Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fixing the Fluffs: 'With Great Pleasure' at the BBC Radio Theatre

Since my days  of acting in and directing  ‘amdram’ plays,  I’ve been fascinated by the backstage process, and I’d applied a few times to attend recording sessions at the BBC Radio Theatre. At last I succeeded in gaining  tickets to two programmes in the ‘With Great Pleasure’ series, recorded on July 7th.  

Maybe the  fact that the Wimbledon Men’s Final was played on that day played helped  my luck with  the ticket allocation. Although we arrived a half hour early, the café ‘holding’ area was packed and  our tickets were numbered 2003 and 2004. We were among the last to be called and just about managed to squash into gallery seats.

Celebrities in turn select favourite pieces of poetry and prose, interspersed  with reminiscence about their own careers. Hannah Gordon was first – a  tiny  Scotswoman I remembered from ‘Watercolour Challenge’, a programme I was addicted to when it first aired. Contestants painted scenes in UK beauty spots for five afternoons, overseen by Gordon, and on the Friday an expert awarded a prize of a box of paints.

The chosen poems, and details of Gordon’s experience at a dour boarding school, were delivered in her characteristically gentle style, although the opening poem, ‘Albert and the Lion’, read by Michael Pennington, needed a more robust sense of humour.
Each celebrity is accompanied by  two readers, which  in Gordon’s case were Pennington and  Eleanor Bron. Their  voices admirably suited poems, by Wendy Cope, Noel Coward and  Siegfried Sassoon. Gordon herself read a charming anecdote from Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’, called ‘Nativity Play’.
 Lenny Henry proved more immediately topical, not least to me because I saw him play the lead in a 1950s American play called  ‘Fences’ just the other week (see below). As well as performing a speech from that play, he called on Nadine Marshall to read from Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ - Hortense’s shock when she arrives from Jamaica and sees the tiny room in a run-down lodging house that is to be her home. 'Hortense's story is my mother's story', said Henry.

Extracts from Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boys’, Dickens ‘Dombey and Son’ and  Shakespeare’s  ‘Othello’  were all well received, as was  Jude Adekediki reading  an extract from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.

I like the strong contrast between the two sets of extracts  and the presenters –one subtle, heart-warming and gently humorous, the other more vividly dramatic, and more political.

I listened to the first of the series last Monday afternoon,- Lenny Henry's programme -  and enjoyed it as much at the second hearing.
What you don't get from the broadcast performance, though are the ‘fluffs’ -the bits that have to be re-recorded because the actors have stumbled over their words. Efficient female producer Mary Ward Lowery,  took notes and made the cast repeat their lines - remarkably few of them in fact, although I felt sorry for the young actor who struggled with Achebe's convoluted prose style. At a stroke the seemingly confident  performers who, moments before, commanded  the stage, became schoolchildren  forced to repeat lines until they got  them right.
 'It sounds a bit flat,' remarked Hannah Gordon about one of her repeats . The producers's reply was brisk:  'Well, liven it up then!'.  I thought this was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of the year so far.

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