Making an impact: Writing and recording ‘Very British Dystopias’ for Radio 4

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The red microphone

Last week I finished a documentary for Radio 4 and I thought that some of you might be interested in knowing more about the process of getting academically grounded research out to hundreds of thousands of listeners.

The subject of the documentary, my second for Radio 4’s Archive Hour strand, is political dystopias, specifically those featured in novels and dramas written since the late 1940s.

One of my research interests is how fictions depict politics and my forthcoming book, A State of Play, looks at all kinds of work across a century and more. I became interested in the changing nature of dystopias while working on the book and they feature in it – I’ll write a full academic article about them during the next year. But last year, I thought I’d pitch an idea based on dystopias to the BBC.

Having had my pitch accepted – see my blog post on pitching a radio documentary – I was contacted by producer Jane Ashley in January to discuss how we’d develop my proposal.

As the academic expert, I suggested which fictions would be best to discuss, who might be good to interview and what kinds of questions the programme should address. But the documentary was a collaboration so these elements changed as Jane brought her own expertise to bear, knowing far better than me what works on radio in just under 60 minutes and the issues listeners might find interesting. It was at her suggestion for example that we went to the BBC Written Archive to record me doing some research (less boring than it might sound). I also went to a protest to interview those inspired by V for Vendetta.

When the BBC was established John Reith saw its mission as to ‘educate, inform and entertain’, an imperative that remains relevant. Jane was conscious of the latter aspect and I was preoccupied with the first two. But I was already primed for the need to entertain. Indeed, having done all kinds of public engagement work during the last few years, I appreciated the extent to which all three elements, if they are to work, must be interconnected. For an academic, there’s no point simply entertaining – if you want that, get Bruce Forsyth (actually, on second thoughts, don’t). But an academic is unlikely to inform and educate if they can’t do it in an entertaining manner, be it on television, radio, on a blog or in the lecture theatre. It’s for good reason that my Twitter profile now claims that I am on the political wing of showbiz.

So, with Jane doing the majority of the legwork, and with 13 interviewees, we chose the film clips and comments to be included in the programme with the aims of educating, informing and entertaining in mind. The programme therefore addresses classic academic issues such as: the role of context in the production of texts; the tension between authorial intention and audience reception; and the influence of texts on audiences. It also expands the limited bounds of what many might consider ‘political’ by looking at science fiction dramas and other ostensibly unlikely kinds of fiction and asks how they interact with the political process as conventionally understood. Of course we didn’t present the documentary in such overtly academic terms, instead we had concrete examples, with interviewees’ comments, clips and my own remarks taking the listener through the issues.

As a consequence, hopefully listeners will come away from the programme with a better sense of how their perceptions of politics are subtly moulded by fiction and drama – and be more critical, informed and self-reflective readers and viewers as a result.

Last week Jane and I wrote the script based on a draft she had prepared. This took three days of finessing and cutting and reordering, bearing in mind it all had to fit into just under 60 minutes. We recorded it in two days, with the help of Graham the Sound Engineer whose skills in melding together all the different sounds I cannot start to describe.

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Steven behind the sound-proof glass

Recording the script is quite something. Prior to doing my first documentary in 2010 Jane organised a voice coach for me. Thankfully she said I had an ‘interesting’ way of expressing myself (I think that was a compliment) but the session did make me more aware of how to avoid the monotone. In effect you have to perform the script, to emphasise it in ways that make it sound interesting to the listener, who is presumably doing something else (I daren’t imagine what) while the radio is on. But, sitting on one side of a sound-proof glass window talking to a red microphone while Jane and Graham listen and twiddle knobs on the other side does make you a little self-conscious. It is also amazing how phrases like ‘post-apocalytyptical dystopias’ can seem insurmountable in such a setting and how self-conscious you can become about pronouncing ‘nuclear’.

Moreover, between Thursday and Friday I started to develop what turned out to be a case of flu – by Friday my voice was more croaky than my Thursday voice, so much mouth spray was consumed to compensate. The perils of performing!

Producing the documentary was an intense but enjoyable experience, and one that has helped me establish some contacts I might not otherwise have made while continuing – hopefully – to make me better at my day job of teaching and asking interesting and relevant research questions.

