, the cast and crew was never anything less than perfect. The characters were perfect; the atmosphere was perfect. And it was just such bloody fun to do. Please let us do a series.