Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Piping Up on the Wireless

Yesterday I wrote about the literary restrictions BBC broadcast must inevitably place on the short stories in the National Short Story Competition, but today we witness the BBC imposing a restriction of a different, but maybe not unconnected, kind: political censorship, as Hanif Kureishi calls the cancellation of his short-listed story Weddings and Beheadings 'in the wake of the news that BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston has been killed by a jihadist group'. Kureishi is implied to be furious, and is crying freedom of speech, as authors half-delight in doing on such occasions, knowing full well that if a piece of work is worth banning then it must have hit a true nerve and is probably pretty something.

And on this morning's BBC Today programme fellow short-lister Julian Gough, who made clear that his story too has profound political undercurrents, gave somewhat excited and rebellious voice to the idea that forcing literature into marketing time-slots is crazy: 'The art gets mangled going down that pipe.'

You can't hear Jackie Kay talking about her story yesterday, as the links on the BBC website seem in fact to have got mangled. Broadcast yesterday afternoon, it was the beautifully captured perspective of a Glaswegian man in despair and intent on committing suicide but slowly pulling himself together as he gets involved in the practicalities. For me, though, it was less subtle than many of her other stories, and you can just imagine that clever Jackie pitching it, with its single focus and repetitions, specifically for the parameters of radio.


Julian Gough said...

Hi Elizabeth,

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,


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.

I think it's still up on the Radio 4 website, at


Press the button for Tuesday. It'll be up till Tuesday 24th of April, after that I don't know.

Anyway, great blog Elizabeth. Keep it up, and best of luck,

-Julian Gough


Elizabeth Baines said...

Julian, thanks for this. I heard your story and it was great! I am sure you're right that it's a different creature from your story on the page, but it was adapted well for radio and ran beautifully. Congratulations!