Wales Writer in Residence, Rhiannon Boyle tells us how she recorded her first ever BBC Radio 4 play during lockdown

January 18, 2021

In 2019 my debut play Safe From Harm won the BBC Wales Writer in Residence competition. As part of the prize it’s commissioned for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. 

Now, pre-pandemic the play was due to be recorded in the world leading, high tech recording studio in the shiny, new BBC Central Square building in Cardiff. It was supposed to be the first ever audio drama to be recorded there. The BBC Writersroom team had an exciting press launch planned and were all set to secure some big name actors. 

Our recording date was set – March the 24th and 25th 2020. 

In the lead up my director emails me – ‘Let’s hope this thing peaks and dies down before our recording date!’ She says. 

Her positivity was admirable, but gosh, how little we knew back then about the disruption and heartache this virus would cause. 

And so, of course, the pandemic forces us into national lockdown and the recording of Safe From Harm is postponed. But if this global pandemic has taught us folk working in the media or the arts anything, it’s that –

The show must go on! 

Months pass and lockdown is eased. A new recording date is set for the beginning of December 2020, but this time the play will be recorded remotely. 

So how did this new, rather unconventional way of recording a BBC Radio 4 play actually work?

I’ll tell you…

Firstly, actors are cast. Some are down the road from me in Cardiff and others are in London. Next the actors are couriered state of the art microphones and they’re sent instructions on how to make soundproof recording studios at home. They are to situate themselves in cupboards, wardrobes or any other small space and surround themselves by duvets and pillows. It’s far from the glamorous life of an actor we all envisage yet the highly skilled team of performers make it work. After all, isn’t that what 2020 was all about? Adapting to change and getting on with it. 

Next, a few days before the recording date, the team are sent links and log in instructions for a jazzy recording platform called Pre Rec. The main actor, director, assistant and sound engineer however, are all allowed to be in the Cardiff Central Square studio – socially distanced and adhering to the rules of course. 

On the recording day I’m nervous and excited. It’s just me, my laptop and the dog in my – not very state of the art – kitchen. I’m disappointed I won’t get to meet the actors face to face and get the full experience of recording in the flashy studio. However, once we’ve all popped our earphones in, if you close your eyes it actually feels like we’re in the same room together. We introduce ourselves; we chat, we giggle and soon we’re used to this new norm – the virtual greenroom. 

Next the assistant and I set ourselves up on WhatsApp chat. Now, normally in a recording studio the actors in the studio can’t hear the team in the booth unless a button is pressed. This way the team can discreetly discuss any notes that need to be passed on to the actors. However, on Pre Rec we can all hear each other all the time. And so, in this unconventional set up I’m to text the assistant and ask her to feed back notes to the team in the booth, then those notes are fed from the director to the actors. It’s strange at first, but it works pretty well. 

We’re ready to go.

Phones are put on silent. Everyone has warned their families, partners and home-schooled children to be quiet because the virtual ‘red recording light’ is about to go on! There must be no – singing, shouting, talking to hard-of-hearing people on the phone, dishwasher unstacking, ukulele playing and definitely no DIY. I pop a note on the door telling the Amazon guy not to knock. 

During recording, the microphones are hugely sensitive. They pick up everything from the actor’s gurgling stomachs to script pages gently turning. In contrast to recording in a studio there seems to be more challenges with mic levels. Scenes that contain shouting result in distortion, but we overcome these small hurdles without much delay. We pull it off. Not even deterred when we have to retake due to the Cardiff ironmongers shouting, ‘ANY OLD IRON!’ in the street or when someone’s neighbour decides to rather noisily hang a shelf. 

Safe From Harm takes two whole days to record and it sounds incredible. The team is superb. The actors are amazing. The challenge of performing dialogue when you can’t look in the eyes of your co-actor is real, yet they perform the text with ease delivering lines which are palpable and naturalistic. I cry during the final scene – moved by the actors performances, relieved that we finally got here, overwhelmed by the year we’ve had and happy that my dream of becoming a real-life writer has finally materialised. 

So, was recording my debut play the experience I had envisaged? No, definitely not. But then did anything turn out the way we thought it would in 2020? And anyway, I’m sure this is not the last radio play I’ll write. There’ll be other chances to record in that shiny, state of the art studio. I’m certain of it. And after a rather turbulent, tricky year this sure was a positive way to end 2020. 

Safe From Harm will be aired on BBC Radio 4 on the 20th of Jan at 2:15pm and will be available on BBC Sounds for 30 days. 

Click here to listen

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