‘Very British Dystopias’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 15th June at 8pm.

Steven Fielding


Making an impact: Writing for Radio 4


This post first appeared on Steven Fielding’s personal blog.

In 2010 I made Dramatising New Labour, a documentary for Radio Four’s Archive on 4 strand. It got some good reviews. Really, it did. The documentary was about how New Labour has been depicted on the screen and flowed from research contributing to this book and especially this article.

This was the first time I’d ever done such a thing and as I am about to start work on another radio documentary I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the experience and write progress reports on the new project. Increasingly academic are expected to make an ‘impact’ in what some call (dread phrase) the ‘real world’, as if universities are part of a surreal universe, which (for the most part) they are not. Academics are even being formally assessed on their ‘impact’ in the next Research Excellence Framework.

Even before the imperative of ‘impact’ however I never saw my work as something just for the ‘ivory tower’ (another dread phrase). I was frustrated that my academic work disappeared into a black hole, one too often consisting of a few nick-picking pedants – not that I am bitter. As a historian, primarily, I had been inspired to take up the subject by A.J.P. Taylor rather than his many snooty academic critics.

I nonetheless arrived at Nottingham in 2007 having done little media work (mostly consisting of interviews with a Polish journalist usually conducted on a variety of noisy trains). However one of my new colleagues, Phil Cowley, had worked with a Radio 4 producer who was looking for programme ideas. I keenly exploited Phil’s contact, one he was happy to share.

How did I get my idea on Radio 4? The procedure was and remains simple. I sent in a pitch – a couple of hundred words – to the producer who either suggested it didn’t work (fairly common, that) or (more rarely) that it needed a few tweaks but had possibilities. If the latter, he submitted a revised pitch to a mysterious committee, which I like to imagine consists of people called Pericles and Ambrosine. This body then says yes or no – usually for reasons shrouded in intrigue.

After a handfull of pitches I got lucky with Dramatising New Labour. That, it transpired, was the easy part. You might know how to make a radio programme but I certainly did not. Fortunately I was assigned Jane Ashley as producer who took me through the process and did 90% of the work turning my 200 words into 60 minutes of radio. Jane it was who let me into the secret that Radio 4 was ‘stand up radio’, so I had to imagine the audience doing something else (I dreaded to think what) while listening. She even arranged a session with a voice coach so as to make my speech more interesting.

Jane it was who also took the initial lead when we discussed what clips should be used, who we should interview and how to construct the script. She even held my hand when I interviewed the big names she managed to persuade to participate, an experience I found intimidating – what, me ask Alistair Campbell questions? Putting it all together was also an intensive experience through which she guided me, although Jane never quite overcame my inability to correctly pronounce ‘Armando Iannucci’.

If nerve-wracking, it was however a great experience: I cannot emphasise that enough. After all, I was working in a new environment with new disciplines, talking to new people and taking my work to a new audience. And I learnt a lot about how to present my work, something from which my lectures have hopefully benefitted.

Since 2010 I continued sending in pitches, until finally Ambrosine et al accepted another one. This time I will be talking about political dystopias and conspiracy thrillers. I had my first phone chat with Jane this week, and the emails have started to fly. More of that, in other posts.

Of course, I will be working on the documentary while teaching, finishing a book and doing all the other stuff academics are expected to do in the increasingly crazy world of UK higher education. Many academics rightly resent our increasing workload and the spiralling of expectations so doing the documentary on top of everything else is a commitment not everyone can take on.

Some might think, then, that I am a lackey of The Man, doing the documentary to generate some further ‘impact’ for the REF. In fact, I’d do it without the institutional ‘impact’ imperative – although it is nice that such work is now formally recognised, rather than in A.J.P. Taylor’s day denigrated. People like me should try to make a connection with as many as possible: surely it’s bizarre that academics spend so much time producing ‘knowledge’, which they then share only with a tiny number of fellow geeks – and students?

I would however be dishonest to claim that it is a sense of duty that ultimately motivates me. I do it because (whisper it) I enjoy it: it’s great fun and I am so glad to be able to do it again.