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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


Published inAcademic Impact

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