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Radio Drama – Matthew Miller’s Arvon Week

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On Monday July 21st, I travelled down to stunningly sunny Devon to learn about the art of writing for radio at Totleigh Barton, with Simon Armitage and Susan Roberts. It’s been a month. Time, as it does, has flown. In the meantime, Vikki Lloyd has got the undeniably fabulous food covered in her delicious and delectable blog – I thought I’d step in to cover some of the writing side of things . . .

We got started straight away on the Monday night. Having settled into our cosy medieval rooms and pigsties (far better living than the name suggests – individual little rooms outside the main house, each with their own front door –) we gathered in the main barn. Then, once we’d got the sticky business of introducing ourselves and describing who we were and just what exactly we thought we were doing on a radio writing course out of the way, we sagged back into sofas and spent an absorbing hour and a half or so listening to short radio plays and excerpts.

Should the opportunity ever arise in your life to sit in a room full of nearly twenty people, and listen to some stories on the radio with them, I’d recommend it. The experience is surreal, and entirely different from watching television with people. Everybody seemed to disappear into their own world. I closed my eyes. I painted my own pictures, and felt the buzz of everyone else around me doing the same thing. I’d never really listened to the radio like this. You know, really listened. It was brilliant. Sort of . . . medative.

The task for the week was to write and produce a four minute long radio drama to play back to the group on the final night. After our listening session, we were encouraged to begin thinking about what we would like to produce – immediately, I felt like I was thinking with my ears far more than I’d ever done. It wasn’t so much ideas that started to emerge, but moods and sounds I wanted to use, and which I spent the rest of the week trying to hammer into a script.

The next couple of days consisted of writing workshops, walks to Sheepwash, swimming in the river and, of course, fantastic food. On the Tuesday, we were each given a recording of a particular sound and time in which to write something to it. We listened back to these afterwards, reading out what we’d written as the sound effect we’d writen to played over us. There were some fantastic responses and gave a real taste of how to work with sound. ‘There was a time once when I stopped him wearing those shirts.’ . . . ‘Why don’t we shut one each?’ . . . ‘One of my wobbles.’

There were exercises in storyboarding and commissioning, re-writing Greek epic openings and building the background of a character. Time when we weren’t in workshops tended to find the majority of us scattered across the gardens or cooped in our pigsties working on our radio pieces, or extending covert propositions to each other as we set about casting our scripts for recording on Thursday, which is when the real fun began . . .

Our guest for the week was Eloise Whitmore, a sound engineer who recorded all of our scripts on Thursday and then, incredibly, edited them all on the Friday. I spent a lot of the Thursday voice-acting, being in demand as part of a minority of males in the group. Listening to my own piece being recorded, I was nervous – I really had no idea how it would turn out.

Then, on the Friday evening, after dinner, we all gathered back in the main barn and ended the week as we’d started it by listening to the radio together. Only this time, we were listening to our own and each other’s short dramas. It was an absolute joy. Everyone shone. Eloise had worked wonders with our various auditory demands and it was a fantastic end to the week.

What I’ve always loved about Arvon is the structure which creates the space to write in. But what was additionally special about this week was the level of collaboration. We all pitched in to everyone else’s work and, while we came away with individual pieces, it had, to me, felt like a group achievement.
So that was that; a week in sunny Devon with wonderful people, excellent tutors and, as Vikki said, fantastic food. Perfect.

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