Monday, April 23, 2007

Coming Up Trumps

Congratulations to Julian Gough, perhaps the least well known of the shortlisters, for winning the National Short Story Competition. I heard his story, The Orphan and the Mob, on Radio 4, and it was indeed for me a true short story: something luminous and apparently miniature holding something huge and profound, texturally complex yet vivid, patterned and musical and rich with allusion and, above all, a close attention to language. And, in that these qualities were preserved, beautifully adapted for radio. A great winner, plenty of controversy to set people talking about the short story: maybe the competition has come up trumps after all.

I am privileged to pull up here Julian's comment on my posts on the subject, a fascinating description of his response to the radio adaptation process:
"I'm glad you liked my comments on the problems of pushing highly individual works of art down distribution channels designed to handle a standard product.

I have very recent experience of the process, having had my shortlisted story ("The Orphan and the Mob") cut to fit the BBC's thirty minute slot.

Not having read the small-print, I hadn't realised the BBC were going to cut my story until they'd already abridged it and recorded it. The deed was done with no input from me whatsoever. And as you say, when you take out bits of a short story, it isn't the same story any more. A story is about the arrangement of parts, about particular rhythms and resonances, and all of that is totally altered when bits are cut out.

In my case, they removed all the swearing and a lot of the biological detail. Jokes were shortened. (Three variations on a comic riff would be cut back to one, so there was no sense of a riff at all).

So what they broadcast wasn't my story. It was something else.

But... but... but... having been through the process... and having been furious at first... I have come round to another way of looking at it.

Because the finished broadcast was superb. It wasn't my story, but it was great radio. At my suggestion they had cast Conor Lovett, the finest Beckett actor of his generation, as the 18-year old Jude. The BBC had started by auditioning 18 and 20 year olds straight out of drama school. When I reacted with horror, and suggested Conor Lovett, they auditioned him and loved him and cast him. Trust me, the lack of ego required to do that, and the sensitivity to the writer's suggestions, would never occur in, say, the film industry.

And the abridgement was, in its way, terrific. It was sensitive to the rhythms of the piece, and when it changed them, as it did, it managed to find new rhythms that worked. Usually slightly faster, more staccato ones, because of the cuts, but that gave it an energy which a linear medium like radio needs.

They took out some of my favorite Irish swearing ("Ardcrony ballocks!") and all mentions of urethral sphincters (and the original had a lot of them), but I can understand that, at three thirty in the afternoon, if the BBC broadcast my story intact, it would probably not get its charter renewed. Do you really want the playgrounds of England to resound to cries of "Ardcrony ballocks!" I think not.

And much of the cutting made it work better for radio. You can't pretend a short story is best transferred intact to radio. It isn't. My story ended with a purely visual sequence, where Jude, as he leaves the burning orphanage, hears the scratched orphanage single clearly for the first time. We read his uncomprehending and phonetic version of the lyrics,

"Some...
Where...
Oh...
Werther...
Aon...
Bo..."

and we realise (but he does not) that it's "Somewhere over the rainbow..."

Well all that just cannot be done on the radio. The bilingual puns ("Aon bo" is the Irish for "One cow") and all the rest only exist as words on paper. They've got to go.

But this is radio: And what they replaced all the description with was simply this: the song itself, rising over Jude's final words (which are, unknown to Jude, from the Wizard of Oz, and from Yeats' "Leda and the Swan", and which work fine on the radio.)

And with Conor Lovett's truly extraordinary delivery, and Judy Garland's actual voice, I think the BBC created a moment that was better, more emotionally powerful, than my original. I really did feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and along my legs, no kidding.

And that is why, even though the BBC cut off my ballocks and removed my urethral sphincter, I think they should have their charter renewed. They can't win, trying to broadcast tough art in daytime slots. But they do as good a job as anyone could, and the alternative isn't a Nirvana of great art broadcast uncut to millions at lunchtime. It's no art broadcast at all.

A bit of me would like everyone, everywhere, to hear all of it, at all hours. But that's a child's wish. Everyone everywhere doesn't want to hear it, urethral sphincters and all.

And the original story still exists on the page for all of those who do.

And my mum rang me after the broadcast to tell me how much she'd enjoyed it. Which was a result."

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